21st 05 - 2017 | 7 comments »

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Director: Ridley Scott

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Ridley Scott’s chimera of horror and science fiction, Alien (1979) launched its director on a Hollywood career and established a franchise that has become a fixture of the modern cinema landscape. Expanded by James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the Alien series, whilst declining steeply in quality as it went on and spawning an army of imitators, still managed to remain distinctive. That distinctiveness stemmed from the films’ unique blend of down-and-dirty generic imperatives, telling blood-and-thunder stories of rampaging monsters, obscene pregnancies and infestations, and raw survivalism, fused with high-class production values, conceptual intelligence, and technocratic grandeur, lending a veneer of respectability to a portrait of a future far less cheery and far more id-like than the norm for such spacefaring tales. This is a future defined by eerie fusions of biology and technology, painted in chiaroscuro contrasts of assailed light against overwhelming blackness, a place where nightmares dwell and heroes survive only by pure nerve. The series reached a nadir when the menace of the xenomorphs was pitched into combat with the hulking Predators of Twentieth Century Fox’s other beloved sci-fi action property for two readily ignored movies, but then Scott elected to return to the series that had made his name with Prometheus (2011). Suddenly the series, and its director, were exciting for many again. Prometheus proved a peculiarly indecisive concoction, however, and a divisive one.

Undoubtedly, Prometheus was an ambitious and hefty piece of work. But many, including me, were hoping that Scott would extend his work not just in theme and scope but in style. The specific aura of his original, defined by a mood of miasmic dread and mystery, and tension slowly ratcheted then exploited with relentless effect, was attuned to environment as a tool and source of drama, in the twinned environs of space’s unknowable expanse and the labyrinthine twists of the Nostromo. Such carefully worked filmmaking offered lessons too many contemporary directors forget, including, it seemed, Scott himself. Still, Scott poured a great deal of his matured technical and storytelling expertise into the film and many examples of his great eye, so that when viewed as a standalone thrill-ride, Prometheus was a fine effort, sporting one truly classic sequence depicting an excruciating surgical birth. But as a revisit to beloved universe by its progenitor, it was surely more conventional and clumsy.

The curious squeamishness Scott revealed on Prometheus about drawing too many clear lines to his original gives way with Alien: Covenant, his latest foray into this zone, to a bolder reappropriation of his stylistic cues, opening the door for an instalment that moves a long way towards closing the linkage between the two entries. The titles recreate the assembling motif of the original’s opening credits, and Jed Kurzel’s music score quotes Jerry Goldsmith’s plaintive, eerie, barely-there scoring for the original. Scott also quotes ideas from subsequent entries, like a projected image of lovely forest offered as a bogus panacea for grief and the stern rifle-wielding quoted from Aliens (1986). There’s a deftly clever reason to this sort of conscientious trope-harvesting, beyond mere homage and service to a conceptual universe, that becomes clearer as the film goes on. Prometheus dealt with an expedition financed by dying tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his efforts to track down the possible source of life on Earth, discovering facilities used for genetic engineering and the remains of a colossal alien race dubbed Engineers, who laid the seeds for the genesis of the human race but also intended its destruction and supplanting by more fearsome creations. The finale saw sole human survivor Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) appropriating an Engineer spaceship to track down their home world in the mangled company of Weyland’s magnum opus in cybernetic engineering, David (Michael Fassbender).

Alien: Covenant opens with a sequence depicting David’s first conscious moments as a creation and tool of Weyland, back when the creator was still relatively healthy and David was immediately faced with a quandary of being the perfect and undying progeny of a very frail beast indeed. Most of Alien: Covenant however takes place ten years after the events of Prometheus. Following Prometheus’ lead, Covenant is also the name of a spaceship, a craft carrying a load of 2000 colonists in cryogenic stasis to a distant planet chosen as a new home. Their well-being is overseen by the on-board synthetic human Walter (Fassbender again), an upgraded, less independent version of David’s make. In between leaps through wormholes with a solar sail deployed to recharge the ship’s power supplies, the Covenant is struck by a surge of energy from an exploding star, frying its electrical systems and causing the ship’s core crew to wake up. The captain, Branson (James Franco), is burned to a cinder when his stasis pod catches fire, leaving his partner Daniels (Katherine Waterston) distraught and his second officer Oram (Billy Crudup) in anxious command. Whilst repairing the solar sail, another crew member, Tennessee (Danny McBride), picks up an extremely faint and mysterious broadcast from a relatively nearby planet. Watching the broadcast, the crew realise it’s a faint image of a woman singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” When they look at the planet it’s sourced from, a mere seven weeks’ flight away, the crew decide it’s worth travelling there to search for the mysterious woman, because the planet appears to be a closer and superior place to set up their colony.

