Alien Covenant: Sifting through the debris when movies collide

Ridley Scott, styled “The elderly Ridley Scott” by Red Letter Media in their YouTube review, attempted to resurrect his creative ability after the abominable Prometheus. The result is an ugly mosaic from the debris of two movies. One of them should have been made. (BTW spoiler alert, and I use links to explain certain concepts if you want more information).

That one, a sci-fi horror featuring an android obsessed with creation and a hatred of the humans who made him, entrapping the crew of a colonizing ship and conducting hideous genetic experiments on them. David, the android from Prometheus played by Michael Fassbender, is living on a planet he managed to fly to with Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) on board an Engineer spacecraft after the events of Prometheus. The Engineers are/were the sentient creators of humans, and it turns out that they created a black goo on one of their science planets that fuses with DNA to make monsters. This is the substance David plays with to eventually create the Xenomorphs.

This movie would have been brilliant. There would have been gnawing tension because we suspect David’s intentions, and Fassbender does a great job playing a composed ‘synthetic‘, and having crew members picked off one by one and then killed in slow, grissly experiments would have been a terrifying spectacle. No, it would not have been pleasant to watch, but it would have had a unified theme, and  have taken the series somewhere new. Lot’s more scenes with android David talking to android Walter, both played by Fassbender, which provided the best moments in the movie.

Alas, the second movie crashed into the first. This is a rehash of the original Alien, and it took place in the final 25 minutes. The iconic xenomorph is finally burst forth, and gets on board the ship that the last surviving crew manage to fly back to. Here Daniels “Dany” Branson (played by Katherine Waterston), the senior officer and wife of the late Captain Jacob “Jake” Branson — played by James Franco who is incinerated at the film opens — becomes Ripley-ish by luring the alien into the cargo bay and blasting it out of the airlock. A fine dose of nostalgia, but crammed into 25 minutes as it is deprives it of what is most effective about the original movie. THE PACE! It is slow, and like Jaws the monster isn’t really seen until the end. The imagination of the audience can conjour things that no amount of cgi can match. Turn out the lights and the imagination does the rest. That is why Alien is scary.

Alien Covenant needed to be either one of these movies. Either an Ex Machina – Human Centipede fusion that explores the meaning of creation and destruction, with a dash of human bravery, or a retro homage to 1979’s Alien. But trying to do both simply does not work. It is definitely better than Prometheus, by a big margin, but that raises the bar an inch off the ground.

Just why there was a weird collision of two different movies is unclear, but the answer probably rests on studio expectations — they paid for the iconic Alien so there must be the nostalgia soup at the end — but if Ridley Scott wanted to go in another direction he surely had the sway to do it.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t good moments, and as I have mentioned the Fassbender scenes are great — particularly when he kisses himself — and the Kane and Abel theme between the two androids culminating in a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “It is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.” The duality of the androids is the most interesting part, forget the Aliens — they are actually boring and anticlimactic in comparison.

David’s rooms on the planet where he has spent ten years doing his experiments to create the “perfect organism” which has wiped out all life on the planet, are like the abode of Leonardo da Vinci, with models, preserved specimens, and anatomical drawings on the walls. In here is the preserved corpse of Dr Shaw, her abdomen exploded out, suggesting he used her to create an early chestburster. In one of the better scenes in Prometheus she gives birth by caesarean to a kind of facehugger, so her character being a guinea pig for David, and the mother of the Xenomorph completes her character development. Early in Prometheus she laments her infertility. It is her most powerful character motivation.

Really, what would be interesting would be to take all the material from Prometheus and Covenant and cut them together into one film, The Tragedy of Elizabeth Shaw. As it is all we have is a field of confused debris from colliding movies and a filmmaker who forgot how to create.

Keeping the Flames

In a particularly beautiful part of the Netherlands, just outside the town of Sint-Oedenrode, a local teenager looked out the window to see American paratroopers drop into the field just outside the family house.

It was September 17th 1944,  and Martin (referred to as Opa to his family and so I shall too from hereon) was in the middle of the largest airborne operation ever attempted. An audacious assault meant to bypass the fortifications of the Maginot and Siegfried lines on the French and Belgian borders with Germany. The Netherlands had been under Nazi occupation since May 1940. Had Operation Market Garden succeeded the Dutch would have been liberated earlier, but also victory in Europe day could have been before Christmas 1944.

Martinus Alphonsus van Rooy, now 88, recounts the experience of having World War Two so close at such a pivotal age.  “I still don’t like the Germans,” he murmurs reflectively.  it was clear by 1944 that the Nazi war machine was slowly collapsing.  The initial surprise of Market Garden confused the enemy, so when they came after the paratroopers they thought they were after the British.  Even so the SS put Opa’s family against the wall of their house and demanded to know where the “tommies” were.  The SS left soon after empty-handed.

