FilmSpace: Alien: Covenant; Miss Sloane; Machines - reviews

CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson takes a look at the big movies of the moment

THE LATEST from the Alien franchise, a powerhouse performance from Jessica Chastain, and a visual, dehumanising documentary about the industrial workforce.

Alien: Covenant – ★★★★☆

Two of the UK’s leading critics are at opposite ends of the spectrum on Alien: Covenant. Mark Kermode says it’s “The Da Vinci Code in space” while Robbie Collin considers it “grandiose, exhilarating, vertiginously cynical and symphonically perverse” (in a good way).

Separating these prequels from the Alien films is a must. Before, horror was manifested in the Xenomorph monster. It’s a terrifying creature, second in ferocity only to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley whose legend is built upon facing the titular alien head on.

Prometheus and Covenant’s horror lies elsewhere. Ancestors of the Xenomorph appear in both, but they’re the product of something scarier on an existential level. In addressing the impossibly huge theology of creation, the Alien prequels target the fear of uncertainty and powerlessness. Mankind is seen to be playing God through the creation of Michael Fassbender’s David, but what does the product of God make?

Covenant succeeds at what Prometheus was attempting to do, and may even make its predecessor better in the process.

Covenant is more of a monster movie than Prometheus, at least. Where the latter took philosophy and took horror but struggled to marry the two, Covenant harmoniously combines the two. Fassbender steals the show as both David and Walter, two androids from different eras discovering their motivations in life. When the blood starts pouring, it’s Jurassic Park-like in tension until it’s an all-out game of cat and mouse. Where before these two facets of thought and fear tonally jarred, they exist here with an interlocking purpose.

For a big-budget sci-fi flick it doesn’t shy away from asking some deeply profound questions. The question for cinema goers is whether or not that’s what is desired from a film in the Alien franchise. I felt my heart racing both when the Xenomorph is in pursuit of the crew and when Fassbender’s allegiances are balancing on a wire. Covenant succeeds at what Prometheus was attempting to do, and may even make its predecessor better in the process.

Miss Sloane – ★★★★☆

For those missing Aaron Sorkin while he works on his directorial debut (also starring Jessica Chastain), you could do a lot worse than Miss Sloane, complete with newsroom alumni Alison Pill and Sam Waterston.

Chastain plays Elizabeth Sloane, an American lobbyist, who effectively swaps sides after being asked to help procure the women’s vote for ensuring gun legislation stays as it is. Typically conservative, she’s an ardent supporter of background checks for those who wish to own firearms, and literally laughs in the face of such a ridiculous request that would pit her against expanding them.

A rival lobby firm, led by Mark Strong’s Rodolfo Schmidt, enlists her services to ensure the Heaton-Harris bill succeeds. Her conservative way of life doesn’t sync up with the more liberal views of Schmidt’s team, and her dominating presence is somewhere between impressive and terrifying.

Its most impressive trick is in implicating the audience, siding with Sloane morally, only to later feel ashamed for supporting her actions.

Unlike the similarly political The Big Short, Miss Sloane never extends a helping hand. There’s a lot of jargon about the way Washington is run and it’s up to the viewer to keep pace. Lobbying itself may be a foreign notion, but it’s easy to see Sloane is a figure who pulls the strings of those in the public eye. She says politicians meeting with lobbying groups makes no difference, so the lobbyists should instead target people those politicians can’t afford to lose.

It’s clear Sloane gets a thrill from all of this. She has to be constantly aware of every piece in play around her, even her own team. Chastain is masterful, and was nominated for a Golden Globe for this performance. For a film with so much dialogue, there’s a remarkable amount left unsaid about Sloane’s personal life that Chastain completely understands. Her command of life on The Hill comes at the expense of relationships and stability, and her competitive nature is rooted somewhere we know exists because of Chastain’s performance.

Miss Sloane is deeply immoral, pulling back the curtain, exposing the façade of mainstream politics. It won’t do much to instil faith in politicians or the media, but its denouement is appropriately destructive. Its most impressive trick is in implicating the audience, siding with Sloane morally, only to later feel ashamed for supporting her actions. At the centre of it all is Jessica Chastain at the top of her game.

Machines – ★★★★☆

“God gave us hands, so we have to work.” Dialogue is sparse in Machines, but this line is one of the first spoken in a piece to camera. It’s slightly misleading – removed from context it’s a neutral point. We are made this way, it suggests, so we are going to do as we are made to do.

Told within the walls of a huge textile factory in India, its industrial setting looks like it wasn’t so much built as it was found. Where Mark Cousins’s Atomic went from small to nuclear over its duration, Machines is a moment in eternity. No device is ever shown being turned on or off, they’re always going. It’s hard to imagine the factory was ever clean, now covered in paint and wear and tear.

Extracting a message from the film takes putting some work in, but it’s a small ask in comparison to the work on screen. A long, two-minute single take focuses on a young boy who keeps dozing off doing something monotonous. It’s a boring scene, but imagine how he feels.

“Poverty is harassment, sir. One has to forsake one’s kids, wife and parents to work here.”

Creeping cameras follow the footsteps of manual labourers moving barrels, noticing the lack of safety gear or the presence of any health and safety regulations. Everyone moves in much the same manner as the machines.

Finally, some context: “Poverty is harassment, sir. One has to forsake one’s kids, wife and parents to work here.” Workers talk of their low pay and their 12-hour shifts. They say any attempt at unionising would see the leader of the movement killed.

These admissions late in the feature weaponise what’s been shown. The men are stuck, paid enough to feed themselves and no more. Their commutes are beyond reasonable; their working conditions are unsafe; their pay is insulting. It’s dehumanising work, while the bosses get paid more but put in less effort.

As a documentary feature it’s cinematic in its immersion. It’s a merciful 70 minutes, but deliberately feels longer so as to envision the hardships the workers go through. It’s a tiring and upsetting experience, showcasing work by a defeated workforce who have accepted their lot.

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