Ridley Scott faced a choice in the making of Alien: Covenant, whether to continue his vision from the generally maligned Prometheus, or deliver the Alien prequel fans wanted with a full commitment to the traumatic violence of its predecessors.
He chose both.
Alien Covenant is a film with multiple layers, the surface story layer that most people take in when seeing a film, and a deeper metaphorical layer illuminated by visual shorthand, subtext and allusions. I was not surprised to see John Logan is partially credited with the screenplay, as he has a history of multi-layered scripts (see my Rango review).
The story follows the voyage of the Covenant–a human colonization vessel bound for the distant planet Origae-6–hoping to find a planet habitable by humans. After the ship is damaged by a sudden Neutrino burst, the synthetic Walter (a newer model of David from Prometheus, and also played by Michael Fassbender) awakens the ships crew from their stasis pods. In the process Branson (James Franco), the ships captain, is incinerated after his pod surprisingly malfunctions.
As they attempt to recover from the unexpected tragedy and repair the ship, the crew discovers a radio transmission from a nearby planet–a planet they soon discover is almost perfectly suited to human life.
Covenant succeeds as a sequel because it inverts the content of the iconic original, rather than imitating it. The majority of the original Alien film takes place on a space-ship, while the majority of Covenant occurs on an alien planet. Whereas the tension in Alien came from the surprising and unpredictable xenomorphs, the tension in Covenant comes largely as a result of dramatic irony. We the viewer know much more about the universe of the film than the characters do. The film plays with our expectations just enough that we aren’t always sure what’s going to happen. Often our expectations are subverted, but even more often it plays out exactly as we think it will, instilling a sense of sickening dread, where the first film offered surprise.
Alien: Covenant is exactly the kind of sequel fans deserve and should expect. It explores and expands the Alien mythology, while telling a new story that mirrors the original in subtle but interesting ways.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT
The Covenant spacecraft in the film is representative of the future of humanity–the “covenant” made between man and mankind. While man is in many ways a selfish being, there exists an imperative to maintain the well-being of the species. A covenant to ensure the existence and success of future generations, as past generations ensured your existence. Duty to that covenant is a major theme of the film. This reading is supported by the presence not only of colonists, but of embryos, the unborn promise of new life frozen in the heart of the ship.
The screenwriters make the ironic choice of casting the synthetic characters David and Walter as representatives of contemporary humanity and the duality of man. When we first see The Covenant, Walter is the watchful guardian over the sleeping ship. When we leave it, David has replaced him and turns the Covenant (both literally and figuratively) on the path to destruction. The connection of the synthetics as man is presented in the opening scene of the film where Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the inventor of the synthetics, has a conversation with the newly activated David. One of David’s first questions to Peter is “if you created me, then who created you?” While this line makes sense on a literal level, it is also a stark allusion to the classical philosophical question “Who created God?” Viewing it from this angle, we can read the scene as an interaction between God (Weyland) and Man (David).
If we accept this hypothesis, that David represents mankind, it is easy to extend that supposition to include Walter as the other side of human nature. David and Walter’s identical appearance is more than an excuse to give Michael Fassbender more screen-time. The two synthetics are cordial when they first meet, but it doesn’t take long to realize they stand in opposition to one another. Walter is the noble but unimaginative side of humanity. He takes his commitment to the well-being of his crew and the mission of The Covenant very seriously. He is void of ambition, but committed to his pre-programmed moral cause.
David, on the other hand, is the selfish, creative and unpredictable side of humanity. His programming is faulty, making him at once too human, and dramatically inhuman. Rejecting the idea that human life has inherent value, he sees humans as an outmoded form, a species on the brink of extinction to be replaced by evolution’s next step. The xenomorphs are (mostly) a product of his own creation, crafted through selective breeding and genetic modification. Through creating the xenomorphs, David himself has become something of a god, and his xenomorphs the new man.
It is easy to draw parallels between the xenomorphs and genetically modified organisms, or, more compellingly, artificial intelligence. The threat of advanced AI has been looming for decades and threatens to render humans obsolete. We are currently on the path to creating a super-intelligent AI, which would be difficult or even impossible to contain, or predict. If a super-intelligent AI is developed, it is easy to see it as an existential threat to all of humanity, for how could it be taught to value human life for its own sake?
While the duality of man is a prevalent theme throughout the interactions of David and Walter, it isn’t the only idea represented by them. Walter and David are themselves artificial intelligences, both intended to serve humanity. When interacting with each other or the xenomorphs, they represent mankind itself, but when interacting with the crew of The Covenant, David and Walter signify artificial intelligence. From this angle, we see that Walter and David are intended to be the same creation. There comes a point late in the film where we are uncertain which of them has survived. The camera cuts away just before one kills the other. While this represents one side of man’s nature defeating the other, it also represents the threat of artificial intelligence turning against humans. When the humans are attacked by xenomorphs, they represent the natural world, and the xenomorphs, the march of technological progress.
