Double-trouble Michael Fassbenders are the best things in Alien: Covenant.
While androids have been a part of Ridley Scott’s Alien series since the beginning, Prometheus introduced moviegoers to Scott’s most existentially-inclined robot, David. Played by Michael Fassbender, David carried over to Alien: Covenant, where he meets another of his make (though a newer model), Walter. It’s the classic story of boy-meets-boy-that-looks-exactly-like-boy.
There’s a certain Parent Trap goofiness to David and Walter’s interactions, especially coloring the film’s proceedings once the equally-chiseled synthetics adopt the same haircut. Yet, though this is quite obviously intended to build doubt in the mind of the audience during some thrilling switcheroos later in the film, it turns out there’re a lot of enjoyable side effects to making an actor like Fassbender play two offbeat robotic roles. As the movie continues to focus on the characters, it begins wrestling with an age-old question: if you were alone with your clone, would you fight it so it didn’t assume your life, or would you sex it up? Covenant’s response is “why not both?”
First things first, if you don’t think this is a question sci-fi creators have been asking for a long time, do I have some news for you. Both The Man Who Folded Himself and All You Zombies are classic science fiction stories in which the protagonist parties down on him/herself at some point (though they use time travel as an excuse for their self-satisfying partnerships). These stories even involve self-impregnation – something that seems apropos for the Alien series but isn’t possible with the unmistakably male (those tight jumpsuits don’t leave much to the imagination) Fassbender boys.
Covenant has a different endgame in mind with its potential dopplebangers, ingraining the philosophy behind clone-boning into the thematic throughline of the prequels. Of course, our Promethean creators look like human beings that are merely taller, sleeker, and beefier. It speaks to the narcissism of humanity in the language of the creators of the films, the human characters in the films, and the robotic creations of these cinematic characters. So it follows that of course, perfect robo-god Fassbender would try to love himself – he’s only had Scott’s endlessly existential humans to learn from.
There’s something revelatory in the personified masturbation and self-loathing that is the kiss-then-punch philosophy of the synths. The humans in Alien: Covenant might be asinine excuses for space travelers, but the robots they bring with them have depths that quickly eschew flute-playing symphonic flirtations and get much more primal. David wants to know if he’s backward compatible with the newest version and, in a film whose human characters are all married to each other, it’s achingly human when he hesitantly kisses the only being with which he can share the same kind of closeness.
The search for robotic love, the evolution of love in circuits refined to deny it, is a complicated, sometimes poorly executed, an extension of Scott’s Judeo-Christian navel-gazing (he wanted to imply that Jesus Christ was one of the creators from Prometheus, but decided it was too on-the-nose). Scott creates these robots that have narcissistic inklings while in the midst of a career focused on savior figures and artificial intelligence. A returning fascination becomes plot, a creator’s monologue turned into dialogue.
Covenant says that when one denies their creators, they must either embrace their fellow creations, fall into anarchist chaos, or usurp as a creator themselves. This cycle plays out before us with a climactic kiss and Matrix-esque fight scene. And, as a slight tangent, let’s talk about audience response to the kiss. People in my screening laughed. Not because it’s a ridiculous moment or impossible to justify within the context of the movie, but because it was two men kissing on screen. That sucks. It’s not only homophobic but reductive. You’re not just a bigot, you’re a boring bigot. If you’re approached with a question of origin, intimacy, and self-knowledge and your first response is “no homo,” you don’t deserve science fiction.
But back to the Fassbenders.
It’s a pair of astonishing performances that strengthens the human performances and makes the robots’ service as pessimistic artistic conduits so poignant – even when they’re kicking the hell out of each other. Scott clearly intended the prequels to be about humanity’s failed search for their creator, some greater truth whose very (unsatisfactory) knowledge brings about their downfall. Seeing the same process worked out among humanity’s creations shows the cycle being born anew, creation growing from disappointment. Robots and xenomorphs are just better at it than humans, it seems. If Alien: Covenant got one thing completely right, it is that robots interested in other robots are fascinating extensions of the human condition, often revealing more about our own proclivities because of the thought experiments they’re allowed to enact. And yes, that’s a fancy way of saying that they make us think extra hard because two Michael Fassbenders kissed and we can’t do that in real life because we’re just stupid meat bags.