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