Stomach-bursting, face-sucking Fassbender fabulousness

Michael Fassbender in Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant is the eighth movie in the 38-year-old sci-fi horror Alien franchise. Following 2012’s Prometheus, the financially successful but fan-loathed prequel, Covenant tries to walk a fine line: The film throws enough red meat to ravenous Alien fanboys with stomach-bursting, face-sucking, don’t-go-in-the-basement grotesquery to get away with continuing Prometheus’ much-maligned, but wildly ambitious origin story of both the aliens and the human race. But while I appreciate the bloody legacy of Alien, I’ve seen those monsters be monstrous in the same manner, seen the humans make the same dumb fateful mistakes, now eight times. The only thing new is the mythology, and thankfully the great actor Michael Fassbender is the one making those myths.

Covenant starts 10 years after the end of Prometheus, when Elizabeth Shaw, last survivor of a research vessel, and her team’s android David (Fassbender) fly off into space in the spaceship belonging to giant human-looking beings dubbed the Engineers. The Engineers had both created life on Earth and created an alien-incubating virus that, it seems, they wanted to use to destroy humanity, and Shaw and David were traveling to find the Engineer’s home world and ask them why.

The new film begins with a totally unrelated ship named Covenant in the middle of a many-year trip to colonize a distant planet. Walter, an android that looks exactly like David, is watching over 15 sleeping crew members, 2,000 sleeping colonists and dozens of drawers of frozen human embryos. A random neutrino burst damages the ship and wakes the crew (killing the captain played by James Franco). While they’re repairing the ship, they hear a bizarre radio transmission, which they determine comes from a planet even more hospitable to life than their original destination, as well as seven years closer. Over the objections of Daniels (Katherine Waterston), new captain Oram (Billy Crudup) changes course.

This is the first of many, many mistakes this crew makes over the next hour and forty-five minutes. You can’t have a horror movie without careless or dumb characters doing something death-wishy, but the crew of Covenant seemed to have lost a substantial number of brain cells while they were asleep. Only Daniels and Walter have a healthy suspicion of the planet, but that’s not enough to prevent the snowballing doom when they arrive and we discover they’re on the planet Shaw and David had been looking for.

Fassbender was the best thing about Prometheus; David is one of the creepiest androids in science fiction, resourceful like Star Trek’s Data but also wily and unhinged like Westworld’s Maeve. As both the less problematic later model Walter and as David, Fassbender gets to act with one of the best actors in the world, himself. And he has a lot of fun, particularly as the effete David slowly reveals himself to the crew of Covenant and to the audience to be more than just a little over-programmed.

The rest of the cast, which includes Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo and Jussie Smollett, does a good job being fierce, scared or determined. Aside from Fassbender, only Crudup and Waterston have complex emotional and intellectual lives, which is a shame. McBride and Bichir are too talented to be wasted as simple cogs in the narrative machine. But to make a sci-fi epic, director Ridley Scott needs those cogs, the mandated conventions, and overdone tropes. Still, Scott makes genre films that are gorgeously shot, art directed with inspiration and never boring. But whether the Alien fanboys will give credit where it’s due is less predictable.

Alien: Covenant
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by John Logan and Dante Harper
Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston and Billy Crudup
Rated R

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

Steve Jobs was kind of a dick

As I’ve written before, no one should ever expect historical accuracy from a feature film that is “based on a true story.” But I think you can ask for some thematic or emotional truth. A Beautiful Mind, for instance, handles the impressive feat of Russell Crow’s John Nash overcoming his schizophrenia with great dramatic writing, but the real Nash probably didn’t do it by having conversations with hallucinations that were as reasonable as Paul Bettany’s Charles. So, I can’t fault the total fantasy of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for Steve Jobs, the new biopic about the co-founders of Apple who is constantly referred to as a genius, a visionary, and an asshole. Sorkin manages to do the duties of a biopic by focusing solely on the backstage conversations prior to three key product launches. The screenplay’s structure is both elegant and overly schematic, but Sorkin’s always recognizably witty and crackling dialogue makes up, or masks, the flaws. It helps that the words are recited by some of the best actors alive who are directed by the great Danny Boyle.

The film opens with grainy footage of Arthur C. Clark (who wrote the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey) explaining in the 1960s how computers will change our lives to an incredulous newscaster. The audience chuckles because the sci-fi writer predicts exactly the kind of instruments most of us have in our pockets, if not at home. The message of the film is then clear: It is Steve Jobs who makes this happen. (This is debatable.) Immediately, we are at the launch of the Macintosh – the iconic, revolutionary personal computer – in 1983. Jobs, played by the always thrilling Michael Fassbender at the height of his powers, is ordering everyone around, demanding the impossible, and basically being the narcissistic prick he had famously become since starting Apple in a garage with Steve Wozniak (an awesome Seth Rogan). Only Apple CEO and father figure John Scully (Jeff Daniels) and Jobs’s work wife and marketing head Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) can reason with Jobs, which is hard enough when it’s about the Mac and even more difficult when his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennen (Katherine Waterston) and Lisa, the daughter Jobs refused to admit is his, show up.

It’s difficult to decide which person he’s nastier to: Chrisann, who desperately needs money; engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is trying to fix the Mac’s speech function for the demo; or Wozniak, who wants Jobs to acknowledge the people working on the Apple II, which was the company’s first success and Jobs wants to phase out. Chrisann and Hertzfeld succeed with their tasks but not with their pride intact, but Wozniak completely fails. All of these characters return to rehash, continue, or resolve these conflicts in the next two acts, which are based on the launch of Jobs’s Next Computer, which he developed after being fired (more or less) by Apple for his irascible ways, and the launch of the iMac, the computer that brought Apple back to life after Scully is fired and Jobs is rehired.

While Jobs is on screen at virtually every moment, few of his dialogue partners are ever on screen with each other. It feels very much like a beautifully filmed play; intense and cerebral but also claustrophobic. It is the series of one-and-on conversations that both tell us Jobs’s biographical details and show us how his relationships with these key people – particularly Joann, Scully, Wozniak, and Lisa (most importantly played by Perla Haney-Jardine in Act 3) – explain his drive, his genius, and his failures as a friend and father. The ending is unnecessarily pat, but neither Aaron Sorkin nor Danny Boyle would ever refuse to please the crowd. And the film is a crowd pleaser, funny and wise, daring and illuminating. It is also hagiography, showing Jobs’s great faults but also lifting him onto a pedestal with people like Albert Einstein and Bob Dylan. Which is exactly where Steve Jobs thought he should be.

Steve Jobs
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, and Seth Rogan
Inexplicably Rated R
At your local multiplex