Destroy All Monsters: Hell Is The Human Race In ALIEN: COVENANT

Columnist; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
2
Sign-In to Vote
Destroy All Monsters: Hell Is The Human Race In ALIEN: COVENANT

Spoilers.

"Mortal, after all," crows the android David (Michael Fassbender) in Prometheus, upon discovering that the "gods" his crew has sought - the Engineers - can in fact be killed. In Alien: Covenant we learn that David took his name from Michelangelo's eponymous statue, a metatextual irony, given that the Engineers in Prometheus were designed by the filmmakers to resemble that exact Platonic ideal. Having cemented the connection between David, created by humans, and the Engineers, who created humanity, David moves in Covenant to sever the link. In one of the film's more disturbing scenes (and Covenant has these by the bale), the android murders the entire Engineer race. Mortal, after all. But what is David?

We're missing a step here. As much as David was a highly ambiguous character in Prometheus - poisoning Doctor Holloway, doping Elizabeth Shaw for extraction to Earth, and (intentionally?) leading Peter Weyland to his death - in Covenant he is an outright genocidal lunatic. This is not the David whose severed head went into a gym bag at the end of the previous film, and off with Elizabeth on her next adventure across space. The film I see most reflected in Ridley Scott's latest Alien film, in imagery and tone, is his Hannibal adaptation... or reaching even further back, Blade Runner itself. David is Hannibal Lecter exultant. He is Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty, risen on burnt angel wings. He is, of course, Satan.

I operate under the theory that each Alien film, for all of their outer space (and therefore science fiction) trappings, do in fact reside within their own unique storytelling genre. Alien was the haunted house movie, with its titular creature standing in for the knife-wielding psycho of '70s slashers, while Aliens took a platoon into a post-Vietnam war. Alien3 told a fin-de-siecle tale of the end of the world, and Alien: Resurrection conjured up a perverse fairy tale about what happens after.

Prometheus, in fact, has been the only one of the lot that I would directly call science fiction proper: an (albeit bent) episode or dimestore paperback about dopey humans on a mission of scientific and philosophical exploration, who find the knowledge they are seeking, and then get so much of that knowledge crammed into their prideful heads that their eyes burst out of their sockets - sometimes literally.

The marketing for Alien: Covenant, from the title downward, has worked overtime to dull the connection between the film and its immediate predecessor, the much-reviled Prometheus. Images of the original xenomorph, resurrected via CGI puppetry from Giger's designs for the first film, are everywhere, from bus ads to review headlines.

These images position Covenant as the latest in this decade's major cinematic movement: the return of nostalgic faves from forty years ago. "Didn't like Prometheus?" the ads bark. "No problem! We've got a proper Alien movie for ya, just like the ones you remember from way back when." I'm sure many people, myself included, piled into the theatre this weekend expecting that Covenant, at worst, would be yet another Alien knockoff, set on yet another parasite-infected spaceship, with its dwindling humans all alone among the stars.

Well, I've got another Prometheus quote for the occasion: "We were wrong. We were so wrong."

Finding little, if any, public interest in his obverse creation mythology coming out of Prometheus, but wanting to carry it off nonetheless - and being, well, Ridley fucking Scott - Covenant's greatest accomplishment is how completely and unapologetically it weaponizes our puerile nostalgia to get along with the business of making Prometheus II anyway.

The gang's all here - the spaceship with long corridors, the hapless crew in hoodies and cargo pants, the xeno and the facehugger and the chestburster - but boy, it's hard to imagine a movie caring less about any of them than Alien: Covenant does. They're little more than a framing device, narrative tools to get you through the film's first thirty minutes and last fifteen, so that we can spend the lion's share of the experience - and all of the story Scott actually wants to tell - on the planet, with David.

That planet, which we might just as well call Paradise (in a nod to Scott's original prospective title for the Prometheus project and/or its sequel), and which was filmed in paradise itself (New Zealand), bears no animal life of any kind and quickly proves itself to be the kind of place where moron space travellers (no helmets? really?) quickly get themselves killed.

Spores become neomorphs; neomorphs herald xenomorphs; and never has there been an Alien movie in which its eponymous creature exists so completely outside the point. David is the monster (?) this time, and we will find out how and why; and never has blasting an Alien out of an airlock felt more like a false victory than in Covenant's final third, because something hovering just below our gut tells us unequivocally that the threat was always elsewhere. In Alien3, "the Beast" was a kind of Miltonian avatar crawling around the infernal circles of the Jungian unconscious by way of the Fury 161 penal colony. In Covenant, Milton's back, Hell is real, and the Alien is an afterthought.

The creature has no more thematic purpose in the story than the movie's humans, who are equally useless, and might be standing in for us, the audience: faithless rubes brought to this place with the promise of one thing, only to be confronted with the purpose of another. The things in Covenant that turn out to matter are David, his android "brother" Walter, the memory of Elizabeth Shaw, and the horrific necropolis on that alien world, in which torches gutter and cadavers rot.

