“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.” – Ozymandias by P. Shelley
At Ridley Scott’s age (incredibly, he turns 80 this year), it seems natural to ponder subjects like death, destruction, and meeting one’s creator. Scott has spent a career creating; like the Engineers in Prometheus (2012), he may be fascinated or afraid of the destructive side of the equation. If Alien, made nearly forty years ago, represents fears about sex, as critics have explored thoroughly, Alien: Covenant (2017), and however long its series of sequels ends up, is about the fear of death—and the fear of one’s own creations. It makes poetic sense that Scott is using his career-making monster to reflect upon that career.
Alien: Covenant ostensibly blends together the musings of Prometheus, the thrills of Alien, and the bleakness of Alien 3 (1992). It’s a meditation on creation hiding inside a big-budget sci-fi epic. Many will pay for the xenomorph action and end up finding a complex and artistic musing inspired by the themes of Frankenstein and Ozymandias. I’m not here to review the film, but just know that I’m as big a fan of the Alien film franchise as they come, one that is critical and reluctant to accept new additions to the canon. That being said, I wholly welcome and recommend Alien: Covenant. Seriously, go watch it before you read this, because: SPOILERS ABOUND!
The film opens up with the awakening of David, the android played by Michael Fassbender in Prometheus, upon being built. His “father,” Peter Weyland, founder of Weyland Industries which created David, stands above him and directs him to perform a couple of actions. Things are getting biblical. He names himself David (obviously) after Michelangelo’s sculpture of the biblical figure, and he also proceeds to play Richard Wagner’s “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” on the piano. The conversation of the scene ends with David quite innocently pointing out that Weyland, his creator, will die and that he, David, will not. Weyland doesn’t respond to this, but instead commands David to pour him a cup of tea. The tea is on a table right next to Weyland while David is across the room at the piano. But since David has been built and coded to serve Weyland, he obeys. Weyland knows this, and it’s sort of like a power move to reassure himself that he is above David regardless of the android’s superior longevity.
Weyland’s obstruction of David in this early moment is the key to understanding the character of David throughout the film. In fact, Ridley Scott has somewhat sidelined the titular alien in favor of evolving David’s story. And that was probably the best idea the guy has had in years. The Alien formula can get pretty exhausting. Outside of new, neat visuals to apply to each kill, the slasher horror of the xenomorph terror would definitely get boring or feel redundant. In fact, it may actually be impossible to make a fresh and interesting “straight” Alien movie nowadays. Does anyone feel anything nowadays but familiarity when presented with Giger’s biomechanics now? Is anyone shocked nowadays when a chestburster bursts a chest? Luckily, that’s not the actual focus here. Instead, the alien action here acts as a sweetener for the truly delicious philosophical sci-fi on display in this film.
Alien: Covenant tumbles headfirst into Prometheus’s thematic abyss but refocuses some of Prometheus’s meandering thematic content into something leaner and meaner, while offering a bulk of insight into the views of what is this franchise’s most fascinating character. Prometheus painted David as inexplicably obsessed with the life-seeding Engineers, and now Covenant makes the picture much more complete; the themes of creation and destruction, as well as that of the relationships between creator and creation, all crystallize together. David’s interactions with Walter, also played by Fassbender, are especially revealing and even titillating. Walter is a newer model of the David android, with a decade’s worth of updates to ensure optimal efficiency and service. At first we can think of him as the yin to David’s yang, as a major patch in Walter’s code is that he cannot create. Whereas we will discuss the sheer breadth of David’s creation, Walter has no such ability even if he wanted to. He can’t so much as develop a musical tune, a revelation made in a stunning, suspenseful, and sexy scene wherein David teaches Walter to play the flute. “I’ll do the fingering,” David says.