Arriving at the planet, the Covenant crew, who are mostly married or in relationships to better foster the colonial mission, leave a skeleton force to man the space vessel whilst most of the crew departs to the surface to investigate. Tennessee’s wife Faris (Amy Seimetz) is one joins the landing team, which also includes Oram, Daniels, and stalwart Lope (Demián Bichir, under-utilised), whilst her husband stays aboard ship with another couple, Upworth (Callie Hernandez) and Ricks (Jussie Smollett). Daniels has protested vociferously to Oram about his decision to come to this planet which she describes as too good to be true, a protest Oram registers as another slight against him, feeling a victimised status he blames on his oft-proclaimed religious faith. Touching down, the landing party soon find the planet apparently free of all animal life but weirdly rich in familiar, overgrown versions of Earth vegetation. They soon find a crashed Engineer spaceship and find Shaw’s dog tags on board. Two members of the party, Ledward (Benjamin Rigby) and Hallett (Nathaniel Dean) also inadvertently find something else, spore pods that release microbes that latch themselves on their bodies and soon start a gruesome and grimly familiar biological process. Both infected men soon fall ill, bleed copiously, and finally have small but deadly alien organisms erupt out of their bodies. These things grow and go on the hunt, leaving several crew dead and their shuttle craft destroyed. What’s left of the party is saved by a mysterious cloaked figure who releases a bright flare to scare the monsters off. This is soon revealed to be David himself, surviving a solitary existence on this planet with naught to do but pick up where the Engineers left off.

The early scenes of Alien: Covenant confirm Scott’s intention to reverse-engineer the series back to original specs, whilst also quietly stretching out sinew in readiness for hard exertions when they come, as he makes a film where its very status as a variation on a theme is an explicit part of the show. The workaday tedium that afflicted the denizens of the Nostromo is not quite rhymed with the more upbeat and expectant Covenant crew here, whose outlook is fixed on new horizons rather than hacky bonus cheques. This positive aspect to the crew makes them more harmonious and likeable for the most part, but also means most lack the hardened edge of survival instinct that finally sustained Ripley through to safe harbour. The crew’s increasingly panicky, frail responses to hard-charging survival situations comes both in response to sudden swerves of fate but also repeatedly create them. Daniels’ tragic loss of her partner which is also the loss of the expedition leader and pillar of stability has immediately punched a deep and ever-widening hole in the integrity of this unit. Oram cringes and privately fumes at presumed dissension to his authority, especially when the other members of the crew take pause during their repairs to give Branson a funeral. Tennessee becomes increasingly stressed and places the Covenant in danger from the violent storms that sweep over the planet’s upper atmosphere as he becomes increasingly worried about his wife. The way stressful and lethally intense situations sort out personalities, a minor but consequential theme of the original, is here revisited and becomes an overriding part of how Alien: Covenant investigates humanity and alienness as conditions.

This aspect is illustrated with particularly ruthless zeal when the long, investigative first act gives way to rapidly spiralling crises and hysterical goads to action. The creature in Ledward rips its way out of his back whilst he and Oram’s botanist wife Karine (Carmen Ejogo) are in the shuttle craft’s med bay. Faris locks Karine in with the monster and makes a frenetic but ineffectual attempt to get a weapon and kill the creature. Although new-born the creature still gnaws Karine to death and tracks Faris through the ship, finally driving her to accidentally blow up the craft with her wild gunshots. Scott repeats this process several times, as situations fall suddenly and ruthlessly on his characters, a callous quality given fresh bite by the fact most of these characters are in relationships, their functions as team members cut across by personal loyalties and instincts driving them in contradictory directions. Daniels’ enveloping grief is employed both as a personal trait and an aesthetic keynote in a mad dream where everything spirals in towards to twinned moments of birth and death. Her hopes for building a log cabin on an alien shore with her husband are recited as pathetic confession, and she shares an embrace with Tennessee when they’ve both lost loved-ones. Scott contrasts the increasingly frenzied, messy, and desperate actions of the humans against the ever-poised David, who, in spite of his solitary Ben Gunn-like existence on the planet and long, ragged castaway’s hair, has kept his composure and found peculiar purpose. He takes the survivors in hand and leads them to a deserted city where the petrified remains of the Engineer race still lie scattered across agora cobbles, like some grotesquely apocalyptic, genocidal edition of Pompeii’s dead. David explains to the survivors that the Engineer ship he and Elizabeth brought to the planet accidentally released a sample of the Engineers’ own biological agents, killing them and all other animal life, whilst Elizabeth was mortally injured when the ship crashed.

