We Need to Talk about David: The Complex Character of Alien: Covenant
Written Review by David Carter
Very mild first act spoilers for Alien Covenant
You can’t always get what you want. An age-old proverb passed down to us on rolling stones. It’s a great lesson to take to heart in all aspects of life. We have desires and comforts we hunger to soothe our everyday unpleasantries. Usually, these wants are familiar. The familiar is so good and appealing to us because it’s easy. We already know why we like it so why not just have more of that? The problem with the familiar is that even if we think we want more of the same, we’ll ultimately be let down (usually) by how stale and used up the concept is that pulled us in the first place. That’s why the Alien Franchise stands as a testament to what you can do with a concept if you put truly unique visionaries behind each film. Each Alien film (I’m excluding the Alien vs Predator movies because I value your intelligence) is helmed by someone with a unique point of view on the Lovecraftian creature’s utility and what it means to the characters who square off against it. Ridley Scott’s nihilistic dread and distrust of faceless authority in Alien. James Cameron’s Vietnam War allegory in Alien$. The religious rebellion of the damned and unwanted (sometimes viewed as an AIDS allegory) against the devil and corporations in David Fincher’s Alien³. The distinctively French tone of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection and its focus on um incestual…motherhood? Alien Resurrection is a big mess. Either way, each film has gone out of its way to keep the formula fresh and recontextualize the Xenomorph as a symbol for its setting.
This is what makes Ridley Scott’s return to the franchise he helped rear so fascinating. When Prometheus came to theaters, people expected a pretty straightforward prequel that would give us the answer as to who or what the “Space Jockey” was with some classic Alien scares. What we got instead was an “At the Mountains of Madness” riff that explores faith, morality, purpose, and the “Ancient Astronauts” theory. The movie was, in the end, an interesting mess. Stunning visuals, set pieces, and creature design hindered by a half-baked script with minimally fleshed out ideas, clunky exposition and clunkier characters. However, one character managed to break out and become the true heart and mind of the film. The android David (Michael Fassbender, who to my knowledge has yet to give a bad performance in a movie) practically steals whatever scene he’s in and gets what I consider the most fleshed out character arc in the entire film. He’s a third generation creation in a movie about finding our creators. He’s curious, he’s cultured, he’s creative and he looks for beauty in things that would otherwise be considered unwanted. The humans aboard The Prometheus can’t feel that when they treat him like an appliance (contrary to what they believe) it hurts him. At the end of Prometheus, he is ripped apart by an Engineer (the giant humanoids who created humans) because it looks upon David as if he is an abomination, perhaps one to be feared.
Wisely this end point for David is where Ridley Scott and screenwriter John Logan (creator of the T.V. show Penny Dreadful. Another work that has the audience identify with misunderstood monsters) decide to use as their jumping off point for Alien: Covenant. A bleak movie about a Frankenstein’s monster not only becoming Victor Frankenstein himself but his rebellion against the flawed empathetically bankrupt species that made him by creating something they couldn’t even achieve with his own creation: Perfection.
Alien: Covenant is about colonists (all of which are couples) on their way to another planet to settle down. The Covenant holds 2000 passengers, 1000 embryos and 15 crew members including the android Walter (a nasally Michael Fassbender returning) who oversees day-to-day operations on the ship while everyone slumbers in hypersleep. After the ship is hit by a solar anomaly the crew is awakened. Well most of them anyway. The ship’s captain, Branson (a surprise cameo) is incinerated during the chaos, leaving the faith-driven Oram (Billy Crudup) in charge and the captain’s wife Daniels (Katherine Waterston) a widow. During the repair of their craft, Tennessee (a surprisingly great Danny McBride) picks up a ghostly transmission of someone humming “Country Roads”. When the crew traces the transmission, it turns out that it comes from a planet that is habitable beyond their wildest dreams. On top of that, it’s only a few weeks away. Much more ideal than the 7 years it would take get to their previous land of milk and honey. Against Daniels urging to stay on course, Oram and the rest of the crew decide to venture to parts unknown. When they get to the planet, things are immediately off. No animals or insects are heard or seen, cultivated crops are found, and the transmission they’ve hunted down comes from a giant alien ship with no one on it. Things go south quickly. Two crew members are infected with sinister spores that have hell beasts bursting from their backs and mouths. The creatures start making small work of the crew and their ship is blown up in the cacophony. It is only by the grace of a cloaked figure and their flare gun that the settlers are taken to safety in a “dire necropolis.” When the hood is lifted we see that it’s David. His hair is long and the roots are showing but his delight in having this crew here with him is slightly more obscured.
Once David is introduced the movie goes from cynical Alien rehash to an equally contemptuous meditation on the uselessness of faith, eugenics and human worth quicker than the alien’s vaguely defined gestation cycle. David has lost all faith and respect for the flesh that created him and looks at his doppelganger Walter with affection but subtle disappointment. Walter doesn’t have the same programming as David. He lacks the idiosyncrasies and the ability to create that makes David so “human” but he contains the compassion for humans that David has now given over to his new progeny. The interactions between these two characters are some of the most fascinating and strange put in a 100 million dollar movie in a long time. They’re as familial as they are erotically charged. This will maybe turn off some people but I think it’s important to David’s character. He’s a narcissist. Interacting with even a “lesser” version of himself causes him to be further infatuated with his own brilliance. What more could we expect from a being that names himself after one of the most famous works of art in existence and plays a selection from “Das Rheingold” (an opera notable as the soundtrack to eugenics) as his first song?
The movie feels as if Ridley Scott identifies with David. Not in his narcissism but in his distaste for the idea of being beholden to the thing that created him. Alien (and the knockout punch of Blade Runner) has been the defining film in the catalogue of a man who’s given us so many great ones. It feels like with Alien: Covenant he’s responding to the people who took umbrage with his drastically different take on the mythology in Prometheus. So he’s made a movie where he misanthropically slops Alien mythology on your tray like a disgruntled lunch lady. The pitch black consequences to every action in the movie echoes his criminally underrated film about consequences, The Counselor. Unfortunately, for all the praise I can heap on the film, there are problems that keep it squarely in the same ballpark as Prometheus.
For as great as all the David stuff is in the movie, Scott’s approach to cut off the nose to spite the face doesn’t work. While the bleak tone of Alien and Alien³ works to the movie’s advantage, the slasher tropes feel forced and detract from the grand ideas the movie wants to lay at our feet. Having your lead human characters be uninteresting to fulfill tropes isn’t a great way to have your audience root for what you want them to. Billy Crudup, Katherine Waterston, and Danny McBride’s characters are fine but they don’t feel like they add much to David’s story. They feel like they’re mostly in another movie in fact. A movie where ten other bland dummies are there simply to be ground up into meat. A movie that has two final acts and both of them dull and overblown. A movie where the creators don’t quite understand that you can’t have a reveal play out somewhere between “a twist” and “high tension” because splitting the difference makes for an underwhelming and obvious result.
Alien: Covenant is a small but important step up from Prometheus. A step that fleshes out the most interesting and complex character in the series since Ripley, and expands on the ideas put out in Prometheus. It’s no longer about “why does humanity exist” but “should we even exist”. I love Ridley Scott’s direction on these Alien prequels and hope the next (and final?) one puts its thrusters all into David’s story and drops the Alien indebtment and uses the creature how the prior five films and parts of Alien: Covenant did: As a tool to tell a larger more interesting story.