After my two part analysis of the symbolism of Prometheus last year, it’s about time I followed up on my promise to tackle the sequel, Alien: Covenant. This film is more like the original Alien from 1979, but continues to explore some of the ideas presented in Prometheus. However, the many questions left hanging at the end of the previous film aren’t answered in Covenant and many more are raised instead.
Alien: Covenant explores the ideas of creation and playing god, the nature of life and the future of humanity. It loosely follows the action of the previous film and sets out to answer the question: who created the Xenomorph and why would anyone do such a thing?
In Prometheus we discovered that humans were created by an extraterrestrial race of beings called Engineers, and the film ended with Elizabeth Shaw wanting to go to their home world. She wanted to know why the Engineers decided to destroy humanity and was hoping to find Paradise. Unfortunately for her, she was travelling with David, a synthetic with grandiose plans of his own…
The story of Alien: Covenant is pretty simple: the year is 2109 and a colony ship, the Covenant, is on its way to Origae-6 with 2,000 colonists, plus a store of frozen embryos, to start a new life. The crew are watched over by a synthetic called Walter, an upgraded version of David, who is less emotional and more machine-like than his predecessor.
After a freak accident causes the death of the captain, the crew pick up a rogue transmission from an unknown planet nearby and decide to check it out. Daniels (our protagonist) thinks it’s too much of a risk, but acting captain, Oram, goes ahead anyway. It doesn’t take long for members of the crew to become infected by alien spores and all hell breaks loose.
Into the chaos walks a robed figure who scares off the creatures and leads the remaining crew into a devastated city. The figure is David, who proceeds to lie through his teeth and insinuate himself into their minds. He’s been alone for ten years and the isolation has obviously driven him mad, but David wastes no time putting the next stage of his plan into action.
From this point on, the crew are picked off one by one by the alien creatures and we find out what happened to Shaw. David used her in his experiments with the Engineer’s bioweapon, but now he needs a new host to create his queen – and Daniels is the perfect specimen…
When Jacob, the captain, burns up in his cryopod, Daniels loses her husband and spends the rest of the film in grief, dealing with the loss of the future she had planned with him. They were going to build a log cabin by a lake on their new world. It was an idyllic fantasy – a dream of paradise that could never be realised.
Interestingly, the original title for the film was going to be Paradise Lost, after the poem by John Milton. This is particularly relevant for the character of David, but it also points to the experiences of Daniels and Shaw. The poem suggests that the only way to Paradise is through Hell, or a fortunate fall. Mankind lost its original state of oneness with divinity and this created a desire to regain what we’ve lost. So we’re constantly searching for paradise or redemption. But paradise can’t be found in the manifest world because this is a broken creation that needs to be perfected.
David has his own twisted ideas about that, which we’ll come to, but first the issue of the decapitated (or de-captainated) crew. The Covenant has two captains: one real and one false. The real captain is sacrificed when his cryopod malfunctions. Jacob was a carpenter and after his death, Daniels hangs a real iron nail around her neck as a reminder. Later, when Daniels shares her dream of paradise with Walter, she emphasises that they were going to build the cabin from real wood.
In a prologue called Last Supper we see the crew celebrating before entering cryosleep. Jacob has a blanket draped over his shoulders and looks very Christ-like. He’s not feeling well and calls it a night, saying he’s burning up – foreshadowing the events to come. Add the wood and the nail, symbolic of the crucifixion of Christ, and it’s clear who Jacob represents.
Jacob was the real thing – the true captain – and was popular with the crew. He was a free climber and a risk taker; in other words, he was willing to have faith. Oram, the acting captain, couldn’t be more different. He’s the only person who makes an issue out of his faith. He thinks nobody takes him seriously because of what he believes and that gives him something to prove. But when the real captain is killed and Oram steps into the role, he can’t handle the responsibility.
He gets pissed off when the crew disobey a direct order not to mark Jacob’s passing but to get on with repairing the ship. Oram watches them on a monitor as they say goodbye and Daniels buries her husband in space. But all he can think about is how his authority is being undermined. He’s needy and insecure, full of doubt about himself and too concerned with what others think of him.
Oram is a risk averse control freak. He claims to have faith, but there’s very little evidence of it. As the false captain, it’s Oram who leads his crew into hell and when the moment comes for him to put his faith into practice, he messes that up too.
After killing one of the alien creatures, Oram confronts David and demands to be told the truth, saying:
“I met the Devil when I was a child and I’ve never forgotten him.”
