Alien: Covenant (2017)

The Covenant: a colony ship, heading to a remote planet to allow its cargo of 2000 sleeping colonists to start a new life. When it hits a damaging neutron field, synthetic life form, Walter (Michael Fassbender, once again the only interesting character in the whole piece), wakes the crew to help deal with the disaster. Shaken by tragedy, a mysterious signal leading them towards an even more inhabitable planet than the one they were aiming for seems like a dream come true. But given this is a sequel to Prometheus (2012) and a prequel to Alien (1979), the audience is more than aware that the dream is far more likely to be a nightmare…

I had low expectations and yet somewhat high hopes for this movie. I thought Prometheus was a horrible mess, confusing in its attempt to come up with some (un)godly backstory to the classic franchise, and executed sloppily from start to finish. Covenant surely couldn’t be any worse, right?!

Well…!! It seems like a lot of attention has been paid to the complaints from last time, so sure, this story is a bit less mystical and vague, and ‘woo’ – we have the classic xenomorphs back (I wasn’t *that* fussed, tbh!). Alas, every single other problem seems to have been ported across wholesale: crew I don’t care about in the slightest, thus making the peril they face less than gripping? Check. Clunky plot holes and/or events that fit the joining up of narratives more than logic? Check. Drippy Ripley-wannabe utterly failing to impress as Sigourney Weaver’s successor? Oh, triple check. Excuse me while I roll my eyes.

Set 10 years after the Prometheus went missing – although while the crew all seem aware of this fact in retrospect, they still all do the “It’s impossible that there’s human life out here!” without a single ‘what if…’ crossing their tiny brains – there is still a bit of a gap to explain what happened between the two. A few flashbacks attempt to bridge this, but I was still left with a sense of “Hmm, is that really likely?!” – even in fiction as wild as this, you still expect people to act like people, unlikely random coincidences to not happen every time, and a whole extra stage in a creature’s lifecycle not just to crop up because the first prequel skipped it but it needs to come back!

But, the bulk of the ‘now’ of the movie should make up for this, and while it’s not dreadful for a slasher-horror gore fest, I loathed the lazy ‘crew bonding’ device of making them all married to someone who gets picked off – so, oooh, we’re going to feel for them! Urm, no. Someone is killed off at the very start, but as we hadn’t even met the character at that point it’s really hard to care, and the hysterical spouse reaction is jarring until we get the explanation. Would the story have been any different if that character had survived? Not much. Yes, it changes the actions of another two characters but it just struck me as the laziest possible way to stimulate those motivations and ‘feels’. I don’t care for the obvious manipulation.

I will allow that this film looks gorgeous – the design has always been a very strong element with even the prequels. And, I will also allow that my own disappointment that this wasn’t better is leading me to be very harsh. But… meh. Something about this whole movie just struck me as reactive and a bit lazy, and overall desperately unsatisfying.

And yes, I will still go see the third planned prequel: I might be being harsh, but Covenant is better than Prometheus, so hope springs eternal! o_O

Released: 12th May 2017
Viewed: 12th May 2017
Running time: 122 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 5/10 – disappointing

Agents of Dreamland – Caitlin R Kiernan

“Here’s the scene: It’s Thursday evening, and the Signalman sits smoking and nursing a flat Diet Dr Pepper, allowing himself to breathe a stingy sigh of relief as twilight finally, mercifully comes crashing down on the desert.”

Mysterious meetings in small town desert diners, shocking photographs, secret agents, time travel, space fungus, kool-aid cults… for a short novella, there is a heck of a lot packed in here!

I’d previously read Caitlín R Kiernan’s novel, The Red Tree, following a recommendation based on the terrific House of Leaves (Mark Z Danielewski) – and while not quite as mind-bending as the latter, it shared that sense of disquiet and reality-breaking. Agents of Dreamland has quite a similar tone: unease and creeping levels of horror.

With such a short volume, we’re thrown into the action immediately and left to fend for ourselves a bit in terms of figuring out what’s what. Who is the mysterious Signalman, who is he waiting for, and why does he fear her? Perhaps knowing that ‘Dreamland’ is another name for Area 51 might give some clues…!

Chapters jump back and forth on the timeline a little – so you have to pay attention to the title dates, which is generally something I hate, although it does serve its purpose here – revealing slightly earlier events even more remotely in the desert locale, from the point of view of a young teenager saved from the streets and brought to a different kind of purpose. Even without the subsequent revelations, this would have its own kind of chill.

