As far as muses go, you could do a lot worse than Michael Fassbender. The German-Irish actor is magnetic, charming, impossible to ignore – and quite unlike any other working star today in that he is the opposite of, well, safe. Yes, he is tall. Yes, he is handsome. He has a great head of hair and he looks fit enough to headline any number of superhero films requiring the obligatory bearing of a six-pack. (Being German, he likely sports an efficient nine-pack.) But there is an unnerving, itchy sense of danger lurking beneath Fassbender’s superficiality.
Take his eyes, for instance. Blue, sure. But blue to the extent of being bottomless. Blue to the degree that they are able to pierce the screen with the intensity of a lunatic, a man unhinged and ravenous. When Michael Fassbender looks the camera in the eye, he is looking at you, too. And he either wants to destroy you or consume you. Or both. It is the glare of an insatiable man with a story to tell.
Over the course of three films now, Ridley Scott has expertly tapped the inexhaustible resource that is Michael Fassbender, eyes and all. In Prometheus, Scott’s bid at starting his original Alien-verse from scratch, Fassbender was put to sharp, prickly use as David, an android of dubious morality and horrifying curiosity. In The Counselor, the actor impressed even as he was given a much more thankless task, straitjacketed as the rube who had to go hungry as Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt and a Ferrari-humping Cameron Diaz unhinged their jaws to chew the scenery.
But it is Alien: Covenant, Scott’s third exploitation of Fassbender’s talents, which underlines the actor’s unusually compelling menace and takes the pair’s collaboration to impressive, if queasy, heights.
The new film is intended to act as several things, none of them particularly admirable. It is a sequel to the underperforming and largely confusing Prometheus; it is a prequel to Scott’s own 1979 classic Alien; and, depending on how it does at the box office, it is the second plank of a new xenomorph-centric trilogy, or perhaps quadrilogy, in which humans boldly seek out new worlds and new ways to die. Mostly, it’s a staid act of studio commerce – a familiar franchise that trades storytelling for intellectual property, originality for nostalgia. Come for the chest-bursting scene, stay for the ass-kicking heroine, you know the drill.
Set a decade after the events of Prometheus, Covenant finds a new crew of foolish humans crawling through space. But just a few years into their colonization mission, they’re distracted by a distress call from Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), last seen in Prometheus engaging in all sorts of xenomorph-baiting shenanigans with her android frenemy David (Fassbender). So off go the new alien chum to a seemingly habitable, but off-the-map, world where all manner of predictable terror awaits them.
Yet Covenant works, even brilliantly so, when it focuses solely on Fassbender. Scott tacitly acknowledges as much from the get-go, as this exercise allows him to double the Fassbender fun for no additional cost. Prometheus’s David is still causing significant mischief here, but he’s joined by another, later-model robot named Walter, also played by the actor. There are minor, custom-built differences between the two characters – David carries a British accent, Walter is American – but Fassbender doesn’t lean on easy tics or tricks. His dual performances are fully realized, acutely distinct feats of acting, topping a twin-cinema genre that’s produced its fair share of towering turns (see Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy, Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, Tom Hardy in Legend).
The bar is set so high that the rest of the cast can hardly compete. Trying mightily to pick up where Sigourney Weaver (and, to an extent, Rapace) left off is Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, a tough and level-headed crew member. But her character is reduced to merely being the smartest person in a deep space rich with idiots. Speaking of: There’s Billy Crudup, usually able to deliver life into the haziest of caricatures (see his reporter in Jackie), but he’s given exactly one trait – he’s a man of faith – and then denied any opportunity to explore it. At least Danny McBride seems to be having fun, stretching his ultra-cocksure shtick into something resembling actual confidence.
Everyone’s efforts, though, are either outshined by Fassbender or drowned out by a portentous script that poses big questions about God, creation and man, but answers them with dorm-room quotes from Milton, Wagner and Shelley. (It’s telling that, while John Logan and Dante Harper are the official screenwriters, an early screening notice listed the writing credits as TBD.)
Understandably, Scott is far more invested in his Fassbender iterations than the narrative he’s saddled with. Why concern yourself with talk of “humanity’s engineers” and “neomorphs” when you can simply delight in the wonders of Fassbender’s eternally fascinating visage, times two? The director’s devotion to Fassbender reaches such giddy and perverse heights that we very nearly get, in one delightfully bonkers scene, some cathartic Fassbender-on-Fassbender robot sex. Alas, Scott doesn’t quite submit to this natural temptation. Instead, the two androids pull away from each other and start to quote Byron.
What is it they say about space, again – that no one can hear you scream?Report Typo/Error