Michael Fassbender’s ultimate gift as an actor may be the way he can make placidity mesmerizing. His sense of stillness isn’t only quiet, it’s portentous. There is a calm before the storm that demands our attention, even in those movies where the storm never materializes.
All sorts of storms materialize in Alien: Covenant, an apocalyptic installment in the monster-movie franchise that began with 1979’s Alien. Fassbender has a dual role. He plays both David, the synthetic (or android) of Prometheus, and Walter, a further generation synthetic on board the colonization vessel Covenant. David appears in the opening scene, discussing Wagner’s “Entrance of the Gods Into Valhalla” with his creator (Guy Pearce). That blustery composition foretells both the literal and existential storms that Walter and his crewmates will encounter in the story proper, after they detour their mission to investigate a previously unknown planet that appears to be hospitable for colonization. What they discover, however, are forces at work to ensure their own damnation.
As an Alien movie, Covenant falls somewhere between the turgid mythologizing of Prometheus and the genre sleekness of the original. Ridley Scott directed both of those pictures, and he returns here trying to split the difference. Scott’s recent preoccupation with religious themes (Exodus: Gods and Kings) gets a desultory nod in some of the characterization (Billy Crudup’s captain is vaguely described as a person of faith) and the inherent Old Testament associations with the term “covenant.” Yet none of this matters much until it gets into Fassbender’s hands, in ways I shouldn’t reveal. Suffice it to say he uses his placidity in two very different ways, depending on whether he’s playing Walter or David. At its best, Alien: Covenant is like watching someone skillfully play a tennis match against himself.
There are aliens—or, I should say, xenomorphs—in Alien: Covenant, though few have the tactile terror of those we know from the days before computer-generated effects. Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice) is also on hand in the Sigourney Weaver part, playing a Covenant crew member whose quavering eventually emboldens into grim resolution. For all the tweaks to the formula (the eggs are back), this would still be a dull ride if it wasn’t for Fassbender. Long live David/Walter, even if neither of them is really living.