Culture

The Atheist Covenant

Alien: Covenant (20th Century Fox)
Ridley Scott’s franchise is hackery in action. Marcello Mastroianni’s career is the opposite.

Ultra-hack Ridley Scott has ruined the Alien franchise. His first episode in 1979 was a visually textured, erotic genre film that veered sensually and sensationally into techno-evolutionary horror. It was that decade’s most original scary movie. But Alien: Covenant, the sixth installment and Scott’s third go-round, works exactly as Pauline Kael described in her derisive dismissal of the first film: “a gorilla in a haunted house movie.”

When a distress signal from a distant planet is answered by the Covenant, a U.S. space vehicle whose crew is employed to colonize new territory, Scott shamelessly imitates the first film’s narrative — he panders to Millennials whom Hollywood considers attention-deficit-disordered and unfamiliar with anything before video games. Scott milks the franchise, disguising craven greed as pseudo-artiness. The Covenant’s “diverse” crew (male, female, white, black, American, Middle Eastern) become cannon fodder in an intergalactic update of Ten Little Victims.

The only difference here is that annoying ultra-hack habit of pseudo-relevance. Screenwriter John Logan (who did Scorsese’s Hugo) debases the poetic conceit that worked well in the first film.

Graphic artist H. R. Giger’s vision of a biomorphic-mechanical monster, which was ingeniously derived from William Blake’s poem “The Tyger,” serves as a now-fashionably-sacrilegious allegory. Covenant’s captain (Billy Crudup) is a believer. Doubted by his team and pushed to his Christian limit, he suffers man’s fall from grace. “There’s nothing you can do — nothing,” he is told when praying over a crew member’s dead body.

Lacking originality, Logan and Scott emphasize dread; they degrade the first film’s evolutionary mystery (which Jean-Pierre Jeunet also explored in the exquisite, languorous, and tense Alien Resurrection). Alien: Covenant mocks man’s relation to God, starting with its opening scene of cyborg David (blue-eyed blond Michael Fassbender) confronting his inventor. When asked “What do you believe in?” robotic David (named after Donatello’s statue now housed in a futuristic laboratory-museum-penthouse) answers “creation” as smoothly as Hal 9000. Alien: Covenant is not just hackneyed, it’s brazenly diabolical — stupidly so when trading William Blake for Richard Wagner and trite Nazi allusions. Doesn’t Scott realize how, in recent months, Antifa has made all Nazi references meaningless?

Had ultra-hack Scott dropped the simple-minded goose-stepping implications, Alien: Covenant wouldn’t seem so insultingly indifferent to today’s ideological turmoil. It might have achieved a Blakean vision of hell (hubris gone too far, as Mel Gibson depicted in Hacksaw Ridge, where roiling action and the specter of death affected its hero’s consciousness). Instead, Scott strikes an atheistic pact with Hollywood’s culture warriors who demean Christian theology; he pulls out that penile-squid monster for predictably spooky, grisly appearances (vagina dentata and then some) to create the film’s inane shock effects. So far, Alien: Covenant is the year’s most obscene Hollywood undertaking.

*****

Handsome Marcello Mastroianni became not only the face of Italian cinema during the 1960s but also the on-screen face of its political consciousness — and that’s saying something. Mastroianni could be noble or common; he looked cool in sunglasses and could be attractively anguished as he romanced many of the great European film beauties or won the fondness of working-class male filmgoers. He was the John Wayne of Italy’s highbrow and popular film traditions. Today’s Hollywood (from Clooney to Pitt, Washington to Baldwin) has no equivalent.

Of the many highpoints in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Il Bello Marcello” series, (showing through May 31) it is Mastroianni’s role as Meursault in Luchino Visconti’s 1967 version of Albert Camus’s The Stranger that underlines contemporary cinema’s failure.

Mastroianni was the John Wayne of Italy’s highbrow and popular film traditions.

Bringing Camus’s defining 20th-century novel to the screen, Visconti revisited his own commitment to social consciousness. It’s a solemn adaptation, but when continental Meursault/Mastroianni confronts the colonized Moroccans who sullenly bear their oppression, Visconti briefly evokes the magnificent equanimity of his masterpiece La Terra Trema (1948). He interrogates Camus’s famous tale of existential destiny with his own interest in the fate of both rich and poor.

The Stranger is flawed (Visconti and Mastroianni teamed more effectively in the 1958 film of Dostoyevsky’s White Nights), but this restoration of a classic, which preserves Giuseppi Rotunno’s sun-bright colors and the rich grain of photochemical cinematography, raises important questions about art and politics.

Are students in “safe spaces” still taught Camus? Do they contend with the dangerous way in which political issues now overtake moral accountability, at times leading to the demise of morality? Mastroianni and Visconti make that inquiry in the scene where Meursault confesses his feelings, with his face half-hidden behind a ledge — great movie-star acting. It is Mastroianni and Visconti’s sympathetic, ultra-European perspective on a white man being tried in a French colonial court that makes The Stranger an important study on the existential nature of racism. (Mastroianni and Visconti were the first mainstream filmmakers to address this unnamed issue since William Wyler and Bette Davis’s The Letter.) Now, Mastroianni and Visconti’s venture into Western political conscience is still fascinating 50 years later.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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