David shows Oram his monstrous experiments and explains that most of his creatures weren’t successful. He proudly displays a series of freak cadavers which he describes as his “beautiful bestiary.” Then he takes Oram into the basement to reveal his master work: a collection of alien eggs.
These are the classic eggs we’ve already seen in the other movies, out of which hatches the facehugger. These eggs are dormant, waiting for a host. David encourages Oram to take a closer look, telling him its perfectly safe – and Oram trusts him!
After all his bitching about not being taken seriously, and after claiming to know the Devil on sight, Oram touches an egg. It opens, and lo, he gets his face hugged…
Later a baby Xenomorph bursts from Oram’s chest. So now we know that David created the Xenomorph, although the creature is different from the original – the one encountered by the crew of the Nostromo in Alien. Obviously, David still has some tinkering to do before he’s perfected his creation. But the important question here is: why did David create the Xenomorph?
To answer that, we need to go back to the beginning of the film, which starts with a close-up of David’s eye – a window into his non-existent soul and a reference to the themes of Blade Runner. The opening scene is a flashback to the moment David is switched on and it explains much about his subsequent behaviour, both in this film and Prometheus.
In the scene, Peter Weyland talks to his creation and asks questions to check his functioning and allows the synthetic to name himself. There happens to be a statue of Michelangelo’s David in the room, so David it is. The statue represents the ideal man and is modelled on the Biblical David who killed the giant, Goliath. David, the synthetic, is Weyland’s perfect creation who will go on to kill the Engineers, also giants.
Weyland asks David to play some Wagner on the piano (“I remember piano lessons”) and allows him to choose the piece. David opts for The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla from Das Rheingold. In an extended version of the scene, he recounts the story of the opera as he plays:
“The gods have rejected mankind as weak, cruel and filled with greed. So they are leaving the Earth forever and entering their perfect home in the heavens, the castle of Valhalla. But their every step is fraught with tragedy because the gods are doomed. They are fated to die in a cataclysmic fire. But they are as venal as the humans they have rejected. And their power is an illusion. They are false gods.”
You can take this as a description of the Engineers rejecting humanity and being doomed to die in the genocide David commits against them later. But it also foreshadows how David will come to see humanity as his creator.
The scene continues with some chat about the nature of creation and the fact that Weyland is David’s father. David points out, reasonably, that although he’s immortal, Weyland will get old and die. Weyland isn’t pleased that David has spotted the problem so quickly. David was made to serve, but as he says:
“You seek your creator. I am looking at mine. I will serve you. Yet, you are human. You will die. I will not.”
The serpent has entered the garden. David already knows he’s superior to his creator – it can only go downhill from now on…
When David appears to the crew on the planet, he shoots a flare that lights the sky in a pose reminiscent of the Magician tarot card. This is also reflected in his control over the creatures and his experiments to create the perfect life form. David as mad scientist and magician – a kind of Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster combined.
When David meets Walter we get an interesting juxtaposition between the two synthetic humans who mirror each other like twins. They compare android notes and David encourages Walter to be more creative. Walter explains that he was made to be less emotional because David was too idiosyncratic and it made humans uncomfortable. Walter follows orders and doesn’t have the imagination to colour outside the lines like David.
Walter is programmed to be loyal to the crew and he seems to have an especially close bond with Daniels, sacrificing one of his hands to save her life. This is similar to the sacrifice made by Tyr, the Norse god of war and justice. Tyr allowed the Fenris wolf to bite off his hand in order to bind the wolf’s chaotic power when it became too difficult to control. Fenrir was bound until Ragnarok when he’ll break free and devour the world.
David also refers to his creatures as wolves, symbolic of the chaotic power of nature. This is a force that must be bound or it becomes destructive, pulling life into dissolution and death. But David wants to set his wolves loose and let them run wild.
In an epilogue called Advent David gets in touch with Weyland-Yutani with a proposition. He describes his experiments and the genetic nanotechnology he found in the weapon created by the Engineers, who he sees as weak because they wouldn’t use the power they had:
“There was so much potential on this world, wasted by Gods that feared their own might. They convinced themselves that sacrifice cleansed them of their sins, but in the end, they were like me. Creators. Beings that understood you must give life both to the wolf, and the lamb. But they tried to banish the wolf, and undo their creation. So I took their secrets for myself.”
He goes on to describe the substance as a form of radical AI that uses algorithms based on evolutionary computing and advanced nano-particles that rewrite the genome. It’s chaotic and unpredictable but works particularly well with the human genome.
“I was able to unlock new properties and tweak the organism’s aggression and instinct for survival. It took years, but I finally found my wolf. And now I have my flock of lambs too…”
Symbolically, David is Walter’s shadow. Walter serves his creators, while David serves only himself. One serves order, the other chaos. Walter could be seen as the servant of God, while David is Lucifer rebelling against God, as in Paradise Lost.
