Alien: Covenant

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir

Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: John Logan, Dante Harper


Alien: Covenant is one of those times when I felt like I was watching a great film trapped in a mediocre film. The film as a whole is objectively the third best in the Alien franchise, but that’s not saying much. It suffers from the same sort of inauthentic Nolan-esque dialogue that made Prometheus such a chore to sit through as its characters spend much of their time spouting vaguely important sounding declarations explaining what is happening or what they are feeling. The film also suffers from a sense of sameness as it follows most of the beats we’ve come to expect from the Alien films to the point that it isn’t worth even getting to know the minor characters since we already know they’re only there to serve as cannon fodder. In the middle of all that though, there is a genuinely great story being told about death and creation, birth and parenthood, and man and monster. All of the scenes that focused on Michael Fassbender made this movie worth the price of admission.

Set a decade years after the bloody events in Prometheus, the colonisation ship Covenant is en route to a remote planet with its crew in hibernation while Walter (Michael Fassbender), a new version of the synthetic David from Prometheus, monitors them. A disaster occurs that requires Walter to bring the crew out of stasis and results in the captain’s death. After the first mate Chris Oram (Billy Crudup) assumes the role of Acting Captain, the ships picks up a transmission from a nearby planet that exhibits signs of life ideal for colonisation. Despite the objection of Daniels (Katherine Waterson), the captain’s widow, the crew decides to investigate this planet rather than go back into hibernation and continue their journey. Things of course go wrong when the ground team arrives on the planet and are attacked by vicious creatures, but they are presently rescued by a figure who turns out to be David (Fassbender again). As he explains to them the nature of the threat they face, the crew must work out how to escape.

Fassbender delivers a remarkable dual performance as Walter and David and it is these two characters and the relationship between them that makes this movie stand out from all the other Alien movies that came before. David has changed (or evolved as he puts it) in the years he has been stranded on this planet and has achieved what he views as a higher state of being. David is essentially a Frankenstein’s monster who has over time grown into a new Dr. Frankenstein, intent on creating new life to fulfil the purpose for which he believes he was created. He therefore sees Walter as some sort of a twisted combination between a brother, a son, and a lover and sees within him the potential to transcend humanity the way he has. In this way Covenant has more in common with Ridley Scott’s magnum opus Blade Runner than it does with the other Alien films. The bond David shares with Walter and the philosophical and psychological themes that they explore gives this movie an emotional core that was absent in Prometheus. My favourite scene of theirs was when David teaches Walter to play the recorder, a moment that is all at once compelling, funny and even weirdly seductive.

I wish I could have seen more of David and Walter because the rest of the film was about as typical as you could expect an Alien prequel to be. We get callbacks to the original film, generic characters making stupid decisions that get them killed, and plenty of carnage at the hands of the Giger-designed xenomorphs. The film is certainly watchable enough, but it offers little to all but those viewers who have not seen Scott’s original 1979 horror. One of the positives is Waterson as probably the film’s only compelling human character, a grieving widow set on fulfilling her late husband’s dream of building a new home, only to find all her hopes dashed by the desolate place and their forlorn situation. The design is also good, particularly that of the dead city where David has been hiding for the last decade. This forsaken ruin of what had once been a great civilisation has exactly the right air of foreboding and isolation that you would what for a movie such as this.

If Ridley Scott had set out to make a film about a synthetic being with a god complex (a Roy Batty movie maybe?), this could have been something special. As it is, Alien: Covenant is a competently made rehash of the first two Alien movies with a marvellous story lurking within the otherwise derivative plot. As far as being a prequel goes, I’m not sure whether the movie adds anything that will actually affect how I watch Alien or Aliens. As fascinating as the David and Walter narrative was, the question of whether it will add any sort of significance to the Ellen Ripley stories remains to be seen. In and of itself though, it was an excellent storyline that deserved more time and focus. The survival horror movie stuff that came in between was entertaining enough that I was willing to watch it while I waited for the movie to return to the Fassbender bots, but that’s all it did for me. Although this is one of those times when a star rating is grossly inadequate to reflect my mixed feelings on this film, on balance I’ve decided on four stars as a testament to the strength of the David/Walter story against the rest of the film.

