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"Alien: Covenant" Bursts with Pomposity

The New Yorker

Ridley Scott's extraterrestrial adventure "Alien: Covenant" is deadly serious about matters that he takes deadly seriously, and the only things that he derides with any irony--muffled and sardonic though it may be--are the movie's snippets of art greater than his own, by artists greater than himself--starting with Richard Wagner, whose "Entry of the Gods into Valhalla" is heard in the first and last scene. There are seven years left in the voyage, during which its crew and more than two thousand colonists--plus another thousand human embryos--are lodged in locked pods, asleep in an unaging suspended animation, as the ship is supervised by the android Walter (Fassbender), who is David's double but with an American accent. There, in isolation with Karine (Carmen Ejogo), Oram's wife, and another crew member, Maggie Faris (Amy Seimetz), his back bursts open and he gives birth to a slimy, boneless xenomorph. Scott's David is a stereotypical movie Nazi, from the air of refinement and the insinuating sexuality to the British accent; for that matter, with a tiny twist involving his misidentification of a poet, he's a walking reference to a Nazi villain in "Schindler's List."


A Generational Shift in Independent Filmmaking, at the 2017 Maryland Film Festival

The New Yorker

She looks at Nessa and Blaise with an urgent intimacy that often bypasses facial expressions to isolate aspects of the body--including facial features, hand gestures, postures, or even tools and articles of clothing--that transmit emotions without declaring them. Sylvio works as a bill collector, making phone calls by way of a voice-generating computer on which he types, but he dreams of a career as a performer--as a puppeteer--and at home he performs with a bald-headed, mustachioed, middle-class-Everyman hand puppet and records his performances on video for his own pleasure. Where that older generation had the benefit of a shared sense of mission that was reflected in a shared sense of style, younger filmmakers following in their wake are venturing out alone and starting more tentatively--with short films--before hazarding a feature. The seeming family resemblance of the last decade's worth of innovative independent filmmaking--founded largely on improvisation based on situations close to the filmmakers' own and using performers they find in their own circles--is somewhat deceptive.


Alternate Endings

The New Yorker

Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, young directors who go by the joint film credit Daniels, are known for reality-warped miniatures--short films, music videos, commercials--that are eerie yet playful in mood. Bloch called his software Treehouse and his company Interlude--the name hinting at a cultural gap between video games and movies which he sought to bridge. In Borges's telling, the novel remained a riddle--chaotic, fragmentary, impenetrable--for more than a century, until a British Sinologist deciphered it: the book, he discovered, sought to explore every possible decision that its characters could make, every narrative bifurcation, every parallel time line. Conversely, making choices in a video game often produces emotional withdrawal: players are either acquiring skills or using them reflexively to achieve discrete rewards.


On the Ranch with the Creators of "Westworld"

The New Yorker

My day job, in lieu of teaching creative writing like a normal person, is writing scripts for blockbuster video games. Last summer, while I watched a play-through of the then-unreleased Gears of War 4, for which I was the lead writer, something odd happened. The game's story called for a massive plane crash, out of which a single robot, operatically aflame, was intended to stride toward the player. Within the game's fiction, robots have hitherto opposed the player, but we wanted this particular burning robot to pose no immediate threat. The game programmers had thus switched off the hostility driven by the robot's artificial intelligence, allowing the player to walk past the hapless robot or shoot it.


Werner Herzog's Internet Visionaries

The New Yorker

Werner Herzog's films have a common theme: they're about visionaries and dreamers. Sometimes his dreamers accomplish the impossible: he's made two films, for example--"Little Dieter Needs to Fly" and "Rescue Dawn"--about the American pilot Dieter Dengler, who escaped from a Laotian P.O.W. camp and, for twenty-three days, hiked barefoot through the jungle until he reached freedom. But Herzog is also fascinated by delusional dreamers. At the end of his 1972 film "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," the conquistador Aguirre stands on a raft in the Amazon. He's been searching, fruitlessly, for El Dorado; now all his men are dead, and he's speaking only to their corpses and some monkeys.