The Americans had asked for cans to hang on wires which would rattle and alert them to intruders at night.  They had dug in; coming out in the day and disappeared at night. Over the next week Opa and his family were strangely poised, living with World War Two happening out the window.  At one point an older SS man came to the house looking for somewhere to sleep. He slept in the kitchen. Opa’s sister took the man’s rifle and wouldn’t give it back.

The German morale was evidently poor, and they were spiritually a spent force.  “The Germans didn’t want to go to the Eastern Front. Oh no, they didn’t want to fight the Russians, they were scared [of them].” Opa recalls witnessing gunfights between the Allies and the Nazis, and got as close as to be in real danger when a hand grenade went off nearby. He remembers that the Germans were genuinely surprised, “They thought the British were above where they were.” The Allies had landed over such a wide area in order to create a corridor for ground forces in France to advance through. This did have the effect of surprise, but made the operation vulnerable to counterattack. The German Panzer divisions were able to defeat the operation, but it was to be their last victory of the war.

As the days passed the Operation became more and more futile. It depended on speed and surprise to seize the key roads and bridges forming a corridor from Eindhoven to Arnhem, which the British XXX Corps would use to bypass the fortifications of the Maginot and Sigfried lines (reinforcing the border between Germany, France, and Belgium). This was an audacious attempt to bring the war to a close before Christmas 1944.

Today, Operation Market Garden has disappeared from memory as the events of D-day and the Battle of the Bulge which burn more brightly have taken attention. They were gruelling, and devastating operations, but they were victories, and much more satisfactory stories for Hollywood to tell.

On this ANZAC day, I think it is worthwhile to seek out the lesser known tales from military history, not least because we are steadily losing those that can tell them first hand. Now in his late eighties, the teenage boy from Sint-Oedenrode who saw the flash of guns and felt the shock of a grenade, recalls his experience with a twinkle in his eye.

Trump’s list of broken promises

What is that crunching underfoot? The shards of Trump’s broken promises. The shattered dreams of those who voted for him, and are stuck between a bloviating moron and the hate of dejected democrats. 

Let no-one get away with saying that at least Trump is doing what he said he would do if elected. It simply isn’t so.

Trump’s promises before and after the election – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-37982000

Vile Maxims 

Adam Smith wrote that the ‘masters of mankind,’ who at the time were the manufacturing owners in England, pursue their vile maxim: “everything for ourselves and nothing for other people.”

Noam Chomsky has written at great length about how this is as true today as it was when Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. I cannot possibly improve on the case the great professor makes in a mere essay, but simply draw out a few strands and hold them closer to the light.

There’s something very wrong about the world we live in. People tell me that the problem is deeply rooted in human nature. That we cannot possibly change it, that greed and self interest are as much a part of what makes us human as our opposable thumbs and brain size. Greed makes people abuse welfare. Greed makes people steal and use drugs. And greed makes massive financial institutions wreak havoc on the world economy behind their responsibility and demand (and get) a bailout from the taxpayer. The first two cases in which greed informs behaviour are harshly punished. The latter is not.

This is not news to anyone. Even the most reptilian neo-liberal accepts that corporate greed is negative (or perhaps they don’t, I am not particularly interested in knowing). If only because it makes the corporate interests lobby governments to pervert the free market to their own ends. But the masters of mankind have us tied up in the belief that Human Nature cannot be changed. If greed is not good then at least it is ineradicable. That way the masters can continue their plunder of the world while the rest of us toil for less and less.

I don’t think greed is necessarily a part of human nature. In fact empirical evidence taken from the myriad forms of human society demonstrates the weakness of the human nature claim. Pre-european Māori tribes engaged in inter-tribal warfare (that increased dramatically after Europeans brought the musket), but Māori society was remarkably stable, and quite immune from the pressures we like to worry about. Like individual property rights.

Our society is built to be greedy. That is capitalist nature, not human. We built the society, and we can fix it. How do we do it? A violent Revolution? I am not at all sure that storming the proverbial Bastille is the way to go. Instead, I want to look at the ails of society, which is what Marx and Engels were concerned with in the very first place. Deny and disagree with their conclusions if you wish, but their analysis of industrialization was deadly accurate. You don’t have to answer for Stalin if you invoke Marxist theories, just as supporters of Bernie Sanders do not have to answer for Trump. I say that as a throat clearing for any vocal critics.

What needs to happen now is the lower 90% of people who would have been known once as the proletariat, has to reclaim the power they once had as factory workers to unionize and agitate against the bourgeoisie. Over the years the means of production have been outsourced and the working class thereby disempowered. A sweatshop worker in China cannot hold Nike to account, multi-nationals assume the privileged of being neo-states in all but landmass. Financial regulation and deregulation espoused by the frightful hack Alan Greenspan established the new proletariat dubbed the ‘precariat’ because the working class is now characterized by insecurity. Zero-hour contracts, no health insurance, fire at will policies, the erosion of welfare so that the worker who predictably loses their job cannot pay their rent or their bills. All for ourselves and nothing for other people, the vile maxim sits at the heart of this filthy Society.