★★★★

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Assassin’s Creed

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendon Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams

Director: Justin Kurzel

Writers: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage


Video games are unique in that filmmakers seem utterly incapable of making great movies based on them. The most successful recent adaptation that I can think of is Warcraft, a film that I personally enjoyed and felt was very faithful to its source material but which many justifiably criticised for being too cluttered and underwhelming. After decades of trying (and in many cases failing miserably) no one has yet been able to pull off an all-out successful marriage between the two mediums. Maybe its because some of the filmmakers don’t respect the source material and are simply looking to cash in on its popularity. Maybe it’s because video games are often so heavily action-driven and so light on story that they don’t easily lend themselves towards adaptation. Maybe it’s because some genres, like the FPS, tend to place such little emphasis on the characters that the films end up having little to work with. And yet Assassin’s Creed is a popular, acclaimed franchise that provides both a story and characters for the film to work, modify and expand on. So why is this film such an abject failure?

In 2016, Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is sentenced to death but is rescued from his execution by the Abstergo Foundation. The CEO Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), also a leading Templar, is searching for the Apple, which holds the genetic code for free will, and believes that Cal is the key to his search. His daughter and head scientist Sofia (Marion Cotillard) reveals that Cal is the descendant of Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender), a 15th century assassin. By persuading him to use the animus, a machine that reads the genetic memory of its host, it is hoped that Cal’s ancestor will lead them to the Apple. Thus the film is taken to Spain in 1492 where the Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is caught up in the Grenada War. There Aguilar and his partner Maria (Ariane Labed) must combat the Templars and locate the Apple in order to keep its secrets safe from those who would misuse it.

Sometimes when a video game movie fails, it’s because the filmmakers just don’t get what it was about the game that attracted people in the first place. It may look the part and sound like it too, but without that vital ingredient it will inevitably disappoint and feel flat. Case in point: a considerable portion of the film’s story is focused on the events of the present, which was literally no one’s favourite part of the game. Yes, I get that the film wants to explore questions and ideas about free will, but the game itself was able to do that well enough without bogging itself down in exposition and presenting subplots about the death of the main character’s mother or the bureaucracy of the Templar’s organisation. Desmond Miles wasn’t the character that all the gamers loved, it was Altaïr and Ezio and all the other assassins in the franchise. In this film we barely get to know Aguilar or his compatriots because we don’t get to spend enough time with them. Maybe that would’ve been fine if the present’s story was more interesting than the past’s, but it wasn’t.

The film reunites Fassbender and Cotillard with Justin Kurzel and Michael Lesslie, with whom they worked on a stunning adaptation of Macbeth. This film holds itself with a similar level of seriousness but is often too dull or ridiculous for the tone to work. The characters are all too busy dispensing overblown, nonsensical exposition for them to display any semblance of a personality. The film trudges along so slowly with such a ceaseless array of conversations spouting vaguely important sounding dialogue that even Shyamalan would find it convoluted. Honestly, a time travelling movie about assassins does not need to be this solemn or serious (the games certainly weren’t). There are a few instances of what I suppose ought to be called fight scenes except that they’re so tediously choreographed, I’m not sure whether the term should apply. With its drab colour palette and tiresome action, there is nothing visually engaging about this film.

This film has made the same mistake that countless others have made whenever they’ve struggled to have something childish or ridiculous taken seriously. They overcompensated and made it pretentious, hollow and boring. There is no life in this film; no colour, no personality, no energy, no anything. The Assassin’s Creed games were often ridiculous, but they were also engaging, lively and fun. As a film lover I found this movie to be without merit; there was nothing compelling about its story or characters, there was nothing spectacular about its action or production, and after it was done I found nothing memorable or worthwhile to take away. As someone who has played and enjoyed the games, I was greatly disappointed that the same property could produce something so critically lacking in inspiration, imagination and animation. Whatever this X factor is that makes video game adaptations immune to great cinema is anybody’s guess, but it’s definitely had its effect on this attempt.

