Alien: Covenant (2017)

Of all the wacky, scary, goofy, gory follow-ups to Ridley Scott’s space horror masterpiece Alien, it’s Scott’s own 2010s prequel Prometheus that stands as my clear favorite. Aesthetically, Prometheus is on the exact wavelength of arty pulp I crave in my genre cinema, the same gorgeous-imagery-meets-dime-store-novel-idiocy dynamic that wins me over in titles like Interstellar & The Neon Demon. I also love that film on a basic thematic level, though. The idea of human beings asking Big, Important philosophical questions about our origins & purpose to literal gods and receiving only brutal, wordless violence in response is such a killer concept, one that’s both morbidly funny & surprisingly truthful to the human condition. Alien: Covenant, also directed by Scott, picks up ten years after that Prometheus timeline, positioning itself as a sequel to a prequel (what a time to be alive). In some ways it attempts to continue those exact questions of Who We Are & Where We Come From, as if they’re the only things that matter. Humanity is once again punished for the hubris of trying to prove that its existence is no random accident, but rather a deliberate design from gods beyond our solar system. The results & significance of that query are severely downplayed in this second run-through, however. Instead of aiming for the arty pulp of Prometheus, Covenant drags these themes down to the level of a pure Roger Corman creature feature. This prequel-sequel is much more of a paint-by-numbers space horror genre picture than its predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a quality that ruins its premise. Through horrific cruelty, striking production design, and the strangest villainous performance to hit a mainstream movie in years, Covenant easily gets by as a memorably entertaining entry in its series, only middling because the Alien franchise has a better hit-to-miss ratio than seemingly any other decades-old horror brand typically has eight films into its catalog.

Alien: Covenant is, above all else, a Michael Fassbender showcase. Reprising his role as the A.I. robot David & appearing simultaneously as a second A.I. named Walter, Fassbender delivers his strangest onscreen performance going at least as far back as Frank. In the context of how Covenant fits into the Alien franchise at large, it could maybe be understood as a Jason Takes Manhattan-type eccentric outlier, if only retitled as Michael Fassbender: Sex Robot. A whole new crew of intergalactic colonists find themselves stranded on an alien planet with only one non-xenomorph related resident: David, Fassbender’s chilling A.I. robot from Prometheus. Among the crew is Fassbender’s Walter, who David takes a special liking to while the disposable human characters are picked off one by one by xenomorph teens (they’re less evolved, less “perfect” offshoots of the typical alien species). There’s a strange sexual tension between these two Fassbender bots that only gets stranger as they spend more time alone together. In the movie’s best moment there are no killer xenomorphs to be seen, no on-screen bloodbath to placate anyone looking for a straightforward body count horror. It’s a quiet moment in David’s art studio (which could easily pass for HR Geiger’s masturbatorium) where he teaches Walter how to play the flute, openly bringing any unspoken sexual tension to the surface by directly hitting on his A.I. brethren. Lines like, “Watch me, I’ll do the fingering,” & “Put gentle pressure on the holes” are almost enough to push Covenant solidly into outright camp and their relationship only gets more perverse from there. Fassbender does a mesmerizing job of differentiating between his two characters: one is a spooky robot with barely-secretive agendas and one’s a tough guy soldier with mommy issues involving his mothership. You never forget which character you’re watching, even when the plot should probably ask you to, and that kind of dramatic craft confidently carries a lot of scenes that could easily devolve into absurd inanity, like the seductive flute blowing or a brief foray into kung fu. Regardless of your thoughts on Prometheus or the collection of Alien sequels as a whole (which each seem to be individually divisive), Covenant is worth seeing for the Fassbender weirdness alone.