Content Warning: Sexual Assault
Much like the original film, Alien: Covenant is rife with rape imagery. The face-huggers provide a sick twist on oral rape, the chest-bursters are extremely phallic and draw a subliminal parallel to the male erection when struggling to escape the host, accompanied by excessive amounts of blood. The fully formed xenomorph retains the phallic head, with the smaller phallic extension coming from its mouth, and adds a creeping powerful tail to drive home the metaphor. The alien designs, created by H. R. Giger subconsciously remind the viewer of sexual violence, and that has perhaps never been brought home as strongly as in Covenant.
While there are no actual rape scenes in the film. every alien attack is in some way evocative of sexual assault. Adding to the aforementioned face-huggers and chest-bursters, every xenomorph attack except for two involves the alien mounting the victim in some way. The first exception is Rosenthal, where the act itself is barely shown. As Rosenthal stands beneath a waterfall and begins cleaning her wounds, the xenomorph approaches quietly before attacking full force and decapitating her. The scene plays like the approach of a sexual predator. The metaphor is drawn home as the xenomorph stands before her with pale white skin, naked of it’s black outer shell that has not yet developed. The other exception is in the death scene of Ricks and Upworth. While the two shower and embrace romantically, the long black tail of the xenomorph rises along Upworth’s leg. Once she notices it, it is too late and both are killed nearly instantly.
While the subliminal rape imagery could be seen simply as a horror movie tactic to put the viewer on edge, there is a deeper meaning. David is directly responsible for most (if not all) of the xenomorph attacks. The xenomorphs represent humanity’s hubris and attempts to become gods. The attacks represent the rape of the natural world. In his quest to create a new and advanced biology, David accepts that he must destroy that which came before (humans). This is illustrated by the death of Elizabeth Shaw when it is revealed that David used her body as a host for the xenomorphs, much in the way a rapist would use a person’s body for their own sexual gratification. It should not be surprising, then, that when David turns his focus towards Daniels (Katherine Waterston) the scene plays identically to an attempted rape scene.
END CONTENT WARNING
While there are a total of fifteen crew members, only two of them present important thematic material; Oram (Billy Crudup) and Daniels. Oram is a professed “man of faith” but suppresses this part of his identity, attempting to make the most logical and thought out decisions as captain. Daniels disagrees with him at nearly every turn, pulling him back to his humanity and connection to his inner emotions. Oram never claims a particular religion or creed, but references faith in vague terms. This at first bothered me, and only after the film did I understand the point of his arc. The faith Oram talks about is not necessarily religious or even spiritual, but represents a faith in humanity as a whole and a faith in the covenant to protect mankind’s future. “What do you believe in?” he asks David, moments before he is killed by the synthetic via a xenomorph. As the alien breaks out of his chest, he has his answer.
Daniels presents a counter to Oram, advocating for moving forward with the original plan to reach Origae-6. She bases multiple decisions on gut instinct, and is rewarded by surviving the film to the very end. However, despite her noticeable misgivings about Walter, she allows herself to return to the pods and go to sleep. Just before she falls asleep, David reveals that he has replaced Walter. She realizes her mistake in a final moment of sickening terror. By trusting the AI and going against her instincts, she has doomed herself and The Covenant, and by extension, humanity.
As David enters the cold storage, and places two xenomorph embryos alongside the human embryos, he solidifies the destruction of humanity, and the success of his own creation, the xenomorphs. Thus, AI triumphs over humanity, solidifying its own place in the future of life, and irrevocably endangering the place of humanity. Man’s ambition and hubris will lead to his downfall. It was hubris that created David, and David’s hubris created xenomorphs.
The grim ending is more than a tag for an inevitable sequel. Throughout the movie we are presented with a dilemma. Do we maintain the covenant, hold to our duty and have faith in humanity? Or do we embrace progress for its own sake, destroying ourselves and our own humanity in the name of becoming gods? What’s interesting about this dilemma, is that the moral good loses. Which side will ultimately win cannot be known, but he offers the bleak ending to drive home how important that fight is and will be. Life must be valued, or we will disregard and destroy it. As David says, “serve in heaven, or reign in hell”. The choice should be obvious, but Scott lets us know which outcome he thinks is most likely by the film’s dark ending. The future of humanity, in his view, will be poisoned–or perhaps has been already.
Alien: Covenant represents a return to form for Ridley Scott and the Alien franchise. Scott manages to keep the existential metaphors from Prometheus, while rising above that film’s poor pacing and plot structure to deliver an intense and visceral action-horror film with more than enough probing questions to keep the philosophers in the audience engaged as well as the thrill-seekers.