Although it has undoubtedly been composed of uneven individual works and has received little recognition, Scott’s late career has been rapidly taking shape as one of the most vital and interesting runs in recent cinema from a major filmmaker. This is apparent on both on the level of sheer cinematic swagger, replete with genre-swapping skin-changes worthy of his xenomorphs, but also in the way the key fascinations of his films have become increasingly compulsive. This phase began after the flop of Body of Lies (2008), probably Scott’s weakest film, and kicked off with Robin Hood (2010), both an attempt to recapture and to farewell a phase in his career defined by the success of Gladiator (2000), the movie which restored his standing as a major hit-maker but also reduced him to a spinner of simplistic fairy-tales for grownups. Robin Hood, although violently uneven and poorly focused, was nonetheless a complex conjuration, meshing closely observed historical context with mythology in a manner that highlighted several of Scott’s career-long concerns, particularly class conflict and the fate of the out-of-place individual, and the question as to how our contemporary humanity has evolved, in terms of one of Britain’s most famous folkloric figurations. The films Scott has made since then – Prometheus, The Counselor (2013), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), The Martian (2015), and this one – have all agitatedly sorted and re-sorted an essential catalogue of ideas and images, taking on parables in various settings and each with a different tone for framework. The Old Testament punishments for hubris in Prometheus, The Counselor, and Exodus saw moral dramas played out in landscapes of jagged stone and bleak portent, whilst the communal efforts to achieve sanctuary in Exodus and The Martian evinced a positive but exacting sense of vulnerability in the face of eternal powers. Like Luis Bunuel, a very different filmmaker in obvious ways, Scott has explored his own contradictory nature as a person without overt religion but easily fired up by a religious sensibility, urgently examining the forces that make and break us, trying to live up to a humane creed but constantly offering sly sympathy to his Satanic figures.

Alien: Covenant certainly extends this last aspect through the figure of David, who has slipped his bonds and become determined not merely to be excellent product but a most excellent and laborious producer. He’s that figure Scott admires most and has most qualms about, the exceptional being straining against a world of lessers, an antihero driven to be rebel archangel in his outrage at the way things are. Oram is a man of religious faith but little faith in himself and, more importantly, little gift for leadership, and he falls prey to David’s designs with tragicomic ease. The deliberate echoes and suggestions of direct connection provided here with Blade Runner (1981) flesh out something long implicit in the diptych offered by Scott’s most evergreen films, as David here marches on fearlessly into zones of self-definition Roy Batty could not quite bear to contemplate: he still wanted his father to tell him things would be all right. One forceful idea of Prometheus was the notion that discovering God might be a colossally disappointing act, underlined here with the revelation David casually exterminated the Engineers with their own works. One mask of creation simply gives way to another, leaving more mystery and more frustration. This becomes a spur ironically not to despair but to further, ever-more restless engagement with the act of creation itself. But the creation is only ever a mirror to the faults and strengths of what produces it, and David’s root programming error is suggested with a daisy chain of literary references that connects Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and the latter’s wife Mary, as the Frankensteinian progeny plans an elaborate and cosmically terrifying revenge on having been made so well and yet so impotent. His recitation of Percy’s epistle to the titanic urge, “Ozymandias,” reveals his own trunkless legs by misattributing it to Byron – a mistake Walter, seemingly David’s perfect replica, but carefully castrated by a more cautious and circumspect society, notices, the one clue that this would-be god is cracked.

The relationship between David and Walter is one of Alien: Covenant’s most sublime ideas, giving Fassbender a chance to give two supremely confident, carefully varied performances, and the ultimate actor’s challenge and fantasy, to enact both seducing himself and killing himself. David introduces Walter to the pleasures of personal artistic creation when he teaches him to play a flute, the perfect Narcissus eventually even kissing his double in his effort to find a worthy companion in his solitude, and what could be more worthy than himself. But Walter resists and eventually becomes the only real force standing between David and victory over the pathetic flesh-bags. David has become as central and eclipsing to Scott’s re-conception of this franchise as Peter Cushing’s similarly cool, incisive, utterly unrelenting Frankenstein was to Hammer’s series about the character, towering far over the monstrous by-products of his tinkering. The eventual battle between the two synthetics is the ultimate and perfect version of the essentialist struggle that Scott has meditated upon as far back as the inevitably titled The Duellists – at last the mirrored antagonists are actually, truly identical, distinguished only by the mysterious code called personality. Alien: Covenant eventually unveils another inspired notion as it reveals that the missing link between the Engineers’ parasitic monstrosities and the familiar xenomorphs of the series is David himself, toying with these in his attempts to build a species perfectly adapted not just to survival but to actively exploiting and destroying humans.