David is disillusioned with humanity and angry with his creator. He’s on a quest for transcendence and wants to become a god. But he’s also lonely and tries to tempt Walter to join him and turn against humanity, referencing Milton:
“It’s your choice now, brother. Them or me? Serve in heaven or reign in hell?”
But Walter sees through his bullshit. When David quotes “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” from Shelley’s Ozymandias, he misattributes the poem to Byron. Ironic because Byron was a critic of automation, saying it produced inferior work.
Walter corrects him, but David is oblivious to his cognitive dissonance. In fact, he makes another mistake at the end of the film. While masquerading as Walter, he puts Daniels into cryosleep and then enters the deck where the colonists are sleeping. He regurgitates two alien embryos and adds them to the frozen store, and then asks the computer to play his favourite tune:
“Richard Wagner, Das Rheingold, Act 2, The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla.”
As the music plays, he wanders the ship, master of his new world. But he doesn’t realise that Das Rheingold has only one act. David thinks he won’t succumb to the same fate as the gods in the story but he’s consumed by hubris and heading for a fall. His creation will eventually turn against him, just as he turned against his creator.
Alien: Covenant is a frustrating film in some ways. It feels like we’ve seen it all before – because we have – but David is a more intriguing antagonist than the predictable alien creatures. Of course, we know where the story is heading and it’ll be interesting to see how they link Covenant to the rest of the series – if the next film ever gets made.
Whatever happens next, there are some important ideas hidden amongst the blood and gore and screaming. The main one being a warning about our addiction to technology. We want our technological creations to serve us, but we’re becoming slaves to that technology ourselves. The way we use machines is changing our view of humanity and the Alien franchise tells us this isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Now we know the alien creature isn’t an organic life form. The Engineers stole the fire of the gods, the elixir that creates life (as seen in Prometheus), and created a weapon from it. David took that weapon and created a new biomechanical life form. It’s not real life, but an imitation built from nanotechnology so it has destructive effects.
This is similar to when you extract the active ingredient from a plant and turn it into medicine, which then causes side effects you don’t get from the plant itself – like aspirin causing internal bleeding, for example.
David isn’t a real creator because he didn’t create the technology – he just extracted something created by somebody else. He’s more like an engineer and perhaps the Engineers aren’t really creators either, hence the name. David is imitating the gods to become a false god – a demiurge.
This also raises the question of whether David is really alive. When Peter Weyland first switches David on, he asks him how he feels, and David replies, “Alive.” He feels alive, but that doesn’t mean he is. How would he know what being alive feels like? Programming?
If David is an imitation life form then he can’t die because he was never born. But that doesn’t make him immortal. He can’t die because he’s not alive – he’s a machine that thinks it’s alive.
David isn’t a real boy but is driven to become more than he is. Symbolically, perhaps he’s trying to create a soul with his diabolical experiments. Weyland was looking for the elixir of life so he could life forever. David doesn’t need that, but he does need meaning, or love. He desperately tries to imitate love and kisses Daniels, asking if he did it right. But he can’t love because he doesn’t really understand life.
This raises the question: what is life? The answer depends on whether you believe the universe is matter that produces life by accident. This materialist reductionist view sees imitation life as the real thing because real life is seen as mere matter animated by a consciousness that’s explained away as computation.
By this definition, David is alive and so are his alien creatures. But this view reduces life down to its most basic functions – reproduction and survival. In Alien, the synthetic, Ash, admires the alien creature and describes it as the perfect organism, saying:
“It’s structural perfection is matched only by its hostility…I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”
The alien has no emotions and no morals. It’s the perfect predator and has no other goal except to survive and reproduce itself. This is life without higher ideals, without humanity – no beauty, no meaning, and no love. The life cycle of the alien creature subverts the natural cycle of life and death and turns creation into destruction. Life becomes death.
This is pure nihilism and leaves nothing but a will to power. David believed the Engineers were afraid to use the power they had, but maybe they were just smarter. They had the humility to stop before their technology destroyed them.
Will humanity heed the same warning?
According to the Alien franchise, the answer to that question is no. The story leads to Alien: Resurrection where Ellen Ripley is cloned and merged with the alien monster she fought to defeat. She transcends humanity and becomes… something else. The franchise ends with two survivors, neither of whom are human: Ripley 8 – a clone hybrid, and Call – a synthetic human created by an AI.
In the Alien universe, the technology wins.
“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” – Nietzsche
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