Baby Driver

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Release date: 28th June 2017/Watch the trailer here

When your directorial back catalogue includes Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, you’ve certainly put a lot of pressure on yourself to continue making great films. Luckily for Edgar Wright, with Baby Driver he’s not only made a movie that’s every bit as good as his previous ones: he’s made a movie that’s even better.

Baby Driver has all of the trademarks of an Edgar Wright classic (albeit lacking Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), while still managing to be something entirely different from any other film out there. It follows the titular character of Baby (Ansel Elgort), who listens to music constantly to drown out the ringing in his ears that he was left with following an accident as a child. Baby also happens to be an incredible driver; a skill that has resulted in him being coerced into working as a getaway driver for crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey). After meeting and falling in love with a waitress named Debora (Lily James), Baby wants nothing more than to leave behind his life of crime and run away with her, but he soon learns that Doc won’t make it easy for him. He agrees to be the driver for one more heist, alongside fellow criminals Bats (Jamie Foxx), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González), but it quickly transpires that the heist was doomed to fail from the start.

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On paper, Baby Driver sounds far from original: we’ve seen bank heists in movies many, many times before, and the concept of a reluctant getaway driver is familiar from Drive. What truly sets Baby Driver apart from the rest (aside from Wright’s trademark sharp sense of humour, of course) is its use of music. Admittedly, plenty of recent films have used a soundtrack of songs predominantly from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s to varying degrees of success (it worked well in Guardians of the Galaxy; less so in Suicide Squad), but none of them have used music quite like Baby Driver does.

In Baby Driver, the music is its very own character: each scene is set perfectly in time with its own song (this works particularly well during a shootout set to ‘Tequila’); and on the rare moments that Baby takes out his earphones, the music stops for the audience, too. It’s an incredibly ambitious move by Wright and one that really has to be seen to be fully understood; no words will ever succeed in conveying the way in which Wright has injected life into his film by using music as a living, breathing being.

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The actual living, breathing beings in Baby Driver are all on top form, too: Elgort (who up until now had only been seen in YA movies such as the Divergent series and The Fault in Our Stars) has found the role that he was destined to play, and he completely embodies every element of Baby: from the awkward music-lover who dances in the street to his favourite songs, to the impossibly cool getaway driver and the hopeless romantic. He has fantastic, believable chemistry with Lily James, who is utterly charming and almost impossible to not fall in love with – and it also helps that she’s given far more to do than the average ‘love interest’ role. The more A-list members of the cast – Spacey, Foxx and Hamm – seem to be having a blast playing somewhat more villainous characters, and they all have their scene-stealing moments without ever taking away from Elgort and James, who are the undeniable heart and soul of the movie.

Much like Baby himself, impossibly cool and hopelessly romantic both seem like ideal phrases to describe Baby Driver. The subplot of Baby and Debora’s relationship may take up more of the runtime than your average action movie; but fans of car chases, shootouts and numerous gruesome, gory deaths will be far from disappointed. With minimal CGI and a focus on practical effects and real stunts, the action sequences of Baby Driver – most notably the opening car chase and the entire final third of the film – are breathlessly exhilarating while being slickly choreographed: a cinematic joyride from start to thrilling finish.

★★

Gifted

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Release date: 16th June 2017/Watch the trailer here

Gifted, from director Marc Webb (500 Days of SummerThe Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2), is a film that proves that a story doesn’t always have to be the most groundbreaking or original, so long as it’s a story that’s told well. This particular story is about a precocious seven-year-old child prodigy, Mary Adler (McKenna Grace), who lives in Florida with her uncle, Frank (Chris Evans), and a one-eyed ginger cat called Fred. Mary has lived with Frank since she was a baby, following the suicide of her genius mathematician mother, and after several years of home-schooling, Frank believes it’s time that she goes to an ordinary school, determined to give his niece a normal life. For the first time, Mary is interacting with people other than Frank, Fred and their landlady, Roberta (Octavia Spencer), but she has little interest in children her own age and it quickly comes to the attention of her first grade teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate), that Mary is an extraordinarily gifted child. Still, Frank refuses to send Mary to a special school for children as educationally advanced as she is, and his stubbornness soon brings his mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), back into his life, whose desire to take her granddaughter back to Boston draws her and Frank into a vicious custody battle with Mary at the centre.