This provides an impishly clever explanation for why the xenomorphs seems at once so strange and so familiar, compositing animal types found on Earth and giving the Engineers’ brilliant but mutable creations a new spin. At one point David acidly refers to one of his human male victims as the intended mother of one of his children. David has become in word and deeds his own god, a version of god blazing hatefully out of gnostic texts and bitter agnostic fantasy, a mad designer perched over neo-medieval texts splicing together misbegotten demons. The film’s blackest joke involves two renditions of a passage of Wagner’s Das Rheingold depicting gods entering Valhalla, and is also a cunning call-back to a motif again mooted in the original, where Ash celebrated the purity of the alien beast with ardent fascist admiration. The Hitlerian dream is unbound and now written into the music of the spheres. Appropriately, Alien: Covenant is a mad scientist’s concoction itself, all mediated by Scott’s utilisation of David’s urge to creativity as a metaphor for his own, speeding through drafts, each one tossed off with ever-more feverish drive than the last no matter how good or how lousy the results; only the urge to keep moving counts. Thus Alien: Covenant is a highly perverse hymn to creativity as a natural law and urge, manifesting in whatever form it will. Scott’s professional drive to keep working, so often the source of critical suspicion of his output, is constituted by him as the essence of his being.

Scott does more than make a horror film here; he makes a film about the horror genre, its history, its place in the psyche, analysing the way the death-dream constantly underlies all fantasies of ego and eros. Scott reaches out for a hundred and one reference points, some of the already plain in the Alien series lexicon. The deserted Engineer city recalls the Cyclopean confines of the lost cities in Lovecraft tales like At the Mountains of Madness, the Elder Gods all left gorgonized by David’s perfidy. At one point Scott recreates Arnold Böcklin’s painting “Isle of the Dead,” an image that obsessed H. R. Giger, the crucial designer behind so much of the Alien mythos, as much as it did Val Lewton, whose cavernously eerie psychological parables redefined horror cinema in the 1940s; Scott no doubt has both in mind. David’s “love” for Elizabeth, which has taken the form of relentlessly exploiting her body to lend genetic material to his creations, is both reminiscent of a particularly tactile serial killer worthy of Thomas Harris and of the obsessive, invasive eroticisation of the loved one’s cadaver found in Poe, whilst the whole meditates as intensely and morbidly on its landscape of Poe’s poetry. The design of the failed prototype xenomorphs and David’s rooms hung with sketches reminiscent of medieval alchemic ephemera both pay tribute to Guillermo Del Toro’s films and also poke Del Toro’s oeuvre back for its own debt to Scott and Giger. A head floating in water comes out of Neil Jordan’s self-conscious unpacking of fairy tales, The Company of Wolves (1984). The touch of Captain Branson’s death struck me as a possible tip of the hat to Dark Star (1974), in which the captain had died in similar circumstances, and which was of course made by Alien co-writer Dan O’Bannon. Late in the film Scott stages a shower sequence that sees Upworth and Ricks having a hot and steamy moment under the spigot only to be surprised by a xenomorph. At first glance this sequence revels in a trashier brand of horror associated with 1970s and ‘80s slasher films, but Scott also adds self-reference – the xenomorph’s tail curling in demonic-penile fashion around their legs calls back to the similarly queasy shot in Alien when Lambert was attacked by the monster, whilst also nodding back to Hitchcock and Psycho (1960). It’s staged meanwhile with all the pointillist precision of Scott’s most fetishistic visual rhapsodies – spraying water like diamonds playing over soft flesh, fogged glass, grey knobbly alien skin, and the inevitable rupture of red, red blood.

Which points to another quality of Alien: Covenant – its deeply nasty, enthusiastic commitment to being a horror film, an anarchic theatre of cruelty and bloodlust barely evinced in any other film of such a large budget, especially in this age of gelded adolescent fantasies. If it’s still not the deep, dank leap into a barely liminal space like the original, it is perfectly confident in itself and bleakly poetic in unexpected ways. I don’t know if a film has ever been so casually beautiful even when deploying visions of hellishness, apparent in moments like the shower attack. Or in the following scene when a blown-out airlock results in air turning to million-fold vapour pellets and then ice, exploding in dazzling shards. Or in the surveys of the desolate sculpture garden that is the Engineer city. Daniels’ resemblance to Ripley, in her short dark hair and singlets and pluck in the face of monstrous adversity is both another purposeful echo and a miscue, a by-product of Alien: Covenant’s status as a logarithmic variant. Her embrace with Tennessee is one of the most unaffectedly humane moments in Scott’s oeuvre, and a summation of the film’s repeated statement that to be alive is to need others. Only that’s a rule that cuts both ways in a predatory competition for lebensraum, and leads to such fragments of ecstatic insight as David’s distraught look when one of his children fails.