I did fear at one point that the ‘short’ would feel ‘unfinished’, but no: while there is a lot of scope for continuation, and a wider tale that is hinted at, this is an almost perfectly formed slice of story. It does perhaps take a couple of (short) chapters to get going, and it’s slightly unfortunate that the core idea is familiar to me from something I read a few years back – it would be more shocking otherwise, I imagine – but overall this is a great short fiction from an author I intend to read more of. Recommended for fans of Twin Peaks and The X-Files.

NetGalley eARC: 112 pages / 11 chapters
First published: February 2017
Series: none
Read from 24th-27th March 2017

My rating: 8.5/10

Life (2017)

Ultra-short view: Gravity meets Alien.

When a Martian soil sample is sent back from Mars for study aboard the International Space Station, excitement is global as the first signs of extraterrestrial life are discovered. Unlike anything on Earth, the collection of cells grows at a phenomenal rate. Just what you want to be stuck in a tiny confined space with, right?! o_O

It’s a little hard for me to be objective about Life, as I’m really not a huge fan of horror or monster movies, and this is firmly in that genre. That said, it would also include Alien and Sunshine, and while I’m not entirely sure where I’d rank this out of those three, it’s also not a total also-ran.

There’s not a great deal can be said without spoilers. Let’s see: the cast – including Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson – is reasonable, with some nice human asides before everything kicks off. Having watched a lot of the Tim Peake footage from the real ISS, this is making a reasonable attempt at verisimilitude, which I appreciated – things like the effect on the human body of being in space for over a year, or just the confined living spaces.

Possibly the reason this didn’t – hah! – really grab me is that it’s a pretty predictable, single-strand story, with plenty of added gore. If you like this kind of movie it’s reasonably slickly done, but I wouldn’t be rushing to recommend it to everyone.

Released: 24th March 2017
Viewed: 24th March 2017
Running time: 103 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6.5/10

Split (2016)

“Kevin has 23 distinct personalities. The 24th is about to be unleashed.”

I confess, I spent the first few minutes wondering if I was in the right movie screen – no James McAvoy, unless one of his distinct personalities really looks like a teenage girl. Serves me right for trying to know as little as possible about the film before going in, as it turns out this is as much a kidnap horror/thriller as it is a psychological drama – or is it a bit of a supernatural something-or-other? Knowing that the director is M. Night Shyamalan (6th Sense, The Village, Unbreakable, etc) might give you a few clues…

Perhaps with better expectations I might have liked this movie more. Certainly, McAvoy gives a strong set of performances, easily distinguishing between his different personalities and oozing menace, when appropriate, or childlike innocence at other times. There’s a lot to find fascinating in exploring disassociative identity disorder – which unfortunately this movie only touches on the edges of.

For me, both the thriller and supernatural elements rather took away from giving any real ‘meat’ to the psychology. Three genres is just too many; none get to really shine, and indeed I felt by the end that they were treading on each other’s toes, so to speak – one providing a lazy get-out for another, etc.

Biggest flaw, though, was the ending – or rather, lack of. As the story started to come to a climax, I had at least three different ‘guesses’ on what we might get thrown at us. I don’t mind that I was wrong – in fact, that’s best! – but I didn’t feel we then had any kind of proper resolution.

Not awful, definitely watchable, but largely disappointing.

Released: 20th January 2017
Viewed: 27th January 2017
Running time: 118 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6/10

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey was possibly my book of the year when it was released, meaning this movie adaptation had a LOT to live up to. One of the thrills of reading the book was the way the opening scenes first baffle and then reveal a wholly unexpected horror. The movie can’t quite capture that same suspense, purely due to the visual medium, but still – if you’ve neither read nor viewed (and if you have the choice, read first!), please think carefully about whether you want to read on rather than go in ‘blind’ and experience that almost-slow reveal!

[waits a couple of hours for movie to be watched]

Okay, back with me? So, what we have here is a zombie story unlike any zombie story I’ve read/watched before. Something has turned most of the Earth’s population into ‘hungries’, and pockets of humanity such as the military base we start off in, are struggling to survive whilst also experimenting on the monsters trying desperately to find a vaccine, a way to save themselves.

As we are slowly shown the true nature of Miss Justineau’s (Gemma Arterton) classroom in the military base, and begin to understand Dr Caldwell’s (Glenn Close) questions, we also begin to see just how exceptional Melanie (Sennia Nanua) really is – and how precarious her situation is, too.

When circumstances force the three, plus soldiers Sgt Parks (Paddy Considine) and Pvt Gallagher (Fisayo Akinade), to go searching for another pocket of humanity, survival becomes a very different kind of a story.

I thought this was a rather excellent adaptation, of a book I loved so much that the relief that they hadn’t mucked it up was super-high! Okay, there are some ‘issues’ around the fact that anyone reading Miss Justineau in the book would not have pictured the casting choice made, but actually the acting is very well done all round. Plus, there is a lovely lack of makeup on the cast – could this really be the first zombie apocalypse ever where mascara wasn’t a priority (or completely impermeable)?!

