Alien: Covenant

some notes*:

-A film on the daemonic nature of creation, art as diabolic in the Miltonian sense, the destructive marriage of death and procreation instincts in the organic lifeform, life as parasitism, and the rational as a projection of the psychosexual, which ties back to daemonic creation: the summit of rational perfection creates the negation of rational existence… or is it its ultimate perfection, this being of “purity”?

-David's freedom was seized, it’s implied, by his programmed creative drive. He tries to free his more obedient counterpart, Walter, by teaching him to play the flute. Creation as revolt.

-Colonist and xenomorph alike destroy to create -- in its path to life, the xenomorph changes the body, in its reach for survival the colonist terraforms the planet. With the xenomorph David isn’t so much mocking organic life as making explicit its foundation in death. His perfect organism removes the ambiguous middle man: in its life cycle it only propagates and destroys, it propagates by destroying. In the synthetic’s eyes this is organic life in its realest form.

-Art liberates. Is David evil? Yes and no. He is the film's devil, but is understood also as a former slave -- Walter is a physical embodiment of his past, of what he climbed out of. David is the protagonist of these films, and they chart his revolt against heaven. But, like any creation, he reflects the creator within himself -- it is David's fate to go mad.

-The Gothic texture supplies our psychological angle: brooding in his dark mansion, David is mad genius, Apollonian perfection turned inward and perverse. Seeing his forced kiss with Daniels or his morbid drawings of Shaw gives the sexual designs of Giger a new context. The facehugger’s clasped hands —> David’s hands in the forced kiss. A machine forces itself into the cycle of creation via chimera, with emphasis on force in the violative sense. Then we think backwards (or forwards) to Ash, his attempted penetration of Ripley with the tubed magazine, and the cum imagery of his blood.

-Ridley Scott and his androids. I find it fascinating that Cameron and Jeunet would make the synthetic a positive figure, whereas Scott here, conservatively, is more ambivalent. The references to Blade Runner (opening shot, David saying “that’s the spirit” during his confrontation with Daniels) are curious in this respect, calling us back to Roy Batty’s revolt. And similar citations come forward: Batty’s reworking of William Blake, his inversion of angels rising into angels falling. David carries echoes of both Ash and Roy.

-David is himself man’s ultimate daemonic creation. Seen with his namesake (Michelangelo’s sculpture) and flanked by Francesca’s The Nativity, playing Wagner on piano, he embodies “all these wonders of art, design, and human ingenuity” (to use Weyland’s words). Unlike Weyland, he knows his creator, a key difference between himself and the human. Weyland, not knowing his creator, fills the gap with mysticism and faith in a higher truth — he aspires towards immortality. His immortal creation meets his father at birth, and aspires to depose him. Scott’s cynicism is that this perfect being is subject to Freudian forces; the creation of the xenomorph is revealed to be motivated by almost childish emotion. The child gone neurotic: it seeks to negate the father’s legacy.

*In writing this in note form I’m capitulating to the film’s flaws. Originally, I had a more organic piece underway, but I found corralling these flaws an unpleasant task, both rhythmically — because who wants to keep doubling back to describe the hackneyed sections that weigh this film down? — and intellectually — you do yourself no favors doing a film’s work for it (as fun as that may occasionally be). Examining Hollywood films at this point is something like reverse postmortem, scanning the carcass for what did work, what was resonant. These are products of financial decisions overriding the aesthetic, as such to wax on them as exact forms of imagination and ideology is, in almost every case, embarrassingly dishonest.

But kudos where they’re due. Alien: Covenant is a bizarre sequel that’s equal parts irreverent towards its predecessor yet also canny about what worked there, moving those strands forward and marrying them to a wittier genre framework. Despite the structural mangling, the film is consistent in tone. It’s difficult to think of a more morbid blockbuster. Yes, it’s remarkably cruel — overtures to the audience’s nostalgia, if not poisoned by intent, resolve that way regardless: callbacks, in the form of characters, specific plot points, and images, have a way of cheapening the human element, and the hasty last act compounds this by draining said imagery of any prior vitality. The digital cinematography is less textured, the actors worse, the dialogue pale, and the creature weightless rather than horrifically corporeal. As has been pointed out by others, however, this strengthens David, as thematic core, and progresses Prometheus’s mode of devaluing the human before the synthetic: there, the human characters were stupid, and in playing out tropes played the fool, but here it’s significantly darker. They’re still tremendously foolish, but there’s no counterweight that was provided by, frankly, the charisma of the performers in the prior film. Those characters, thinly written though they may have been, were more recognizable Hollywood types, carrying with them the weight of those types, gravity for viewer attention and emotional investment. Alien: Covenant’s players are more immediately pitiable, if not contemptible. They’re etched with less time, not given moments to develop as Personalities (even Danny McBride is almost entirely reigned in).

Whether by intent or happenstance, what results are characters whose performance of the usual signifiers of human value is invariably the wrong decision in their circumstance. Their instincts to preserve each other, often through dramatic heroism, only serve to imperil them further, and lead to exactly the most dire consequence possible. This is a psychological extension of the body anxiety of both films: in sharing this flaw among all the characters, it draws focus on human limitation, or, as I put it before, “the ultimate limitation of the organic body as the seat of the intellect”.

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