Monday, 21 August 2017

Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling (Tachyon Publications) | review by Stephen Theaker

This novella tells an alternate history story based on the anarcho-syndicalist republic that was declared in the formerly Italian city of Fiume, a city where “there were more great world causes to fight about than there were men to represent them”, that was to become part of Yugoslavia after the first world war. In our reality the republic fell after fifteen months, but in this story a clever and capable engineer, Lorenzo Secondari, having been revived from death by a medical experimenter’s “psychically advanced séance”, arrives in the city in time to get its weapons factories up and running again. They had been taken over by female workers, including the formidable Frau Fifer, who becomes a companion of Secondari. As a result of his successes, Secondari rises to become “Minister of Vengeance Weapons”, the original title of Pirate Engineer being rejected as not quite right. Eventually Harry Houdini shows up, a secret ambassador from the United States, accompanied by Robert Howard and a surprisingly chipper H.P. Lovecraft. I really liked one bit of dialogue from Secondari, when he says, “I don’t have to believe any more, because it’s the truth!” I’ve often thought that when someone says they believe in a thing, that can be a sign that they don’t think it’s actually true (or at least isn’t true yet), whether they realise that or not. I enjoyed the book while finding it a bit hard to get to grips with, much like Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius and Oswald Bastable books. The book also contains an introduction by Warren Ellis, an interview with Bruce Sterling, a useful afterword by Christopher Brown, and a note by the cover artist, all of which, while interesting and often educational, does make you wish the story itself was a bit longer. ****

Annabelle: Creation | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Well-choreographed scares without the long wait.

Watching Annabelle: Creation, the latest installment in The Conjuring (2013) universe, is kind of like going to an amusement park with thrill rides. While you’re waiting in line, not much is happening. These are typically the scenes in which characters are talking. But then, there are the times when you experience the exhilaration of the ride. In this film, directed by David F. Sandberg, it’s when you’re looking into a dark space, focusing on an inanimate figure, or hiding with a character as something approaches. At both the park and the theater, the overall experience depends on how long the lines are. Fortunately, unlike its immediate predecessor Annabelle (2014) and more like The Conjuring, the pre-prequel Annabelle: Creation doesn’t make one wait long to get on the rides . . . and there are quite a few.

The film takes place in the mid-1950s. Twelve years after their daughter Bee dies, doll maker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his bedridden wife Esther (Miranda Otto) allow a group of orphaned girls and Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) to take up residence in their rural home. The girls find Bee’s creepy-looking doll Annabelle, which was crafted by Samuel. The majority of Annabelle: Creation consists of the girls, especially the physically disabled Janice and her friend Linda, wandering the home and getting freaked out.

Most of the film’s attempts at character-driven drama and relationship exploration end up rather dull and clichéd. For instance, Sister Charlotte takes Janice’s confession, or Janice and Linda engage in overly mature dialogue about how they’re looking out for each other. One exception is LaPaglia’s Samuel Mullins, the tight-lipped bereaved father. In one scene, his attempt to bond with Janice shows how insensitive and volatile he is. In another, he stops outside the girls’ bedroom and, hammer in hand, stares at them for a bit too long.

But all this is no more than a means to pass from one scare scene to the next. That the entire story takes place at one homestead testifies to the filmmakers’ skills—they know how to tweak lighting, prop placement, and sound (or absence of it) to keep the viewer on edge. Though this film does not instill the lasting terror of some of the last couple decades’ scariest pictures, its abundance of jump scares may evoke more screams.

In one strong scene, Linda shoots a ball connected to a string into a dark room, then reels back the ball. Later, the camera focuses on a scarecrow with a burlap sack head while the lights slowly turn off and on. And there are plenty of lingering shots of Annabelle. She is wide-eyed, pigtailed, and rosy-cheeked. She is also wicked disturbing. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Read Douglas’s review of The Conjuring or The Boy (2016), another recommended film in the creepy doll subgenre.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Metronome by Oliver Langmead (Unsung Stories) | review by Stephen Theaker

William Manderlay, an elderly man living in a care home, meets a Sleepwalker, March, a hunter of nightmares, in one of his dreams. March lends William his special dream compass, and tells him to go to the Capital of dreams, to chill out while March gets on with clearing out the bad dreams that are infesting his noggin. As well as helping him find his way, the compass can show whether people he meets in this world are other dreamers or just figments. Unfortunately, he runs into June, another Sleepwalker who wants to get to Solomon’s Eye, whatever that is, and for that purpose she needs a copy of the songs that William never got around to recording for his big hit album. They will provide her with directions. Eventually William gets involved in a rival quest, on board the Metronome, a clockwork-powered flying craft whose captain is willing to take him in pursuit of those stolen songs, because they happen to be the map to the centre of the storm where she lost the rest of her crew. This a nicely written piece of work, with plenty of ideas and a beautiful cover, but it didn’t really excite me. It feels unfair to say that I feel like I’ve read plenty of airship stories now, when I wouldn’t say the same thing about car stories or spaceship stories, but some of the beats did feel quite familiar from books like Empress of the Sun and Clementine. The portrayal of William in his old age is very touching, as his reaction to finding himself increasingly youthful again in the course of the dream quest. It was pleasant enough, and I’m sure there are people out there who will be more in tune with it than I was. ***

Monday, 7 August 2017

Letters to Arkham: The Letters of Ramsey Campbell and August Derleth, 1961–1971, edited by S.T. Joshi (PS Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker

This book collects the correspondence (or so much of it as remains) from the 1960s between the prolific writer and editor August Derleth and the young Ramsey Campbell. The latter would go on to be a titan of the horror world, and the former already was, his publishing of H.P. Lovecraft’s work in hardback having done a great deal to cement that writer’s reputation. The letters are often fascinating. Campbell, fifteen at first, is importunate, full of questions – reminding us that this was a time when you couldn’t simply look things up on the internet – a virgin, somewhat testy and defensive. August Derleth, much older, is sexually omnivorous, patronising, encouraging, and exceedingly free with his opinions. One thing I had noted reading Derleth’s pastoral Sac Prairie Journal immediately before this is that August Derleth’s romantic life is completely absent from its pages, and these letters make it obvious why: he was having it off with whoever he could! Given that the letters are remarkably revealing, it’s a credit to Ramsey Campbell and to the literary estate of August Derleth that their publication was allowed. That the book would be edited by Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi must have helped in that regard, and he provides very useful footnotes to the letters, supplying information about everything from incorrect film titles (there is a great deal of film chat) to whether planned titles from both writers were ever published, and if so in what form and under what titles. One of their favourite topics of conversation is films, and reading the book now, when so much of cinema’s rich history is available for a few pounds and a couple of clicks, it’s almost shaming to see the lengths to which the two of them go to watch really good films, travelling for hours to get to a particular cinema on the one night that film would be shown. Since reading the book I’ve certainly been making more of an effort to watch better quality films. It’s essential reading for fans of either writer, and very interesting reading for everyone else. ****