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Of course, there’s little about a story such as this one that hasn’t already been told before, but Webb has proven in the past to have a keen eye for his characters and he’s proven this again with Gifted. The casting here is impeccable; with strong turns from the supporting cast and a heartfelt performance from Evans that acts as firm evidence that he will continue to have an impressive and varied career long after he hangs up Captain America’s shield. But the real standout here is McKenna Grace, whose performance as Mary is at the heart of both the film’s most humorous moments and the most emotional ones. She’s an absolute delight to watch, and her chemistry with Evans is nothing short of charming. It’s hard to imagine Gifted working anywhere near as effectively without Evans and Grace to hold it up.

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It’s also because of these two that the emotional manipulations of the film feel a little bit more honest. Gifted knows exactly when it wants to make you cry, but it’s almost impossible to deny it when Frank and Mary are crying, too. The formulas the film uses to tug on the heartstrings are all too transparent (especially since they’ve already been used plenty of times before), but Gifted is endearing, warm, witty and genuinely moving enough for you to not mind too much. In less competent hands it might feel insincere, but Gifted is entirely the opposite, raising a few moral questions along the way (who’s right here – Frank and his determination for Mary to have a normal childhood, or Evelyn and her desire to see Mary and her incredible brain flourish under suitable education for her potential?). The answer might not be a clear one, but there’s one thing that is obvious: Gifted is a lovely, authentic film, with two equally lovely and authentic performances at the centre of it.

The Mummy

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Release date: 9th June 2017/Watch the trailer here

If last month’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword didn’t act as a warning for studios to stop announcing huge franchises and cinematic universes before the first film in the series has even been released, perhaps The Mummy will. Rather than being a reboot of the 1999 Brendan Fraser film of the same name, The Mummy is intended to kick off Universal’s recently-announced ‘Dark Universe’. Inspired by the huge success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and (to a slightly lesser extent) the DC Extended Universe, the Dark Universe will be a classic monster movie series, with plans to follow up The Mummy with Frankenstein’s monster (to be played by Javier Bardem), the Invisible Man (Johnny Depp), Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and so on.

It’s certainly an intriguing concept, but unfortunately The Mummy does very little to build on that intrigue, falling into the all-too-common trap of spending too much time setting up a future franchise and not enough concentrating on making a good, standalone film. The protagonist is mercenary Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), who accidentally stumbles upon an ancient tomb while in Iraq with friend and fellow mercenary Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) and archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). The tomb belongs to the ancient Egyptian princess, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who was buried alive as punishment for killing her family and selling her soul to Set, the god of death, in a failed plot to usurp the throne. By discovering the tomb and bringing the sarcophagus bearing Ahmanet back to England with them, Nick and his team unwittingly awaken her and her supernatural powers, which leads Nick to a secret organisation known as Prodigium, led by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) and dedicated to hunting down evil forces.

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Dr. Jekyll (and with him, of course, comes Mr. Hyde) is supposed to act as the Nick Fury of the Dark Universe, which comes as a slight relief since he’s far and away the most interesting character (aside from Ahmanet) in the entire film, but there’s also the issue that Crowe is severely miscast in the role. So, too, is Cruise, but therein lies the main problem with The Mummy: that it could have actually been a very good horror movie if it wasn’t so determined to be a typical Tom Cruise action movie instead. In both actors’ defence, neither of them phone it in, and they still do the best they can with such an abysmal script.

It truly is staggering to think that it took six (six!) people to write The Mummy when the screenplay is little more than Jenny shouting ‘NICK!’ over and over again, and much of the rest of it is exposition. No one needs to be concerned about The Mummy overtaking Wonder Woman at the box office this weekend; for this movie to be released the week after a film which saw one of the very best female protagonists to ever grace our cinema screens would be almost laughable if it wasn’t so depressing. Annabelle Wallis may be reduced to little more than a vessel to remind the audience of Tom Cruise’s character’s name (and someone for them to ogle at, too – by the end of the film she’s actually wearing a wet white T-shirt), but Sofia Boutella as Ahmanet doesn’t fare much better, either. She’s utterly captivating each time she’s on screen (once again proving the point that The Mummy could have been a pretty terrifying horror movie if it had allowed itself to be one), but the film’s too preoccupied with trying to make Ahmanet into something attractive and desirable, rather than letting her be every bit as creepy and repulsive as what Boutella was clearly striving for – exactly as the titular mummy should be.

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Despite all this, however, The Mummy isn’t so terrible as to completely destroy any hopes for the Dark Universe. After all, they’ve got some decent effects and a real knack for casting their villains under their belt (although they still need to work on their heroes), and for all its faults, The Mummy is never boring. If the future films hire better writers (and really, there doesn’t need to be six of them) and choose to focus on the more monstrous elements of the characters at their centre, there’s still the potential for some very good monster movies to come out of this cinematic universe, once it finds its feet after a rather shaky beginning.

