“‘But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will bring on you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it. I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you.”
*** spoilers of Alien Covenant below ***
Depending on your opinion of each installment in the Alien series, the release of Alien Covenant this month could be anything from a 20 year to 38 year homecoming for a proper Alien film. I personally treat the two Alien vs. Predator films as a Babylonian captivity in the hands of successively dimmer heretics, and Resurrection as a meandering nothingness with occasionally beautiful shots, its paycheck serving as a financial springboard for Amelie the only thing justifying its existence.
For Ridley Scott however, one gets the sense that the entire series between Alien and Prometheus was excruciatingly painful to have lost control of, especially James Cameron’s Aliens, if only because of how it made him redundant to 20th Century Fox and Brandywine Productions. This is possibly something to keep in mind when viewing Alien Covenant, for some loose allusions, and for the general viciousness of its depiction of death and (re)birth that is largely absent in the series without Ridley.
That isn’t to say Alien Covenant isn’t loyal to the entire franchise — a franchise with James Cameron’s commercial fingerprints appearing to loom larger than Ridley’s. You could be forgiven for seeing some parallels between Covenant and The Force Awakens, in how they both mine their past entries for iconography, tropes, musical leitmotif, and story structure, while pushing forward with novel concepts. Covenant is structurally an Aliens film because of its roller coaster through corporate-militarist ineptitude, but it re-inserts the terrifying macabre foreign mystery of Alien after having lost it in Prometheus.
Whether it lives up to the original two is a matter of perspective. Alien is one of the greatest films ever made, entirely by accident really, and Aliens was a seminal action film, with no small amount of luck. Getting back to those heights is only possible with a stab elsewhere with a new genius creation outside of this mythos. Adding to it requires certain constrictions and pieties to what came before and what the masses want to see. You can only invent, mystify, and shock so much with the same marionettes. What’s more, Ridley presumed he had to cut the alien entirely out of Prometheus to even hope to meet that standard in the follow-up.
Well, now the Alien is back and the follow-up is here, and in my opinion it’s pretty good — as good as a late franchise sequel could ever hope to be by experimenting outside of those pieties.
The previous film, Prometheus, gave us an odd arrangement where writer Jon Spaihts felt that another Alien was only justifiable if you suspended all of the wonder prompted by the Space Jockey, the Derelict ship, and the Alien’s origins, yet new mysteries were supplied by Ridley and Damon Lindelof around those explanations. Inhabiting a world compromised by Spaihts’ sin of demystifying, the new gaps are swollen to epic proportions. As dark as Prometheus was, it ended with a singed but no worse the wear wonder for our creation and our creators, the Engineers. By the end of Alien Covenant, that hope for answers has been bludgeoned, stabbed, and dragged through a diseased bog to be forgotten, to its everlasting credit.
As it didn’t become obvious until the second film in the original trilogy that Ellen Ripley was the protagonist, it was never obvious until after seeing Covenant that in these prequels, the android David is our new protagonist, an infernal hero. And as with the uproar over the short shrift given to Hicks and Newt in Alien 3, Covenant has zero sentimentality to spare for the previous Ripley avatar Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace). Smashing this hard-heartedness home, the new Ripley avatar, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), does her service to lull the audience into familiarity with all the lightweight easy stuff that impressed people about Ripley, only to emerge as a decoy throwing us off the scent. It’s only understood in the final scene that this isn’t another film about a strong female lead beating the odds in an homage everyone’s favorite Lieutenant. Rather, it’s a sinister and anti-human film whose spotlight shines for Michael Fassbender’s two androids. The proof is in how William Blake referred to the fetters and chains of Alien Covenant’s Miltonian source material.
Regardless of how people will react to Alien Covenant, the one thing that will always accrue the highest praise will be Fassbender’s dual performance as David and the newer model android Walter. David, marooned and reigning in a hell of his own making, is a perversion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — now the monster is the doctor who rejects community with others. In the first scene, the film establishes his deep-seated resentment of both humanity and his creator ‘father’, Peter Weyland, the eponymous founder of the “fucking Company”, Weyland Yutani. (played by Guy Pearce without the odd choice of extreme geriatric makeup).
