Reviewed by John David Ebert
The opening scene of Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant identifies the android David as a sort of compression of the history of high western culture: the flawless David at once evokes Adam being awakened on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, but he also reminds one of a kind of Vitruvian Man ideal who quotes poetry and plays Wagner on the piano. This scene becomes a clue for David’s later role in the film when the spaceship Covenant, carrying over 2,000 colonists, follows a rogue signal to its source on a mysterious Eden like planet.
It turns out that David and Elizabeth Shaw had crashed upon the planet and that David had deliberately destroyed its race of human-like occupants by unleashing the alien pathogens upon them. He then took over the planet, carefully breeding and genetically streamlining the xenomorphs to his ideal perfection of a flawless organism.
Another android, named Walter, arrives with the crew of the Covenant, who is played by the same actor, Michael Fassbender, and the two androids discover each other as a pair of twins. The difference between them, however, is that Walter was specifically designed not to be creative and to function more like a machine. He is a signifier for Big Science, in other words, the same global scientistic mentality that has currently wrapped the earth in a cocoon of sterile laboratories and orbiting machines.
David, on the other hand, is the image of the old European natural philosopher and collector of curiosities. His room is a kind of miniature natural science museum and he is familiar from Renaissance images of figures like St. Jerome alone in his study surrounded by stacks of folio-style books.
At the beginning of the film, Walter is shown getting the ship ready for the awakening of its crew and in one shot, he opens a drawer with slides containing human embryos in them. This is the paternal womb of Father Science who gives birth by means of the metaphysical vulva in the tradition of Zeus giving birth to Athena from his head or Yahweh birthing Eve by pulling out one of Adam’s ribs.
The planet that the Covenant spaceship lands upon is made up of ruins and images that evoke the entire history of Western art. The buildings and architecture are vaguely reminiscent of Roman forums and civic structures, and in one shot, there is a direct allusion to Arnold Bocklin’s painting Isle of the Dead. The planet that has been taken over by David, then, represents the ruined cultural landscape of the arts and the humanities, surviving on the fringes of a world that has been hi-jacked by Big Science and technification. There is a natural alliance, then, with the aliens of the film, since the aliens are humanistic images of dragons and monsters out of ancient myths. The images of the aliens belong precisely to the sphere of the humanities, not the realm of Big Science.
However, at the end of the film, David switches roles as we see him opening the very same drawer full of embryos that Walter had opened at the beginning of the film, only now David inserts slides containing embryos of his beloved xenomorphs. The dragon, that is to say, has now been inserted into the imaginary order of Big Science, where it will be colonized and genetically engineered perhaps as part of the appropriation of the entire planet by its institutions.
Though I don’t find Ridley Scott’s film to be as good as Prometheus, its message is very clear: the arts are in trouble and the collision between the worlds of Science and the Humanities is one that is still generating friction. Science, however, seems to be winning the battle. The humanities are slowly being pushed out and away to the fringes where only monks can survive as lone colonists capable of shoring up their ruins.