REVIEW: "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" and "Alien: Covenant" -- Forbearance in filmmaking

May saw the release of two films that I had very mixed feelings about when I saw the trailers. After watching both of them, my feelings became polarized, in exactly the opposite way I expected. Even then, though, one feeling remains strong: neither of these movies needed to have been produced. In fact, they maybe should never have been produced.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the latest in a long line of "gritty reboot" stories, this time about the Once and Future King, Arthur Pendragon. In Guy Ritchie's retelling, Arthur is orphaned when his evil uncle Vortigern murders his parents, and the baby Arthur is found and raised by hookers in Londinium. He grows up to become the brothel's enforcer, leading a gang of street toughs to extort merchants passing through the neighborhood and beat up anyone who gets too handsy with the girls. He also learns how to fight from "Chinese George" (not to be confused with any British Georges) and his inexplicable dojo of full-on kung-fu warriors.

If that made you scratch your head in puzzlement, there's plenty more weirdness to see here. Once Arthur draws the sword Excalibur from its stone (Vortigern has ordered a kind of census where every man of a certain age in the kingdom must attempt to pull the sword) he gets kidnapped and carted off by the resistance led by Sir Percival and the witch Guinevere (or "mage," in a bizarre turn... why not Druid?) to do his prophesied duty. Vortigern, you see, has wizard powers and is building a tower to increase those powers... somehow. A review that joked it's a "wi-fi booster" might be on to something.

The funny thing is, Arthur, being a street rat in this version, doesn't give a shit about legends and magic swords―that's no basis for a system of government, after all―and hilariously, neither does the movie, really. Except for the final showdown between Arthur and Vortigern (and boy does it suck) most of the explicit fantasy stuff is relegated to montages (of Arthur getting attacked by giant animals in the faerie world, including Rodents of Unusual Size, in what I'm pretty sure is an intentional troll move) or the prologue. And the non-fantasy stuff, like when Arthur masterminds an assassination attempt against Vortigern, is pretty great.

All the actors acquit themselves well. The music is good. There are legitimately cool or funny parts. It's processed cheese and great fun to watch while drinking beers with friends. The biggest flaw is the needlessly complicated worldbuilding, and the brick-stupid video-game-style final showdown.

So I had a fun time with King Arthur. And yet it probably should never have been made.

Alien: Covenant is the sequel to Ridley Scott's crime against science fiction, Prometheus, and the prequel to one of the great cosmic-horror slasher films, Alien. Ridley Scott has moments of genius (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, The Martian) and moments of badness (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Prometheus, Robin Hood) but is generally a good filmmaker. And Alien: Covenant is certainly a well-made film. The actors are good. The music is good. There are some cool scenes and some definitely great images. The biggest flaw is the needlessly complicated worldbuilding, and the brick-stupid video-game-style series of final showdowns. (See where I'm going with this?)

For all its technical virtues, Alien: Covenant is a bad film. It's bad in the worst way possible for a film to be bad: it's gratuitous and worthless.

We don't need to know how the alien in Alien came to be: as a horror film, that's part of the point. A good horror monster, especially in the Lovecraftian style, is explained in vague terms, half-guesses and speculations by the ignorant and terrified protagonists (read: meatbags/victims). And in Alien we get exactly that: a mysterious spaceship, a monstrous humanoid Engineer with a burst chest, weird eggs, facehugger, chestburster, alien. And the android Ash's ominous admiration of its "purity: survival unclouded by conscience, or delusions of morality."

James Cameron's Aliens does just enough to expand the universe into the military-sf action genre without ruining the first film's horror: aliens have Queens, big and nasty final-boss versions. And even if you have kickass military tech, a whole horde of aliens will ruin your day.

Hell, even bullshit like Alien v. Predator didn't screw with the backstory, it just included the Predators in the same universe and said that they would seed planets with aliens so they would have something to hunt when they got bored.

Then Prometheus gave us brick-stupid scientist characters stumbling on the living Engineers who turn out to be blue skinned giant human-like people who seeded life on Earth (evolution doesn't work like that) and were represented in ancient human art (fuck off with ancient astronauts it's not good sf anymore) and the aliens were actually the end result of a biowarfare program... okay, to the extent that this resembles the assumed backstory of the Shoggoths from Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, I'm basically fine with it.

Oh, but now Alien: Covenant doesn't let it go, and shows us how the Engineers weren't wiped out until rogue android David drops the bioweapon on their capital city (and somehow their only population center even though they have spaceships and so many goddamn plot holes) and continues to experiment and "perfect" the alien form until he achieves the life cycle we know and love from Alien.


The colonist characters are sort of dumb, which on the one hand makes sense because we're not told they're the world's best scientists like in Prometheus, but on the other hand wouldn't you select competent people for your colony mission? Ridley Scott made The Martian, wouldn't hypercompetent people getting wrecked by supernaturally-competent aliens be even cooler...?!

There are abysmal lapses in storytelling, like how nobody bats an eye at a lush planet full of earthlike plants (including fucking wheat, evolution does not work that way) when we're explicitly told that the original target planet isn't all that hospitable (and canonically no exoplanet in the Alien franchise has been hospitable). Or how there are massive ion storms in the upper atmosphere but they repeatedly fly ships through it instead of waiting for the storms to play out (it's not like they really expect to find Dr. Shaw alive in the first place).

Or why for some reason we see multiple fully-lit shots of the aliens scuttling about, spoiling the horror aspect and needlessly padding the run time (I don't care that it climbed the walls, I can guess that).

And then the final conflicts, alien vs. knockoff-Ripley using a giant crane on a spaceship fleeing the Engineer city, then alien vs. knockoff-Ripley and Danny McBride on the colony ship using a giant truck and the airlock... these scenes are overlong, overwrought, and introduce the ludicrous suggestion that the only weapons that can hurt a Xenomorph are sufficiently large pieces of construction equipment.

Alien: Covenant should never have been made. In some sick way it redeems Prometheus by making it only the second-worst crime against sf that Ridley Scott has produced. It explains what never needed explaining, introduces plot holes where before there were none, demystifies the monster, and outrageously centers humanity in what was once a setting utterly hostile and indifferent to humanity. The story of the Alien movies becomes about humans somehow getting shafted for our collective hubris, an utterly exhausted trope, instead of being about humans getting shafted just because the universe was never meant for our benefit.