Friday, 4 August 2017

X-Men: Legacy by Simon Spurrier, Tan Eng Huat and chums (Marvel) | review by Stephen Theaker

This twenty-four issue series, which ran from 2012 to 2014 and is available in its entirety to subscribers on Marvel Unlimited, as well as in four collections, tells the story of David Haller, the son of Professor Charles Xavier and an Israeli diplomat. He is known to the world at large as Legion, and though he isn’t keen on that name (he’d be really annoyed that it’s the title of the new television show based on the comic), it accurately reflects his powers: like Crazy Jane of the Doom Patrol, he has many split personalities, each of them with its own powers.

When he’s in control, he can use those powers. When they’re in control, the results can be disastrous. This series begins at the point in Avengers vs X-Men when something terrible happens to Professor Xavier at the hands of one of his friends, and that totally shatters David’s control, as well as giving rise to a malignant and powerful new personality that resembles his father. Over the course of the comic David will try to re-establish control of his own mind, take a pre-emptive approach to mutant hate crimes, start astral dating Blindfold of the X-Men, and try to prevent an apocalyptic prophecy of his future from coming true.

It’s interesting to see Marvel trying something like this. It is a bit like the original Vertigo comics – Shade the Changing Man, say – both in tone, and style, and in that a lot of the stories stem from David’s own problems in keeping his powers in check; if he’s not the big bad in each story, there’s always the danger that he might be. The television programme will probably need to be less all about him, but it worked well for the comic. ***



This review originally appeared in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #59, which also included stories by Rafe McGregor, Michael Wyndham Thomas, Jessy Randall, Charles Wilkinson, David Penn, Elaine Graham-Leigh and Chris Roper.

Monday, 31 July 2017

I Am Providence, by Nick Mamatas (Night Shade Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

A horror book, or maybe literary horror fantasy. Lovecraftian fans, critics and writers gather in Providence, Rhode Island, at a hotel for a convention, the Summer Tentacular. To me it sounded very reminiscent of the first FantasyCons I attended (i.e. lots of blokes, lots of names familiar from the internet, and lots of people trying to sell their books; here, we almost immediately meet a chap hawking Madness of the Death Sun – which sounds great), while to newcomer Colleen Danzig it resembles a large Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, “except instead of alcoholism the attendees had all sorts of other, subtler problems”. Some of those people feel very familiar, but even if you aren’t well enough acquainted with that particular scene to identify the people being parodied, you get the gist of why someone would want to parody them. We have two point of view characters – Panossian, an older writer who gets himself murdered, and Colleen, who wants to investigate his murder – and chapters alternate between them. The dead (or “posthumously conscious” as he puts it) man tells his story in the first person, and his view of this environment soured long before he was killed there. Fandom is the social network of last resort, he says. Lovecraftians are a bunch of misfits and social defectives. Literary critics and fans are two of the more ridiculous sets of people in the world. Ambition is a hell. And he admits to having been a jerk to a lot of people – a lot of very mentally unstable people. Asked for his thoughts on writing, his answer is, “Generally, I’m against it.” He’s rather brilliant and very entertaining, much like the book itself. ****

Friday, 28 July 2017

Princess Jellyfish 01, by Akiko Higashimura (Kodansha) | review by Stephen Theaker

This 388pp manga collects episodes one to twelve in the story of an unhappily single Japanese woman, Tsukimi, and the geeky friends with whom she lives, and how her life changes completely when she meets a very glamorous young man. It’s rather like The Big Bang Theory in reverse. She calls herself a fujoshi, which means (rather nastily) rotten woman – a woman who follows her enthusiasms rather than trying to fulfil her expected role as a mother or wife. There’s no magical or fantastical element in this book, it turned out; it’s called Princess Jellyfish because she is a jellyfish geek (a phase the author talks about going through herself in the biographical comments). That’s what gets her talking to her gorgeous new friend: he brings his stylishness to bear in helping her save a dying jellyfish in a pet shop, just as later he will try to save Tsukimi and her friends from losing their home to property development. He’s the first boy she’s talked to since elementary school, and what gets her over that barrier at first is that she doesn’t realise he’s a boy: he likes to dress as a girl. It’s a sweet and romantic comic, with an adorable lead character and likeable love interests, and it’s an eye-opening portrayal of gender fluidity in Japanese culture. The backgrounds are sketchy, but the character artwork is highly expressive . Unfortunately, at the publisher’s choice, this Comixology edition can only be viewed a full page at a time (described as “Manga Fixed Format”). Not a problem on a tablet, but you’d struggle to read it on your phone. ***

Monday, 24 July 2017

The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred by Greg Egan (Subterranean Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

In this tense science fiction novella, there is strife on Vesta. Back when the colony was first being established, each of the founding families contributed different resources. Problem is, attitudes to private ownership of intellectual property have changed so much since then that the family that bought into the project with its patents and inventions is now regarded by some as having stolen its share, and a proposal to have them pay it back is, unthinkably, passed, with 52% voting in favour. Some put up with this discrimination, some decide to fight back, and some flee, either in passenger ships, or if the security forces are after them, via a space age underground railroad to Ceres, drugged, half-frozen, and hitching a ride on a rock slab. All of this will put Anna, only a week or so into her new job, in an impossible position, when a cruiser, the Arcas, is sent in pursuit of fugitives. It feels like a long short story rather than a short novel, but I enjoyed it very much, and it is of course remarkably topical, in that we too are experiencing what happens when a substantial minority of the populace is railroaded by a narrow popular vote rooted in prejudice and selfishness and hatred. The book does a terrific job of showing how that can happen, and how shocking it can be when it does. ***

Monday, 17 July 2017

The Cthulhu Casebooks: Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows by James Lovegrove (Titan Books) | review by Rafe McGregor