Wonder Woman

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Release date: 1st June 2017/Watch the trailer here

There are two reasons why Wonder Woman really had to succeed: firstly, because the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) desperately needed a success after the failures of last year’s Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad; and secondly (and most importantly), because there also desperately needed to be a movie to shut up anyone who said that female-led superhero movies just aren’t profitable. Thankfully, Wonder Woman is not just good: it’s very, very good, and it will hopefully pave the way for a better future for the DCEU, as well as for a few more kickass female protagonists at the front and centre of comic book movies.

A huge factor in what makes Wonder Woman work so well is undoubtedly the decision to not only have chosen a director that isn’t Zack Snyder, but also happens to be a woman: Patty Jenkins, best known for her only other feature film, 2003’s Monster, directs Wonder Woman with such a subtly masterful touch that it will almost certainly ensure that there isn’t another 14-year gap between her movies, and that Wonder Woman won’t be the last superhero film to have a capable woman behind the camera.

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Wonder Woman is, more or less, an origin story; following the character’s initial introduction in Batman v Superman (which, when paired with Hans Zimmer’s adrenaline-pumping ‘Is She With You?’ theme, made for the most memorable moment of the entire film). The story begins on the sheltered island paradise of Themyscira, where Diana (Gal Gadot) – daughter of the queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) – has trained to be an unconquerable warrior under the teachings of her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright). After an American pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), crashes on their shores with stories of a great conflict raging in the outside world, Diana leaves Themyscira with him, convinced she can stop the war to end all wars by killing General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who she believes to be Ares, the Greek god of war.

The first half an hour of Wonder Woman, on the island of Themyscira, is one of the most compelling of the entire film; enough to make you long for an entire film set on this idyllic island. An early scene, in which the Amazons defend their paradise against a fleet of German soldiers, sets the tone for the slick, incredibly well-choreographed action sequences that are to follow – and watching Robin Wright take out three soldiers at once with an air of effortless grace makes you wish that you could see much, much more of the character of Antiope, too.

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Still, this is Wonder Woman’s movie after all, and after spending a couple of hours with the princess of the Amazons, it’s hard to believe the outrage there initially was after the announcement of Gal Gadot’s casting. She embodies the character entirely; playing her with the charming naivety of a young woman who has been brought up in a sheltered existence, delighting at the first time she tastes ice cream or sees a baby. But despite this innocence, Diana is also utterly capable and entirely indomitable: the scene where she crosses No Man’s Land – deflecting bullets with her metal bracelets to the soaring sounds of Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score that eventually builds into Zimmer’s powerful theme – is a goosebumps-inducing moment, and one of the very best sequences of any comic book movie in recent memory.

Yet for all of these moments of incredible action, Wonder Woman is not just an action movie: it regularly eschews the tropes of the genre, choosing to be just as much of a romantic-comedy and a coming-of-age tale as a superhero story. The emphasis is on the comedy; something which DC desperately needed more of, and Wonder Woman treads the line just right. It’s still dark and serious enough for the crucial moments to have a sense of gravitas, but a more lighthearted tone throughout prevents the darkness from ever becoming overbearing. Much of the comedy comes from Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), Steve’s secretary in London, and a highlight of the film is when she takes Diana clothes shopping, to inevitably humorous results.

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Another highlight of the film is Steve Trevor himself: much like Gadot, Pine embodies the character, playing him with all of the required warmth and charisma, and then some. He and Diana have fantastic and believable chemistry, which is developed through some of the film’s quieter, more intimate moments. The dialogue is flawed throughout the film, but Gadot and Pine’s combined charm overcomes the occasional script issue and adds an emotional weight to Wonder Woman that many similar movies fail to ever achieve.

To say that Wonder Woman is the best film to open with the DC logo since The Dark Knight wouldn’t really be doing it justice. Of course, it’s not perfect – as with most superhero films, the under-developed villain and effects-laden finale are never as good as the journey it took to get there; and like all DC films, it’s still too long – but there are plenty of times when it comes pretty close; and it’s no coincidence that all it took for DC to get there was a combination of female hero and female director. Hopefully, this means that the future of the DCEU looks bright – but if not, at least we have the Wonder Woman sequel to look forward to.