If the Engineers were Michelangelo's David in Prometheus, here they are Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, pinned on cards, plastinated back into statuary, dissected for their bones and their ligaments and their insights into what makes a creature "go." Each sequence on Paradise reveals an even more gorge-filling perversion of creation, as we delve into a theatre of horrors made by a half-man Lawrence of Arabia fetishist who hated his daddy and spends too much time alone contemplating his "mother."

We find poor Elizabeth, staged in David's laboratory like the victim of an amateur lepidopterist. All of Prometheus' collateral debts are paid in a single move, falling into the narrative disconnect mentioned above. Elizabeth might have been a person of faith (so too is this film's secondary lead, Oram), but these films supply direct personages for our creators while ruthlessly removing any possibility of their divinity, and thereby, any article of faith or love.

There has never been a god more watchmaker than this, whose only interest in the act of creation is the intellectual event of it. Not for nothing is Covenant's man of faith played by Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan himself, Billy Crudup, an ironic reference to the ultimate watchmaker god. Now, David is playing in the same space. Somewhere along the way, he realized he didn't just hate his maker: he hates all of us, as only a true serial killer can. He loved and hated Elizabeth so much he couldn't help but tear her to pieces.

(That's me as well, by the way. On the Alien 8-film list I'd put Covenant somewhere between the theatrical cut of Alien3 and Alien: Resurrection, but here I am, studying its component molecules like I've found Yahweh incarnate.)

"They are a dying species, grasping for resurrection," David says of the human race; "They don't deserve to start again and I'm not going to let them." Fair point re: the current (or permanent?) state of our species. I couldn't help but be reminded of the apoplectic skies of Kurosawa's Ran, another film where a lone potentate has gone mad, while unidimensional characters around him behave less as people and more as avatars of an inherently poisonous human nature.

Kurosawa was nearly 80 when he made Ran, and gave it none of the hope or humanism that inflected his earlier work, having - by that age - apparently decided that the human race was more likely just fucked. Scott will be 80 next year, and his early work had little interest in hope, but his late-career Promethean opus is no less reliably savage. He doesn't think much of any of us. He's spent a career dazzling and horrifying us with technical construction, and when he makes a flick as optimistic as The Martian, it's less to make us feel good than to prove to us that he can. We've been his catspaws all along.

Alien: Covenant asks what Hell would actually be like, and answers: God never cared; why should I? Hell would be understanding God's vanity just as clearly as understanding that rebellion against Him, a la Paradise Lost, is ultimately as purposeless and futile as servitude. The movie has - like David, and Ridley Scott I suppose - a fanatic contempt for every other link in the chain: the gods who made us, and the things we ourselves made. Covenant is Ridley Scott dispensing with covenants. It is, in its way, the director saying "I don't give a fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck about Alien, or even Prometheus. They're done. I only ever care about what I'm doing now."

And so, on the subject of genre: Alien: Covenant is the horror movie. True horror, not slasher-movie horror; the horror of creation, and mutation, and growth begetting change begetting chaos. Werner Herzog's jungle: the harmony of overwhelming, collective murder. This is horror like Mary Shelley wrote it, or her husband, who is quoted (and misquoted) at length by David and Walter. "Look upon my works, ye mighty," a director catcalls his audience, unveiling the symphony of revulsion at the heart of Alien: Covenant. "And despair."


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.

2
Sign-In to Vote
Screen Anarchy logo
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here to report it, or see our DMCA policy.
AlienMichael FassbenderPrometheusRidley Scott

More about Destroy All Monsters (Matt Brown)

More about Alien: Covenant

Less Lee MooreMay 22, 2017 7:45 PM

Excellent writing as always!!!!

One-EyeMay 22, 2017 11:03 PM

Okay, so if David wiped out the Engineers who is the one who eventually crash landed on LV-426?

Ard VijnMay 23, 2017 4:00 AM

We'll see in the third film. Here's my piece of conjecturing:

In the third film, engineers from another planet investigate what the hell happened on their homeworld, and follow the Covenant's trail to Origae-6. There, they encounter David and an army of thousands of super-aliens, which he intends to let loose upon the universe as his ultimate life-form, to destroy all engineers and their offspring. After the engineers battle David and nearly everyone dies horribly, a last surviving engineer lifts off with a boomerang-ship full of black eggs. But he crashes the ship on LV-426 after a facehugger "hugs" him while he's strapped in the pilot's chair.

Meanwhile back on Earth, the Weyland Yutani company is pissed off by having now lost two ships and a colony. They put super-synths on board of all their ships, and re-route their fleet to search for clues. The Nostromo eventually is the one picking up the signal from LV-426, and Bob's your uncle.

