Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair

Alien: Covenant

20th Century Fox

There’s a train car on the Chicago Red Line that’s been custom wrapped as an advertisement. The inside is completely black, with instructions to RUN and HIDE stamped on the walls in insistent, white sans-serif font. A xenomorph lurks at every door, and a full-sized one crouches on the ceiling. The emergency exit doors declare that Alien: Covenant will be released on May 19, 2017.

The train car still occasionally makes the rounds on the Red Line, eight months later. It delights me every time I board it.

Alien: Covenant is not my favorite movie of 2017. It’s not even in my top 10 anymore, despite  my best efforts to keep it there. I’ve just seen too many other good movies from the year: Lady Bird and Columbus and Blade Runner 2049 and Mother! and Dunkirk and the list goes on. Of all these movies, though, Alien: Covenant keeps pushing itself insistently back into my consciousness. It’s a recurring nightmare that I can’t push away, and at this point I’m not sure that I want to.

2017, for me, has been a year of uncovered truths, of learning that the monsters are real, that the world is not as nice as I’d thought it was. I’ve been aware of the brokenness of the world on a theoretical level, but the unending hammer of the daily news cycle this year has driven home the fact that the world is broken, and hurting, and has been for a long time, and will continue to do so well beyond the new year. It’s hard to be optimistic under the knowledge of disenfranchisement and ethnic cleansing and the possibility of nuclear war.

I’d always thought it would be interesting to live in times that would be recorded in history books. I’d wondered what it would feel like to watch Nixon resign, to see the Berlin Wall come down, to grow up in the ‘70s like my parents did. This comes from the naïve optimism of youth, I guess, and my fascination with Cold War-era art. I like tension and melancholy on a theoretical level, but now that I live in continual tension, I don’t know what to do with it besides trying to analyze it like yet another text. How is all of this current madness in conversation with the madness from the past?

Alien: Covenant is not shy about being in conversation with the Alien movies that came before it. Covenant is a greatest-hits compilation, remastered in high definition and dripping in menace, which nods to all the previous films in the franchise. The plot is distilled from the movies that come before: a smallish crew, awakened early from cryosleep in the depths of space, stumbling across a signal that prompts them to change course. Their curiosity leads them to discover a life form that turns malignant and proceeds to eviscerate them in horrifying fashion. As in all Alien films, there is a female voice of reason—in Covenant, her name is Daniels—who cautions the rest of the crew about possible danger and protests that they adhere to safety protocols that could have saved them, had they not been fated to die by simply being characters in an Alien movie.

Covenant does more than just recreate the plots of the movies that came before it. It lifts visuals, musical cues, and even lines from its predecessors: warning signs blink in the blocky X’s of the Nostromo’s displays, the crew refers to the ship’s computer as “Mother,” a dipping bird toy drinks from a cup on a console. The opening text about the ship, its crew, and its destination is a direct visual homage to the text scrawl on the original Mother’s screen. A power lifter is used as a weapon. Daniels declares to a defeated alien, “I got you, you son of a bitch.”

But for all its homages and borrowing, Covenant is not a remake of Alien. As the years have passed and the alien has stepped out of the shadows, the series is no longer about the terrifying monster, nor about the violent sexual acts it represents. Eventually, an alien is just an alien. After nearly 40 years and six entries into an iconic franchise (the Alien vs. Predator movies don’t count), the alien isn’t all that interesting anymore. We’ve turned toward something more unsettling—the aliens’ creator.

Their literal creator, Ridley Scott, has come home to rework the franchise he began four decades ago. Only this time, he’s not interested in the thing that makes the previous movies tick; the alien has outlived its shorthand as fear-of-rape and is now just a scary monster. Scott seems much more interested in the other beings that turn the wheels of the Alien universe: the androids.

In the original Alien quadrilogy, androids are just machines that happen to look like humans, a piece of world building that helps to demonstrate that this universe, despite its blocky technology and run-down appearance, is in our future. They’re a plot device, a shorthand for corporate treachery (Ash in the original Alien), a red herring (Bishop in Aliens), a third-act plot-twist villain (Bishop in Alien 3). They’re interesting characters, but not much thought is given to the fact that they aren’t human, that they’re servants, that they’re technically slaves to their programming. The androids of the first four Alien movies are marginalia: interesting, but not fully developed, ciphers that help move the plot along and might add some meaning to it, but who are not considered central to the text.

The androids of Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels are marginalized by their creators, but rather than pushing them aside again, the series dedicates itself to exploring the androids’ existence in full. David (Michael Fassbender) is a singular being, clearly self-conscious and alive, aware enough at inception to name himself, but still maligned by his creator as being “soulless” and forced to serve people who do not view him as a person. Walter (also Michael Fassbender), his “descendant” by a few versions, is David Lite: less unnervingly creative and idiosyncratic, but still self-conscious, aware of his role in the universe, and also a servant of people who really only see him as a machine. Their thoughts and feelings don’t count. They’re robots, creations to serve and to be used up. Alien: Covenant is an exploration of David’s psyche in particular, a look at a creative creation who wants nothing more than to surpass his creators, and their creators before them. David wants to push at the artificial limits that hem him in. He pities Walter, who is acutely aware of his shortcomings, and is accepting of the limits placed on him by his manufacturers. Walter cannot create, he cannot lead, he cannot dictate his own destiny. He accepts his role on the sidelines, even though David will not.

There are limits to calling the androids the “marginalized.” David is also ostensibly a straight white male, one who creates with no thought about the consequences of his creation. He even seems to enjoy the fear displayed by the people who stumble across his bioengineered aliens; he’s every tech bro who ever delighted in progress without considering the widespread consequences of what he was doing. Or, worse, he’s every media mogul who knew exactly which things he was up to were monstrous—and is going to get away with everything because he has resources and backup. (Harvey Weinstein is to lawyers as David is to Xenomorphs).

I suppose one could say that David starts marginalized, then attains greatness, then casts himself as a lone wolf who was pushed to the side of history by his maker; he considers himself brilliant enough to surpass humanity, which he claims to be “unworthy of [their] creation.” I’m troubled by the implications of this; I suppose this is where the marginalization metaphor breaks down. The marginalized do not become great by throwing others under the wheels of society. They make society greater—and bear a disproportionate part of the weight of the world—by banding together, by forcing society to face up to the injustice visited upon them. Lone wolves do not know how to visit this terrible grace on people; they do not know how to be healers. Lone wolves only know how to attack.

It is 2018, and the wolf is in the henhouse. By the end of Alien: Covenant, the lone wolf, David, is on the Covenant, in the place of his more advanced, more benevolent, less powerful successor, Walter. The wheels of society continue to turn, and the individual is powerless to stop them.

The universe of Alien: Covenant is a bleak one, and not one I’d ever want to be a part of. As fun as it is to step into an ad for a summer horror movie on the CTA after Christmas, there’s something that tastes sour about being told to RUN and HIDE on my ordinary commute to my ordinary desk job during an anxiety-inducing chapter of history. But it’s prophetic, and it’s here. Like the hapless crew of the Covenant, I don’t know what to do about it, except yell and fight and hope that there’s an escape hatch somewhere. For someone like me, who finds movies to be her escape from the outside world, Alien: Covenant is hardly comforting. Still, it rings true. I can only hope that the other throughline of the series—the frightened woman who faces down her fear and survives horrors—will turn out to be true as well.