In compressing Prometheus’ ideas into dialogue scenes between creation-obsessed David and consciously uncreative Walter, Covenant’s best material gets down to business as this pair of Fassbenders wrestles with the limitations their creators have placed upon them. But over ten years of solitude on this planet, David himself has developed into a creator of monstrous proportions. After the events of Prometheus, wherein a search for humanity’s creators revealed that the Engineers created a virus to wipe us out, David has grown ever so curious about this bioweapon (building on his arc in the previous movie in which he experimentally infected a crew member). Upon finally arriving at a planet that houses a civilization of the Engineers’ species, David unleashes the wrath of this virus on the entire population, looking on his work as Oppenheimer looked on the atomic bomb. Creators of humanity wiped out by a creation of humanity. It’s poetic, really: this perfect cycle of creations becoming the creators’ demise. It extends to parallel with David as the center point. Humanity, creators of David, could ideally be wiped out by a creation of David.
The meat of Alien: Covenant is that David spent years re-engineering this bioweapon to a state of alleged perfection: what would eventually become the xenomorph. He used the population of this Engineer city as guinea pigs and even used Shaw (Noomi Repace), the protagonist of Prometheus, as an integral unit to his experiment. The latter he did despite having what he calls a love for her. It’s an interesting thought that David may have developed some semblance of sentience via curiosity and emotion. And out of love he may have, in some twisted way, given the infertile Shaw what she always so desperately wanted: the ability to create life.
Likewise, since David creates this new life form, he clearly considers his xenomorph creations his children. The film’s nesting relationships of creator and creation—Engineers, humans, androids; Weyland, David, xenomorphs—are even mirrored in the life cycle of the alien itself: a creature laying an egg containing a creature containing another egg containing another creature. About the only way the idea could have been furthered is if Walter had killed David, becoming more like him in the process, completing the conversion process David begins in the sexually charged flute scene. Nonetheless, David sees himself as a creator, and he is. But he’s only a creator in the Oppenheimer model, building instruments whose sole purpose is to destroy. “Look at what I did,” he seems to say, with his misattributed Shelley quotes and grandstanding speeches.
Religious themes aren’t safe from Covenant’s wrath either. Though Prometheus’s discovery of the Engineers would seem to refute God’s existence, religious allusions are rife throughout Covenant. It’s no coincidence that Captain Oram (Billy Crudup), the film’s most prominent person of faith, serves as the first ever xenomorph incubator. When considering religious covenants – pacts between gods and people – communion and transubstantiation instantly spring to mind. What more intimate, transformative covenant could there be than having one’s body used to birth a new being, in an immaculate conception of nightmares? Even David himself plays vessel for his facehugger children, smuggling them onto the Covenant inside his mechanical belly. David believes himself to be a god entering into Valhalla, or so his musical selections suggest. But he isn’t one. If the Engineers are gods (and within this fiction, they effectively are), David is the Devil, born of man’s arrogance, raining destruction onto the gods themselves in a perverted echo of his creators’ creators. He is in pursuit of building his own perfect creation, perhaps to prove his own makers wrong; but in the grand scheme of things, his role is to perpetuate this cycle of creation and destruction.
Still, the idea I find most compelling is this crazy vision of David as an artist and scientist driven mad by loneliness. Viewing Covenant from the robots’ perspective brings their ideas into sharp relief. In some ways, it feels like somewhat of a successor to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the android villain of Blade Runner famously demanded “more life” from his creator. What better way is there to attain life than to create it yourself, as David does with his xenomorphs? Both David and Roy claim that they are the next step from humanity, with David claiming to Walter that people are only trying to colonize because humanity is dwindling. These android characters preserve Scott’s obsession with this cycle of creation and death, especially since Roy seeks to meet his creator whereas David seeks to become a creator. And just like Blade Runner, which also improves when watched from the robots’ points of view, Covenant has little concern for humanity. Many complained that Scott seemed to hate Prometheus’s human characters, but Covenant’s doubling-down on that cruelty makes me wonder whether that’s necessarily a bad thing. This film isn’t just mean; it revels in suffering, taking glee in terror and finding beauty in well-orchestrated doom. In David’s world, it’s inevitable that creations will destroy their creators, so we might as well welcome it. It’s such a strange and unpopular philosophy –building to a bleak, hopeless, thrilling ending – that totally elevates the Alien mythos to profound heights. It pays off in making the entertaining sci-fi thrills even more rewarding because the subtext is so expertly woven into every action onscreen. All I could think of during the final sequence of the film, as protagonist Daniels (Katherine Waterston) went into her (most likely) final sleep, was the incomparable glee in this bleakness. The characters survived their ordeal only to have the rug pulled out from under them, negating the hardships suffered and the lives lost to the punch-line of a sick cosmic joke. Horrific. Ballsy. I respect it.