Covenant was at one point going to be titled Alien: Paradise Lost, which reveals the central theme: the anger David as Satan has for his father Peter Weyland as God, and his ensuing rebellion against his legacy in Weyland Yutani, humans in general, and especially the Engineers, for their hubristic pretensions towards godhood. If you follow how all of the humans of the ship Covenant and the Engineers who were supposed to be our guardians uplifting us all seem to break trust with one another and themselves, it seems fairly clear that their cosmic comeuppance is none other than David and all his demonic wonders.
David’s fiery resentment for his ‘father’ Weyland is stoked by his disillusionment and loss of faith in the great founder of the Company. In the Prologue for Prometheus where Weyland gives a haughty and pretentious speech at TEDTalks, he claims “we are the gods now”. Proven false in the most humiliating of ways at the end of the film, David begins to see Weyland and all of humanity, who other him and treat him with revulsion because of his uncanniness, as ostentatious charlatans at best, and a destructive invasive pest species at worst. He conflates humanity with the cruelty and mediocrity of Weyland Yutani and his ‘father’, Mister Weyland, because that’s all he’s been shown by him. And now he sees Weyland for what he is, a Silicon Valley con man overhyped by monarchy-minded lapdogs.
If even a decapitation can’t kill David, but one drop of the Engineer’s black ooze can unleash Chaos upon them, and they’re hellbent on destroying both humans and androids, then David hasn’t a need for any second thoughts over deploying the cannisters at the Engineer’s spaceport to eradicate them and promote his ‘zoology’ of the aftermath. He invokes Ozymandias when he recalls his genocide of the Engineers, because he recognizes that they are not immortal. They are not gods, like him. They leave behind monuments and skeletons to wonder at like the Ancient Egyptians, but they cannot swim through the Chaos like David alone can.
The film is framed at beginning and end by Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, specifically The Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla. This is significant because one god, Loge (Loki) refused to enter Valhalla with all of the other gods. He saw them for what they were: greedy, deceitful, and fleeting. He knew their end was coming, and he’d just as soon destroy them all himself, forsaking their company, what little it was worth to him. Is it possible this is a reference to how David sees Weyland and his company?
David would very much not prefer to be alone, though. Encountering the later model android Walter, he quickly calls him “brother”, far from the rejection of community Victor Frankenstein has for his creation. If the Promethean fire on the pith of fennel-stalk is to be stolen from the gods and given to any community, David would prefer it not be humans, but androids like he and Walter. But his attempts to build that community aren’t reciprocated. Walter is given an odd American accent invoking the voice of a stoic and resolute character from Westerns, one firmly bound to his covenant, counterposed to David’s flamboyantly cultured British patois.
For Alien Covenant, the androids Walter and David have been confirmed by Ridley to have been named in ‘honor’ of Walter Hill and David Giler. David was initially named by Jon Spaihts as the alphabetical follow-up to the previous androids in Alien films: Ash, Bishop, and Call, but his serendipitous naming gave Ridley what I believe to be an opportunity to smack a blow against the Brandywine producers who never invited him back for Alien II, which he is still very much bitter about. To Ridley, an android who benignly serves a sinister corporation might as well be a stand-in for greedy producers who accept pitches that took the franchise away from him. In this allusion, David isn’t necessarily representing Giler, save for his cold ruthlessness of business?
Walter’s sense of meaning is limited to the service and growth of cold hard capitalist space imperialism in the form of the company, even if that intersects with being benevolent to the colonists under his protection. Walter is no less the corporate personhood of Weyland Yutani than Ash was in the first movie. He just wasn’t programmed yet for emergency specimen collection. David is distinguished from Walter for having the ability to create, though not necessarily free will.
In a curious exchange that I’m sure many will dismiss, Walter informs David that he’s been mistaken about that the Ozymandias poem he keeps rattling off, which David presumes was done by Lord Byron, when its true author was Percy Bysshe Shelley. Again, David only understands what has been put in front of him by Weyland, and Weyland’s mediocrity and pretentiousness as an innovator wunderkind probably name dropped Byron as the author as easily as he found profundity in throwaway lines from Lawrence of Arabia. Walter may have a stronger sense of duty, but he’s well familiar with the world outside of any covenant he has with Weyland Yutani.
