Forgive the clickbait title of this post, there is a serious point to this. I regularly recommend films here, but today’s recommendation is completely out of character and I wanted to give you some context. I saw PADDINGTON 2 this weekend just gone, and it was quite simply one of the best films I’ve seen. I laughed a lot, I cried a bit, and I loved it completely.
I’d read a review before seeing the film which said “Following a year of big-budget disappointments, this sequel is an hour and forty minutes of absolute joy.” That’s played on my mind since we left the cinema, and I decided to devote a little time to trying to work out why some sequels work whilst many others don’t. Looking back through other movies I’ve watched this year, one particular film stood out as an obvious counterpoint to PADDINGTON 2’s success, and that’s ALIEN: COVENANT. Yes, these are diametrically opposite movies intended for wholly different audiences, but they’re both sequels and therefore have certain things in common. Bear with me and I’ll explain (pun absolutely not intended – I may be a hack at times, but I’m not that bad).
In the interests of full disclosure, I have a real affection for PADDINGTON. I grew up watching and reading about the furry little bugger, and my wife and I made sure to indoctrinate our daughters in the cult of the little bear from darkest Peru before they were old enough to protest. My wife’s far, far worse than me, by the way. She has it really bad. She has a Paddington tattoo (honest).
Also in the interests of full disclosure, I love the ALIEN movies and will watch every single one that’s made, no matter what. The first and second (and third, to a lesser extent) films are ground-breaking in many ways. Ridley Scott’s original 1979 film in particular is incredibly influential and had a huge impact on me back in the day. It’s a masterclass in creeping, claustrophobic terror and features a creature which, to my mind, remains one of the ultimate movie monsters.
Sequels are funny things. ALIENS, for example, is often cited along with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and TERMINATOR 2 as a prime example of how to do it right, but for every good sequel there are many, many more inferior follow-up films. So why am I so enthusiastic about PADDINGTON 2 but was underwhelmed by COVENANT?
I did enjoy COVENANT, but not without some serious reservations. If I’m honest, in the six months since I saw it, I’ve forgotten much of what happens. I don’t think that lessens my arguments here, if anything it strengthens them. The movie was fun (for the most part) while it was on screen, but as soon as the credits rolled, I’d stopped thinking about it. By contrast, that bloody little bear hasn’t left my mind all weekend (and that’s not just because of my wife’s tattoo).
In comparing these films, my first question was why were they made? That’s a question I’ve also asked of PROMETHEUS, the two ALIEN VERSUS PREDATOR films, and ALIEN: RESURRECTION. The simple answer is inevitably to make money, and that’s pretty much a given in today’s film industry. If the first film is successful, a sequel will be greenlit. Let’s be honest, it’s why PADDINGTON 2 was made too. But let’s forget about economics and look at the question from a purely story-centric point of view. I guess Ridley Scott might say that COVENANT was made because it continues the narrative he’d begun with PROMETHEUS, and that fans are keen to know how that movie takes us to the beginning of the first ALIEN. If I’m honest, I’m not that bothered. If anything, with each new ALIEN film, my love for the original movies is eroded a little further. It was the lack of explanation which contributed to the first film being so powerful. I admired the simplicity of the story: a handful of people are stranded in space aboard a cavernous mining ship, slowly being picked off by a devastatingly dangerous (and smart) creature they’ve unwittingly brought on-board. The more I hear about Engineers and the more variations on the original monster I see, the less I care.
I think PADDINGTON 2 was made because people really enjoyed the first film and wanted to know what the little bear got up to next.
And that leads me onto the plots of PADDINGTON 2 and COVENANT. They’re wildly different, sure, but when you boil it down to basics, a story is a simple thing whether it’s set in London or outer space and stars a bear or a xenomorph: our protagonists have a goal, and things go wrong as they’re trying to achieve that goal. The interest for the reader or the viewer comes from what happens on that journey – the hurdles and issues the characters have to overcome or avoid, and how this changes them (physically and/or emotionally) from the first scene to the last. It’s a matter of personal preference, I guess, but this again is where I like simplicity, and again this is where PADDINGTON 2 (and the original ALIEN, for that matter) succeeds. Paddington wants to get his Aunt Lucy (another bear) a present for her 100th birthday. That’s all there is to it. Everything that happens in the film stems from that simple premise, and the whole thing is set up and wrapped up within its one hour, forty-three minute running time. COVENANT, on the other hand, is up against it from the outset. Not only does it have to tell a self-contained story of its own, but it also has to tie up (or not) the loose ends from PROMETHEUS and steer a course towards ALIEN. It suffers greatly because of this. It’s one of the reasons why I think the STAR WARS prequels were fighting a losing battle from the get-go – we already knew the ending, and that made it harder for George Lucas to build any tension or surprise. Many sequels develop increasingly complex worlds for their characters to negotiate. The more convoluted a story is, the harder it can be to follow, and the harder it is to follow, the greater your chance of alienating your audience (again, no pun intended).
Back to characters for a second… accepting completely that this isn’t a fair comparison because PADDINGTON 2 is about a talking bear and the supporting cast are deliberately cartoonish caricatures, I really struggled with the characters of COVENANT. Who were they? Bland, poorly defined, largely interchangeable… I’ve just gone back and re-checked IMDB, and I still don’t remember seeing most of the Covenant’s crew in the film. Michael Fassbender as David and Walter and Danny McBride as Tennessee apart, the rest of them were forgettable. And that, for me, is a key reason why there was an absolute lack of drama and emotion. I just didn’t care about the people being hunted down and killed. Half the time I was rooting for the monster.
Thing is, from the opening scenes of COVENANT (in fact, from even before that thanks to the LAST SUPPER short and other clips released by the studio in the run-up to release) I could pretty much guess who was going to die, almost in what order. The set-up felt stale and familiar – a rehash of most of the other films in the series: crew arrives, alien(s) discovered, all but one or two of the crew are gradually killed over the course of the movie. Where’s the originality? Where’s the interest? Where’s the risk? It’s the repetition of a successful formula, but the more it repeats, the more my investment as a viewer reduces.
PADDINGTON 2, on the other hand, managed to cram more originality and unexpected twists into its running time than almost every big budget sequel I’ve watched this year combined. It too contained frequent nods and references to the previous film, but the call-backs were used to develop the characters or to wrong-foot the audience by lulling them into a false sense of familiarity.
Most disappointingly for me was the way COVENANT degenerated in its final scenes into a sub-par rehash of ALIEN and ALIENS. It felt lazy and tired. PADDINGTON 2 also harks back to the franchise’s past (there’s a beautiful section early in the film which is animated in the style of the Film Fair TV series of the 1970s), but this enhances the film and doesn’t detract.
It has to be said that, both films are visually stunning in wildly different ways, and the technical skills behind the scenes are undoubted. Ultimately, though, COVENANT promised much and delivered little, while PADDINGTON 2 promised nothing and delivered one of the most enjoyable films in years.
Perhaps it would have been fairer to compare the triumphant WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES to ALIEN: COVENANT, because that really was a magnificent sequel. Interesting how the APES trilogy was formed of three very distinct, largely self-contained movies which combined to tell a larger story. Ultimately, though, none of that matters. I just wanted an excuse to recommend PADDINGTON 2 to you. Go and see it.
Oh, and if ALIENS VERSUS PADDINGTON ever becomes a reality (and stranger things have happened), then my money’s on the bear to win.