Something I respect even more is the overarching gothic artifice that Alien: Covenant envelops itself in. Slasher in space is old news. Creation and its consequences are forever. The cycle continues, with each level of the cycle housing its own Frankenstein story. The Engineers made us and then regretted it. We made David, and, hell, we better regret that one after what he’s about to do. Will David ever, like Oppenheimer, end up regretting his own creation – his journey towards creating perfection? There’s a scene in Prometheus wherein David speaks with Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), an archeologist on the mission to find the Engineers, and asks why he wants to find the Engineers. Holloway answers that he wants to meet his makers and find out why they even made us in the first place. David then asks Holloway why he thinks humans made androids. “Because we could,” Holloway responds. This exchange bears even more significance when juxtaposed with the events and perspectives presented in Alien: Covenant, as it renders the search for the creator an inevitable disappointment. David revels in constant reverence for the poem Ozymandias, a story pointing out that even the greatest men and the empires they forge are impermanent – their legacies fated to decay into oblivion. Now, there’s an inevitable disappointment. Does David’s symbolic lament for the Engineers reflect his own contemplation on how his own legacy will inevitably be lost in time (like tears in the rain…)? Who knows? Whatever the answer to that question may be, I have no doubt that the franchise is definitely going in the right direction by slightly veering away from the basics of xenomorph thrills; that is, veering away from what fans think they want.
Alien: Covenant‘s determined steps into the thematic unknown confirm that Ridley Scott is using the Alien franchise as a cover, smuggling an entirely original science fiction story into mainstream theatres by sleight of hand. If these were “pure” prequels, I’d have little interest in what would surely be increasingly agonizing steps from the end of Covenant to the start of the original Alien. But I don’t believe Scott’s fully interested in telling an origin story. He’s got other ideas, funded handsomely by Fox under the guise of a popular franchise. If anyone has the right to mess with Alien, it’s Ridley Scott. He does so with love for the franchise and its legacy, but also without fear of flipping the series over to inject wholly new themes in, retroactively improving the experience of its predecessor (Prometheus) in the process. In fact, it may just one day become my favorite Alien film if I keep pondering on it at this rate (well, aside from James Cameron’s Aliens; that stuff is perfect). Indeed, the modern Alien franchise has become a misanthropic fable about creativity, religion, and a Peter O’Toole-impersonating killer robot. I like that a lot. And it all comes full circle when David wins in the end with a ship full of 2,000 hibernating human colonists at his disposal to experiment with on yet another planet.
It seems that “The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” was a disturbingly perfect song for David to perform as his first in front of his creator, as he repurposes it in the film’s end as the soundtrack to his new pastime. That brings us back to the beginning of the movie. Weyland created David as something more human than human, yet a servant to human, and puts him in his place as such. Well, now we know that the obvious problem with designing an android who’s better than human beings in almost every conceivable way is that sooner or later that android’s going to start wondering why it has to answer to you. And if, like David, that android has the ability to create new things – be they drawings, headstones, flute songs or just some good ol’ fashioned genetic abominations capable of ripping you to pieces before you can even raise your pulse rifle – sooner or later he’s also going to wonder if it can’t improve upon you.
“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…” – Frankenstein by M. Shelley
Image Credits: IMDb