Fans who’ve dreamed of helping Michael Fassbender with a fingering should race to any theater showing Alien: Covenant. Playing the synthetic Walter and his less advanced but more erudite earlier model David, Fassbender has a scene in which the latter shows the former how to properly play a flute. Director Ridley Scott frames and lights the twins like Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore tonguing over pottery in Ghost. It’s Alien: Covenant‘s tenderest scene and one of the few moments of sexual tension in Scott’s work. The rest of Alien: Covenant is a competent trudge through worn tropes; Scott shows more craft than this series deserves at this point, and Fassbender gets his best showcase for his bitch-priss elegance in years but the last 50 minutes or so are a surrender into nonsense.
In this entry, set before events in the original trilogy, the MacGuffin is the two thousand colonists on board the Covenant headed towards Origae-6. James Franco plays the ship’s captain, fortunately killed within minutes by a neutrino explosion, a development that inspired more applause in the theater than anything we saw in the next two hours. Ranking officer Oram takes over, played by Billy Crudup in a performance designed to flaunt those genetic marvels called his cheekbones as slavishly as possible. After their ship picks up a transmission from a world whose surface schematics suggest an environment similar to Earth’s, Oram orders the ship to head for it. The deciding factor? The crew picks up a John Denver song, which any sensible sort would wait out until Boz Scaggs or Steely Dan get an airing; but the crew of the Covenant is not much smarter than their earlier/later incarnations and a good deal dumber. They haven’t been on the planet’s surface for more than two seconds before Oram is planning to build condos in wheat fields. Meanwhile members of his command crew disturb piles of what looks like horse puckey, breathing in a black film that turns their bodies into hosts for — well.
The rest of Alien: Covenant consists of good actors like Demián Bichir and Carmen Ejogo getting eviscerated or incinerated in the ruins of a fallen city where long-haired David, the last member of the previous film’s Prometheus, rules an empire of frozen embryos, discarded genetic experiments, and recitations of “Ozymandias.” Trying to impress Walter, he gets the poet wrong — a detail that the viewing audience’s only English major noticed and for which he rewarded himself with an extra fistful of popcorn. In dialogue scenes set amid the grey-hued tumult of the ion storms that rock the planet, Covenant recalls Blade Runner: indeed, David gets a couple of gaseous speeches about destiny and God and what-not that remind me of pickup lines I’ve heard chicken hawks use on less savvy twinks.
A master of clammy surfaces and interior space that invariably looks like contemporaneous sketches for hotel lobbies (Blade Runner anticipates the design of a Hilton in 1985), Scott keeps the film bumping, but he can’t transcend John Logan and Dante Harper’s script, which, as I already noted, asks audiences to accept bald-faced stupidities for the sake of a monster movie. Why the hell is every member of the command crew married? Since when does a seasoned officer place his whims above a mission? Why does the script provide hints of Oram’s Christian faith but throw them away (possible answer: Scott is among the least spiritual of filmmakers). Why hasn’t communication technology improved since Aliens? I know the James Cameron flick is set later, but my quibble demonstrates the redundancy of Covenant. We’ve seen the creatures sneak into ships before; we’ve seen young women fight these creatures with help from the android. Watch Alien: Covenant for Fassbender, a performer who’s never convinced me he’s little else than a straight man’s idea of a gay fantasy but with a forked tongue — a xenomorph after an afternoon at Gold’s Gym.