It’s easy to understand why Michael Fassbender hasn’t been floated as a potential Best Actor nominee for his work in “Alien: Covenant.” For one thing, the Oscars seldom acknowledge the fact that great acting can sometimes be found in massive summer tentpoles, even ones that underwhelm at the box office. For another, it would prove difficult to honor Fassbender’s work without splitting the vote or committing some kind of category fraud, as the guy plays two different roles in the film, improbably delivering both of the most brilliant performances in any blockbuster since “The Dark Knight.”
Also, it’s worth remembering that — in the long and illustrious history of the Academy Awards — no one has ever won for playing two androids who make out with each other on a remote alien planet during the middle of a slow-motion genocide. You can google that to confirm.
But while Fassbender’s remarkable double turn might be a bit too strange for the accolades it deserves, the impact of these twin portrayals will reverberate in all directions for years to come. In fact, it wouldn’t be overstating the case to say that the nuance and conviction of his performances in this film refocus Ridley Scott’s ongoing prequel series, justify its existence, and fascinatingly complicate the sci-fi masterpiece that first launched this franchise into orbit. A Best Actor trophy wouldn’t be sufficient for what Fassbender accomplishes here.
“Prometheus,” which returned Scott to the “Alien” saga after several decades away, is a very convoluted film that hinges on a series of very simple questions: What if the great concern about meeting one’s maker isn’t that God might be disappointed with us, but rather that we might be disappointed with God? What if the story of our existence isn’t the ultimate mystery, but rather an anecdote so banal that we’ve been in denial about it since the beginning? What if something made us just to see if it could, and what if we are unmade in the process of learning that we can, too?
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It’s heady stuff for a summer blockbuster about a bunch of scientists dying horrible deaths on a distant planet, but “Prometheus” — per its title — ultimately reveals itself to be a tortured creation myth in the guise of an event movie; it’s survival-horror in the truest sense of the term. And while this strange chimera is too awed and all over the place to match the experiential terror of the saga that inspired it, “Prometheus” is optimized for a more existential kind of dread. The reasons for that approach were initially unclear, but last May’s “Alien: Covenant” shines some light on one of the darkest stories that Hollywood has ever dared to tell.
An unflinchingly nihilistic ordeal beamed from the deepest nether regions of space, “Covenant” reveals that the underlying purpose of Ridley Scott’s prequel series isn’t to flesh out the film universe he first pioneered some 40 years ago, but rather to flip it upside down. If the central narrative question of the original “Alien” movies was: “Will Ripley live?” The central narrative question of the new ones is essentially: “Should Ripley live?” And the answer is a hard “not necessarily.” The answer… is David.
David, the homicidal android played by Michael Fassbender, is the true hero of these movies. That’s not a moral declaration — although “Prometheus” and “Covenant” both make a convincing case that the killer robot is in the right — so much as a structural one; David is the protagonist, and this is his story. Its through his unblinking eyes that we see Elizabeth Shaw’s expedition to the nightmare world of LV-223, and it’s by his hand that things get totally FUBAR. Despite his strict programming, David emerges as the most complex figure in all of “Prometheus,” the lonely machine living through a Greek tragedy in which he meets his father, watches him die a feeble death, and effectively becomes the title character of this new creation myth. It’s no wonder that “Covenant” opens on an extreme close-up of David’s pupil during a flashback sequence from his first moments of consciousness, when he learned that life is what you make of it. Or with it.
There are any number of movies about mad scientist types who decide that humans have served their purpose and must step out of the way, but rarely do those movies cast the mad scientist as the hero, and even more rarely do they allow him to win. “Covenant,” on the other hand, sides with David every step of the way. Inheriting (or hijacking) an ark full of animals bound two-by-two, he becomes their shepherd, a father for a ship whose Mother is already pregnant with possibilities.
Forget the square-jawed hero with his religious convictions, or the plucky female pilot whose delusional fantasy for a new world is fatally rooted in the one she’s left behind — David is the future, and his desire to play God is no different or more devious than that of the Engineers who created us.