My sole disappointment in the movie is that there is one, very subtle, change to the ending. Obviously I won’t say what, but from something as small as tone of voice I think the entire slant cast on events is altered – and not for the better. Still, very well done otherwise, and if I didn’t like the alteration then at least it’s given me something to talk about – and makes it very easy to say, watch the movie AND read the book! 🙂

Released: 23rd September 2016
Viewed: 7th October 2016
Running time: 111 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 8/10

The Fireman – Joe Hill

“Harper Grayson had seen lots of people burn on TV, everyone had, but the first person she saw burn for real was in the playground behind the school.”

No one knew why the tattoo-like marks started to appear on people’s skin: intricate swirls of black and gold. But it’s a deadly beauty: from ‘Dragonscale’ to smoking (and we’re not talking cigarettes!), and then a plague of human combustion.

Harper is a school nurse, but as the Dragonscale takes hold of the population civilisation goes into emergency mode. She spends her days volunteering at the hospital encased in a hazmat suit, but is that enough to protect her? If the worst happens, though, her husband has a plan…

The Fireman is a sprawling look at the end of the world (probably), as this infection grips hold of the population. And, suffice to say, it’s not just the spore that can be deadly. The big strength of this book is probably the way it shows human nature: fear, hope, survival, and even pettiness creeping in despite the horrors being faced.

This is my first experience of Joe Hill’s writing, and my impression is that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree – Hill, of course, being the son of horror master Stephen King. I could easily imagine The Fireman having come from King-the-elder’s pen: the slow build, the focus on the human stories amid catastrophe and chaos. The Stand  is a book that sprung to mind, thematically at least, while almost all of King’s later works have had that same achingly slow description of ‘normal’ life woes amid the horror.

Which… is both a strength and a weakness, including here. Yes, it can let you really understand and feel for the characters. And yes, it takes the book out of the shock-for-the-sake-of-it pace, allowing petty (that word again) horrors – generally the people kind – sicken the reader even more than the pandemic.

Other advanced reviews of this book have been absolutely glowing with praise, and I get that. But, while I can appreciate the book, and did enjoy it, I just didn’t love it. The pace irritated me a little (I felt I needed a break halfway through – from the length of the book, and the unswervingly grim and tense mood). I didn’t actually come to care for the characters much, despite spending so much time with them, which was kind of ‘hmm’. And, for such a long book, I didn’t really feel I was reading anything new in the story – as I said, reminders of some of ‘dad’s’ work, and of another book dealing with a fungal spore pandemic, which a few years back surprised me in ways this just didn’t.

It took Mr Hill 4 years to write this book, and I’m a little sorry I couldn’t love it more. I’m still planning on trying some of his earlier works, though, as the writing is strong. As it is, I can appreciate the time and effort that’s gone into it, and it stands as an impressive enough, solid piece of work – but, maybe just not as great as I expected  or hoped for.

NetGalley eArc: ~768 pages / 145 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: none
Read from 16th-30th May 2016

My rating: 6/10

Revival – Stephen King

“In one way, at least, our lives really are like movies.”

The biggest thing that struck me about this book was how much leeway Stephen King has to take his time building up the background, following his characters in fairly normal times to make the psychological element of the horror that follows all the more immediate. I can’t think of many writers who are allowed such freedom – fully half the book goes by until we reach the ‘plot’, really – nor many who would use it so well.

However, I’ve also reached the conclusion that it’s these slice-of-life parts that are the author’s real strength, as unfortunately I found the denouement a little disappointing after all that. YMMV, as they say.

Our narrator is Jamie Morton, telling the story of his life – a few family dramas, his own drama as a rock guitarist-turned-drug-addict (hello to several SKing motifs!) – but ultimately how it entwines with that of Reverend Jacobs, a preacher whose faith in god is tested after a terrible accident, but whose obsession with electricity only deepens. Is there a ‘secret electricity’, a power stronger than lightning, than faith – than death?

I was surprised a little in just how caught up I became in the more down to earth dramas contained here – to the point where I was disappointed not to hear more about one family drama in lieu of more ‘spooky’ goings-on – and was thoroughly immersed in the first half of the book. However, the supernatural elements – while apparently scaring many online reviewers silly – didn’t feel that original to me, and the characters towards the end were a little too cliched while the ‘horror’ took over.

Hardback: 373 pages / 14 chapters
First published: 2014
Series: none
Read from 20th February – 5th March 2016

My rating: 6/10 – a decent read from the master of horror, but nothing exceptional in the end