I’ve recently made several comments on the evolution of Sherlock Holmes from the cold criminal investigator who calmly rejected supernatural explanations of even the most outré circumstances created by Conan Doyle to a character who is probably most accurately called an occult detective in the twenty-first century. In my review of Sherlock: The Abominable Bride in TQF55, I mentioned that Holmes and several others who cross the threshold of 221b Baker Street are more akin to superheroes and supervillains, giving the series very much of a fantasy feel, and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011) was served with a deliciously strong steampunk sauce. I recently responded to an article in The Conversation on the decline in the popularity of Doctor Who by noting that Doctor Who and Sherlock have become increasingly close in the last couple of decades and Steven Moffat is one of many writers who have written either official novels or screenplays for both the doctor and the detective. In my review of Simon Kurt Unsworth’s The Devil’s Detective in TQF56, I mentioned “the many failed and few successful attempts to combine Sherlock Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos” of late, and the subject of this review is James Lovegrove’s contribution to precisely that subgenre – a contribution that is by and large successful. The subgenre was launched with Michael Reeves and John Pelan’s Shadows Over Baker Street: New Tales of Terror! in 2003. Re-reading my somewhat scathing review in TQF24, I stand by most of what I wrote (though not my dismissal of Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald”). One of my main criticisms of this volume was that there had been little or no effort to recreate the atmosphere of Victorian or Edwardian London in most of the stories. The shadows are, after all, over Baker Street, not Angell Street or Clinton Street. James Lovegrove’s shadows are, as his title suggests, in Shadwell (the district between Whitechapel and Limehouse), and he has paid close attention to both the historical setting and the original Holmes stories such that the few anachronistic turns of phrase he uses are insufficient to distract the reader. It’s the relationship between old and new where Lovegrove’s contribution to literary pastiche is revealed at its most ambitious and most promising.

His intention is that the three volumes of which this is the first will “effectively rewrite the Holmes canon”, peeling back the illusion of detection to reveal the reality of the Mythos. As such, Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows begins in a similar manner to A Study in Scarlet, with Watson returning from Afghanistan with more mental than physical damage and meeting Holmes through Stamford. The location is not the Long Bar of the Criterion, however, but an unnamed public house in Limehouse which is a haven for illegal gambling, bare-knuckle boxing, cock-fighting, and prostitution. Holmes and Watson meet by making independent attempts to assist Stamford when he falls foul of a pimp and his henchman. Stamford flees in the ensuing fracas and it emerges that he is an opium addict and a suspect in a series of murders. The murders have been linked by Holmes but not Scotland Yard in that the victims are all of the unlikely-to-be-missed (in Victorian England) variety and appear to have been starved to death. Stamford quickly removes himself from play – after being found wandering the streets while raving about the Old Ones – committing suicide in a particularly gruesome manner. Lovegrove’s writing is crisp and clean, lacking the laboured quality characteristic of so much pastiche and the narrative is fast-paced, more of a thriller than a mystery, but none the worse for it. Indeed, Lovegrove’s Holmes and Watson are somewhat reminiscent of Ritchie’s and his portrayal of Watson as a physically adept ex-soldier is particularly pleasing. The trail of the case quickly leads to Stamford’s employer, a Chinese immigrant by the name of Gong-Fen who runs an opium empire in Limehouse. At Gong-Fen’s bidding and under the influence of a cocktail of narcotics, Holmes undertakes a dream-quest where the existence of the world of the Elder Gods and Outer Gods is revealed to him. On his return to Baker Street, Watson discloses the truth of his experiences in Afghanistan and the cause of his wound. At the mid-point in the narrative, Gong-Fen, Holmes, and Watson are attacked by what appears to be the shadows of the title. This unequivocal manifestation of the supernatural in the present of the story, which is both gripping and otherworldly, marks the point of no return from crime to horror. The incident takes Holmes and Watson to the second layer of the puzzle, Gong-Fen’s employer, whom they find following researches at the British Library, and thence to the Mythos itself, with a climactic battle underneath St Paul’s Church in Shadwell.

My only real criticism comes compliments of Lovegrove himself. The novel is preceded by both an author’s preface (where he employs a conceit based on the similarity of his own surname to Lovecraft’s) and a fictional foreword by Watson and concludes with a brief epilogue in which Watson, writing in 1928, provides a teaser for the next instalment (due for publication in November this year), Sherlock Holmes and the Miskatonic Monstrosities. The first novel is set in 1880, the second in 1895, and the third (Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea Devils, due for publication in 2018) in 1910. If Lovegrove is indeed reinventing Doyle’s canon – and I think reinvention is the key to successful pastiche – then he needs to do a little more than rewrite the meeting of Holmes and Watson. Given that this volume is supposed to tide us over until 1895, it covers the first two novellas and the first two collections of short stories but alludes to very few of the incidents or characters with which readers are familiar. Lovegrove has Watson explain that he wrote “one sort of story [detection] to deflect attention from another [horror], which strays into realms most ordinary people are incognisant of and are all the better off in their ignorance”. Granted, but if the canon is being rewritten as opposed to Holmes and Watson simply undertaking an alternative set of adventures, then there needs to be a little more explanation or demonstration of the relation between Lovegrove’s reinvention and Doyle’s canon. Why, for example, did Watson write the particular stories that comprise The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes rather than others? What happened in the reality of the Mythos that caused him to draw this particular veil of detection over it? If it weren’t for Lovegrove’s preface, this expectation would not exist, but it does exist and remains unrewarded at this point in the trilogy. Notwithstanding, the novel is an entertaining and accomplished contribution to the occult detective genre and an original and ambitious contribution to the Holmes and Mythos subgenre.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Nominations for the British Fantasy Awards 2017

The British Fantasy Awards nominees have been announced for 2017, and it's the first time since 2012 that our magazine and its contents have been eligible, thanks to me stepping down as awards administrator last September.

Sadly, though, fate did not hear our call, and we did not receive any nominations, although I do contribute on average a page per issue to one of the best magazine nominees, Interzone, edited by the apparently tireless Andy Cox, so I'll be celebrating that while the rest of the TQF team weep into their teacups. Andy's equally fine Black Static, to which I occasionally contribute a review (albeit not last year), also received a nomination.