But it is based on a lie. This is not a zero sum world. Advances for some people are not necessarily imply detraction for others. If you are fortunate to be thriving in this Society I do not want to injure you or harm your prospects. I want to meet Society work for more people, like trans and non-binary people. The poor, the ill, those abandoned by Society and kept in cages. The first step is to listen to these people, the second is to make concessions. In order to get to that place it needs to be accepted that workers have rights and must be able to agitate for better conditions. They can continue to represent themselves better than any demagogue hoisting the red flag.

Lastly, security needs to be attained in all its complexity, not just in physical terms when considering domestic and international terrorism. The American Dream was about individual security. A family sustaining itself without government interference. That dream is dead as long as workers are precarious on the edge of oblivion. So be cautious when dubious and smug politicians talk about the economy. The word they actually mean to say is plutonomy, and growth for 0.1% does not strengthen the economy overall. But it does invite them to lavish parties on expensive yachts and stroke them in just the right way.

Instead of citing particular pages, much of this essay is based on Noam Chomsky’s Who Rules the World. Additional reading from The Meaning of Marxism by Paul D’Amato.

My Little Piece of Paradise 

There is a spot I go to in my little house that sends me places. I can tread countless continents with no passport; time and space is completely pliable, the only constraint is my own wretched imagination.

After spending many years wandering through strange markets, dodging eight handed pick pockets and avoiding the sellers of the deep space, pink bellied whale (a delicacy known to cause reverse hair growth), I’ve avoided — for the most part — laying my tales before living eyes. But I think there is a good reason to now.

 To follow me on my journeys you will need a suitable passport which I will endeavour to provide. Just how to get this to you dear one, I do not yet know. But I will get right on it after I have dealt with the thief who has made up with my sandwich bag. He may lose a hand for this!

The Cold Light 

The rush of the moment can be exquisite, but perilous. An angry tweet can destroy a friendship, or a presidency, or simply be lost in a fog of a million other tweets. Thinking with the knees is not really thinking at all.

This thought comes to me as I read about the terrorist attack in London, which has killed at least five people including the attacker outside the Houses of Parliament. The nationalist instinct bubbling beneath the surface of British politics will almost certainly break through again. Attacked within from without, us and them, the wicked measures to enhance security suddenly necessary.

The political impacts of this are unsurprising. We are living in security states that exist entirely at the mercy of politicians knees. Whichever way they jerk affects us all, and it is all about thinking. I hope it is clear that the the current security measures worked. The attacker was stopped. Parliament was not invaded. There need not be more security measures as a response.

What this means for Scottish independence I do not know, although I am sceptical that attacking the nation’s parliament arms nationalists with overt ferver because many people were feeling misrepresented by Parliament anyway. Had it been in the attack on the duke and duchess of Cambridge at Kensington Palace, things might be different.
As the day draws to a close and the bodies go to the morgue, and families pass a sleepless night in mourning, I hope real thought returns with the cold light. Anything else is maddness.

Who is Orrin Hatch?

Orrin Hatch is the senior US Senator from the State of Utah, who in 2015 became the President pro tempore of the Senate. This honor is conferred on the most senior senator of the majority party, and according to the Constitution the President pro tempore presides over the senate in place of the Vice-President who is also the President of the Senate, whenever they are absent. In practice they don’t actually preside at all, the office being more ceremonial which suits the incumbent who is a crusty 82 years old. However, should the President be incapacitated, the Vice-President indisposed, and Speaker Ryan unavailable due to being too high on the prospect of depriving poor people of health-care, the President pro tempore succeeds to the Presidency.

Old Orrin has served in the Senate since 1977, and and ran for President in 2000 with a platform that claimed his website was more accessible than George W Bush’s. As strong as this was, it wasn’t quite enough to convince the GOP who at the time were still convinced that Y2k would infect their computers and turn them gay. Orrin has been busy in the last 17 years though, ducking in and out of the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, opposing abortion, advocating 14 year old offenders to be treated as adults and punished harshly for petty crimes, and Chairing the Finance Committee.

He is seen as pro-business, anti-gay, pro-state death penalty, pro-stem cell research, pro-war on drugs, pro-prayer in schools, anti-environment, pro-Israel, anti-Iran, pro-NATO, and since Trump won the Republican nomination for President; pro-Trump.

I am writing about him because I think it is valuable to take a little time to take a closer look at some of the peripheral shadows in the US government. What they do affects us, and without the occasional closer look we run the danger of inhaling the junk statistics and rectal generalizations that people love to throw around in order to seem intelligent.