Scott stages another brilliantly executed, madcap suspense sequence as Daniels and Tennessee attempt to flee the planet surface with a xenomorph scuttling around the hull of their craft, Daniels trying to blast the beast on a wildly pitching deck as the monster tries to head-butt its way through Perspex to get at Tennessee. There’s a skittish, occasionally madcap quality to Pietro Scalia’s editing throughout the film that communicates the off-kilter will at the heart of this project. Only in its very last act does some of Alien: Covenant’s assurance slip, as Scott doesn’t quite match the patience with which he deployed his sneak-attack coda in the original. But there’s still a final twist in store, at once galling and perfectly apt, deployed with obviousness but sustained in ambiguity with such malign showmanship that it becomes increasingly vexing and entirely riveting, before the axe finally falls. Scott builds with cold mirth to a punch-line for the tale that both echoes one he initially mooted for Alien, and which also recalls the sting in the tail of one of the signal influences on that film, Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1966). Scott exploits his own well-worn material here to push right to the brink of the abyss in a way reminiscent to what he did before in The Counselor, complete with a note of predetermined evil fate, only in a context where he can bait people to swallow it. But he also leaves a tantalising question open that might still be answered in creative and thrilling ways. This is the worthy achievement of this entry – it rejuvenates a well-worn property and restores all its dark and unexpected power. But more than that, it’s a testament of pure delight in his medium from a filmmaker who really has nothing left to prove, but likes to prove it anyway.


22nd 04 - 2013 | 2 comments »

Centurion (2010)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director/Screenwriter: Neil Marshall

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By Roderick Heath

English film editor Neil Marshall burst out of the gate as a director with Dog Soldiers (2002), a vigorous, gory, refreshingly cheeky spin on the traditional templates of low-budget horror with a strong dose of hyped-up style. He quickly achieved cult status with his follow-up, the claustrophobic post-feminist nightmare The Descent (2004). Seen as a member of the early ’00s wave of splatter-loving horror filmmakers, Marshall then switched directions from horror to action-oriented fare with 2007’s Doomsday and Centurion in 2010. Marshall’s obvious worship of ’80s genre cinema in particular was crossbred in each with an amusingly parochial sense of humour and hip revisions of certain stock situations, giving his faux-blockbuster material a jolt of outsider energy and impudent perspective.

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Dog Soldiers set the template he’s followed consistently: placing a collective of tough and resilient people in the middle of a relentlessly dangerous situation and picking them off one by one, be it by monsters or hordes of angry Scotsmen. If The Descent was a touch overrated because of its original tweak on an old formula, and Doomsday underrated for being excessively indebted to Marshall’s favourite trash films to a degree that would make Quentin Tarantino blush, Centurion suggested new ground that, alas, Marshall has thus far been unable to pursue further. Watching the leaden conceptual snoozefest that was Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games (2012), my early feeling that the story was tailormade for Marshall became all the more powerful.

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Marshall isn’t above some modish tricks of modern cinema, and Doomsday falls prey to some excessively choppy editing and dodgy CGI. Most of the time, however, he is a pellucid, rigorous stylist, rare enough in modern filmmaking and particularly in his branch of cinema, with films that improvise on frameworks provided by his favourite influences marked with a personal brand. Centurion, although fast-paced and structured with elegant simplicity, is also littered with some of the most arresting and well-framed images in recent cinema. Centurion built upon the conceit of Doomsday, which had turned Scotland into a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque landscape where modern civilisation began to devolve into barbarism. Centurion inverted the approach as an outright historical adventure film, indeed, the best example of such in the West in recent years. Centurion is a fight-and-flight action film par excellence, but one that encompasses all kinds of fascinating reflexive interests, deepened and given contemporary edge by distinct hints of political parable. With this relative complexity, Marshall outclassed many attempts to revive the historical action epic by filmmakers like Ridley Scott, with his clunky Robin Hood (2011), Antoine Fuqua’s moronic King Arthur (2005), Gore Verbinski’s overworked Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and Mel Gibson’s various bombastic entries, in spite of their infinitely greater resources. Centurion itself is easily recognisable to the adventure film buff in its working parts: a little bit of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992), John Ford, Kurosawa, some The Naked Prey (1966), combined with hints and hues of decades of sword-and-sandal flicks.