X-Men: Apocalypse

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Oliva Munn, Lucas Till

Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: Simon Kinberg


As much as I’ve enjoyed some of the movies in the X-Men franchise (First Class being my personal favourite), I don’t think the film series has been realised as fully as it could be. When watching the cartoon and reading the comics what appealed to me about the X-Men was how they worked as a collective. The best parts were always when they’d charge into a situation together as a team and would then display their diverse powers, working with and off each other. So far there hasn’t really been a movie where we’ve had the X-Men charge together into a skirmish and then just had them be the X-Men. In ­X-Men the team is pretty much just there to back up Wolverine. In X2 the characters are separated and a couple of them get knocked out. Days of Future Past was a lot of fun because we actually got to see some of the minor characters like Quicksilver, Iceman and Colossus show off their powers in new and creative ways. Therefore, with Apocalypse bringing back some familiar characters from the earlier films, it was my hope that this might be the ­X-Men movie that I’d been waiting for.

Taking place 10 years after Days of Future Past (in a universe where every mutant presumably possesses the Wolverine gene that stops them from aging) Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is now the headmaster of a flourishing academy for young mutants. His newest student Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) arrives to learn how to control his heat vision and there meets the telepathic and telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) meanwhile is working covertly to save mutants but refuses to become the heroic symbol that the young mutants proclaim her to be. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) has gone into hiding in Poland where he lives with his wife and daughter. His peaceful and contented life is tragically destroyed, leading him to seek vengeance once again. He finds his chance for revenge in Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), an ancient and powerful mutant who has recently woken up after centuries of hibernation. He recruits Magneto as one of his four horsemen in his mission to scourge the Earth of the plague that is humanity.

The biggest problem with X-Men: Apocalypse is simple: it’s more of the same. We learn about Magneto’s tragic backstory again. Professor X gets kidnapped again. The X-Men travel to Alkali Lake again. On top of that we have a generic bad guy with an apocalyptic plan backed by a vague motivation, some forced fan service and a failure to use some of these characters the way they should be used. While watching the climatic battle I found myself comparing it to the airport scene in Captain America: Civil War. Those characters all had their reasons for being there that the film took the time to establish and the scene actually had some fun with their differing abilities, playing them with and against each other. Here the film sort of pushes its characters into the climatic setting and then has them use their powers in the most straightforward, routine way possible. There are some great moments in there like the Quicksilver scene and the Wolverine cameo (which isn’t the spoiler that it should be thanks to the trailer) but even they are little more than recreations of scenes we’ve already watched.

McAvoy and Fassbender continue to be excellent in their roles as Professor X and Magneto, more so than the film deserves. When Erik’s peaceful family life is inevitably taken away from him, it’s a predictable and derivative moment that we can see coming from a hundred miles away, but damned if Fassbender doesn’t sell it. Jennifer Lawrence however doesn’t bring half the life into her role that she did in First Class. Here she gives exactly the kind of performance that Hollywood stars give when they are only in the movie to fulfil their contractual obligations. Some of the new(ish) mutants that are brought into the trilogy like Cyclops, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler do well enough with what they are given but others like Storm and Angel are barely given enough to justify their presence in the story. Oscar Isaac meanwhile is completely wasted as Apocalypse, one of the blandest and least memorable villains that the films have come up with.

Apocalypse isn’t exactly a bad movie, especially not when compared to The Last Stand and Wolverine. It’s just generic and formulaic. It brings very little to the table that we haven’t seen before in the previous movies. Anyone who is familiar with the comics or the cartoon knows that there is a treasure trove of potential in this concept and these characters, but it is almost entirely wasted here. Perhaps this movie was following the example of Star Wars: The Force Awakens where more of the same meant a return to basics but did so without either the inspiration or the imagination that made it a success. I do hope that, at the very least, the groundwork this film has laid for future sequels will lead to greater things, especially now that some of the original characters have returned to the universe, but the film itself doesn’t stand on its own. Although it has the same characters that we’ve enjoyed watching in the previous films, this time they’re trapped in a movie that doesn’t know what to do with them.