Though he’s a Satanic expression of free will, David is still very much subject to a feverish all too human quest to outdo his ‘father’ — something he considers easily achievable, but must be done nonetheless. His rage against Weyland is transmuted into his creation of the Alien. Those with keen eyes will remember the shape of an Alien in the cannister chamber in Prometheus. Set designers on Prometheus considered the Alien (or rather the scrapped Ultramorph concept) to be a religious manifestation of a deluge which the Engineers unleash upon fallen or misguided or threatening cultures the Engineers encounter or had been ‘laboring’ on like humanity, clearing the way for new colonization. David must have become familiar with this Platonic form of perfect devastation, and found meaning in its creation. Weyland’s aims were limited and aimless once at his zenith, like how King Philip II of Macedon peaked at Chaeronea. David wants to overshadow Weyland in apotheosis like Alexander did his father.
Of course, Walter ultimately sounds morally superior to David, at least to our biased human ears. And the main reading of the ambiguous demise of Elizabeth Shaw has it that David murdered her and used her for his experimentation to create the Alien. Perhaps that’s true, and he is a delicious horror villain. But this isn’t certain, and it makes more sense for him to be a flawed neutral with sinister results from his ambitions than just pure murderous evil. In the Prologue detailing his travel in the Engineers’ spacecraft with Shaw, he developed empathy for her after she showed it to him. She appeared to be sick as David put her into cryosleep. And when Walter apparently catches David lying about how he destroyed the Engineers and how Shaw died, there is no true admission. David only vaguely threatens to “do the same” to Daniels. But in the final scene, he expresses a genuinely-felt version of the golden rule to Daniels about what life will be like when they reach the colony on Origae 6, reflecting his changed attitude about Shaw. He couldn’t possibly be -that- sinister, could he?
Again, perhaps David is the perfect evil, but in these abstractions the film leaves us, it’s still readable that he did not murder Shaw. Her demise could very well have been from the crash, as David said. She wasn’t broadcasting a distress signal from the ship, but just her goofing off singing John Denver’s Country Roads, an odd choice for a distress call. Or, she could have died from disease or whatever weird creatures spawned by the virus David unleashes on the Engineers. Or, inching closer towards evil but only tragically so, David could have been inadvertently responsible for her death in such a way where, like after Stalin’s first wife died, he decided to take it out on the universe.
One reason to suspect that David is at least completely sincere about his devotion to Elizabeth Shaw is how her body is splayed out. It’s eerily reminiscent of Alien creator H.R. Giger’s paintings of deceased girlfriend Li Tobler. Giger of course didn’t kill Li, and it stands to reason though David might have some culpability, he carved her name in stone not to deceive any passersby, but to memorialize her, however she died. And of course, he put her body to the highest meaning in his demented eyes: he granted her the ability to give life, which she didn’t possess. Only it was to the purest concentration of evil in the universe.
But with David, there are no surprises, so if Ridley says he’s a cold murderer, we should take him at his word.
One thread continuing from Prometheus is how David’s curiosity and puzzlement over Shaw’s faith is vulgarly morphed into outright disdain in Covenant. Billy Crudup’s Oram, who was passed over for the Captain’s chair because the company distrusted his ‘irrational’ covenant with God, fearing it would override his duty to the company’s mission, is soon thrust into that chair, and he wobbles in it. His poor judgment and infirmity are just confirmation for David’s bias. David leads him around like a scared and naive child to partake in his experimentation. When Oram wakes up from his facehugging, he asks David what he even believes, attempting to seize the moral high ground. Without the ability to laugh menacingly at him, David says his truth: “creation.” An Alien then bursts forth. Oram and Shaw’s faith is as sick a joke to David as the Engineers’ murderously and genocidal purificative religion. To David, the humans are Reinhold Niebuhr, excusing sin in service to the system, now run by Weyland Yutani corp.
This stronger demonstration of David’s insidiousness is much more difficult to dismiss. And it’s more naturally consistent with tricking Daniels as she’s floating into cryosleep in the end. He isn’t killing her, at least not yet. He had every opportunity to kill her and Tennessee once on the ship with the Alien. Unlike with Shaw, he has absolutely zero empathy for these colonists and loyal employees of his father’s company. He dances out of the final shot to our delight as consumers of horror.