Hatch doesn’t seem to want to seem intelligent, hence his support for nonsense and stupidity, and because of his position this makes for a somewhat dangerous figure. Having said this it looks like Hatch is drooling in ceremony now, and no longer much of an active participant in Republican skulduggery. He was absent at the 2017 inauguration of President Trump because as the designated survivor (a member of the line of succession kept in a safe place in case the entire US government is collectively vaporized) he was safe in an undisclosed location.

It is odd to consider these senators close up, rather like examining an ichneumon wasp through a jam jar, its ovipositor pulsating against the glass. Curious because American politics is so inhuman, so impervious to the logic of the rest of the world. IN Britain, Australia and New Zealand, with quaint parliamentary systems that actually work, a u-turn is treated severely and rarely forgotten. But Republican senators like Orrin Hatch who  through 2016 engaged in procedural gymnastics and contortion to prevent President Obama from carrying out his constitutional duty of filling vacancies in the Supreme Court, now call Democrats idiots in breach of Senate decorum for holding up Trump’s nomination.

What makes American politics different is not simply the bizarre constitutional system, or their fetishisation of liberty and freedom (I mean what are they, sex toys?), it is that there is no such thing as shame. You cannot cause Donald Trump to feel shame in himself, nor Paul Ryan, nor Bill and Hillary Clinton. The condition requires a standard upon which to hang,  and that standard is long gone, if it ever existed at all.

Burning Down the House

I keep wondering how many times the house can burn down. It goes on and on, the relentless nightly arson, and by now the inferno seems unstoppable. Yet there is still fresh fuel, more sections of the house to devour, and more opportunity for witty people to make fun of it. This would be hilarious if it weren’t for the screams of people burning. Some things are too crispy for humour.

The seven week old Trump Administration is tangled up in court again for using executive power to achieve racist goals. The doleful replacement plan for the Affordable Care Act (I won’t call it a health care plan because something that strips 24 million Americans of their health insurance does not deserve the name) is dying in Congress. Trump wants to move on to reforming the tax code, right when two pages of his 2005 tax return are leaked and can be used to quantify just how much he will personally benefit. And former President Obama wanders around paradise in a leather jacket with a $60 million book deal.

Just what sort of reality is this? Will Trump really fail for the rest of his term like he is failing now? His approvals are down to 43%, and the Bush zone (mid 30s) beckons. But I don’t expect that will give him any pause. Trump is 70, he’s not going to change, and as a majority of Americans get alienated from him the zealots of Breitbart News and InfoWars will only get louder in his ear. He seeks attention, praise, and thanks, but he doesn’t need it from everyone.

At the moment I am reminded of President Obama’s achievements and also the vitriol poured on him. Friends of mine who are otherwise incandescent in their intelligence get cantankerous and stupid when discussing Obama. Off the top of my head I can summarize his achievements. He passed a health reform act that remedied many of the worst things about private health insurance. It wasn’t universal healthcare by any means, but got the insurance rate up to over 90% of the population. He banned waterboarding enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding and other torture by US personnel.

At home he also banned solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal prisons. He made guidelines for the protection of transgender students at schools — which was overturned a few weeks ago by Trump who likes to grab women’s genitals, on the advice of the right-wing hawks around him who are fascinated with the genitals of young people. Obama ended the US military policy on gays, don’t ask, don’t tell. He changed his mind on same-sex marriage and supported the successful case that went to the Supreme Court. He appointed two female supreme court justices, including the first Hispanic justice. He appointed the most culturally diverse cabinet in American history. He was the first President to make public the identities of those visiting the white house, and who he played golf with, because he truly believes that transparency matters.

He also saved the auto industry, bailing it out and overseeing it’s reorganization and reconstitution. It payed the bailout money back, because unlike Wall Street the auto industry actually makes something tangible. Obama also made the US energy independent through the oil and natural gas it produces domestically, and growing the renewable energy sector to the point where a future without fossil fuels is viable. He signed an international climate change agreement in Paris which actually sets reduction targets for the US and China, making the threat of climate change actually look surmountable.

Also abroad he negotiated with Syria to give up its chemical weapons stockpile — which it did — and he negotiated with the Iranians to nullify their offensive nuclear capacity. He changed US policy on Cuba to end a particularly stupid American foreign policy delusion that dates back to Eisenhower. He made public the details of the budget for the CIA, the first President to do so.

Yeah, I guess he failed. It’s all nullified by his failure to close Guantanamo Bay eh? Or his murderous drone strike program. Or domestic surveillance. Or the rise of ISIS. These things are blights on his record, but they are part of a larger picture, that of a pock-marked portrait of an American President. Of course, so far with Trump there’s no space between the pockmarks and nothing worth painting.