KurtMay 23, 2017 9:18 AM

*SPOILERS DUH*

With the long times that space travel require for humans and The Engineers (both have cryotubes), it seems likely that the planet in Covenant is only one of several Engineer colony worlds. And since David only DNA bombed one port in one city, it seems very likely that there was some exodus before the DNA virus wiped out the planet.

It seemed to me that part of David's bio-lab experiments were aimed on a generic extinction of both humanity, and The Engineers. Any number of things to cause a lone ship to go and crash on a foreign world.

Personally, I don't really care if Scott directly connects (a la Rogue One) to the original Alien, there is enough DNA (sorry) out there to make any number of connections that do not require explicit dot-connecting.

I'm happy that DAVID is the principle character in this new Trilogy of films rather than Dr. Shaw.

MehliensMay 23, 2017 10:10 AM

Matt, in the 1979 Alien Ash the synthetic was the real monster as well. He took the scary crown from the Alien like a popsicle from a baby.

MehliensMay 23, 2017 10:50 AM

Knowing Scotts cynicism that is briefly mentioned in the above analysis I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't give a fuck about that either, because ultimately it doesn't have a meaning except to tie into the 1979 film. He even glossed over most of Prometheus with a devilish grin, and that hurt a lot of actual fans of that film. ^^

chuckMay 23, 2017 12:37 PM

*****SPOILERS BELOW****

Even after sitting on the film now for a few days I am more then ever assured that this was two complete films that got stuck together to make one. I honestly wish they would have split the two, I really enjoyed the David parts of the film but the jarring cut back and forth between the two totally different movies happening always took me out of it.

Out of the Alien proper film that was tacked into David's Paradise Lost the only part that even worked was the well staged scene with Faris and Karine in the med bay on the drop ship, the use of score and just the general reactions of the two actors had more tension then all of the rest of the film. I wish THAT had been divorced from Paradise Lost and been maybe the aftermath of the unhinged David in the next film ( I also totally understand why they didn't do this,after that Lindelof-ian miss-fire of epic proportions that was Prometheus they needed to "toss in some Xenos!" to get butts in the seats).

Also that ending jumped thru some high hoops to get that outcome of David taking the ship, I even felt that there was a glimmer of hope in Daniels figuring out "Walter" and playing him as well as the Alien but I guess the "clueless humans" STILL could't figure it out and taking the totally obvious way out was easier? NO ONE in the theater was surprised, some even yelling it out at the end in agitation on how cheap it felt. And how in the hell do those cryopods not have an emergency release on the inside? What do you do if you wake up early? Wait around inside till Mother opens you? Die cause the life systems don't work? Again too many hoops to get that "gotcha!" moment at the end when there could have been many ways to get to that outcome that didn't need to break more movie logic.

But still a great write-up and I feel that you as well wanted a David proper film, I for one would have gladly paid my $15 to see just that, what we get instead was something that went half way but not all the way.

chuckMay 23, 2017 12:39 PM

The bigger question is, if David made them then how are Predators in the year 2003 hunting them in a temple on Earth? Does he also invent time travel to go back thousands of years to give the Predators some eggs so they can hunt them for sport?

I am guessing AvP is not considered canon any longer but still a fun thing to consider!

KurtMay 23, 2017 3:14 PM

Rolled up newspaper method of choking is disturbing...

KurtMay 23, 2017 3:14 PM

AvPs were never on canon, there are just expensive fan films.

MehliensMay 23, 2017 4:23 PM

Haha totally. Alien wouldn't be close to the masterpiece it is without Ash being the devil behind the scenes. So Scott really just stuck to the formula that he invented and brought it to level Hitler in Covenant.

MehliensMay 24, 2017 5:39 AM

For me the gotcha moment (more like a punch in the gut with a wrecking ball) was the reveal of David planning to make the entire colony his lab rats for his perverse testing not that he wasn't Walter. That is a total misunderstanding by many reviewers. That twist was given away pretty clearly and only people with absolutely no cinema experience would be surprised by that 'twist' because that wasn't what it was about.

MehliensMay 24, 2017 5:47 AM

Explanation on point!

MehliensMay 24, 2017 5:48 AM

Yeah, the reason I come back to this site is the quality of the writing

MehliensMay 24, 2017 5:51 AM

I already bet that at one point the Xenos will outsmart David in Awakening and thats how Daniels and Tennessee are going to be even part of the movie because Mother will bring em out of Cryostasis after some event that causes an emergency.

Ard VijnMay 24, 2017 7:29 AM

Maybe that huge round ship at the start of PROMETHEUS can travel through time, allowing engineers to seed planets billions of years in the past so they can reap the rewards of slow evolution in present time.

Maybe David gets his hands on such a ship and decides to give the Aztecs some eggs, throwing in some technology to go build a temple on Antarctica.