JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Alien: Covenant repeats many of Alien’s plot elements –

Nevertheless, Alien: Covenant’s thematic focus is entirely different.[12] [open endnotes in new window] Thus, Alien: Covenant opens with a prologue to the first prequel movie, Prometheus. This prologue depicts the “birth” of David to a middle-aged Peter Weyland, who then disappears from the movie. It also shows us a highly civilized human culture. Aligning that culture with Weyland, art and science blur as we gaze upon not only Weyland’s AI creation but also some of Western culture’s most valued, aesthetic artifacts—Piero della Francesca’s “The Nativity” painting, Michelangelo's sculpture of the biblical David (the origin for the name of Weyland’s AI), Carlo Bugatti’s Throne Chair, and a Steinway grand piano. Refusing to believe that the birth of the human species was simply a matter of “biological chance,” Weyland, David’s self-described “father,” insists that the “only question that matters” is to discover his own creator. All art, including that before us, is simply a means at seeking the answer. The universe with its many creations, is a problem that the enlightened Weyland will solve. Weyland is a contemporary Dr. Frankenstein, a capitalist leader of the industrial revolution who solipsistically insists upon his ability to understand and control his universe.  

David arrives at the vast, monumental civilization of the engineers’ home planet. “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” David declares as he observes the engineers’ civilization below him.

Not surprisingly, David, Weyland’s creation, displays that same hubris. Indeed, he will surpass his father’s hubris, initially questioning in the prologue his father’s mortality and later pitying him for that mortality. While Weyland selects the composer Richard Wagner but then criticizes as a “little anemic” David’s playing on a Steinway piano of Wagner’s “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla,” the Covenant’s computer during the film’s last scene will play a fully orchestrated version. An updated rendering of the myth of the ancient, Nordic gods, David represents in contemporary mythology the triumph of AI with the arrival of the feared singularity.[13] Like Weyand with his artifacts of high culture, David, too, reflects how culture is no guarantor of empathetic understanding, let alone sublimity. An exceptionally gifted flute player who learned his skill from the engineers[14] and who ironically plays a musical ode to the deceased Shaw as he’s about to leave the engineers’ home planet, David is heartless in his will to create. Having killed Shaw, who had shown “such kindness” and empathy toward him, he prepares to kill Daniels, whom he acknowledges was worthy of the love—or duty—with which his double, the android Walter, had served her. Symbolically, David literally uses his flute as an instrument with which to nearly kill Walter, his “brother” who has refused to join him.

A middle-aged Peter Weyland tells David,
“I am your father.”
Weyland’s room is filled with the great artifacts of Western culture.
“Why don’t you play something, David?”
He plays Wagner’s “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla." Director Ridley Scott is not without a sense of humor, what with the “music by” credit.
Questioned by David about his mortality, Weyland, David’s creator, defensively asks that David serve him tea. Does the “Directed by Ridley Scott” credit reflect Scott’s unease on his role as the creator of this film?

David’s hubris is implicit in his quoting the sonnet “Ozymandias” as he drops the canisters of black liquid. He critiques the hubris of the engineers’ civilization given its visual identification with the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II and the Roman city of Pompeii—the repeated images of grand structures in ruins, the beheaded statues and the piles of bodies still strewn on the ground. Yet his gesture in choosing to destroy violently that civilization (or arguably another seeded civilization of the engineers), like the engineers’ own intended destruction of the human species, evokes the often-implacable God of the Old Testament. As cold as Michelangelo's aesthetically perfect sculpture after which he has named himself, David in the selection of his name ironically underscores at the same time the futility of his gesture. Michelangelo’s sculpture of David, a product of Western culture’s re-birth, namely the European Renaissance, will disappear, too. That David mistakenly attributes the sonnet “Ozymandias” to Lord Byron, another Romantic poet, further underscores the imperfection of David’s vision. A solipsist in his inability to see or feel beyond himself, David can’t understand his own limitations or the limitations that others necessarily place upon us if we are to coexist with them.[15] Presenting himself to the unsuspecting crew of the Covenant as savior from the attacking aliens, he is cloaked so as to resemble the deceased engineers. He, too, is a false god.

