Film

An Android’s Dream: How the Robot Traitor Became the Center of 'Alien: Covenant'

All photos: Michael Fassbinder as David / Walter

In an allegory where humans are the damned and the aliens are the plague, what does it mean to spend so much time with immune robot bystanders?


Alien: Covenant

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup
US Release date: 2017-05-19
Is the android’s connection to humanity one of responsibility or love?
By the 21st century, the Alien franchise had been stripped and sold for parts. Its intrepid heroine Ellen Ripley had spent a half-century in stasis, then died, and then been cloned. And we’d seen her alien nemeses, the Xenomorphs, spun off to battle Predators in veritable fan fiction.

But then came Ridley Scott’s 2012 revival of the franchise that launched his career. In Prometheus (2012), Scott made a claim that the series’ mythos was the most interesting vein left to mine. While critics disagreed wildly on how well he pulled that off in one of the most polarizing blockbusters of this decade, almost everyone admitted he had not spun his creation myth with much clarity. The new Alien: Covenant, also directed by Scott, is just as committed to this mission; it’s another Alien movie by way of the Book of Genesis, with Romantic poetry interwoven for good measure. But Scott makes a key alteration this time around: his myth needs a torchbearer.

There’s no mistaking to what character(s) Alien: Covenant belongs, whose gravity keeps this new chapter in orbit. The choice to sneakily push Michael Fassbender’s dual portrayal of the androids David and Walter to the film’s center is as enrapturing as it is surprising. The role of the synthetic human, a franchise staple originated as a treacherous mole by Ian Holm in 1979’s Alien, works here as some murky amalgam of protagonist, antagonist, and narrator. It’s a move about as unlikely as Spielberg deciding to up and reboot the Jaws franchise, illuminating a Melvillian man-abyss dichotomy, naming it something like Jaws: Poseidon, and deeming Captain Quint the most meaningful character.

That said, how we’re led into Alien: Covenant’s familiar rescue-turned-hunt-turned-escape is in keeping with its franchise forerunners. The passenger vessel Covenant, filled with hibernating colonists and preserved embryos from Earth, is rocked from deep space stasis by a solar flare. The ship’s lone sentinel, the stone-faced android Walter, must then wake the ship’s crew, but its captain perishes while coming out of cryo. He was the husband of our de facto Ripley, an officer and terraforming expert called Daniels (Katherine Waterston), and her position as the film’s would-be hero seems only a matter of tradition at this point.

The grieving crew is still seven (space) years from its ultimate and habitable destination, but soon discovers -- by way of a good ol’ communiqué from a downed ship -- that there’s a potentially suitable planet for colonization just next door. The right atmosphere, the right conditions for water, the wrong decision, to be sure. They touch down, go exploring, some spores enter some orifices of unimportant characters, some torsos start rupturing, and we’re well on our way to a very typical, albeit more-graphic-than-ever Alien movie.

Beyond that setup, however, Scott challenges the formula he once created. This film remains obsessed with Prometheus’ inscrutable musings on who created human life and what right they have to wage or cease that experiment. From its prologue, Alien: Covenant means to continue (or rehabilitate) those concerns from the last film. The prologue finds corporate titan Peter Weyland (who you may remember from Prometheus as Guy Pearce made up to look 100 years old) in intellectual conversation with his “son”, the synthetic David. We witness Fassbender’s long-staring, exquisitely spoken android select his name after looking upon the iconic Michelangelo sculpture and put questions to his creator about why an immortal being like himself ought to be subservient to mortals.

Later, when everything has gone to hell for the Covenant crew on the ground of the mysterious planet, David appears to them. To keep spoilers vague, Walter and David -- the former blank, baritone and duty-bound, and the latter now some kind artiste Dr. Mengele for alien species -- square off in conceptual dialogue and debate. Is the android’s connection to humanity one of responsibility or love? How much independence should a pre-engineered servant have? As the traditionally bloody, acidic and reproductive carnage rages around the film’s second act, Scott frames the android conversations as the main event. If Prometheus haphazardly draped these questions around itself for mystery and self-importance, Alien: Covenant is prepared to let some answers burst forth from the franchise’s tired, old body.

In simply letting the two Fassbender roles take hold of the film, Scott is being quietly true to his 1979 original. The ascendance of the Ellen Ripley character was equally serendipitous, though it’s easy to forget that now. She became Ripley gradually, by marching to her own beat during the Nostromo’s destruction, asking the unpopular questions. Even as the film’s focus was elsewhere, her ethical position on the ship began to dictate her separation, and eventual superiority, from the rest of the crew. And when she finally takes over the mantle of captain in Alien, it’s beautifully earned.

