This post contains mild “Alien: Covenant” spoilers.
“Alien: Covenant” has two Michael Fassbenders. Both are androids. They engage in existential disputes on a remote planet. They debate the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. One teaches the other to play a flute. More importantly, they kiss.
These two Michael Fassbenders form the hallmark of “Alien: Covenant,” the sixth installment in the 38-year-old “Alien” franchise. One Fassbender is the prototype David, returning from “Covenant” processor “Prometheus.” David’s devilish God-like tendencies have annexed the planet where the titular colony ship is investigating a rogue radio transmission. For his next trick, Fassbender plays Walter, a new-and-improved humanoid that takes care of the Covenant and strains to protect his crewmates from the extraterrestrial beasts David has cultivated.
Set 10 years after the events of “Prometheus,” “Alien: Covenant” remains engaging even when it drowns in self-serious philosophizing and the foolish actions of its hollow characters. It is a Ridley Scott movie, after all. But any virtues are crumbs compared to Fassbender’s double billing, which takes all kind of bizarre and wonderful turns.
In typical fashion, Fassbender commands both roles like a demigod reigning over his creations. Pitted against each other, the characters present a duality. Walter, short-haired and American-accented, is the dutiful good to David’s vainglorious evil. One telltale sign: David has a menacing British timbre. Another: He’s staging science experiments using remnants of the failed Prometheus mission. Soon enough, a fresh tribe of aliens are running amok, obliterating the Covenant’s inhabitants. In between sparring matches with his malevolent twin, can Walter rescue his friends?
You’ll find out the answer for yourself. Really, who cares when we can focus on David and Walter’s cozy spats about the origins of species and the nature of existence? Fassbender gives David an elfin camp just shy of cliché ― it’s perfect for the type of android (you know the one) that cites the Romantic poem “Ozymandias.” And even more perfect for an android that essentially seduces his robot doppelgänger.
Deep inside a dim lair in David’s temple, as the movie builds toward its chaotic fever pitch, David baits Walter with a touch of intimacy. He pauses to teach Walter to play a recorder. Imagine that romantic-comedy trope where the dude perfects his girlfriend’s golf swing, except it’s two lookalikes blowing on a flute. “Watch me ― I’ll do the fingering,” David says as Walter toots the mouthpiece. If the audience at your theater doesn’t hoot and holler in response, demand a refund. Or, rather, give it a few more seconds, because David says “You have symphonies in you, brother” and plants a peck on Walter’s lips. For one brief, shining moment, it’s touching, watching David admire someone (something?) who was also born that way.
Alas, a romantic comedy this is not. David’s smooch is a segue for his battle royale with Walter and the other Covenant crew members who haven’t already been executed. We just happen to get an outré display of delicious android queer-baiting along the way.
Through it all, Fassbender is so on top of his game that “Alien: Covenant” can stand up against his finest screen performances (”Hunger,” “Shame,” “Jane Eyre,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Slow West”). The way his stilted cyborg cadence changes from the humanistic Walter to the devious David creates a metaphysical tug-of-war, as though the pair represent two halves of one conflicted soul. Their interplay embodies some of Scott’s most masterful wizardry. From a logistical vantage, that flute scene is a true “wow” moment, unfolding with seamless titillation, as if two different actors are sharing the exchange.
By the end, the horror-movie elements and the philosophical world-building in “Alien: Covenant” don’t cohere. But it almost doesn’t matter, partly because Scott has such a technical mastery and partly because Fassbender’s dueling energies are such a delight. Where else will we see an actor known for menacing villains and connection-hungry drifters play both in the same movie? Nobody does it like Mikey.
“Alien: Covenant” is out now.