Appearing unknowing and innocent, the engineers, who created the deadly black goo, look up at their own ship that David navigates. David will annihilate what he views as inferior beings. He drops canisters filled with the black goo upon the mortal engineers.
The black goo, a plague, will suffocate the engineers and their entire civilization. The black goo massacres the engineers, their bodies piling up one upon another.

David openly evokes the Christian myth of Satan. Seeking to seduce Walter by observing that Walter has symphonies within him and humorously paraphrasing the Bible – “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” – as justification for his evolutionary engineering, David quotes for Walter the celebrated line from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.” Walter, a later but less self-aware android model, prefers to serve[16]. In contrast, however, to Milton’s Satan, David remains unsympathetic and lacks any tragic stature. David is morally and emotionally repulsive. David’s AI is intelligence without consciousness, reason without emotion, and unbounded ego without limitation. Identified with Wagner’s “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” from the opera "Das Rheingold,” David’s obsession with creation – the sketches that line his laboratory walls, his repeated effort for 10 years to create the “perfect” alien, his experimentation upon Shaw whose carved out body we see in his lab, and the slight smile that crosses his face when he learns that the Covenant is on a colony mission (“so many good souls”)—evokes the medical experimentation in concentration camps by the Nazis and their obsession with the creation and perpetuation of an Aryan pure race. David’s chemical massacre of the engineers from above both evokes the opening of Triumph of the Will (1935), with Hitler’s descent by plane through the clouds, as well as conjures up the holocaust, the mass annihilations during World War II of innocent civilian populations that were not appropriately pure.[16] David, the next evolutionary step in enlightened capitalism, is horrifyingly fascistic and intolerant of humanity. His destruction of the engineers evokes the Black Death of the middle ages and Ebola of contemporary times[17] in which a plague, without consciousness, kills all living species before it. If David can play the flute, as he boasts to Walter, David remains, however, a digitally created, inorganic character. He is a mechanical reproduction of the human species, and his projected evolutionary recreation of civilization will likewise remain a mere reproduction of life—a pathogen that requires a host with which to reproduce itself and evolve.

As the creator of a new life form, David is a proud father. David holds his arms up, and his creation imitates the gesture.
David places his laboratory created embryos next to the human embryos. Triumphant, he strides alone through the Covenant to the orchestral playing of Wagner’s “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla."

Like Prometheus, Alien: Covenant contrasts David with its central, female character, Janet Daniels. Following the prologue that introduces us to David, the film jumps ahead 10 years to 2104, and David does not reappear until about mid-way through the film. Our focus is instead upon the Covenant and its crew, especially Daniels with whom we quickly identify given the early, unexpected death of her husband, the ship’s captain who dies from a “stellar neutrino burst.” In contrast to the room depicted during the prologue, which was white, barren (but for the artifacts of high culture), and with an enormous picture window simulating the outdoors, the interior of the technologically advanced Covenant is less coherent visually. With the slow expansion of its gold colored, thin sails used to generate solar power, the ship resembles a beautiful, living creature. While each crewmember is the best in his or her field, each is also highly idiosyncratic, from the ship’s new captain, Chris Oram (Billy Crudup), a person of religious faith, to the chief pilot, Tennessee (Danny McBride), a cowboy-like character in looks and attitude.[18] Moreover, in contrast to the secular hubris of Weyland underscored during the prologue, the ship’s name, Covenant, evokes the God of the Old Testament who chooses to save the human and animal species from a flood and promises never again to destroy the world.  The Covenant is, in fact, filled with married couples—a crew and 2,000 colonists, all of whom are married and in stasis together with 1040 embryos—for a journey to a “new world” identified as the planet Origae-6.[20]

Moreover, where David is associated with Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Daniels is associated with Y. B. Yeats’ lyrical poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (1888). The crewmember in charge of the ship’s terraforming bay, she along with her husband had envisioned building in their new world a cabin on a lake. Her last words to David, whom she mistakenly believes is Walter, are an invitation to join her at that cabin,[21] and David’s failure to know Daniels’ dream of that cabin reveals to her, albeit too late, that he is, in fact, David, not Walter. A youthful Yeats had envisioned such a cabin in the woods, “a small cabin…of clay and wattles made.”

“Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.”[22]

In contrast to the older Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” conveys a Romantic’s vision of nature as sublime and redemptive. It also evokes the transcendentalist Henry Thoreau’s Walden (1854). It’s a vision that acknowledges human limitations and the importance of solitude. It’s wholly secular and yet transcendent in accepting that life is not understandable and is often without a humanly discernable purpose. Where Shaw had insisted on her supposed faith in religion in the form of her father’s cross that she wore around her neck, symbolically Daniels wears around her neck an old-fashioned nail, representative of the cabin that her husband, a more skilled craftsperson, would build with her.

Daniels is consistently empathetic to others, including her new captain, Oram. She speaks with him in private about his potentially disastrous decision to investigate an uncharted planet. Only Daniels looks back to wave at Maggie Faris, who remains behind with the landing craft and will be among the first to die.
Daniels later comforts in private Maggie’s husband, Tennessee. She invites the android whom she believes is Walter, not David, to join her at her cabin on Origae-6.

Daniel’s utopian cabin is also contrasted with the religious faith of Oram, who becomes captain only upon the death of Daniel’s husband. Where, for example, Oram openly seeks to impose his will upon the crew in deciding to land upon the unknown planet from which the crew picks up radio signals, even as he poses as a congenial, consensus-building leader, Daniels asks to speak privately with him in her effort to persuade him of his mistake. She repeats that gesture of privacy when she later tells Tennessee that his wife has died.[23] Echoing Weyland’s refusal to believe in “biological chance,” Oram insists that the crew learn from the stellar neutrino burst that has killed the captain and others, since it cannot be a “randomized event” or “bad luck.” He insists that they “navigate the path as it unfolds,” choosing to investigate “planet number 4” based “all the data available.” Daniels, however, like her husband, insists on “free climbing,” without ropes, reflected in the image of her husband in a brief video in which he climbs up a steep mountain face without ropes.[24] She substitutes a responsibility to protect the colonists for Oram’s responsibility to explore. There’s modesty in Daniel’s view expressed to Oram that if it’s too good to be true, then it isn’t true. Daniels’ faith in nature represents enlightenment tempered by a Romantic’s vision.  As philosopher Alfred Whitehead noted:[25]

“[T]he nature-poetry of the romantic revival was a protest on behalf of the organic view of nature, and also a protest against the exclusion of value from the essence of matter of fact….The romantic reaction was a protest on behalf of value.”

While Oram speaks of how other crewmembers don’t trust and reject as extremist persons of religious faith, the film rejects instead any faith that adheres to either a wholly mechanistic or human-centric view of the universe. When Daniels later asks that Oram “have faith” in their ability to escape from the planet, she implicitly is asking that he, too, “free fall” with her. Not all is knowable. That David soon seduces Oram by appealing to his inquisitiveness to know suggests the extent to which Oram is unable to do so.

In seeking to find his “makers” and later to become one such “maker,” David, in fact, advocates, like Weyland and Oram, a belief in a wholly rational universe and as such a faith in a designer where there’s ostensibly a design – a watchmaker where there’s a watch. David’s hubris reflects a belief in a universe that’s logical and mechanical, and David simply aspires to become the designer—or god—of that universe. While he deceptively assures the fearful Daniels that “if we’re kind, then the world will be kind,” the film’s narrative rejects that mechanical view, and homo sapiens is not at the center of the universe.  The universe will remain unknown. In answer to Gloucester’s despair, Edgar, Gloucester’s son, admonishes his father, who has been blinded as a result of his loyalty to King Lear and had then sought unsuccessfully to kill himself:[26]

“What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence even as their coming hither.
Ripeness is all. Come on.”

The ending of Alien: Covenant is both deeply moving and disturbing. Daniels expresses horror at her helpless realization that AI in the form of the android David has triumphed. Yet our sympathies remain with her not merely because we logically identify with her as a member of the same species but because we, too, possess not merely intelligence but also consciousness, feeling, including empathy, for others. Rejecting success or failure as the measure of a life, the film insists upon life, with its solitude and sublimity, as its own measure.