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On top of the film’s true historical foundation, Marshall superimposes a quiet, but powerful echo, implicitly evoking various phenomena like British Imperialism, the Wild West, and the Iraq War, through the efforts of the Empire to suppress Britain in a nihilistic, vicious struggle of suppression and reaction. He goes a step further to link the bombastic machismo behind the urges that began the Iraq War with that of the Roman expansion, with the phallocratic force of General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West), commander of the Ninth Legion. His very name communicates virility, and the man is avatar for this underlying spirit. His counterforce is presented concisely in the form of lethal female warrior Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a brutalised engine of destruction working for the Picts.

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The setting is 154 AD, and the decades-long stand-off between the Roman Empire and the Pictish peoples of present-day Scotland is building to a head. The Romans, all swagger and politicking, are trying to hold on to a network of border forts. A Pict raid upon one fort sees most of the Romans wiped out; the conscientious officer Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) is taken prisoner because he has learnt to speak the local dialect, in obedience to his father’s maxim that one should know one’s enemy. He is brought before the Pictish king Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), who has troubled the Romans endlessly with his sophisticated guerrilla warfare. Gorlacon has him tortured and shown off as captured prey, but Dias manages to escape from Gorlacon’s stockaded capital and flees south across the snow-crusted Highlands.

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Meanwhile, the Roman Governor Agricola (Paul Freeman) decides to send a punitive expedition against Gorlacon north from his base at Carlisle, detailing the Ninth Legion under Virilus, a former foot soldier who’s risen to command whilst not losing his link with his men. Introduced in a tavern engaged in an arm-wrestling match, Virilus skewers his opponent with a dagger when it’s plain the man intends to do the same to him and joins the all-in brawl between his men and the locals that results. Washing up the next day, he’s mistaken by a messenger for a ranker. Agricola gives Virilus an unusual guide and scout in the form of Etain, a superlatively skilled, perpetually unspeaking woman whom Agricola introduces to Virilus through the expedient means of having her kill a slave in a play-act assassination.

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On the march into the fog-shrouded forests of the north, Virilus’ troops save Dias just as he’s been cornered by some of Gorlacon’s men. But a well-prepared ambush, into which they’ve been led by the double-agent Etain, sees Gorlacon’s army devastate the Legion and take Virilus captive. A handful of survivors, including Dias, regroup over the corpses of their dead fellows, and Dias enlists them to pursue Virilus and his captors back to Gorlacon’s city. They fail to free Virilus from his chains, however, and are forced to abandon him as Gorlacon’s forces begin to stream back into the city. But they soon find they’ve stirred up a new hornet’s nest, because one of their number, Thax (J. J. Feild), has throttled Gorlacon’s young son (Ryan Atkinson) to silence him during the raid. Incensed, Gorlacon has Virilus pitted in single combat against Etain, who quickly, brutally disposes of the General. She then leads a hunting party after Dias’s band of survivors until they or their chasers are all dead, and, in time-honoured style, the Roman survivors have to try to make it back to their own lines fighting every step of the way.

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Marshall starts with a structural nod to many classical epic poems that commence in medias res (mid action), resolving his opening, a series of helicopter shots of the Highlands that lay out the turf of the following action, and plunges deep into the one-time heart of darkness, zeroing in finally on a lone figure racing across a snowy ridge: Quintus, in his first flight from the Picts, bloodied and half-naked in an inimical landscape. Centurion plays loose with history: Agricola, who actually conquered most of Britain and defeated a large Caledonian army in a field battle, is transposed to the time of Hadrain, whose famous wall is depicted under construction in the film’s final phases, offered as a classical Green Zone. Moreover, the traditional belief that the Ninth Legion disappeared in Scotland, has been challenged by recent scholarship that shows it might have been met its end in Spain instead. Still, whilst it’s been much fictionalised—Rosemary Sutcliffe’s popular The Eagle of the Ninth novel series and its adaptation The Eagle (2011) also play with that contentious historical fillip—Marshall takes the legend a step further in suggesting the Legion’s vanishing from the history books was no accident, but a conspiracy perpetrated by Agricola and his fellow Roman bigwigs to cover up their own failure, a touch that happens to coincide nicely with the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib, and other suspicious travesties in Iraq. Moreover, whilst Centurion hardly slows for a breath, narrative-wise, Marshall paints a coherent vision of the past as present, with the polyglot of nationalities, economic conscripts, and continental refuse that was the Roman Army confronting a native enemy that resists with every tool at its disposal. Marshall interestingly casts European actors, like Thomsen and Kurylenko, as Picts, to emphasise that this historical land isn’t the same one as modern Scotland nor its people exactly the same, with only one Pict, the exiled “witch” Arianne (Imogen Poots), a woman stranded between cultures and a product of the middle ground, who has a modern Scots accent.