The other magazine nominated was Uncanny Magazine, a first-time nominee which I haven't read, but which looks very interesting. There are also first-time nominations in this category for Tor.com and Ginger Nuts of Horror, both websites which don't style themselves as magazines or periodicals – they don't publish in issues, for example – so it's a bit of a surprise to see them on the list. But the BFAs often follow the voters' heads in this kind of thing: see for example how the best small press award morphed over the years from being an award for small press publications to being an award for the small presses themselves.

The full list of nominees is here. Congratulations to all of them!

Scroll down to the bottom and you'll see that I'm a juror on the best comic/graphic novel category, and the work for that kicked off when we were appointed on June 24. I was glad to find I'd already read 29 graphic novels and comics collections from the relevant year, and I read another dozen or so highly-recommended books in the course of us deciding whether to add egregious omissions to the list. In the end, we added two to the four put forward by the voters of the British Fantasy Society and FantasyCon. Now I'm reading and re-reading all the nominees, but I know already that it's going to be a very tough decision.

Not going to say much about the other categories, since there's a lot of overlap between juries, so I might be seen as having inside information about the juries I'm not on. (I don't – I didn't even know my fellow comics jurors were on a couple of other juries, or that my all-male jury wasn't the only one, until yesterday's announcement.) It does seem a bit of a shame that the best horror novel, best fantasy novel and best artist juries decided not to add any items to their shortlists, given all the work out there deserving of awards recognition, but maybe the jurors were deadlocked on what to add.

A Wizard's Henchman was my favourite book of last year, so I'd hoped it might get a nomination in best fantasy novel. I'd also had hopes for Glen Weldon's The Caped Crusade in best non-fiction and A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson in best novella, and it was a big surprise to see that Central Station by Lavie Tidhar didn't make the best collection list – perhaps its votes were split between people voting for it as a novel, and people voting for it as a collection?

If I'm not picking out my favourite works from female writers there, that's because they made the shortlists: overall nine of the thirty-nine items I voted for made it on, a pretty good batting average! It's definitely worth using all of your votes. The plan is for winners to be announced at FantasyCon 2017, in Peterborough. Memberships of the convention and tickets for the awards banquet are available here. Good luck to everyone!

Friday, 14 July 2017

A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com) | review by Stephen Theaker

An interesting and romantic novella, in which Aqib, a young and good-looking member of the Olorumi minor nobility with a special way with animals, falls for a rough soldier from the Daluçan embassy. Forbidden and sweaty things happen, to their mutual delight, but it is important to his family that he makes the right marriage, and so when the opportunity for one arises he must choose between love and duty, happiness and family. As the story progresses we are also shown episodes from progressively deeper into his future life, placing ever more weight upon the decision he will have to make. This was a very well-written, exciting and romantic book; the relationships of Aqib with both his lover and his other significant other are tender and believable. Using an extremely famous literary title for another book always seems a bit odd (see also Signal to Noise and Journal of the Plague Year), but the story works hard to justify it. A word for the evocative cover art: fantasy and science fiction book covers often feature great design, but it’s brilliant to see that not every publisher has given up on illustrative artwork. ****

Monday, 10 July 2017

Sherlock, Series 4, by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (BBC One) | review by Rafe McGregor

Like Conan Doyle, who famously tired of his creation, the BBC seem curiously reluctant to represent Sherlock Holmes on the small screen. Compare Sherlock, which began in 2010, with CBS’s Elementary, which began in 2012: the former has a total of thirteen episodes across four seasons (I’ll use the American term to distinguish an individual season from the series as a whole); the latter is, at the time of writing, in its fifth season and will have aired a total of 109 episodes by the time this review is in print. In addition to the British tendency to disguise mini-series as series, writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat seem intent on frustrating our enjoyment of the Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Watson) partnership in a way that Robert Doherty does not with Jonny Lee Miller (Holmes) and Lucy Liu (Watson) in Elementary. Season 1 ended with Holmes and Watson about to blow up, season 2 with Holmes’ faked suicide leaving Watson bereft, and season 3 with Holmes exiled to certain death. Ominously, the final episode of season 4 is called “The Final Problem” and it is telling that Doyle’s story of the same name – his half-hearted attempt to kill off Holmes after 26 episodes – is the only original case to have inspired two of the TV adaptations.

In my review of Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (the 2016 Special, which bridged the gap between seasons 3 and 4) in TQF55, I was clear that the conclusion of Holmes’ drug-fuelled investigation is that, whatever appearances to the contrary, Moriarty is dead. I’m pleased to say I was right. Moriarty is dead and he did commit suicide in the finale of season 2, “The Reichenbach Fall”. Season 3 was Moriarty-free and the overarching plot across the three episodes was the discovery of the real identity of Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington), whom Watson married in “The Sign of Three”, interwoven with Holmes’ struggle against Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), a very nasty blackmailer of people in high and low places. The third season ended with “His Last Vow” (based on the Conan Doyle story “Charles Augustus Milverton” rather than “His Last Bow” as the title suggests), where Holmes was sent on a suicide mission to Eastern Europe in lieu of standing trial for the murder of Magnussen. The episode finished with Moriarty (Andrew Scott) apparently returning from the dead, being broadcast on every television screen in the UK and asking “Did you miss me?” The Special began with Holmes being recalled only a few minutes after his exile and its purpose was to confirm Moriarty’s death and establish his revenge as posthumous. Most of the Special takes place inside Holmes’ Mind Palace (AKA his drug-addled brain for this case) so the time elapsed between the end of season 3 and the start of season 4 is a matter of days rather than the three years the tormented audience has had to wait. Once Holmes reassures the authorities that Moriarty is dead, his murder of Magnussen is covered up, and he is reinstalled in Baker Street to await the unfolding of Moriarty’s retribution.

The three episodes in the season all take their titles from original stories – “The Six Thatchers” (“The Six Napoleons”), “The Lying Detective” (“The Dying Detective”) and “The Final Problem” – and succeed in both paying homage to them and creatively reinventing them for viewers who have and have not read them. Following the segue from the Special to season 4, “The Six Thatchers” sees Moriarty’s machinations fade into the background as a link emerges between two of Holmes’ new cases. The focus of the episode is actually Mary’s past catching up with her (she was a freelance military contractor who worked for the CIA and the British government amongst others). Mary decides to leave John and their child for safety’s sake and is persuaded to return by Holmes. The episode ends with Watson blaming Holmes for the consequences and demanding that he never darken his door again. Watson’s reaction is completely unfair, but provides the writers with an opportunity to deprive audiences of the beloved partnership without the threat of death to one or both of them (par for the course by now).