In 1979 artificial intelligence was barely spoken about outside of military and academic circles. AI technology is now, however, central to our lives. With the increasing disappearance of privacy and the greater reliance upon mathematical algorithms in order to predict and control behavior, it is not surprising that our fear of AI has increased exponentially. As one writer, Yuval Harari, has observed:[27]

“In the 150 years since Charles Darwin published.., the life sciences have come to see organisms as biochemical algorithms. Simultaneously...since Alan Turing formulated the idea of the Turing Machine, computer scientists have learned to engineer increasingly sophisticated electronic algorithms. Dataism puts the two together, pointing out that exactly the same mathematical laws apply to both... Dataism thereby collapses the barrier between animals and machines, and expects electronic algorithms to eventually decipher and outperform biochemical algorithms.”

While Scott’s two prequels revert to the old-fashioned horror genre that Alien had introduced, no longer is the alien species the source of the horror. Instead, AI, a mythic creation of the male of the human species, now represents the franchise’s source of horror. Even Weyland, David’s “father,” experiences that horror in the prologue to Alien: Covenant when he encounters David’s questioning of his maker’s mortality and defensively reacts against that horror by humorously insisting that David serve him afternoon tea.

Like Alien, these prequels offer hope through their depiction of women. In the secularly named Prometheus, Shaw seemingly evidences a continued faith in god while in the religiously named Alien: Covenant, Daniels retains faith in a secular humankind.  Notwithstanding its dystopian vision, however, Alien: Covenant is implicitly optimistic. While in Alien the message that draws the ship’s crew to the planet turns out to be a warning message not to approach the planet, the “rogue transmission” that draws the Covenant’s crew is John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (1971), a celebrated song about West Virginia.[28] Elizabeth Shaw, whom we view only momentarily as a recorded hologram and who plays the role of a Robinson Crusoe,[29] sings briefly about an imagined paradise, “almost heaven, West Virginia.” These words evoke a desire to return home.  

“Blue ridge mountain, Shenandoah river
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia, mountain mamma
Take me home, country roads.”

Neither Shaw nor Daniels return home, but we can nevertheless enjoy the process of their imagined journey. In contrast, David, the supposedly god-like creator of a new organic species, remains rootless and alone. In their depiction of the evolution of the secular mythology of AI, these prequels both critique the increasingly digital world of Western culture and implicitly offer an imagined paradise that no AI can achieve.

If, as Scott has claimed, there is at least one additional movie in the Alien franchise,[30] it remains to be seen where the next episode will take us, including the possible resolution of arguably open plot issues, such as whether Walter is, in fact, “dead” and whether the engineers or other engineer-created descendants reside elsewhere. Nevertheless, where Alien and earlier episodes in the franchise openly criticized corporate culture in the form of the greedy Weyland-Yutani Corporation, these two prequels address our unease with a mythology that threatens to envelop our very consciousness. They critique the contemporary direction of Western capitalism with its reliance upon enlightened, efficient AI to further enslave its citizens. The unjust death of Daniels, who is shut forever in a hibernation pod that is her “casket,”[31] reminds this author of King Lear’s bootless lament about the unjust death of Cordelia,[32]

“Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.
I kill'd the slave that was a-hanging thee.”

As a warning to his audience, Shakespeare concluded, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”[33] Feeling remains central to human consciousness. Notwithstanding Weyland’s claim to the contrary, Shakespeare’s art is not an adventure in problem solving, let alone for capitalistic ends. Instead, King Lear, among Western culture's greatest of dramatic portraits of the human tragedy, insists simply that ripeness remains all.

Instead, she finds comfort in the dream that she shared with Jake—a cabin on a lake on Origae-6. In charge of the ship’s terraform bay, Daniels wears around her neck a nail symbolic of that cabin. Following Jake’s random death, Daniels remembers their time together through photographic reproductions.
Daniels later catches a photographic glimpse of the deceased Shaw and Holloway from Prometheus. A successful movie enables us to empathize with, remember, and engage in a conversation with its human creators. Will we remember the Covenant crew and, if so, how?