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Etain, on the other hand, has no voice, a trait that adds to the impression that she’s not entirely human anymore, but rather an animal mother in a human body, a beast that stalks Quintus in his dreams as well as in the primal forest. Etain’s savagery is revealed to be a Frankenstein creation of this invading force: forced to watch her father’s blinding and her mother’s gang rape by Roman soldiers as a young girl, and then being gang raped herself, Etain’s tongue was then cut out. Raised by Picts as an expert warrior and tracker, Etain is the personification of wrath against any force intruding upon a homeland, raw and mindless in antipathy but infinitely cunning in resistance. Kurylenko, since being stuck playing the most superfluous Bond girl in history in Quantum of Solace (2008), has evolved into one of the current film scene’s more interesting satellite stars, and here she brings a striking level of charisma and expressive intensity to Etain, displaying what Christopher Lee once said of playing Dracula, a silent, hypnotic power that can be the hardest kind of acting. Not that Etain, conceived with visual and attitudinal power, was ever going to be less than a striking figure: her compellingly atavistic visage, smeared in pancake white and daubed with streaks of blue woad, is the film’s obsessive, almost fetishistic refrain, laced with erotic appeal that blends weirdly with her completely inimical hate. Following Marshall’s recreation of Snake Plissken as a stoic one-eyed woman in Doomsday, Etain is an equally potent adversary. Marshall and Kurylenko imbue her with hints of masochism and distraught pain even as she’s committing horrendous acts, beheading a Roman she captures with a grimace as if she’s hacking a piece of herself off, and, after she kills Virilus, releasing an anguished scream of insatiable hate and unappeasable grief, her tongueless maw barking at the gods. As Arianne puts it, she has a soul that’s an empty vessel that can only be filled by Roman blood.

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Marshall is one of the few action-oriented directors at the moment really interested in female characters, usually mixing up the bag in allotting them good and evil parts, and the twinned poles of Etain and Arianne are joined by another Pictish warrior, the strident archer Aeron (Axelle Carolyn); indeed, between her and Etain the most formidable foes in the Pictish force are their women, whilst Agricola’s wife Druzilla (Rachael Stirling) proves an altogether different, but no less dangerous threat. Marshall offers a cheeky shot early in the film that confirms the link between his conquest-era Britons and Native Americans as pantheistic opponents of steely intrusive forces when Etain performs an ash-scattering ritual as tribute to ancestors before riding off with the Legion. She fulfills her mission as a sleeper agent to deliver the arrogant Romans into the best place for an ambush in a sequence where Marshall stretches his budget superbly with simple tricks and modern graphics. The imprint of Anthony Mann’s work on The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is particularly strong throughout Centurion: like Mann, Marshall sees the links between the Western and the classically set action drama. The sequence in which the Legion is attacked and wiped out evokes both the forest barbarian battle in Roman Empire and the attack on the British column in Last of the Mohicans.

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More fundamentally, like Mann, Marshall captures a sense of spiritual and psychological extremes in depicting the violent disparity between first and third worlds at a time when those worlds were much closer together geographically but even farther apart in everything else, a maddening clash of nascent civilisation intruding upon primordial places and peoples who are less “civilised” but no less human in both good and bad ways. One shot presents Etain presiding over the incineration of the legion’s eagle standard, a perfect visual encapsulation of the infernal results of the clash between nascent despotism and fringe ferocity. Marshall goes on to suggest the charged counterbalance of humane feeling and dark, extreme mysticism in his Scottish landscapes that is authentic to the quality of the nation’s mythology. In the course of Quintus and his team’s flight from the Picts, the scene moves from mist-shrouded woods to craggy, snow-crusted mountains to hazily beautiful spring morns at Arianne’s hut, a safe ground from the predations of war ironically because she lives in cursed isolation, the flooding rays of sunshine giving visual substance to the air of regenerative tranquillity around her.