A comparable process plays out in Alien: Covenant. David and Walter become the film’s found focus in spite of it setting up Daniels (like Noomi Rapace’s Dr. Shaw before her) to be our Ripley proxy. We’ve seen that movie a half-dozen times now, and Scott’s affection for the Fassbender characters seems to ask what it means that we’re still watching it. Hasn’t humanity learned not to pillage deep space? Isn’t it about time someone else pilots this thing?

Outside the film’s plot, it also has to be said that Fassbender is blowing away every other actor on screen (just as in Prometheus), and so the film naturally turns toward him. As Walter, he’s fighting against his programming to make sense of his role in this crisis, more than the script gives any other character to work through. As David, Fassbender is terrifyingly gentle, erudite, and once again subversively hilarious. When he’s not fingering wooden flutes like a virtuoso, he undulates between powerful soliloquies and snide one-liners. The actor has basically created the entire David character out of the small, self-satisfied smile Ian Holm gives before being unplugged in Alien. There’s some sick comedy to these movies’ crushing lack of hope, and Fassbender makes it unmissable.

When the colonists become the physically colonized, David shines as a color commentator to the body horror, as evidenced in his most memorable Prometheus quip following Dr. Shaw’s harrowing self-administered caesarian. “I didn’t think you had it in you … sorry, poor choice of words.” Six movies in, he acts as a keeper of the films’ rules, one measure ahead of the audience and a symphony ahead of the crew grunts who stick their faces in front of space snakes and gestation pods.

In Alien: Covenant, he lures a crewmember to his death by offering “something to see,” a euphemism meant to tell the audience, “It’s also time for you to see the gore that makes this an Alien movie.” His commentary track serves to make these latter-day installments watchable, gesturing in the driest of ways at the futility of the plots. And when Fassbender isn’t onscreen, Covenant suffers from procedural emptiness. Aliens sneak up on crew members in the most hackneyed of slasher film routines, even taking the clichés as far as interrupting a couple mid-coitus.

But in an allegory where humans are the damned and the aliens are the plague, what does it mean to spend so much time with immune robot bystanders? For Scott, it’s again a matter of where he can dig for metaphors. Here, humans face the simple question of how they will (or more likely won’t) survive. Meanwhile, David faces an existential dilemma worthy of Frankenstein’s monster. Is he Adam or Satan? Is he a helpless firstborn son or a confidant-turned-traitor? David brilliantly suggests that the former almost excuses the latter.

Or we can look to the work of another Shelley -- Percy Bysshe Shelley -- whose poem, “Ozymandias”, David repeatedly quotes in the film. In doing so, the synthetic human suggests he’s a piece of art now fixated on becoming an artist himself. Seen via the Shelley sonnet about a deserted and decapitated statue and its inscription “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair,” David is the titular king returned to life. Not only was his head detached when we last saw him in Prometheus, but the synthetic has begun to embrace his immortality.

Man, by comparison, is inchoate. With a nod to all the teeth and claws, the deadliest weapon in any Alien film is the disease of trust. Humans depend on other humans. They violate quarantine to save a coworker. They deviate from the mission because someone on some uncharted rock might need a hand. In Alien: Covenant, a new breed of trust is introduced: faith. The crew holds a trust in the cosmos, despite being trapped in a cosmic revenge story about biology punishing their hubris.

No one exploits this trust like the androids. Humans are afflicted with “delusions of morality”, says Ash in his ominous final Alien speech. In that scene, the Nostromo crew presses the dismembered, fluid-drenched robot to learn about his espionage. In a jarring edit, a prosthetic approximation of a face suddenly becomes Ian Holm’s head.

Like so many things in the 1979 classic, a moment of low production value becomes a surreal instance of lo-fi majesty. For the audience, this cut transforms a pile of practical effects into the real actor. For the crew, what they now know to be just circuitry and programming once again appears unreal when Ash jerks to a last, warbling bit of “life.” From the beginning, the android has been the Alien movies' most uncanny and fascinating player.

And now the franchise knows it. In Alien: Covenant, we spend these crucial moments of recognition on the sidelines of the gory, kinetic blockbuster, watching Walter and David see the humanity and inhumanity in each other. Though they call each other “brother”, each finds the other to be some kind of detestable, bastardized version of a man. So as the franchise cleanses itself of its patterns and crutches and sails on into oblivion -- much like the good ship Covenant and its human cargo -- maybe the question of whether the android is Adam or Satan is irrelevant. Walter and David need to decide who will be the steward of what life remains in this universe. They need to decide who will be Noah.


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