The people we care most about in Alien: Covenant are those we most delight in seeing eviscerated. David gives us his own flair for the ghoulish, cultivating with us his garden of monsters to view paradise as a necrophiliac views a funeral. The effect of the cunning gore is not fear enough to turn away – we look on as at the conduction of a masterpiece. In its most horrific we breathe a happy sigh; in the God-made-flesh of drooling perfection on its first prowl we fight our own ghastly grins and rising pulse. David acts as though god has given him his biblical namesake’s old covenant, guaranteeing that it will be his lineage that produces the messiah. So many virgin births has Scott wrought in keeping that pact!
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Rage-repressed Ian Holm in Alien was the first of many robot consciences that dared to comment on a natural machine’s biological and sexual assault with words of admiration. “Unclouded,” he said of the thing with the nearest his eyes could come to twinkling, “by delusions of morality.” Now we know the machine was not so natural, as the monster comes home to roost in the intricate paradox of self-idolization. Paradoxical, not because Ridley Scott sees it as doomed to result in suicide, but because he has conceived a universe in which no other idols exist. It was Scott all along, it seems, who was unclouded.
To that end, his most shocking alteration to the body of the Alien canon is a reversal of its terminology. We now know there were never any extraterrestrials in “Alien.” Its beast is made of human DNA from the secondhand mind of one of man’s creations. Weyland-Yutani – that intractably evil corporate conglomerate – has not been raping the final frontier for natural weapons as we had always thought, but reclaiming its own intellectual property. Star Wars, if it has always been about broad world-building posing as mythology, may finally be placed next to Alien as its true opposite. Lucas saw the universe from beneath the wide-eyed brims of a cowboy astronaut, while Scott peeps through the keyhole of man’s ego at a small and shrilly void filled with sex and fear and petty dreams and nothing more amazing or bold than the creations of mad people.
With Alien: Covenant, Scott safely returns Alien to the basic genome of its genre. Prometheus was a bold splat of internal conflict and latent poetry, an unlikely prequel to a dark house slasher flick. In all franchise filmmaking, none has been so pronouncedly bleak or unreceptive to expectations (this worked to its credit – a topic for another time). Scott seemed to conceive it to be as diversely potent as the reactions to Alien that made it possible. The fact that he has now responded to Prometheus’ negative press with straighter monster horror reveals the cannier Scott doing what Lucas could never do: managing the desires of his fandom.
But what awakens Covenant to life is how far he responded, guided by the bright burnished eyes of David the android (Michael Fassbender). He makes of him a Maestro of the Macabre, as though this was all-caps in drippy sallow font on a placard marquee. Out of him, he gives birth to Covenant.
In Prometheus, David bleached his roots to emulate Peter O’Toole from Lawrence of Arabia. Now he is so curiously cruel, acidic of wit and brashly handsome, that I can picture him in Vincent Price’s roles. He is like any mad scientist in a mansion on a haunted hill – here unmistakably provided by Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead – disarmingly sexy, obvious of intent, German inevitably. But his intentions are so much more for our benefit, just as our captivity in these movies is so willing and so cherished. “Idle hands,” proclaims David as though he’s Scott, “are the Devil’s work.” With this I hear Scott’s guarantee of at least two more of these, before he’s satisfied.
David’s planet – still not LV-426 from the first Alien, for those keeping track – used to belong to the Engineers. These are the grey giants of Scott’s apocrypha, who seeded a primal earth with their own DNA to create its life and gave us all the manifold old gods in forms of themselves. Covenant takes place in their cities, the place where if Prometheus willed out we were meant to seek and find them and receive the commandments of a new age of gods and men. But now the planet is David’s “dire acropolis,” usurped from its gods with their own magic. Covenant rejects the journey to Paradise, Prometheus’ hope for the future, no less ceremoniously than David deposes his father’s father. Those still sore from the opening credits of Alien3 may find their discomfort in relapse, as the Noomi Rapace arc dissipates off-screen, almost as a joke on decent expectations.
But I take this not as a fault. All these are old pagan idols in Scott’s new religion: the repurposed errors of the series, the repossession of genre tropes. Even David’s interference in the plans of his creator’s creation is no less virulent and to no different result than when the fans themselves chewed up a Chariots of the Gods think-piece and demanded more bugs kissing the walls of people’s sternums. Who could complain about Prometheus being incomplete, when it was we who crashed its ship and killed its gods before we asked them our questions? I sense Scott using his audience to dismantle itself. He might have read Paradise Lost when he thought of Covenant (Paradise was its original title), of which John Milton said that its pagan representations were designed to “destroy the gods in their own shrine.”
This happens in the viewing of Covenant. I imagine Scott’s version of it to be a canny “You asked for it” from the adjacent seat, before taking from us the very thing we believed in enough to make it this far. This happens in the film, to its formula, its prime idol. There is revisionary design here that is more like a disenchantment of the whole genre (which includes even Alien).