The series as a whole has been a mix of crime, fantasy, horror, and humour, but took a sinister turn after the confrontation with a really unsettling villain in Magnussen. The events of the first episode and the Holmes-Watson rift that results set an even grimmer tone for “The Lying Detective”. The villain of the piece, millionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Culverton Smith (Toby Jones, whose performance inspires a perfectly-pitched combination of fear and disgust) makes Magnussen pale in comparison. In fact, after Magnussen and Smith one begins to wonder what all the fuss about Moriarty was. The case becomes a descent into hell for Holmes and his return to excessive drug use following Watson’s departure is employed as a device to blur the line between reality and hallucination, giving the story a surreal edge that marks the change from fantasy to horror for the last two episodes of the season. I was completely gripped and saw the episode as the highlight of season 4, although I wasn’t surprised to see it was the least popular – it is very dark in tone and Toby Jones’ Smith may be too much for many viewers. I do wonder, however, if Holmes’ drug addiction hasn’t become definitive of the character in a way that marks a complete departure from the original. Holmes’ occasional use of cocaine and morphine were only mentioned a handful of times by Doyle and were indicative of his desire for mental stimulation rather than addiction. They were also introduced at a time when both drugs could be bought over the counter in department stores. In contrast, Miller’s Holmes is a recovering heroin addict and Cumberbatch’s Holmes an addict in denial. I also wonder if Cumberbatch’s Holmes doesn’t glamorise drug abuse. Unlike Miller, whose day-to-day battle with heroin makes his life more-than-miserable, Cumberbatch emerges from his binges with barely a hair out of place.

“The Lying Detective” ends with the revelation that the third Holmes child, to which there has been previous allusion, is a sister rather than a brother and that she – Eurus (Sian Brooke) – is the instrument of Moriarty’s revenge. “The Final Problem” sees Holmes and Watson not only reunited, but joined by Mycroft (writer Mark Gatiss) in a Freudian excavation of the shared childhood traumas of the Holmeses. Eurus is a psychopath who shares the superhuman skills of her brothers and has spent most of her adult life in a maximum security prison on an island off the English coast. Mycroft allowed Moriarty to meet Eurus and when Holmes and Watson arrive on the island they find the tables turned and the inmate running the asylum. Eurus sets the brothers, Watson, and the prison governor a series of tasks to achieve in order to survive and the narrative is nothing short of harrowing, maintaining the grim atmosphere of the previous episode. The plot is quite similar to the final episode of season 1, “The Great Game”, but this is to be expected given that both involve Moriarty’s prolonged torture of Holmes. As there is currently much speculation about a fifth season it is no spoiler to say that the episode (and season and probably series as well) ends with Holmes and Watson back in practice in Baker Street.

There is no little irony here. Holmes is now free of the three supervillains that have dominated each season and he and Watson can, well, just get on with solving crimes and stuff (plus a bit of child-rearing, let’s not forget baby-Watson). Indeed, the ending is reminiscent of the first story in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, “The Empty House”, which sees a miraculously resurrected Holmes and conveniently widowed Watson set up shop once again, ready to resume business for another 33 episodes over the next 24 years. In a strange way, then, Sherlock ends where Elementary begins. The American series has been far less concerned with overarching plots and links between episodes than the British one and this, combined with the American focus on crime rather than fantasy or horror, has made it more rather than less faithful to the original stories, despite appearances to the contrary. Given the predilection of Gatiss and Moffat for frustrating the desires they have stimulated, I feel I can almost guarantee that the only season that does not end with the Cumberbatch-Freeman partnership teetering on the brink will be the last. At least there are 25 episodes of season 5 of Elementary to ease my withdrawal…

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Spectral, by George Nolfi (Netflix) | review by Stephen Theaker

James Badge Dale (24, The Pacific) here plays Clyne, a character quite similar to the chap he played in the underwatched spy show Rubicon. There he was an extremely intelligent analyst who grew concerned about the patterns he was beginning to see, and he stayed for the most part in his office. Here, on the other hand, he is an extremely intelligent engineer who gets pulled away from his usual work at a DARPA lab to address a problem in the field. There is a civil war in Moldova, at some point in what appears to be the near future, and American peacekeepers on the ground have been seeing things through the special goggles he created: spectral things. And now the things have started to kill, leaving victims flash frozen. Once there, he meets CIA analyst Emily Mortimer and chap in charge Bruce Greenwood, and applies himself to the job. He confirms that whatever they are, they aren’t glitches in his goggles, just in time for a massive surge in their numbers. As the city falls to their attack, Clyne must work with the surviving troops to track the spectrals to their source. This is a really good little film, with an excellent cast, sort of what you might expect the Syfy channel to produce if they weren’t pumping out deliberate rubbish (enjoyable as that can sometimes be). It’s directed very nicely by Nic Mathieu, and could easily have justified itself as a cinema release, although you know that if it had been, bigger stars would probably have been cast, their pay packets requiring the movie to be more of a traditional blockbuster, and it wouldn’t have been the same. It never feels cheap (it feels not unlike a big budget Asian film), the spectrals have a interesting origin, and James Badge Dale makes a very likeable lead. It’s great that the economics of Netflix made a film like this possible, and I hope there’s more of the kind to come. ***

The Drowning Eyes, by Emily Foster (Tor.com) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Windspeakers, weird weather wizards who have their eyes replaced with stones in order to gain control of their powers, have been attacked by the marauding Dragon Ships, and the seas are no longer safe. This means less work for sailors, since no one wants to travel. Chaqal, Tazir and Kodin, who sail on the good ship Giggling Goat, have found a job: Shina, a rich young woman who seems to be on the run from her family. They might be overcharging for their services, but she has secrets of her own, and they are all going to get in much more trouble than expected. Being a fan of short books in general, I like the Tor.com series of ebook novellas, not least for their diversity and for having original artwork on the covers (Cynthia Sheppard provides the art for this one), and this is another fine example. It does feel like more of a novella than a short novel, covering for the main part just one journey, though it is an important one with serious consequences for their passenger. The ebook has a slightly annoying quirk – at least on Kindle, each incidence of italics is followed by a line break – but that wasn’t anywhere near enough to spoil my enjoyment of a very entertaining book about a dashing group of characters. ***

Monday, 3 July 2017

The Mummy | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Just leave your brain at the door and enjoy it. 

