[Spoilers for Alien: Covenant throughout]
When 1979’s initial entry in the Alien franchise hit theaters, there was no doubt what the title of the film referred to: the horrifically beautiful Xenomorph is the centerpiece of the film, its presence and visage hinted at in the film’s original poster:
Save for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, the human characters in the first few Alien films are your standard-issue horror movie fodder. They exist mostly so the Xenomorph(s) have something to sink their freakishly long teeth into.
When the series returned from its 15-year slumber (not many franchises survive releasing a turd like Alien: Resurrection unscathed) with 2012’s Prometheus, the focus of the series shifted. The humans stepped out from the greenish glow of the Xenomorphs and began to take center stage.
Prometheus begins with a question of creation, and the instinct to seek out your own creator is a running theme through the new entries in the franchise. Much of the first prequel deals with universe-building, and also with how complicit humanity is in the creation of the vile beasts that Ripley will eventually wage war against.
The line of prequels and shift in focus continues with Alien: Covenant, which opened in theaters just this weekend. The film is a perfect blend of what made the original movies so terrifying, and the prequel so intriguing.
Three main characters in Covenant lose a spouse in the first half of the movie, and those tragedies have an immediate impact on how they make decisions. Early on, two characters have it out over which planet to attempt to colonize. The character who just lost her husband argues that they should stick with the planet they originally set out for, where she had planned to build a lakeside cabin with her partner. The captain, who has not yet undergone a traumatic loss, insists they try a newfound planet nearby that is broadcasting a mysterious, garbled signal.
The captain will eventually lose his spouse as well, and instantaneously transforms into the emotional, irrational, blubbering mess that he previously looked down upon.
A major criticism of Prometheus (particularly from casual viewers) stemmed from how characters made irrational choices, such as taking their helmets off while exploring an uncharted, unknown planet. Covenant plays out as a response to those slights, with logical thinking and actions leading characters directly to their death.
The captain chooses a planet based on some pretty rational thinking, but it’s of course crawling with Xenomorphs. Another character does well to think on her feet, quarantining two infected humans, grabbing a gun, and attempting to kill the alien… only to slip on a pool of blood, and with a more few errant shots, she blows up the entire transport ship. The point here is that, people make the right choices all the time and still suffer unfortunate consequences.
It should be no surprise that the movie-going public thirsts for perfect human beings when they go to the cinema. Sitting back in a recliner, eating popcorn, the audience craves exactly what they are not. They don’t seek a reminder of their own imperfections, they want to watch Sylvester Stallone blow up people with alarming precision. For a generation weened on action films featuring one-man armies, it’s entirely logical that John Wick is praised for its realism, while Prometheus is panned for its fallacies.
The film kicks this theme into high gear when it reintroduces David (played by Michael Fassbender), the synthetic caretaker that turned out to be quite villainous by the end of Prometheus.
David is a creature devoid of emotion, one who supposedly makes all his decisions based on logic and reason. He is created by emotional creatures, however, bastardizing the audience’s dream of seeing a character who always makes the “smart” decision.
It’s revealed in the film that David’s model has been shelved since we last saw him, replaced by Walter (also played by Fassbender, who adopts a somewhat ludicrous midwest accent when portraying the newer robot). Humans were unsettled by David, and how we was constantly striving to be more human by creating symphonies, watching movies and attempting to form bonds with his corporeal charges.
Just like your average movie-goer treats the characters projected on the screen in front of them, the inhabits of the Alien universe did not want to see a reflection of their own humanity in David. To them, it’s strange that David would want so badly to emulate them. He’s living the dream of being a perfect, coldly logical being, and he wants to be more like us, vulnerable, soft creatures who live life according to the whims of their feelings?
Eventually, the audience realizes that David is a corrupt amalgamation of creation and creator. Knowing full-well how he was created and by whom, inspires David to attempt to take on that role himself. Just like children learn by seeing their parents do things, David watches humanity play God and decides to give the role a shot himself.
Conversing with his newer robotic counterpart, David quotes from the poem Ozymandias:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!Nothing beside remains. Round the decayOf that colossal Wreck, boundless and bareThe lone and level sands stretch far away.
But, rather subtly, he flubs the author of the poem: he attributes it to Lord Byron, when in fact it was penned by Percy Shelley. The film calls no attention to David’s mistake, but it’s the first sign that something is wrong. David is not perfect, as humans always assume of robots. If he can make such a simple error, is he really as logical and “sane” as he appears?
Through the course of the second half of the film, David supersedes the Xenomorph as the true villain of the series by turning into something more akin to Dr. Frankenstein than Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
In the early Alien movies, your typical denouement featured the titular alien somehow finding a way to stick around for any potential sequels.
Covenant seems to be following the typical formula: as the remaining crew pile back onto their ship, a Xenomorph clings on underneath. After they dispatch that pesky stowaway, another alien explodes out of a crew-member in the med bay. The film’s heroine summarily sends that invader packing out of an airlock, and suddenly the audience has to ask themselves, what threat is left? It can’t just be ‘they lived happily ever after’, right?
Right. All that remains is David. David and Walter have a knock-down, drag-out fight right before the colonizers flee the planet, but the film cuts away before it reveals which android comes out on top.
The robot that emerges from the fight certainly looks and acts like Walter: he’s missing his right hand, he has the odd lilt in his voice, and he helps the colonizers get ready for their long journey to the other planet. But, at the last minute, if you hadn’t already picked up on it, the robot’s true identity is revealed.
David’s arc will hopefully conclude in another sequel, one that finally bridges the remaining gap between the prequels and the original series. The quote I used for the title of this blog comes from a discussion in Alien between Ripley and Ash, the ship’s robot.
Ripley has come to the realization that Ash’s primary duty aboard the ship is to ensure the safety of the Xenomorph, with no regard for the well-being of the humans on-board. Ash admits he has admiration for the beast:
I admire its purity. A survivor…unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.
Alien: Covenant is not only excellent because of its themes and the fresh ideas that are injected into a long-running series, it’s also just a wonderfully exciting Sci-Fi/Horror film. There are some truly gross moments featuring the Aliens bursting out of various different parts of the human body, and some kills that will have even the most horror-weathered viewer gripping his or her armrest.