Alien was always a “Don’t go in there!” movie, named for the thing you shout at the screen when you watch it. The difference, subtly fundamental, was that “going in there” is what makes the monster. There was nothing waiting for Kane (John Hurt, the first victim in Alien) on the Derelict but the curiosity he brought with him. He looked and went in, as all do, to satisfy a basic human ache for transgression. He was transgressed in turn – out of him came the monster. So this formula should not be viewed with eye-rolling (worse, with Wes Craven’s parodic cynicism) but as a kind of Jungian dream logic, rife with unhinged desires, latent ambitions, and sexual ghosts. Characters go in places not because of stupidity, but as they do in nightmares, because they must. The mazes are labyrinthine even when they are one hallway long, and house the repossessed creation myths of impotent kings and vengeful fathers. David did not make an Alien, as Scott apparently did not, but a Minotaur, a vile and phallic rage monster born of unhinged ambition, repressed dysfunction masquerading as masturbatory self-indulgence. He is that fearsome id monster again in Covenant.
The crew of Covenant safeguard some 2,000 frozen colonists to a destination rerouted by curiosity. They pick up a ghostly blip on their radar and decipher it as a John Denver tune (who wouldn’t go in there, knowing that?). Softly athletic Daniels (Katherine Waterston) plays the played-out voice of caution in a movie obviously headed for a haunted house. She is no more developed than the voice in your dream that tells you to turn back. No one else – Danny McBride and Billy Crudup among them – wears much more than the skin of their archetype.
But then their robot groundskeeper effaces expectations. Fassbender’s first role is as David’s doppelganger, called Walter. He is programmed for intractability, castrated of the creative and emotive powers that in David made people “uncomfortable.” He prefaces David’s towering compulsions with sincere detachment, enough to make you prefer machines and more – to attribute all that has been bad in these robots to the men who made them.
In an early scene, David, to the backdrop of “The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla,” names himself for his father, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). He was thinking of the Michelangelo, a creative will’s view of his own perfection. There is subtler than a look – barely a twinge – of malice on David when Weyland responds to a conversation about the robot’s immortality with an order for tea.
The room is stark, linoleum-white, as though the beginning of Covenant is where Dave Bowman ended up living his life at the end of infinity in 2001: A Space Odyssey, on the cusp of his final evolution. This is his father’s house. His own is a Gothic castle brimming with body horror and Egyptian allusion, with orifices and spastic wombs and beetles. In Walter he tries to hatch an appreciation for creativity which he will never have. In the shrewdly masturbatory scene, Fassbender teaches himself to play a flute in a cavern littered with porn. But symbolism elevates self-sex to a religious rite (the true nature of horror movies is revealed at last!) with David’s failed children lining the walls on penitent little crosses, among drawings of his mutilated lover. He seals himself with a kiss and welcomes the madness. He draws his beasts out of the earth (some of them are dust clouds that climb into the creases of your inner ear) as Prospero raised his monster Caliban from the dust of his isle in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and taught him to speak. David readies to take his island peopled with horrors to a universal scale, as though we’ve never heard of galactic conquest before he threatened to dominate us with us.
He’s not all there, you see, if misquoting an author from his databanks is equal proof as engineering an anti-Christ. More important is this inevitable conclusion revealed against Walter’s intractable automation: that madness may or may not make David broken, but it unmistakably makes him human.
Now you see the full circle, Scott’s viscera of introspection: that the monster most feared in all movies for its foreignism, is now most feared for its humanity. Any who have ever criticized the original monster for being a man in a suit must now face that man, as though the new scariest eventuality would be for him to remove his mask and settle down with the heroine in their nest of mutually repressed rage and vengeful affection. “You’ve been in my life so long,” Ripley said to the monster in Alien3, “I can’t remember anything else.” With every step Covenant retreads its old ground. But every panning shot of a fog-addled shore so works against every cruel moving part that it realizes an impossibly multi-textural future, made surreal by its unhinged functionality. It’s so kinesthetically perverse that it becomes romantic. It has such Wagnerian passion for the expected that it becomes to its genre like body horror to someone self-immolating.
So the people we care most about in Covenant are those we most delight in seeing eviscerated. David gives us his own flair for the ghoulish, cultivating with us his garden of monsters to view paradise as a necrophiliac views a funeral. The effect of the cunning gore is not fear enough to turn away – we look on as at the conduction of a masterpiece. In its most horrific we breathe a happy sigh; in the God-made-flesh of drooling perfection on its first prowl we fight our own ghastly grins and rising pulse. David acts as though god has given him his biblical namesake’s old covenant, guaranteeing that it will be his lineage that produces the messiah. So many virgin births has Scott wrought in keeping that pact!
Scott has finally taken B-movie trash to its apotheosis, sending the horrific alien down its evolution until we recognize him for us. We would not scream at this, the myth of creating something that has always existed. We delight in its horrific inevitability, as Scott presents it. Such is the madness and the nearness of the cycle that we would rather read Miranda’s famous line, hand swathed by lightning light in our parlor of shadows, laughing the late Vincent’s laugh: “O brave new world! / That has such people in’t!” They just happen to be monsters. Covenant makes you wonder if they ever weren’t.
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Unless otherwise indicated, images are screenshots from the film.