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge

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Release date: 26th May 2017/Watch the trailer here

By the time most franchises reach their fifth film, one of two things have usually happened: either the franchise was terrible right from the beginning but somehow continues to make ridiculous amounts of money; or the franchise was good once, before it received the endless sequel treatment. Pirates of the Caribbean falls into the second category. The first film, Curse of the Black Pearl, was a fantastic adventure movie with an equally fantastic performance from Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, and it’s a film that still stands up today, fourteen years on. With each sequel, however, the plots became progressively more convoluted and Depp’s performance became progressively less charming – although Dead Man’s Chest and, to a lesser extent, At World’s End at least managed to retain some of the fun of the original (but the less said about the fourth entry, On Stranger Tides, the better).

Salazar’s Revenge (which has the far better title Dead Men Tell No Tales in most countries outside of Europe) is not the return to form that the franchise needed. This time, Jack Sparrow is down on his luck and even drunker than usual, setting out in search of the Trident of Poseidon (because it wouldn’t be a Pirates film without some sort of McGuffin that every character is after for different reasons), a powerful artefact that grants its owner complete power over the sea. Jack is after it in the hope that it will save him from Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), an old nemesis who, along with his undead crew, has escaped from the Devil’s Triangle that Jack once left him imprisoned in, hellbent on revenge. Along for the ride are newcomers Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), who wants the Trident to break the curse that binds his father to the Flying Dutchman; and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer with the map that leads them directly to the Trident.

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Considering that they’re little more than a budget version of Will and Elizabeth, the characters of Henry and Carina are surprisingly two of the more interesting elements of the film – and they’re some of the only actors who look like they actually want to be there, too (with the exception, of course, of Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa, who always appears to be having the time of his life whenever he’s in a Pirates movie). Bardem as the villain is chewing scenery in every single scene he’s in, but the real tragedy here is Depp, who in Salazar’s Revenge could easily be mistaken for a bad Jack Sparrow impersonator. Gone is the witty, cunning, resourceful Jack of the original films, replaced by what now feels like little more than a parody; constantly drunk, never funny, always annoying and, by the end of the film, serving very little purpose to the actual plot.

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The plot itself may well be the least convoluted we’ve ever seen in a Pirates of the Caribbean film, but perhaps that’s because it all feels so familiar: multiple characters searching for the same thing and numerous double-crosses along the way. Still, it also takes the shortest amount of time to get to the finish line of any of the Pirates movies, with a welcome two-hour runtime – but an extra fifteen minutes wouldn’t have gone amiss if they could have given us a climax that felt like it was worth the tedious journey it took to get there. When you compare the climactic scene of Salazar’s Revenge with some of its predecessors – the moonlit fight between Jack and Barbossa; a three-person sword fight taking place on a giant, spinning wheel; a huge battle between the Black Pearl and the Flying Dutchman in the middle of a swirling maelstrom – it only makes Salazar’s Revenge seem all the more disappointing.

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Nevertheless, there are plenty of good films that are let down by a rushed, lazy climax, but unfortunately, Salazar’s Revenge wasn’t a particularly good film before that point, either. It has its moments, but they’re all hindered by awkward dialogue and silly set pieces that, even by Pirates of the Caribbean standards, are asking a bit too much in terms of suspending your disbelief.

The saving grace of Salazar’s Revenge comes at the very end of the film: a small handful of brief scenes that will surely bring a smile to the face of any longtime Pirates fan; and it feels like there couldn’t have possibly been a more perfect way to close the franchise (apart from stopping after the third movie, that is). Sadly, though, there’ll most likely end up being a sixth film in the series, and then we’ll have to go through the process of seeing a once-great franchise be turned into another uninspired, lacklustre mess all over again.

Baywatch

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Release date: 29th May 2017/Watch the trailer here

Continuing the trend of rebooting ’80s and ’90s TV shows and making them into movies that share little in common with their source material other than the name – started by 2012’s (surprisingly quite good) 21 Jump Street – comes Baywatch, from Horrible Bosses director Seth Gordon.

The first problem of the many, many problems that Baywatch suffers from is that no amount of Dwayne Johnson being his usual, charming self and attractive people running on the beach in slow-motion can make up for an insubstantial plot. Things start harmlessly enough: devoted lifeguard Mitch Buchannon (Johnson) leads a group of lifeguards in Emerald Bay, Florida; made up of CJ (Kelly Rohrbach), Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) and new recruits Ronnie (Jon Bass), Summer (Alexandra Daddario) and Matt Brody (Zac Efron). Mitch immediately clashes with Brody, a former Olympic gold medalist who suffered a very public fall from grace, and thus joined the Baywatch team as part of his community service (to get a better idea of the character, refer to literally every other character Efron has played in the past three years). Admittedly, at this point in the film, the laughs are still few and far between, revolving predominantly around penis jokes, racial stereotypes, and more penis jokes – but the occasional meta moment (‘Why does she always look like she’s running in slow-mo?’) and the even more occasional joke that actually lands ensures there are at least a couple of chuckles, which is more than can be said for the film’s second half.

