Nothing Beside Remains: An Appreciation of Alien Covenant
Hello, my name is Jenna Ipcar and I really liked Alien: Covenant (2017). I’ll even throw in the fact that I really enjoyed Prometheus (2012) too. It’s not a blurted out shame so much as it is a declaration, boom box in hand. Yet I keep reading reviews, from critics and friends, dismissing it as "predictable" and "stupid." It makes me wonder if perhaps those people didn’t show up for the same movie I showed up for. The Alien franchise is formulaic; it became formulaic as soon as Aliens (1986) came out. That’s not to say it’s bad, don’t get me wrong. The plots are mostly predicable, and characters will make stupid decisions that lead to their death, but that’s all tempered by a badass female lead and some excellent action-horror. As Matt Zoller Seitz so aptly put it, the formula is “a feature, not a bug.”
I’ve always thought the true intrigue of Alien movies lies in two themes. First, is the brilliantly creepy H.R. Giger design. So many movies have copied the plot but none have come close to Alien (1979) because they’re all missing the secret ingredient – Giger. The fact that a movie like Life (2017) fell so flat despite following the same formula is nothing if not a testament to the iconic and perpetually terrifying design of Alien. The killer octopus from Mars (which, can we all agree they missed out on that obvious title opportunity) in Life was creepy, but xenomorphs inspire a primal panic in me that make me physically shift around uncomfortably in the theater. I mean, at this point I know every possible step in their evolution, every variation, every surprise, tooth and spike, and they still manage to scare the shit out of me. Bravo.
Aside from the iconic design, Alien’s other consistent theme is existential dread. And boy howdy, there sure is nothing quite like an Alien movie to hammer home the existential dread. Something about being hunted in space that'll really do that for ya’. In fact, I think Alien: Covenant did such a good job that it may have gotten a little too far under people’s skin. I don't think it's unreasonable to say that most to all viewers watching an Alien movie are doing so in order to ride that thrill wave horror movies give you. However, part of the thrill of a roller coaster is the knowledge that it will end. You’re there for the ride, but also for the mixture of disappointment and relief you feel when it slowly slides to a stop. Alien: Covenant is the wild ride that slows down but then doesn't stop. In fact, not only does it not stop, it loops around continually until you realize “oh shit this isn’t the Cyclone, it’s the Euthanasia Coaster!” and then just before you die a pointless and horrible death you look down and see that David 8 is operating the ride.
Ah, yes, the reprisal of the marvelous David 8. Once programed to be ruthless and now undeniably damaged Peter O'Toole TE Lawrence fan boy robot, a.k.a. my favorite dude. Even with his wires crossed – mixing up Byron and Shelley, my word David, tut tut! – the ethical and moral questions David 8 brings up, both in his vicious actions and also by simply existing, are the true stars of the film. Unfortunately, that right there is where I think Ridley Scott starts to lose people. The franchise replaced its strong, smart, underdog heroine with a morally bankrupt, cold, and seemingly invincible robot. And hey, nobody likes to lose their job to a robot.
What I suspect people actually disliked about the film is just that, its fundamental betrayal of its human leads. Covenant is shockingly ruthless about punishing its human characters' virtues as flaws. Everything they are is portrayed as a weakness, from their emotional bonds, their physical inferiority, and most specifically their belief and faith that they’ll overcome all obstacles. We watch each couple not only get picked off one by one, but we also are witness to their partners mourning them. The openly religious Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) makes decisions that in any other movie would be considered virtuous, and yet in this movie he's directly responsible for the death of his entire crew. The death of Oram seems obvious, we're used to dismissing characters of faith in a horror sci-fi movie as naïve, but the failure of Daniels (Katherine Waterston) is an even bigger blow. Everybody has some faith in something; whether it’s faith in human kindness, human ingenuity, or just the hope that you won’t wake up after seven years in a sleep-pod to a xenomorph hellscape. Alien: Covenant takes it one step further by saying your faith in your own accomplishments is entirely arbitrary.
And who better to mete out this judgement than David 8? You can’t argue morality with a self aware robot; to a non-human, human boundaries are meaningless. Like his hero T.E. Lawrence, he straddles two worlds he doesn't belong to, and so he decides to play God. Where as Dr. Elizabeth Shaw's (Noomi Rapace) desire to meet the Engineers comes from both her human curiosity and desire for some sort of emotional connection, David 8 simply sees no logical reason to preserve his makers. Why not kill the woman who saved you if it helps to further your knowledge of a superior species? Why not wipe out humanity if its of no use to you anymore? It's an incredibly bleak concept, and one I think wasn't largely appreciated by its generally, uh, human moviegoing audience.
You’ll hear people call animals such as cows and deer stupid because they don’t try and murder you upon sight the way a tiger might. But these animals aren’t stupid so much as they’re trusting, they could kill you but they choose not to, which of course gets taken advantage of by so-called superior beings. I guess it’s a harder concept to swallow when the shoe’s on the other foot. In the Alien series, that faith is shown as both humanity's downfall and triumph – from Daniels last scream as the sleep-pod closes to Ripley’s will to survive. The predictability and stupidity that we the audience scoff at is, disturbingly, simply a mirror of our own values.
But if there's any glimmer of hope that I can offer you out of this crushingly dark movie, it is of course that Alien: Covenant is a prequel. Along with its author, David seemingly forgets the context of the poem he quotes. The line "Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!" is ironic, as Ozymandias has already fallen; the line is being read on a shattered monument in a wasteland of what once was. So let T. E. Robot's xenomorphs have their time, we know humans are around at least 200 years after his attempt to exterminate them. Perhaps humanity will rise up again from the brink.