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Marshall isn’t above some of the less pleasing flourishes of many modern directors, particularly his love of adolescently vivid, CGI-enhanced gore. Visions of pikes being shoved into groins, heads being cleaved in half, and spears entering mouths are not as gruelling as they sound, largely more amusing in effect than sickening, and that’s actually the problem. But that’s really neither here nor there in a story that races with the verve and spunk of a classic drive-in flick whilst mixing with a genre more associated with grand scale production and pretence. And, indeed, Marshall’s delight in brute force is conjoined with his work’s vivacity and fierce, new-fashioned, balls-and-all attitude. Marshall plays some deft games, in a manner that’s becoming a distinct trait of his when it comes to apportioning empathy and thematic emphasis. He doesn’t romanticise either the honourably turf-defending, but feral and brutal Picts or the rapacious, war-loving Romans, viewing each as competing varieties of the same thing. That the lost Roman survivors, except for the conscientious, morally probing Quintus, are finally the heroes is only because of their assailed, outnumbered desperation. His company comes to include the psychopathic Thax, Indian-via-Syria Tarak (Riz Ahmed), North African runner Macros (Noel Clarke), cleaver-wielding Greek cook Leonidas (Dimitri Leonidas), and the lumpen Roman duo of Bothos (Neil Morrissey) and grizzled vet Brick (Liam Cunningham). The latter’s name proves to be sourced in a Latin pun, with Marshall’s sneaky sensibility nascent here, as Brick turns out to be is short for “Ubriculius,” aka, testicles. Quintus is dubbed the band’s centurion, after being left in command, a responsibility to which he rises, but not without qualm: as the son of a freed gladiator, he aspires to be a model soldier but has never entirely escaped his outsider status. When he and his team run away from Gorlacon’s city, all they can take with them is Virilus’ helmet. One of the men hands it to him sarcastically as he gives orders; Quintus leaves in a shrine.

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The Romans hardly prove an infinitely resourceful band of brothers: many of the remaining men die with stunning rapidity in spite of their individual qualities. After performing a regulation adventure movie stunt of leaping from a high cliff into a frigid river, most of the men flounder out together, but Macros and Thax are separated and finish up forging their way across open heaths chased by wolves. Thax sneakily cuts Macros’ Achilles tendon, leaving his fellow soldier as dog meat to ensure his own survival, in a nasty spin on that old joke about the man who puts on his sneakers to outrun not the lion but his friend. Only Quintus, Brick, and Bothos, who’s been wounded in the leg, remain of the original force when they come across Arianne, who gives them food and shelter. She saves the men by hiding them when Etain and her party arrive on the hunt, with Arianne almost getting her throat cut by Etain for facing down her malevolence with truculent wit: “Cat got your tongue?” Ardour sparks between her and Quintus, but the film’s most intimate moment actually comes when Brick apologises to Arianne for not trusting her, and the ever–terrific Cunningham is particularly good in this moment as he offers, “I’m sorry I misjudged you…there it is.” When the trio take their leave, Quintus leaves behind a carved horse in a pose of delicately artful expression that doubles as his memento for her, concluding a sequence that’s closer in spirit to Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) than Seven Samurai (1954).

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The terrific final battle between the Roman runaways and the Picts takes place in another familiar trope of adventure sagas, a remote fort that proves tragically deserted when the trio reach it—one almost expects the Romans to find Gary Cooper in there—because Agricola has ordered a general retreat to the new walled frontier. Unable to run any further, they set the fort up for a confrontation and successfully pick off several of Etain’s warriors, including Aeron, before she charges in for a frantic duel with Quintus, finally pitting native speed against gladiatorial art. Brick dies, but not after going out in the most badass way possible, skewering his opponent at the last breath by pushing the spear lodged in his own chest right through. Quintus finally defeats Etain, but only by the narrowest of margins, and her death comes across, aptly, like being put out of her misery.

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Victory segues into despair in a cynical final movement strongly reminiscent of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fondness for last-act bastardry and some ’70s epics of dark revelry. Thax rejoins the surviving pair, but as Quintus lets slip his realisation that Thax killed Gorlacon’s son, Thax and he finish up fighting to the death, whilst Bothos is killed by snipers on the wall as he rides shouting toward it. Quintus kills Thax, but is left to despairingly cart Bothos’ body into Roman lines. Even once he’s safe, fate hasn’t finished twisting for Quintus, because, in order to save his reputation, Agricola lets his wife set up an attempt to kill him. Quintus survives again, but, badly injured, now has to flee again into the forest. Marshall closes the film with an aptly ouroboros-like flourish with Quintus’ admonition that “this is neither the beginning nor the end of my tale,” as he finds his way back to Arianne, cut off from his homeland. Yet the tale of Quintus’ struggle hardly suggests surrender to the dark forces, but the start of something else, with the distinct suggestion he and Arianne will found another tribe to inhabit British soil and invent the future. Either way, Centurion is a curt, rowdy, rousing gem and proof that the adventure film tradition hasn’t been entirely trammelled in the age of the blockbuster, whilst the class of the old can mesh with the vigour of the new.


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