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The trouble is, Baywatch isn’t just a 10-minute spoof video that’s been uploaded to YouTube; it’s a feature-length film and it’s been stretched out over two entire hours, which is truly a remarkable feat when you take into account its paper-thin plot. It has something to do with drug-dealing and real estate and a flimsy ‘villain’, Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), and somewhere along the way characters will learn life lessons, experience personal growth, get the girl, and then there will be explosions, because of course there will be.

Baywatch can never decide whether it wants to be a raunchy, R-rated comedy or your typical guns, explosions and Dwayne Johnson-punching-people summer blockbuster movie, and as a result it utterly fails at both, with jokes that aren’t funny and action that isn’t exciting. It doesn’t even work as a fresh reboot, because there’s not one thing about Baywatch that doesn’t feel stale, right down to its regressive sense of humour, where the pinnacle of hilarity is a man kissing another man, or a boob joke, or a joke about fat people, or – you get the picture. Eventually, Baywatch gives up completely and resorts to simply just showing the audience a penis and hoping that somebody will laugh – which feels like a pretty appropriate way to sum up the movie, actually.

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Alien: Covenant

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Release date: 12th May 2017/Watch the trailer here

The following review contains minor spoilers.

Don’t let the ‘Alien’ in the title fool you – while Covenant is intended to act as a prequel to Ridley Scott’s much-loved Alien, it’s a lot closer to being a sequel to Scott’s far less popular other prequel, Prometheus. Set ten years later and onboard a colony ship of the same name, Covenant follows the ship’s crew, who divert their planned route (headed to remote planet Origae-6 with the intention of colonising it) following a strange radio transmission from a nearby uncharted planet. This decision to scrap their original route is the first of many idiotic ones to follow from the supposedly intelligent crew, captained by Billy Crudup’s Christopher Oram and including terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterston), chief pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) and Walter (Michael Fassbender), a synthetic android and a newer model of Prometheus’ David.

Upon arriving at the source of the transmission, Oram, Daniels and Walter lead an expedition to the surface, while Tennessee and a handful of other crew members remain in orbit on the Covenant. It doesn’t take long for the expedition to discover that the source of the mysterious transmission came from an Engineer ship, once piloted by Elizabeth Shaw (another character from Prometheus). Meanwhile, two security team members find themselves inadvertently infected with alien spores, and – after another series of idiotic decisions – there is soon blood spurting, aliens bursting out of places where they shouldn’t be (e.g., one unfortunate man’s spine, in a particularly stomach-churning scene) and general chaos, until the team are rescued by none other than the android David.

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Fassbender, in his double performance, is far and away the best part of the otherwise largely disappointing Alien: Covenant. Walter and David may look identical, but Fassbender plays them just differently enough for it to be clear which is which, all the while maintaining the unsettling sense of being not-quite human. Ridley Scott has undoubtedly begun to realise that Facehuggers and Xenomorphs are no longer all that frightening, and the aliens are now more like bystanders (bloody, gory bystanders) to Covenant’s true villain: David – and Fassbender is far creepier than anything else in this film, while at the same time being utterly magnetic and impossible to look away from.

The same can’t be said for the rest of the crew, who, aside from those mentioned previously, are never really developed enough for us to care much about their fates. Unsurprisingly, McBride as Tennessee is the most likeable crew member by far; and although Waterston is at the centre of one of the best action sequences in the entire film, Ellen Ripley she is not. Most of the crew are supposed to be either married to each other or at least friendly, yet none of them ever manage to achieve the same level of chemistry as Fassbender does with himself.

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Even so, Alien: Covenant isn’t a bad film. It’s a perfectly passable piece of sci-fi horror, with some rare moments of truly stunning cinematography and all of the aliens, violence and gore that you could possibly want from an Alien movie (and then some, with one of the worst offenders being the shower scene that was apparently only included to act as an attention-grabber for the trailer). Frustratingly, though, it doesn’t work very well as part of a larger franchise – particularly one which has proven itself to be so great in the past. Covenant may answer many of the questions that Prometheus left us with, but for every question answered there’s another one raised. The plot (or lack thereof) is paper-thin to the point that it seems like Covenant only exists to act as a bridge between Prometheus and whatever story that Scott has envisioned for the next chapter. The problem is, by that point, there’s a good chance that not very many people are going to care about it.