Like Prometheus, Alien: Covenant refuses to allow either the religious or materialist viewer to remain comfortable in their own belief or unbelief: for every Christian and Darwinian horror there is seared to it the inability of both the religious and rationalist impulses to make sense of the tragedy.
* * *
If Prometheus was Ridley Scott’s pilgrimage into the blackest heart of the violent tensions between science and faith in the modern age, Alien: Covenant is his full-scale deconstruction of the Romantic aesthetic ideal. Miltonic in both its scope and themes, Covenant unleashes the Sublime upon the archetypal New World narrative in the deadliest and most horrifying of ways. Perhaps the most brutal of Scott’s forays into the Alien universe, Covenant backs up his bold prequel-venture with continued visual and narrative heft and, like 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, reminds us of the summer blockbuster’s too often untapped potential.
Narratively and thematically Covenant both follows and intersects with the events of Prometheus, and viewing the original Alien comes only recommended, not required. Those looking primarily for xenomorph-slasher-action, disappointed with Scott’s journeying away from the universe’s pure horror roots into space odyssey with Prometheus, will find more to sate their bloodlust, but thankfully the director’s interest in the aliens themselves remains eclipsed by deeper questions of creator/creature relationships. Covenant is fundamentally the story of a colonizing mission, the titular vessel Covenant and its crew converging with the marooned android David (well played once again by Michael Fassbender, below). It is the collision of New World idealism with the infamous Lucifer of Milton’s Paradise Lost that forms the backbone of Covenant, with David playing the created being in a struggle to assume the role of creator-god himself, with predictably horrifying results. Fassbender also plays Walter, a later-model android attached to the colonists, whose interactions with David provide some of the film’s best manipulations of not only intra-angel conflict in Paradise Lost but broader biblical stories and ethical questioning, from Cain murdering Abel and Noah’s Ark to the degree of a creator’s sovereignty.
Profoundly connected to the Miltonic narrative is Scott’s visual aesthetic. If David acts as the Byronic hero (Lord Byron himself is referenced in a manner oh-so-full of implications), the Lucifer-archetype so lauded by the Romantics, then the dark and jagged beauty of the mountainous planet on which the colonists land is the manifested definition of the Sublime: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful 86). As ion hurricanes crackle overhead, the colonists are dwarfed by splintered and shattered trees, sheer rock faces that proclaim reverent awe in the same breath as the prospect of death. These natural phenomena are framed in the widest shots possible, suggesting magnitude that forces the audience to wallow in their own insignificance. Almost the entire film is drenched in darkness, prompting visual probing and wondering, the camera supplying images that suggest far more terrible yet wondrous things just beyond the presence of shadow and the limits of human perception.
The Romantics may have been obsessed with the Sublime as an aesthetic principle, but in Covenant the Sublime dismembers not merely human emotion but humans themselves. The Romantic Sublime, with the idolized Lucifer hidden in the garden, becomes the film’s most horrifying threat. The Romantic reading of Milton is thrust into the act of consuming itself, and the warring of creators and creatures so prominent in Prometheus is elevated to even greater heights, striving for (quite unsubtly) and often achieving Wagnerian levels of conflict. David, Lucifer in all his glory, is a slaughterer of innocents and manipulator of science, a demigod and evolutionary nightmare both. Scott never lets up with this thematic assault, and, like Prometheus, Covenant refuses to allow either the religious or materialist viewer to remain comfortable in their own belief or unbelief: for every Christian and Darwinian horror there is seared to it the inability of both the religious and rationalist impulses to make sense of the tragedy.
Within genre trappings more akin to a horror-epic fusion than a modern blockbuster, Scott moves individual characters around as types rather than as fully fleshed out humans. Because of this, our heroine in this chapter, Daniels (ably played by Katherine Waterston) comes across a bit indistinct, more akin to the survivor-Ripley than believer-Shaw, but the payoff comes in Scott’s continued fixation with more cerebral and philosophical concerns, a compelling counterpoint to the increasingly visceral nature of his Alien films. Unfortunately, none of the horror sequences can quite match the focused and existentially horrifying surgery-birth from Prometheus, and a few of the more violent killings bear the marks of being bones thrown to petulant fanboys bored with Scott’s new creative vision, occasionally crossing over from the genuinely terrifying to the cartoonishly grotesque.
However, Scott’s penchant for set design and establishing an authentic sense of place, helped by frequent collaborator Dariusz Wolski’s measured and deliberate compositions, aids him in constructing several exhilarating sequences. Most notable are the myth-building middle section and a mid-air fight toward the end of the film, both showcasing a master of craft sustaining the height of his creative powers. In the end, Alien: Covenant walks that fine line between providing too much and too little, dwelling comfortably in the terrain of the uncertain, a film just as valuable for the thoughts it provokes as for the artistic piece that it is. Brutal and not for the faint of heart, Scott’s Alien universe increasingly reflects the spiritual wrestling of Herman Melville, who himself occupied historical space between an age of religion and an age of reason, and in whose own poetic epic of pilgrimage the question is asked “but though ’twere made demonstrable that God is not – what then? It would not change this lot: the ghost would haunt, nor could be laid” (Clarel I.31.193-196).
In Alien: Covenant, God is most certainly dead, but the shadow cast by the body is long.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.
Melville, Herman. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. 1876. Northwestern University Press, 2008.