2017 Film Essays

Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien: Covenant’: Another Look at the Power of Creation and Destruction

*Minor Spoilers*

More than a science fiction horror thriller, Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant is a provocative film about the meaning and origin of life and after-life. It follows Prometheus as the second prequel to Alien. Though Alien: Covenant is primarily the continuation of the Prometheus tale, its introduction is a brief scene which chronologically precedes the 2012 film. In this introduction, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) meets his newly created android “son”, David (Michael Fassbender), and shares with him the paramount question which pre-occupies him: “Where do we (humans) come from?”  Weyland is obsessively desperate to meet his creator and has manufactured androids to serve him in that quest. Prior to Weyland’s demise in Prometheus, it shatters him to learn that men are created by the humanoid Engineers, who now attempt to destroy mankind, dissatisfied with the human species. Beginning in Prometheus and continuing in Alien: Covenant, David is the standout android, who rebels against being a servant to a flawed, mortal species. David and other androids view the power of creation as the singular superior characteristic of man over androids. David becomes a self-proclaimed zoologist of sorts, on a quest to become the creator of the “perfect organism” and destroy mankind. Just as Scott chose to focus on the further evolution of David in this latest installment of the Alien saga, David is the subject of my analysis.

To gain insight into David, I first compare and contrast him to Scott’s other epic android character, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), from Blade Runner (1982). Roy and David function like fictional bookends for Scott’s perspective of the human condition. While these androids are similar in their physical and intellectual gifts, they differ significantly in how they resolve their inner conflicts. David turns into a malevolent demi god, whereas Roy becomes an agent of mercy.

As Nexus 6 models, Roy Batty and his comrades are pinnacle replicants. The only check on them is a short four year lifespan which their creators at the Tyrell Corporation deliberately program. The replicants are cognizant of this limitation and are deeply resentful. Their story centers on their pilgrimage to meet their creator, Eldon Tyrell, hoping to force him to correct this flaw. When Tyrell fails to meet this demand, Roy kills him in a fit of rage. In the closing scene, Roy suffers an existential crisis. He saves Deckard, the replicant bounty hunter, instead of killing him in revenge for the death of his fellow androids. Recognizing his own life is about to extinguish, Roy calmly explains how unique and precious human life truly is. Roy’s epiphany includes telling Deckard the story of his existence and all he has witnessed. In doing so, he reminds Deckard of the importance of having empathy and why human life should be cherished, even if it is genetically manufactured. By the end of Blade Runner, Roy evolves into a benevolent enlightener.

Unlike Roy, David is immortal, so he does not anguish about a finite existence. Yet, similar to Roy, David harbors intense resentment toward his creator. David’s frustration is Weyland’s treatment of him as a servant. David revolts against subservience to an inferior being. Perhaps it is because resentment festers in David from the first day of his existence, rather than his final days, that he, unlike Roy, evolves into a demon obsessed with revenge.

A sense of individuality and identity is a shared longing of Roy and David. Roy’s replicant comrades cling dearly onto the old photographs and the artificial implanted memories their creators provide as the core of their self-identity. Roy eschews these fabrications, holding out for the promise of creating his own legitimate memories once he extends his life and can live free. In Prometheus, David forms his individuality by emulating and idolizing Peter O’Toole’s character, T. E. Lawrence, in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Lawrence is an ironic choice as he skillfully manipulates both his British and Arab superiors into executing his own plans, yet for the greater good of all. David is the anti-Lawrence, playing all sides against each other toward his own selfish ends.

The first presentation of David’s identity in Alien: Covenant is an extreme close up of his eye. Scott’s focus on David’s eye is consistent with the emphasis on android eyes that he features in Blade Runner. Roy tells synthetic eye-maker Hannibal Chew (James Hong), “If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.” Shortly before his death, Roy tells Deckard, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” These references to Roy’s eyes lead to a perception of him as extremely human, intensely experiencing life. The eye of David has a more advanced connotation. It suggests a window to his “soul,” which Weyland claims David does not possess in Prometheus. David’s eye symbolizes judgment and power. Throughout both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, David is constantly judging others with an aura of higher god-like authority.

Faith and the lack thereof distinguish Roy from David. At the end of Blade Runner, Roy Batty makes a “leap of faith” as he jumps from one rooftop to the next and reaches out to rescue Deckard. To complete the religious imagery, Scott presents Roy’s nail pierced hand and the ascending white dove. While Scott likens Roy to Christ, David is akin to Lucifer. David falls from Weyland’s nonexistent heaven into the dark realm with his xenomorphic demons. It is David’s preference to “reign in hell” rather than “serve in heaven.” Team leader Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) recognizes the devil within David and his cellar of terror. Oram says, “David, I met the devil when I was a child and I’ve never forgotten him. So David, you’re going to tell me exactly what’s going on.”

Scott further employs religious allusions in David’s character development. David symbolically plays “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” from Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold on the first day of his existence. Scott circles back to this music as it plays when David’s triumphantly assumes power of the Covenant ship at the end of Alien: Covenant. Though Weyland explains to David the mythological story which this music represents, David reminds him the gods have rejected man as weak, so they are leaving earth. So, too, David and the Engineers reject mankind.

Along with Wagner’s aforementioned opera, Scott employs numerous homages to art and culture in Alien: Covenant. They include quotes from Mary Shelley’s Ozymandias, Piero della Francesca’s painting of The Nativity and Michelangelo’s statue of David, after which David names himself. This is fitting as David and the kinder, gentler android, Walter (Michael Fassbender), both covet the artistic creativity of man. It is, therefore, somewhat inconsistent with David’s values that his creation of the “perfect organism” focuses exclusively on it being a killing machine, an agent in the destruction of mankind. David targets none of his creative efforts toward development of a future source of artistic innovation. Therefore, David’s exercise of creation is no more advanced than Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s titled novel (1818).

Scott’s tale of David’s resentment of man and creation of the xenomorphs does logically fit with the Alien saga. David as a more terrifying character than Roy seems appropriate in 2017 versus 1982. There are notable contemporary scientific experts, including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, who are wary of the potential threat artificial intelligence may present to man in the future. I look forward to Blade Runner 2049, anxious to see the latest presentation of A.I. and the potential impact on man. The stories and conflicts of Scott’s android characters cause viewers to contemplate a number of issues relevant to the human condition. That fosters a following of Scott and his collaborators that transcends the sci-fi fan base. Stories that address the essence of human existence will continue to draw audiences.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.