A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro
This review originally appeared on the now-defunct Scifiweekly.
The Covenant. Starring Steven Strait, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Chase Crawford, Taylor Kitsch. Written by J.S. Cardone. Directed by Renny Harlin
We begin with four bland but hunky young men, each the eldest scion of a family that survived the Salem Witch trials. The four current members of the ancient Covenant are Caleb (Strait), Reid (Hemingway), Tyler (Chase Crawford), and Pogue (Kitsch, whose name is so very much a gimme to lazy critics that we hereby declare it a crime to go for the cheap shot). Now students at the Spencer Prep School in fashionable Ipswitch, they enjoy flashing their already-impressive powers while waiting to “Ascend” to the even greater abilities they stand to inherit at age 18.
We are first introduced to these sorcerous studmuffins, whose eyes glow whenever they’re doing something spooky, like getting one of their classmates to projectile vomit. (Yes, that actually happens.) At the beginning, they leap off a tall cliff, fall what seems like a couple of hundred feet, and land without harm, as their preferred method of approaching the party in the woods below. Mingling with avid females Kate (Jessica Lucas) and Sarah (Laura Ramsey), they then lead the town cops on a chase that ends only when they sail their car off the edge of another tall cliff. So there’s a cliff, a party, and then below it another cliff. That’s interesting terraced landscape, not actually impossible, but notable since cliffs and heights never enter into the story again. For the rest of the film, the terrain is as flat as the plot. Another cheap shot. But anyway.
Caleb’s Mom Evelyn (Wendy Crewson) shows up to billow cigarette smoke and pass along necessary exposition her son has heard before. (She will return at the end, to arrange the Deus Ex Daddy.) Essentially, the power is addictive and that Covenant boys who use it too much run the risk of becoming withered old men by their forties. This does not stop the Covenant boys from having fun, in ways that include summoning up winds to ruffle the miniskirts of leggy girls who don’t wear panties. But it does leave Caleb, the most powerful among the four, helpless when their schoolmate Chase (Stan) is revealed as a murderous enemy, with magical powers of his very own.
If you’ve seen the ads, you’ve already seen the movie’s three money shots: the leap off the cliff, the drive off the lower cliff, and the impressive effect where a car comes apart when colliding with the lumber truck, only to reform when the truck has safely passed. The good news is that these moments are not spoilers. They all occur in the first twenty minutes. The bad news is that nothing that follows is as impressive, on either a visual or a storytelling level.
One problem is that the five main guys, and a number of others seen as extras, have all been cast for their modelish good looks. Alas, they’re all good looking in the same way, and all photographed in the same way. It may take you some time to determine which one is the lead, Caleb. Actually caring may never happen. Kate and Sarah are somewhat more likeable, but even their characters are woefully underwritten, existing as little more than boy-crazy foils and damsels in distress.
Also, the Ritalin-deprived editing style keeps the camera circling and the shots racing to the point where almost none of the story’s emotional beats can develop any forward momentum. It’s worst during a sequence set in the town bar. How, exactly, do actors develop any chemistry, or characters exhibit any personality, when nothing lasts more than two seconds? Just how do you direct performances under these conditions? “Look left. Pose. Look right. Pose. Look brooding. Pose. Look complicated. Pose. Lemme circle you real fast while you jut that hip.” But see each other? Almost never.]
To be fair, Caleb and Sarah have some scenes where they’re permitted to demonstrate charm, pretty much the only reason why this film escapes an F rating. Still, the energy level is so low, throughout, that viewers may find their thoughts wandering down unproductive avenues. For instance, there’s the scene where the four boys discuss their troubles in a chamber lit by hundreds of candles. The dialogue, involving matters of life and death, should seem pressing. But instead we find ourselves wondering how much time these guys spent procuring the candles, setting them in place around the room, and lighting them (either one at a time, or en masse, with a stern look from their glowing eyes), at this juncture when they really had more important things to worry about. Oh, sure, you can rationalize it any way you want. Maybe they’re magical candles. Maybe they need the candles for the ritual. Work hard enough and the scene can be made to jibe. But isn’t thinking about such things a sure sign that the story itself has lost you?
The special effects are sufficient, but serve as yet another illustration of the maxim that none of today’s technical innovations can bring a film to life if the story has not been conceived with equal skill.
One other thing. During the flying-car scene, Reid screams, “Harry Potter can kiss my ass!” Do I really need to explicate the foolishness of mocking a magical universe that works, when your magical universe doesn’t?