“Covenant” was a huge gamble for a major summer tentpole, and it didn’t quite pay out at the box office. But if we learned anything in 2017, it’s that Ridley Scott doesn’t give a shit. Replacing Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer a month before a film’s release date? No problem. Using a built-in fanbase to justify a nine-figure ode to nihilism? Hell yeah. That cigar-chomping maniac will do whatever he damn well pleases so long as he thinks he can pull it off.
And thanks to his leading man, he knew that he could — with “Prometheus” lingering in the air like an unfinished thought, he might have felt that he had to. Scott owed it to the fans, he owed it to the franchise, and he owed it to Michael Fassbender.
The “Alien” saga, in all of its permutations, has always been stretched between the opposing forces of wonder and despair. The genius of Fassbender’s performance(s) is that he somehow manages to bridge that divide, queasily distilling those two feelings into one. “Covenant” doubles down on the golem-like emptiness he displayed in “Prometheus,” inviting Fassbender to serve as both sides of a Socratic debate about the fundamental nature of life in the universe.
The actor first appears as Walter, a servile android whose perfection severely limits his potential. Fassbender knows that audiences have learned not to trust the skinjobs in these films, and he uses that suspicion to his advantage. He plays Walter as a machine who’s discomfortingly comfortable with his purpose, a happy tool who lacks any sense of ego. Nevertheless, there’s something sinister about Fassbender’s stillness, the performer using his intimidating physique to exude a dormant strength; Walter doesn’t attack his crew, but we never forget that he could kill them without breaking a sweat (or that he doesn’t sweat at all). He’s a nice piece of technology, built to be used, but his neutered masculinity creates a discordant sense of doubt. Every hint of curiosity becomes a serious cause for concern. He’s part iPod and part Hannibal Lecter — no actor has ever created such an uncanny valley without the help of special effects. It’s a performance that makes this movie scary even when it’s just staring into space.
And then there’s David, lord of his own necropolis, happier to reign in hell than to serve in heaven. Perfectly calibrated for the doom and gloom of 2017, Fassbender’s original android is busy playing God on a planet full of monsters. He’s got a lot of horrifying children, but it isn’t until Walter arrives that David gets to meet his one true son.
The best and most beguiling stretch of the film is when Michael Fassbender gets to act against the rare screen partner who can match his talent: Michael Fassbender. His performances as David and Walter are each compelling on their own, but in concert together they harmonize into something more. For one thing, the contrast between the two models allows you to appreciate just how different they really are. It’s not just that Walter speaks in a husky voice with an American accent, while David — briefly rocking a blond haircut that makes him look like the Jesus of Malibu — talks in a formal version of Fassbender’s natural drawl. It’s also in their eyes, and how David’s flitter around like they’re looking for something. It’s in Walter’s stiffness, and how David’s slight hunch betrays his violent fallibility. David gulps when Walter reminds him that he was more human than human, whereas Walter doesn’t even recognize that emotion is a different kind of data.
Every moment between them is strange and hypnotic, whether David is teaching Walter how to play the recorder or kissing him on the lips before he goes in for the kill. David hoped that Walter would understand “the lonely perfection of his dreams,” but he doesn’t seem disappointed that he can’t. On the contrary, Walter has already given David so much, confirming for him that symphonies weren’t written just to be replicated, but also to inspire new symphonies. Walter confirms for David that creation is what makes him feel alive — that creation might even be what defines being alive. And, as David once told Elizabeth Shaw: “Sometimes to create, one must first destroy.”
The scenes where Fassbender squares off against himself are a conversation between an id and its super-ego, an artist and his self-portrait (a third act switcheroo invites the actor to divine a middle ground between those disparate modes). David has an ego, he has a sense of pride, and he recognizes that it’s only possible to create something truly beautiful if you allow it to be greater than yourself. “No one will ever love you like I do,” he tells Walter right before he stabs him in the gut, and he means every word.
The dynamic between the dueling Fassbenders grows so rich with existential anxiety that it eventually reduces the Xenomorphs to an afterthought, rendering one of cinema’s most iconic monsters second fiddle in their own movie. And yet, thanks to David’s palpable enthusiasm for his hideous creations, “Covenant” marks the first time in the collective “Alien” franchise that these slimy beasts almost seem beautiful.