David & Walter aren’t the only romantic couple in Covenant, but they are the only one that matters. The titular space mission in the title references Abraham & Noah’s covenants with with God, setting up the spaceship, Mother, as a kind of Ark meant to rebuild humanity on an alien terrain. Every crew member is married in pairs and responsible for the transportation of thousands of future citizens meant to populate a distant world with human seed. Mostly, these human characters have no more personalities or purpose than the drawers full of human embryos they’re being paid to transport across the universe. Katherine Waterson does a decent job of physically emoting as she watches her crew members die at the hands(?) of the film’s teenomorphs. Billy Crudup is believably off-putting as a captain who’s in way over his head commanding a crew who doesn’t respect him because he’s a Kirk Cameron-style “man of faith.” Danny McBride never truly disappears into his role in any detectable way, but he somehow isn’t the most distracting celebrity presence in the film, against all odds (there’s a celebrity death that needs to be seen to be believed; it’s essentially a prank). None of these characters matter. Unlike in Prometheus, the questions of Faith & the Meaning of Life don’t matter here either. Only Fassbender’s Cruella De Vil levels of villainous camp & the teenomorph (and eventually straight up xenomorph) creature attacks register as memorable, worthwhile aspects of Covenant, but they’re both effective enough to save the picture from from horror film tedium, even individually. The moments of horrific monster movie gore are both plentiful & plenty fucked up. Fassbender’s weirdo characters are given plenty of screen time to warp the picture into a strange dual character study, correcting the one frequently cited Prometheus complaint I can truthfully echo. As with a lot of post-Corman creature features, the monsters & kills are exciting enough to cover up the shortcomings of the film’s basic philosophy & humanity. In fact, the human aspect of the film is so weak that it almost directly supports its own villainous arguments about the superiority of other, “perfected” beings.

I’m never really sure what audiences want from Alien sequels. Prometheus & Resurrection are my favorite follow-ups to the original film because they push its imagery & mythology into unexpected directions – goofy, gorgeous, or otherwise. They’re also both frequently cited as the worst of the franchise because they deliberately stray from a more-of-the-same horror sequel ethos, so what do I know? I can see Covenant eliciting a similar polarizing reaction from Alien devotees, as it dabbles both in the goofiness of Resurrection and the overreaching philosophy of Prometheus without ever landing convincingly on either side. I ultimately find that split a little middling in the grand scheme of the series, but the film is brutal enough in its sequel-by-numbers gore & campy enough in its Fassbender weirdness to survive as yet another entertaining entry into an increasingly trashy, but eternally mesmerizing horror franchise that’s likely the most consistently rewarding one we’ve got running.

-Brandon Ledet

Steve Jobs (2015)

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If you want to learn about the recently deceased Apple CEO/visionary Steve Jobs, there’s a new documentary called Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine by Alex Gibney that should be of use to you. If you want to watch a well-written, well-acted movie about a mythological Steve Jobs  who most likely never existed, the Danny Boyle film named after him is probably more your speed. As with most scripts by Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs is not really about Steve Jobs at all. Just like with his work on the David Fincher Facebook movie The Social Network, Sorkin is much more concerned with myth than he is with truth, often using the likeness of real life people as a mirror through which he reflects on his own personal shortcomings. The basic Sorkin archetype is an emotionally combatant man baby who would much rather be judged by the merits of his work than the way he interacts with the outside world. Sorkin’s subjects are often twisted to fit this mold instead of the other way around & your enjoyment of Steve Jobs may be hinged on how much you’re willing to give in to that conceit.

Basically, what I’m saying is don’t expect a straightforward biopic from this film. It has a strange, fractured structure to it, setting its three vignettes in the minutes before the 1984 product launch of the Macintosh home computer, the 1988 launch of the NEXT (“the single biggest failure in the history of personal computers”), and the 1998 launch of the iMac, posed here as Jobs’ first true taste of success after years of struggle. Just before he takes the stage to shill his wares in each instance, Jobs is interrogated by the same six people in his life. his personal & professional shortcomings put him on an Ebenezer Scrooge type of existential trial. Everyone’s a combatant in Jobs’ vicious, stubborn, megalomaniac eyes, as be believes that, “The very nature of people is something to overcome.” This dialogue-heavy three act structure allows for a darkly humorous actors’ showcase & Michael Fassbender is a force to be reckoned with in the titular role. His position as the head figure in The Steve Jobs Revenge Machine (there’s a band name for you) might just go down as one of the actor’s finest performances, even though he doesn’t at all resemble the famous public figure until the black turtle neck & jeans costume and TED Talk format of the third act.

