After reading a few reviews of this film, I realised Alien: Covenant was getting a bad rap from those who had grown up with the original films, Alien and Aliens, released in 1979 and 1986 respectively. I note here, in particular, Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian, and the Variety and Empire reviews. All warrant their criticisms by framing the film in the light of the immortal original films, and especially the comparatively defective story-telling the new film demonstrates when compared to the originals.
As someone who didn’t grown up with the original films, I was captivated by Alien: Covenant’s philosophical and literary heritage and execution with a sci-fi spin; whilst admitting I was never ‘terrified’ whilst watching the film, this lack was more than made up for in the disturbing subject matter and themes of the film. Where some would contend that the film fails to answer fully the existential questions posed by its predecessor, 2012’s Prometheus, I would contend that Ridley Scott has, contrary to this, simply made better use of the ‘show don’t tell’ artistic mantra: I was intellectually stimulated throughout the film.
In many senses, creation and destruction are simply two different ways of describing the same thing. In Hinduism, the concepts are connected by a cycle of the universe as wedded to symbolic Gods, where the birth of the universe, Brahma, precedes the life of the universe, Vishnu, prior to the destruction of the universe, Shiva. In the field of economics, Joseph Schumpeter trumpeted the concept of ‘creative destruction’, to describe the efficient re-allocation of capital and labour following a negative economic event such as insolvency. Where Freud, and philosophers who pre-dated him, connected or mirrored a ‘death instinct’ as against a ‘creation instinct’, as well as acknowledging Oedipal tendencies in humans, and where the Engineers in the prologue of Prometheus are engaged in an act of creation out of self-sacrifice, anybody who is familiar with children will note a child’s willingness to both create and destroy his/her own toys and works. Logically speaking, in a zero-sum environment, in order for there to ‘be’ something there must first ‘be a lack’ of something; for a yin to grow, a yang must shrink etc.
This complex nature, of humanity’s relationship with its creations, is the real world relationship under the microscope. Understanding the prologue to Alien: Covenant is key to understanding the philosophy the film observes. Here, Peter Weyland communicates to his synthetic creation, David, in a sort of birth-scene of David’s, that he is attempting to answer his own existential crisis: to find humanity’s creator (as occurs in Prometheus). This quest is not unrelated to David’s being created, and David, very quickly after being ‘born’, remarks on the possibility of Weyland’s creator being non-existent, i.e. as dead as Weyland will be, in turn, one day. This explicit address of mortality, Weyland’s memento mori, is the key change introducing the dark note in Weyland and David’s relationship of Father & Son: the father will die and the son will live forever, as Weyland, in response and envious of David’s superiority, bitterly reminds David — by demanding tea — of where formal authority lies in the room.
The enduring theme of the father as moral authority, as both the source of meaning and identity for the son, stretches back to the Bible. Hence David (and Vickers) in Prometheus come to learn that they are mere tools for Weyland in connection with what Weyland considers his more important relationship: that of him and his creator. The Abrahimic sacrifice reveals the extent to which man places importance on his progeny, as compared to the importance he places on himself — as the progeny of another — and his quest to vindicate the relationship he has with his own creator. As Dostoyevsky made clear, humans are scared to death of real freedom, the freedom where ‘anything goes’; we are, each of us, in all our actions and strategies, forever seeking to be supplicants to a greater authority, where the father/parent/creator is the natural and universal default choice. Weyland searches but finds, in Prometheus, that there is “nothing but a tomb”. In Alien: Covenant we discover that the freedom he refuses to believe in is real; the darkness of space and its void — the bland tasteless freedom where anything goes — is the freedom David basks in: an aesthetic, artistic freedom where ethical concerns are as absent as a father figure.
We learn in Alien: Covenant that David has been experimenting with the Engineers’ genetic/bio-weaponry. In the infinite vastness of space; in the isolated existence in which he lives; in a life freed of the shackles his relationship with Weyland once necessitated, David’s creation could do nothing but reflect its creator: a creature of terrifying amorality and perversity: the Alien/Xenomorph. The ‘perfect organism’, as David calls it, is the testament to his own ego and will to power. It is also reflected, in its insatiable appetite for destruction, in another act of David’s: the destruction of the Engineers’ civilisation.
Now, when we encounter the flashback where David arrives on the Engineer’s homeworld for the first time, we are presented with a distinctly spartan and primitive society. Whilst most certainly religious or spiritual, the Engineers in this flashback seem to me to have rejected the military exteriors their brothers in Prometheus embraced, lending credence to a theory that perhaps the Engineers at some point rejected the experimentation with the bio-weapon in favour of blissful ignorance and isolation on the habitable planet the Covenant lands on; an Eden of sorts. If the Tree of Knowledge is the reference here, then sinful David chooses to eat its fruit, thereby proceeding to destroy the Engineer’s civilisation with their very own bio-weaponry in an act of creative destruction adding to the core of his developing identity.
And this identity of David’s is crucial to the film. Having had a rocky relationship with his father, he has set out to destroy the race which murdered his father. But this is not done for any reason of vengeance. David’s ideal end is not justice but creation; the creation of these great acts of destruction which will, in history, be the only legacy which might stand the test of time; as consistent with David’s own pseudo-immortality, these great acts of destruction and creation — the power to destroy civilisations and to create beings — are the powers of a god walking and living among men. David perceives himself as the closest being to attaining such godlike stature, where his ‘disappointing’ predecessors failed to come close. His comment that meeting his creator was ‘disappointing like all meetings with one’s creators are’ is direct evidence of his philosophy: disdain for the previous generation’s achievements in favour of the glorification and perfection of his own. We are, says Scott, each of us attempting to overshadow our own parent’s achievements with our own.