When Tom Cruise takes on a role, no matter what it is, he’s going to put his all into it—his characters are believable. In less capable hands, The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman, could have been lifeless. Instead, we get a likable protagonist who smiles and sprints his way through (as Cruise so often does) a solid action film wrapped in all the creepy-crawlies, monsters, grand displays of destruction, and narrow escapes for which the most entertaining entries in the Mummy canon are known.

Adventure-seeking American soldier Nick Morton (Cruise) has a weakness for treasure hunting. He has zero interest in the cultural/historical value of the “antiquities” he seeks. So when he and fellow soldier Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) unwittingly discover the crypt of mummified Egyptian princess/murderess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) in northern Iraq, they’re only interested in the valuables that surround it. But bossy archeologist Dr Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), a sexual conquest of Morton’s, understands the momentousness of the find. Alas, the crypt isn’t so much a burial site as it is a prison for Ahmanet, who made a pact with Egyptian god of disorder and violence Set, then killed her entire family so that she would gain power. Nice lady. The trio sets out to move the mummy to London. Mistake. Ahmanet chooses Morton to be the vessel for the return of Set, with whom she will take over the world.

Morton and Halsey, in their quest to stop Ahmanet—Morton refers to her as “the chick in the box”—confront a series of challenges ranging from an underwater chase featuring the reanimated corpses of Crusaders to a massive sandstorm in the middle of modern-day London. Morton also deals with an internal struggle—is he a completely self-absorbed a-hole or is he willing to make sacrifices for Halsey and others?

Russell Crowe’s professorial Dr Jekyll brings an amusingly unnecessary element to the film. Not only does Jekyll inject himself with a giant hypodermic to keep his monster at bay, but he also makes certain to show everyone in the room. The critics scoff, but the aficionados of grandiosity rejoice. And though this Jekyll has vowed to protect the world by eliminating evil, we all know he has a dark side. This is the type of film that demands it comes out.

To those who were disappointed in the film, one must ask—what did you expect? An Oscar-worthy drama? A groundbreaking fantasy film? What I expected was action, silliness, and the Cruise charisma. And that’s what I got. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

The Man in the High Castle, Season 2, by Frank Spotnitz and friends (Amazon Video) | review by Rafe McGregor

Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) is one of the most disappointing books I’ve ever read and it’s no spoiler to say that the novel simply doesn’t end. It’s not even as if Dick deliberately withheld closure to fascinate or frustrate his readers, but more a case of found himself in a narrative corner from which he saw no escape, stopped writing, and moved on to the next project. He could have used a disappointing device like that employed by Sarban (the nom de plume of John William Wall) in his similarly dystopian The Sound of His Horn (1952) or declined to publish, but left what I suppose is a rare artefact in itself, an unfinished novel published during an author’s lifetime. What is even more baffling is that it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1962. The work is of course rich in Dick’s trademark complexity, weaving several subplots together and combining literary themes with genre conventions, transporting the reader to a strange and very unpleasant world where the Axis powers were victorious in the Second World War. It was perhaps the careful crafting of this alternative twentieth century that won Dick the award, although that world is not represented with quite as much verisimilitude as the subsequent efforts of Len Deighton in SS-GB (1978) and Robert Harris in Fatherland (1992). I mention the novel in such detail for two reasons: first, as a spoiler alert (alert: Dick spoiled the novel by not finishing it), and second, because the suggestion that there are two different realities in season 1 (that of the story world and the real world revealed in the films of the real world that appear in the story world) was cause for concern that season 2 would follow Dick in failing to explain the very question it had raised.

Season 1 managed to capture many of the finer points of the novel and Dick’s writing more generally, including his use of multiple and often apparently unrelated subplots. Viewers were introduced to a host of characters without knowing which of them the overarching plot would coalesce around or who would live or die, all of which added to the suspense. The narrative appeared to focus on the two characters used to advertise the series, Obergruppenführer (SS-General) John Smith (Rufus Sewell), based in New York in the Greater German Reich, and Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos), a young woman who has remained remarkably free from prejudice in the San Francisco of the Japanese Pacific States. The two are linked by a third, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), a young American who is employed as an SS agent by Smith and meets Juliana on a mission in the Neutral Zone between the two empires. The main problem with season 1 was that Sewell stole the show. (I must interject here to berate the BBC for cancelling Zen, which featured Sewell in the title role, in 2011 and reducing the best British crime series to date to a meagre three episodes.) Granted, Smith is head of SS-US, has previously participated in genocide, and keeps his fellow citizens under the jackboot, but he is also fiercely loyal (to his family and the Führer), very shrewd (in outwitting the various Nazis jockeying for power as Hitler’s health declines), and pretty much un-killable (whether the assassins be fellow-Nazis or enemies of the Reich). In contrast, the heroes, including Juliana, are continually wavering between joining the Resistance and accepting their status as a colonised people and when the Resistance in either the (Japanese) West or (German) East does take action it is either pointless, useless, or both. What is perhaps most disappointing is the heroes’ general selfishness and lack of interest in sacrificing their personal safety for a greater cause – unlike Smith, who has devoted his life to service, albeit it to a completely reprehensible cause.

Producer and writer Frank Spotnitz wisely decided to change the book that was written by Hawthorne Abendsen (the man in the high castle), The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in Dick’s novel to a series of film reels. This adaptation both enhances the film and reveals a further weakness in Dick’s story. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the book within the novel, is a representation of a world where the Allies won the Second World War (i.e. the real world) and naturally banned by the authorities. But the fascination with the novel is never quite explained nor is there any need to explain how the author came up with the ideas – that is, after all, exactly what authors do, make things up. In contrast, the existence of documentary film reels seems to show an actual alternative reality, particularly in an era where special effects were extremely limited in scope. The films immediately suggest a science fiction element in addition to the alternative history and the presence of Blake and others therein at the end of season 1 creates a compelling mystery that is largely absent in the novel. At the beginning of season 2 it is revealed that these films do not depict what has happened, but possible futures – events that have not happened yet, but might, and Abendsen is cataloguing them year by year in order to attempt to change the future of the story world.