What doesn’t work so well is when the film isn’t fully committed to the gimmick. It’s so nice to have a picture like this allow the dialogue to breathe in luxuriously long stretches, building a delicate sort of verbal venom that can’t be established in short, one-off scenes. It’s a shame, then, that Steve Jobs breaks up its vignettes with flashbacks to brief scenes of forced past drama. I found the film’s flashbacks awkward & rushed, which is a damn shame because the rest of the film is paced so nicely. That doesn’t mean these brief tangents are entirely wastes of time. Some of the film’s best one-liners come from a past argument between Jobs & seminal programmer Chris Wozniak (portrayed here by Seth Rogen), like when Wozniak asserts, “Computers aren’t supposed to have human flaws. I’m not going to build this one with yours,” or in the exchange, “Computers aren’t paintings,” “Fuck you, yes they are,” (after Jobs’ compares his own work with that of a fine artist). I don’t think the movie would’ve been improved with these exchanges left out completely; I just wished they could’ve been worked into the script without disrupting the tension of the three pre-launch timelines.

To an outsider such as myself, Apple looks & feels like a cult that I just never bought into. Boyle & Sorkin seem to have caught the same vibes, posing Steve Jobs as The Man Behind the Curtain, functioning here like Phillip Seymore Hoffman’s L Ron Hubbard stand-in in The Master. Even the infamous 1984 Macintosh Superbowl commercial that the film heavily references has the sinisterly religious feel of a Dianetics DVD. As portrayed in the film, Jobs is fully aware of this effect his products & his personality have on consumers. He strives for “end to end” control on both his computers’ “locked doors” hardware & on the way they’re presented to the public, treating his supporting players like instruments in his tool kit instead of respect-worthy collaborators. I’m not sure that the Steve Jobs presented in Steve Jobs ever actually existed, but it’s fascinating to watch him balance his cruelty for those closest to him with his love for the public as an abstract concept. Sorkin’s version of Jobs will be downright vicious to an innocent little girl in one breath, but then yearn to make computers “warm” & friendly again (after cold Hollywood villains like HAL 9000) by getting them to say “Hello” in the next. Between Sorkin & Fassbender’s work here, the myth of Steve Jobs is most certainly an arresting contrast between genius & emotional sadism. He’s a true to form Sorkin protagonist who’s better judged by his work than his persona. I’m not sure I left the film knowing any more about the real Steve Jobs than I did going in, but I’m also not sure that matters in terms of the film’s failure or success.

-Brandon Ledet

Frank (2014)

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fourstar
“I’ve always wanted to work with someone who shares my dream of making extremely likable music.”

It seems easier now than ever to be a “musician”: gather a couple friends, write a few songs, release them on the Internet.  But just because your music is easier to get heard does not mean that it’s necessarily good. In the 2014 comic drama Frank we follow one such mediocre musician, Jon, played by Domhnall Gleeson, who finds himself dropping everything to join an avant-garde pop band led by the enigmatic and mysterious Frank. Frank is a musical savant with a history of mental illness who hides himself inside a large papier-mâché head.  Jon is enthralled with Frank’s outsider art but fails to see past his own ambitions and realize that there are dark secrets behind that fake, gigantic head.

Frank is grounded by a stunning performance from Michael Fassbender as the titular protagonist who channels Jim Morrison, Captain Beefheart, and Daniel Johnston; artists whose own troubled past and history of mental illness mirror Frank’s. Props should also be given Domnhall Gleeson, as it could have been easy to lose our sympathy for Jon as he latches on to Frank’s coattails. But in the end we realize he’s just trying to be something he’s not and for that he earns our sympathy instead of our scorn.

Some viewers might feel that the story loses steam in its melodramatic finale but the emotional third act brings home the larger theme of how different people react to mental illness when it is coupled with something like vast creativity: diner patrons call Frank a “freak” and laugh at him; Jon thinks he must have been ‘traumatized’; Frank’s parents love and support him, but are clueless about how to help him.

Ultimately, what sounds like a premise for a ridiculous indie comedy instead ends up being a deeply moving exploration of mental illness and blind artist worship. It is also wickedly funny. Director Lenny Abrahamson does a great job of juggling the seemingly contradictory tones in the film: whimsical and offbeat, sweet and punk-spirited, funny and melancholic. A definite must watch.

Frank is currently streaming on Netflix.

-James Cohn