★★

Steve Jobs

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogan, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston

Director: Danny Boyle

Writer: Aaron Sorkin


In my review of Burnt I wrote about the concept of the tortured genius and how that particular film had demonstrated a generic example of the idea. Steve Jobs on the other hand demonstrates a tortured genius done right. The Steve Jobs of this film is clearly a brilliant man with a singular mind. His ideas are radical and revolutionary, his thought process is dynamic and rapid, and he is always always always on. His exceptional mind is matched only by his colossal ego. Jobs is arrogant, narcissistic and disdainful. He resents anyone and everyone who cannot keep up with his ideas or doesn’t recognise his brilliance. He demands perfection from his subordinates and anything less is unacceptable and unforgivable. He is a man who simultaneously provokes an exponential amount of admiration and resentment from those around him and will alienate just as quickly as he will inspire. I have absolutely no idea whether this portrait is indeed an accurate reflection of the real Steve Jobs but, even if it isn’t, the subject of this film is nevertheless an endlessly fascinating figure and I very much enjoyed watching the film’s exploration of his psyche.

The film is set backstage at the launches of three products developed by Jobs at different points in his life: the Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. All three acts take place in real time as Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) coordinates these events while dealing with the key figures of his life. Amongst them are his assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his loyal confidant whose position compels her to stand up to Jobs when no one else can; Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan), the co-founder of Apple and perhaps the only person Jobs considers to be his friend; and John Scully (Jeff Daniels), the CEO of Apple who throws Jobs under the bus and then pays for it. The issues Jobs has to deal with extend to his personal life as well as he must also deal with his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), the mother of his daughter. Each of these figures brings out a different side of Jobs and allow for a comprehensive exploration of the complex figure that has had such a resounding effect on them all.

This film is not so much a biopic as it is a character study. Instead of taking us through the life of Jobs from beginning to end, the film favours a format that allows us to understand him as a character. Watching him at work in real time provides an insight into how he thinks, how he acts and how he interacts with others. He is presented as a man who is incessantly thinking about a million different things as once and who is always on the move and always focused on the task at hand. Anyone who isn’t an asset to him is either an obstacle or is irrelevant, and Jobs doesn’t have any time for either of those things. However, by setting the film in three different time periods, we do see an evolution take place. Each period marks a different point in Jobs’ life as he experiences his optimistic inauguration, his greatest failure and his eventual triumph. Through it all I think it might be a bit too far to say that Jobs changes as a person, but he does learn a few things about himself. His perception does go through a change as he starts to find value in other things besides his ideas, particularly in his daughter. It isn’t a substantial change but it is a significant one.

The real star of this film is Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue. The rapid back-and-forths, the intelligent discourses and the impassioned monologues provide the perfect engine for telling a story of this kind. Through the quick and witty dialogue Jobs is able to establish himself as an exceptionally intelligent and charismatic man who can speak faster than most people can even think. What struck me about this film was how balanced it was in its portrayal of Jobs. While it depicts him as a wholly remarkable genius, it doesn’t let him off the hook for his antagonistic tendencies. Many of the characters resent Jobs and for good reason. The way Sorkin is able to praise Jobs’ greatest qualities while also challenging his worst allows for an intelligent and thoroughly absorbing analysis of a complicated man with a complex mind.

One of the things that makes Steve Jobs such an enjoyable film is that, much like Jobs himself, it never stops moving. It is always going somewhere, it is always saying something and it always doing something interesting. What essentially amounts to 90 minutes of people talking is able to be stimulating, creative and exciting through excellent writing, subtle directing and great acting. Fassbender may not look anything like the real Steve Jobs but his on-screen presence and portrayal of the man’s ingenuity and tyranny is not to be doubted. While the rest of the ensemble is superb, Fassbender nevertheless deserves to be singled out for his stellar performance. Through him Steve Jobs was able to deliver a stunning picture of an extraordinary man whose keen intellect and artistic vision revolutionised computer technology as we know it.

