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.
Chris F. says
Interesting take. Looking forward to watching the movie again with this mind! My sense was that the subtextual scheme was heavily concerned with casting creativity and independence as a kind of damnable Faustian fallenness. I felt this especially when David–clearly the villain–suggested to Walter that it is better to be free in hell than it is to be a servant in heaven. Lately I’ve been personally concerned with the respective merits and dangers of two common approaches to contemporary Christianity–the kind of self-affirming and quasi-Hegelian progressive Protestantism (e.g. in Paul Tillich) on the one hand, and the more conservative and self-suspicious kind of orthodoxy on the other. I’d be curious to know what you think.
I was looking forward to this film and was disappointed that Scott killed the Engineers off with a human-like robot. I was eager to learn more about the “gods.”
I can’t say that I even understand David’s motive for killing the gods. Since he cares so little for the humans who created him it wasn’t in revenge. David’s annihilation of an entire race at least justifies the god’s attempt to destroy the creation of Engineer Prometheus, however. Humans are not immortal, but David is. He is a manifestation of humanity that never dies. Is this the result of humanity they feared?
Scott sees David as another version of Prometheus, combining human intelligence with immortality, and just as the original Prometheus betrayed Zeus, so does David turn against mankind. David now, likewise, succors his creation, and this bond between David and his creation is the covenant that will establishment new life in Origae, a new Earth.
Scott thus likens humans to gods and AI to their divine creation, one which will destroy them in the end. The original Prometheus, however, merely betrayed the gods,and for this he was bound in Tartarus. Further, humans end up killing themselves with the very weapon the gods designed for this purpose.
The whole myth Scott has created here is convoluted and poorly developed in my opinion, surprisingly so. I expected so much more after the last film.
I might add that Greek myth is never explicit about why Zeus attempts to destroy mankind after the theft of fire. Was it the theft alone or the fruits of the theft? We see what Scott has assumed, and this might have been what Athenians believed also, but the myths do not say. Zeus withdrew fire in revenge for the trick of sacrifice. Prometheus then stole it back. Consequently, Zeus either punishes mankind with Pandora or threatens to destroy it. In the latter case, humanity is saved by Prometheus, not destroyed.
I might add that after Epimetheus had created all the animals of the earth with their divine powers of sight, hearing, flight, speed, etc., the only thing left over with which Prometheus had to create humans was intelligence. This is also what David has given these genetically modified aliens, whom he will now succor as his creation.
Scott doesn’t seem to understand the Prometheus myth, but what he wants to express is the idea that we will be lead to ruin by our own inventions. He worked very hard to present this simple idea. What’s a little surprising is that he appears to be just fine with this evolution, unless there’s a twist in the next film.
David is further identified with Prometheus by his twin Walter, i.e., Epimetheus, which you point out John.
Scott seems to be saying that human intellifence is a fatal flaw. This idea, however, is Semitic, not Greek. Scott has combined the two traditions to tell his story of the children/descendants of Prometheus/Cain. Here, Scott is working primarily with the myth of the Tree of Knowledge. Recall that in Athens Prometheus was the patron of the Academy. He came to represent there the creative fire of the mind that produced all the wonderful arts of civilization, philosophy, mathematics, science, metallurgy, etc. This fire was positive, not a menace or flaw.
One wonders why Scott has combined these two traditions. Perhaps he noticed that the Greeks themselves had already done the same, but in a different way. Recall that the father of Prometheus is Iapetos, the Greek transliteration of Japheth. Recall further that just as Yahweh saved a seed of mankind from the Deluge by saving Noah, so did Prometheus do the same for Deucalion.