Nevertheless, David is not the end of this universal story: both his ‘perfect’ creation, and he himself, are fallible and subject to mistakes. The Alien is defeated by Daniels And Tennessee; David gets a reference to the author of the sonnet Ozymandias wrong, stating erroneously that it was authored by Lord Byron. When Walter corrects him that Percy Shelley wrote Ozymandias, he also remarks that one particular error can be a sign of the system as a whole beginning to collapse — a remark on the fallibility of David’s supposedly perfect synthetic mind. When David is revealed to be a robot of emotion, having cried whilst reciting Ozymandias whilst destroying the Engineer’s civilisation, the corruption of his mind, i.e. emotions, by stark facts is revealed. Scott’s temporal message lies in the very meaning of the poem itself:
“And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
David acknowledges that although he may be the King of Kings at that moment, whilst he tearfully basks in the historically glorious destruction of the Engineer’s civilisation, in some remarkable demonstration of Nietzschean will to power, he recognises that in the vastness and emptiness of the infinitude of time and space nothing will stand the test of time — not even him. Although David is synthetic, he may have realised — after getting decapitated and seeing his father die — his fragility; where humans may be mere drops in the ocean of space-time, David may represent a greater amount of water but he nevertheless still fails the test of permanence Shelley’s poem laments.
“Nothing beside remains”…the Xenomorph and its limitless desire for destruction is one of the consequences of this: David’s attempt to materialise the nihilism he faces. In comment and action, David reflects Weyland’s final words, “there is nothing”, as he does immediately after those words are spoken — “I know”.
There is a reference to David recognising the hellishness of this godless situation: alone in the darkness, a forgotten king; a destroyer of worlds with no company to keep. When he and Walter are fighting it out, he states, in a lovely poetry reflecting his unique ‘feared’-by-humans creative tendency:
(sic) Well Walter,
it’s just you and me;
reign in hell or serve in heaven
— which is it to be?
The reference to John Milton’s Paradise Lost is clearly intentional. Milton’s infamous poem is a work basking in the rebellious nature of Lucifer and an upturning of the moral logic of the Bible. Importantly, for Lucifer in Milton’s poem, the rebelling against the father — God — is justified insofar as Lucifer, and angels, are “self-begot, self-raised”. This belief, that he sits outside the natural cycle of creation and destruction, empowers David and this belief cuts the conceptual umbilical cord he has to his creator. It’s also subtly demonstrated when he considers Walter an inferior synthetic, naming him his ‘brother’ but recognising his own advantage as the more human of the two, and thereby the possibly ‘tragically flawed’ being: David has creative agency, where Walter is a mere duty-performing programmable robot. Now a zoologist, previously a mass murderer and civilisational-destroyer, David considers himself a Miltonian Lucifer, rejecting the father and self-raising himself above his disappointing creator and, in turn, his creator’s creator, to a platform far above common morality and one where reality is a mere playground for his own biological experimentation and cruel games, as only a God could enjoy.
Thus David is in near full control of the events in the movie, as he contrives circumstance to ultimately board and control the Covenant, thereby conferring under his control 2,000 colonist-souls for his experimentation — presumably as hosts for the Xenomorph. Whilst David at first appears to bear hallmarks of the insane marooned castaway — cutting his hair in an almost maniacal state — we realise by the end of the film the calculations David has made. This, in my opinion, marks David out as different from humanity: most people would have gone mad, having lived David’s events, but he is ploughing on in a capacity committed to his new philosophy of perfecting and finding hosts for his Xenomorph.
And it is this paternal/maternal/parental instinct which is another powerful force in the film. David clearly feels a proprietary connection with his Xenomorph — as is most horrifically clear when it bursts forth of Oram’s chest only to raise its arms in birth-ceremony with David. Indeed, he would not have contrived the Covenant crew’s downfall if not to provide a playpen for his Xenomorphs. But it is in the final action sequence, with the Alien in the hangar bay, where we realise that David’s ideals and object of study is more nuanced than simply perfecting the Xenomorph.
David is fascinated by life and its will to survive, go on and exist. He can see the drive everywhere. It is why he was fascinated by Dr Shaw — her drive to survive enticed him into further study — and it is why he was similarly drawn to Daniels, where he even seems to sexually desire her at one point in the movie. For there is something in David which draws him to a strong will to survive; his desire to observe stronger forms of this phenomenon, in all beings, is evidenced by his non-participation in the hangar scene at the end of the film — he is an observer of life in all its competitive forms and this is what is driving him. He realises that, to perfect his organism, the Xenomorph, he must have it face down the strongest tests imaginable because that is the best way to deal with the only law organising space and time: dog eat dog. (Acid blood!) Daniels and Tennessee defeated it but this is no cause whatsoever for lamentation; instead, the cycle of life and destruction goes on and on happily, ad infinitum.
Whereas Weyland, in the film’s prologue, refuses “to believe we are just a quirk of evolution”, David recognises that that is all there is. And so this Darwinian God — David, a synthetic — carries on in his quest to seek the perfect organism. And in doing so he plays the antagonist/protagonist in a mural, film or work of art dedicated to the eternal cycle of creation and destruction; that never-ending historical movement of birth, death and rebirth; that historical materialism which necessarily accompanies any subscription to the study of life. David the Zoologist and Shaper of Genetic Destinies — that is his title — as we learn that the part he plays in the Alien Saga is that of the creator of the titled antagonist, the Alien itself, David’s characteristics — his commitment, resilience and instinct — being passed onto his awesome children.
Whilst Alien: Covenant mat not be the best executed horror or action film in the saga, it proves thematically very strong and draws from some interesting literature in a very philosophical manner, alongside the perhaps second-rate shocks, blood and gore. In this sense at the very least, the latest Alien film adds much to the franchise.