The main plot of season 2 revolves around geo-political events, specifically the escalation of the jockeying for power within the Greater German Reich as Hitler’s health takes its final turn for the worse and the rush for the Greater Japanese Empire to build a nuclear bomb in order to maintain the Cold War peace. The events in the two empires are exacerbated by the presence of jingoistic elements on both sides: Germans who are attempting to pre-empt a war with Japan before she is capable of nuclear retaliation and Japanese who want to build a bomb as a precursor to declaring war on Germany. In the midst of these momentous world events, the various subplots in season 2 focus on five main characters, the three from season 1 and: Frank Frink (Luke Evans), Juliana’s boyfriend and newcomer to the Resistance, and Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the Trade Minister of the Pacific States. This narrower focus sees all five characters, including the heroes, pursuing clear goals as Juliana and Frink commit fully to the Resistance, Joe commits to the Nazis, and Tagomi finds himself capable of moving between the story world and the real world. The tension and action are heightened for all five and the revelation of the relevance of their own stories to the apparently inevitable Third World War makes for exciting viewing. In a reversal of the way in which I was amazed at Dick’s novel winning a prize, I am amazed to see negative reviews of this series, which – if watched as intended, as the sequel to season 1 – is really outstanding in terms of plot, acting, cinematic production… it really is difficult to find a flaw. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the series is the way that season 2 ends. The films and, more importantly, the two realities between which Tagomi can move, are explained in full. There is a resolution with respect to both Smith and Juliana’s plots and the geo-political situation reaches a milestone rather than a climax. The contrast with Dick’s original is stark: where the novel terminated without concluding, season 2 has been perfectly-judged, such that the narrative concludes in a satisfying manner as-is, but could continue in future seasons. Where Dick’s novel failed to provide any closure, Spotnitz’s closure is unusual – if not unique – in working equally well as both an interim and final conclusion.

Monday, 19 June 2017

It Comes at Night | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Uncertainty and mistrust take the lead in post-apocalyptic realism at its best.

A sickness is on the loose. It kills quickly. Paul, Sarah, son Travis and dog Stanley hide out in an austere home within the woods. Though they’ve seen the toll the disease can take, they have no idea of the extent to which it has affected the world. And it seems like something else could be lurking out there. Then another desperate family (Will, Kim and young son Andrew) enters the home. Everyone hopes for a mutually beneficial relationship. Alas, this is a horror movie.

It Comes at Night, written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, is a believable portrayal of what happens when two families, both intent on survival and burdened by mistrust, come together in the midst of an indeterminate threat. The film combines the stripped-down, post-apocalyptic feel of The Road (2009), the backwoods locale and defensive paranoia of The Walking Dead (2010–present), the intimacy of Signs (2002), and the tension and desperation of Breaking Bad (2008–2013).

It Comes at Night relies heavily on the unknown to build tension. For instance, the film reveals very little character backstory – it doesn’t even divulge their last names – because in this world of uncertainty and immediacy, the past carries little value. More than once, the camera focuses on a frightened Travis as he looks into the forest. What is he seeing? Travis’s foreboding dreams and the many instances of light moving through darkness enhance the effect. Additionally, Shults keeps tossing in wrinkles to keep Paul (and the viewer) unsure of his guests’ true motivations.

Worth highlighting is Kelvin Harrison Jr’s portrayal of an awkward teen struggling in extraordinary circumstances. Travis eavesdrops on the home’s occupants, tries to please a severe, though caring father, and deals with a crush on Kim (a subtlety that a less thoughtful film would skip).

Shults, perhaps taking a page from the brilliant horror film It Follows (2014), was wise to insert the word “It” in the title of his film. The pronoun underscores the film’s ambiguity. What, exactly, is “It?”

Don’t expect to see a lot of “the enemy” in this film, but do remember: some of the most frightening horror films in the last couple decades have employed that very strategy. So if you, like me, delight in films like The Blair Witch Project (1999) or Paranormal Activity (2007), then you’re going to enjoy this one. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Wonder Woman | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Resolutely she enters the fray.

Finally, a female has joined the contemporary pantheon of high-profile cinematic superheroes . . . not as a peripheral wisecracking vixen or troubled outcast, but rather as an ass-kicking, yet empathetic lead.

Wonder Woman is tearing up the charts—fourth highest opening weekend for a solo superhero origin film, and the highest-grossing opening weekend for a female-directed (Patty Jenkins) film—with good reason.

Using her shield, sword, magic rope, and physical prowess, Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) gracefully dispatches the bad guys. When the film grandiosely portrays Diana in full superhero poise with hair blowing, one can’t help but feel exhilarated by the immense physical and moral power of this protagonist.

The “fish out of water” story is told in frame format, with a present day Diana reflecting on her escapades. American spy/pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) inadvertently discovers the beautiful Paradise Island and its all-female warrior inhabitants, including Diana. When Trevor tells her of the atrocities of the “war to end all wars”, Diana, convinced that Aries is responsible, sets off with Trevor to the front. She hopes to kill the god of war and therefore bring the battle to an end. Trevor, eager to get back to his superiors, goes along with it. So begins a burgeoning co-attraction, an exploration of evil and forgiveness, an opus on women’s empowerment, and an irresistible action film featuring one of the most versatile superheroes to date—Wonder Woman can just as easily bash through a brick wall as she can pull off stupefying gymnastic feats.

Never mind that Diana really has no weaknesses and that villains are one-dimensional. Even more admirable than Diana’s ability to plough through the enemy is her unabashed approach to a misogynistic London. She is not afraid to wear what she wants, speak her mind, and most important, to do something in the face of injustice.

Each of the two main characters’ vastly different world views helps shape that of the other. Diana, raised on an island cut off from the rest of the world, is willing to drop everything to help those in need and harbours no reservations about walking the streets in her conspicuous battle regalia replete with sword and shield. The war-wise Trevor, on the other hand, understands that achieving the ultimate goal sometimes requires tact and covertness.

The spectacle that is Wonder Woman keeps the viewer engaged from start to finish. It’s also inspirational as an artistic achievement. Lately, when I want to take a project to the next level, I’ve been asking myself, “How can I Wonder Woman this?” – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Monday, 5 June 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Shallow content, deep fun.

Seeing a Pirates of the Caribbean (POTC) film is kind of like spending time at an all-inclusive tropical resort—you don’t have to think, there are lots of drunken antics, and you walk away with a smile on your face. In the series’ fifth instalment, directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, the party continues.

Dead Men Tell No Tales offers no profound life lesson. The bickering young lovers and comic book goal (i.e. find Poseidon’s trident) are shameless echoes of the previous films and the talk of maps and stars grows tedious. However, after indulging in the film’s strengths, the viewer who doesn’t need a serious film to be entertained can brush aside these shortcomings with all the nonchalance of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp).