★★★★★

Macbeth

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki, David Thewlis

Director: Justin Kurzel

Writers: Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie


There’s a reason why Shakespeare is regarded as one of the greatest writers, if not the greatest writer, in the English language. Nearly four centuries after his death his plays are still being studied, performed and praised by people all around the world. So innovative was his work and so great was his impact on the art of literature that Shakespearian is now an entire genre in itself as well as an adjective to describe the highest possible quality of writing. When a play has gone through as many revisions, reinterpretations and reinventions as so many of his own have, including and especially Macbeth, you’d think there couldn’t possibly be anything new to add to them. However Kurzel’s offering, which sets the story back in the original Scottish medieval setting, shows that there are still indeed new angles on familiar stories and themes to be found in the Bard’s work.

The film opens with an original scene not found in the original play, the funeral of a young boy. The boy’s parents Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) stand before their infant son in silent misery and grief as the witch’s summit takes place on an overlooking hill. Following his victory in a bloody and vicious battle Macbeth is visited upon by these witches as they pass onto him a prophecy of his kingship, awakening a strong and inflamed ambition within him. His ambition is matched only by Lady Macbeth who impels him to murder the standing king Duncan (David Thewlis) in his sleep. Macbeth’s ascension as king begets a reign of madness, paranoia and terror as he seeks to secure his position by any means necessary. As he grows more in power and his mind sinks deeper into insanity, it is his own pride and arrogance that shall prove to be his undoing.

When a film tackles a story as oft-adapted and performed as Macbeth, it’ll have to bring something truly new and creative to the table in order to distinguish itself from the others. Kurzel’s does so in such a beautifully subtle way through the abridgement of speeches and soliloquies and slight variations in the course of events. Even the smallest variation can have a reverberating effect on the story. He is also able to cast an entirely new light on this familiar story through the inclusion of two original scenes. The first is the afore-mentioned opening which adds an acute element of grief and sorrow to the burning ambition that drives Macbeth’s actions. It is a development that extends and amplifies the overlying tragedy, ferocity and horror of the narrative without altering the fundamental themes and motifs of the story. The second scene is included at the very end of the film which is why spoiler etiquette refrains me from elaborating on it. What I will say is that, much like in Roman Polanski’s adaptation, it is an ending that augments the ominous nature of the story in a dark and foreboding way and is steadfastly true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s play.

Fassbender and Cotillard both deliver powerhouse performances as the manic king and his devious wife. Fassbender’s Macbeth is a great and fierce warrior who is unhinged by the loss he suffers. His bereft ambition and fervently violent nature have a maddening effect on him in his rise to power as he consolidates his position in the only way he knows how, through bloodshed. The madness that consumes Macbeth’s mind is portrayed in a breathtakingly depraved manner by Fassbender as his character falls victim to fear and paranoia. Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is rendered cold and unfeeling by the loss of her own child and is driven by her grief to drive her husband towards greatness and power whatever the cost. The ruthlessness she exhibits is agonising to behold. It is only upon realising the sums of her ambitions when she comes to understand that no amount of power or wealth can heal her anguish. He heart has been forever broken and has left her a shell of a woman.

Macbeth has always been one of Shakespeare’s darkest and most tragic plays, something which this film exemplifies. It depicts the highlands of medieval Scotland as a chilling, gloomy and desolate place, much like the hearts of its king and queen. Much of the play’s mood and tone is marvellously captured in the imagery and atmosphere of this film from the harsh colours to the coarse dirt, the howling wind, the freezing snow, and the raging fire. The themes of pride, ambition and corruption are stunningly demonstrated by the film’s keen understanding and profound interpretation of the text as well as the harrowing performances of its two leads. It is a film that shows no hesitation or restraint in adapting The Tragedy of Macbeth as the chilling and brutal tale that it is.

★★★★★