Sparrow at the Crux
Every major player (i.e. Captain Salazar, the British Empire, Royal Navy sailor Henry Turner, horologist (listen for the pirate banter on this one) Carina Smyth, and Captain Barbossa) is intertwined with Jack Sparrow.

Chief protagonist Henry wishes to use Sparrow’s magic compass to lift the curse that has indentured his father Will (Orlando Bloom) to servitude on a ghost ship. Primary antagonist Captain Salazar (aka “Butcher of the Sea”), played superbly by Javier Bardem, wants not only to unleash the curse that renders him and his crew ghosts, but also to kill Sparrow, who he blames for this misfortune. The power-hungry Salazar takes rasping breaths and his hair constantly undulates as if underwater. “Every time that I’ll stamp my sword,” he tells one adversary, “one man of your crew will die.” And Salazar’s ship rears up animal-like before slamming down on its victims.

Action and Eccentricity
The two-and-a-half hour escape that is Dead Men Tell No Tales immerses the viewer in lighthearted entertainment: humour, drama, a bit of horror, special effects, beautiful scenery, an entertaining villain, and that adventurous score. But that’s all on top of the two strengths that have propelled the POTC franchise: over the top action scenes, and the sometimes (physically and mentally) bumbling, sometimes graceful Captain Jack Sparrow.

Among the key action sequences are an escape from a botched robbery, a diverted execution, and, most gloriously absurd, an attempt to outrow a group of zombie sharks and pirate ghosts who run on water. Often, Sparrow’s clumsiness transforms into extraordinary acts of agility. When the film goes slo-mo at key moments, resist the temptation to roll your eyes, and instead just cheer! Yes, a zombie shark jumping over Sparrow and Henry’s rowboat is completely pointless, but it underscores the schoolboy spirit of the entire film.

Jack Sparrow, with his swaying movements and rum-infused, yet snappy commentary, secures his spot among the most engaging characters in the contemporary action-fantasy genre. This time, he seduces a politician’s wife, falls asleep (standing and pantless) while someone talks to him, fights while attached to a board, and asks his crew members to pay a tribute as they’re saving him. And what other character would tell zombie sharks to “shoo” while flapping a hand at them?

Justified Extravagance  
Like all the gems in the POTC treasure chest, Dead Men Tell No Tales recognizes itself for what it is: a high-action, high-special effects film that isn’t overly serious.

Admittedly, I watched this one in a “4DX” theatre replete with moving seats, fog, flashing lights, and sprays of water. But wouldn’t Captain Jack Sparrow applaud such extravagance? With the pirate Sparrow, overboard is the way to go. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Alien: Covenant | review by Rafe McGregor


Scott forgets female leads and the human species in a strange sequel.

Alien: Covenant is the second in a proposed trilogy of prequels to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), following Prometheus (2012), which was also directed by Scott and reviewed for TQF by myself, Howard Watts, and Jacob Edwards. The titles of the prequel trilogy have been selected by the spaceships whose stories they tell and the story of the Covenant is set ten years after the disappearance of the Prometheus. The Covenant is en route to Origae-6, a distant planet designated for human colonisation, and is carrying several thousand settlers and embryos and a small crew, all of whom are in stasis with the exception of the ship’s synthetic, Walter (Michael Fassbender). The ship is caught in a neutrino blast, which kills the captain and prematurely wakens the crew. The captain’s loss proves significant for two reasons: it introduces his widow, Daniels Branson (Katherine Waterston), who will turn out to be the only human character to make full use of her agency, and it places the second in command, Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), in charge. Oram is not cut out for his unplanned promotion and makes a series of disastrous decisions, beginning with a diversion to investigate a signal that appears to provide evidence of a human presence on a nearby planet. The signal, as anyone who has watched Prometheus will realise, is from Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the sole survivor of the doomed mission to find the origins of human life.

Oram makes another poor judgement call in taking Daniels, who – like Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) before her – is a third officer turned deputy, with him in the expeditionary force. The first sign of alien trouble occurs about thirty minutes into the film, when one of the crew is infected by spores. These spores and the particular species of alien that will hatch from them are new, but viewers of the series know that something nasty is coming and will not be disappointed by the eye-watering, gut-wrenching gore that ensues. Up to this point, Alien: Covenant follows the pattern of Prometheus very closely: two spaceships with command problems, two over-confident expeditions to an unknown planet, the infection of two crew members in each expedition – all of which set the scene for an exciting complication, crisis, and climax. Shortly after the emergence of the first aliens from their human hosts, however, the film makes a radical departure from both the initial prequel and the series as a whole.

No sooner has the first alien gone on the rampage, than it is revealed that Shaw is dead and that the sole survivor of the Prometheus is David (also Michael Fassbender), the sinister, secretive synthetic with a Peter O’Toole fixation. Prometheus ended with Shaw and a badly-damaged David on their way to the planet of the Engineers, the mysterious creators of human life, which is where the crew of the Covenant meet David. Curiously, the characters, plot, and themes of the previous film are all handled with complete anti-climax: Shaw is dead, the Engineers have suffered an apocalypse, and no one cares about the origins of humanity anymore. The last of these is especially strange because Alien: Covenant begins with a short scene in which billionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), who funded the Prometheus mission, tries to convince David that humanity cannot be an accidental result of the process of evolution. The conceptual unity in the second prequel is provided by creation rather than origin and David has become obsessed with creating life himself.

The Alien quartet was dominated by Ripley, the calm, cool, and collected warrior queen who repeatedly saved humankind from the alien menace. Prometheus appeared to be setting up Shaw to take over as she proved herself every bit as tough and resourceful as her predecessor/successor. Alien: Covenant makes a half-hearted attempt to do the same with Daniels, but Waterston doesn’t have the presence of either Weaver or Rapace and – in fairness – receives much less screen time. Fassbender, playing both David and Walter, becomes the most familiar face and dominates the film with crucial roles in the first and last scenes as well as a great deal of what comes in between. In fact, it is not just a strong female lead that is missing in this instalment, but humankind itself and the human beings in Alien: Covenant are very far down the food chain. As a sequel to Prometheus, this is a non sequitur, but as a standalone film set in the Alien universe it provides all the thrills and chills one expects from the franchise.***