The date of the story in Ridley Scott’s new alien movie is 2104, ten years after the messy, murderous events that put an end to the previous prequel, Prometheus (2012). True to the tradition of the franchise, virtually the whole crew of a spaceship is wiped out in both films.
Alien (1979) ended with Sigourney Weaver’s voice saying into the ship’s log: ‘This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.’ Prometheus ended with Weaver’s successor Noomi Rapace murmuring: ‘There is only death here now.’ Only death apart from her and the severed head of an android called David. She is going to connect him to his separated body, and he will steer the ship to another planet. They haven’t got on well during the movie – ‘We have had our differences,’ the android says in his formal, English manner – but perhaps need and self-interest will start a beautiful friendship.
The new work takes its title, and its spaceship’s name, not from Conrad or Greek myth but from Abraham: they are called Covenant. (It’s not clear that this title has to do with anything other than the agreement between the film’s producers and the eager audience that there will be lots of squirming, bloody creatures who need to break out of human bodies to be born.) It is on its way to colonise a far-off planet, just seven years’ flight-time to go, the crew fast in hypersleep, a cargo of colonists and embryos safely stacked away. Another android, called Walter, along with a computer called – as usual – Mother, is taking care of navigation details. The ship is a giant, clunky, metal affair of the kind that looked futuristic in the 1970s and now looks like a medieval dungeon with lift-off power. A freak accident, if it was an accident, disturbs the ship’s functioning, wakes the crew up and kills the captain: his pod won’t open to let him out. The sight of his burning body and charred remains, and later his swathed, mummy-like figure cast from the ship for burial in space, is very impressive, and prepares us for the rest of the film’s many startling visual moments – inviting us at the same time perhaps not to worry too much about its foggy storyline and its rather erratic philosophical excursions.
The ship’s system is repaired, but the man who takes over as captain is unsure of his authority, and the crew is rattled and doesn’t want to go back to its long sleep. With perfect timing, a strange signal, a ‘rogue transmission’, comes in over the airwaves. It’s hard to decipher at first but is gradually revealed to be a recording of John Denver singing ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. This is someone’s idea of a joke. Ridley Scott’s certainly, but also that of someone within the story. The song would have been 133 years old in 2104, so its appearance is proof either of classic status or the fact that musical tastes don’t improve with science. It turns out to come from a nearby planet, weeks not years away, that has all the attractions of a place you might want to colonise: mountains, lakes, trees, breathable air. Our heroine (Katherine Waterston), who is the ship’s second-in-command, and of course the whole movie audience, know it’s not a good idea even to visit this place, but the nervous new captain is stubborn. This is a golden opportunity, he says, and down they go.
The place is a mausoleum, the site of a whole wasted civilisation. It is the planet the survivors of Prometheus came to, and now only David the android is left. He has affectionate memories of the Rapace character, and has built a shrine to her, playing reverential flute music to her image in his quiet moments. We also learn, sooner rather than later, that he killed her and has been using her DNA for his experiments with new forms of life. His interests, it appears, are not unrelated to the piles of bodies or to the dead civilisation. Lots of bloody monsters help him out, killing the visitors one by one until two of them finally escape with a loyal android in order to return in another movie. We are still 18 years away from the events of the first Alien film (23 by some counts), so there is room for another profitable disaster or two.
David and Walter at one point exchange quotations from Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, but David seems to have got the message upside down. In the poem the writing on a ruined monument to the ‘King of Kings’ says ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ The poem then concludes:
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
David sees the dead human population around him as a triumph, and the conversion of a colony into a desert as a sign of his power. His model isn’t Ozymandias so much as Milton’s Satan, and he does say it is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven. He also says, a little earlier, ‘I was not made to serve,’ which is precisely what his designer and all the humans in the movie thought he was made for. Why else would anyone have made him?
There is an important variant on the old story here. David is an android, a human creation, and not a defecting angel. To serve, as he sees it, means literally to be a servant, if not a slave – not to serve a purpose or a nation. The question is whether independence is possible, even for humans, without revolt and what we think of as excess. The relation of such a question to a colonising mission doesn’t escape us, and it isn’t clear that we should rush to admire the ‘good’ android Walter, as the film seems to insist we should. Walter knows his place, and saves human lives because, as he says, it is his duty. David wants to love and be loved, even if his love can only be pathological, or murderous.
The question is well dramatised by a fine joke. David thinks ‘Ozymandias’ is by Byron and is appalled to learn from Walter that he is wrong, that he has, unthinkably, made a mistake. Walter gives him a rather sanctimonious lecture: ‘When one note is off, it is caught up by the entire orchestra, which quickly finds itself out of tune. It eventually destroys the whole symphony, David.’ And then David ‘kills’ Walter – that is, disconnects him and leaves him inert and functionless. Until he reappears, explaining to David’s consternation that he, Walter, as a later model of the same machine, is the beneficiary of certain technical improvements. Walter’s apparent superiority, however, is not the end of the story.
The fact that both androids are played by Michael Fassbender, one as a stiff, friendly American guy and the other as the imitation of Peter O’Toole he had already perfected in Prometheus, adds to the riddle. And here, as in so many science-fiction movies, the decision to have the character of a robot acted rather than animated complicates the issue of what it means to be human to an extent that is almost beyond control. There are only humans here; or rather, only images of only humans. Of course it’s condescending to treat an actor as if he were not human, but how exactly should we treat machines? Conversely, it only takes a bit of bad acting to turn any human into a hopelessly old-fashioned automaton, beyond any sort of updating.
The elegant prelude to Covenant raises these possibilities and also wilfully travesties them. In a room that seems to consist mainly of a vast window looking onto a lake, the owner of the company behind all these ventures, Peter Weyland, played by Guy Pearce and looking much younger than he did in Prometheus, is talking to the recently activated David. There is a piano in the room, identified by the android, who likes to parade his knowledge: ‘Piano. Steinway concert grand. Suitable for all extremes of composition.’ Weyland invites David to play, leaving him to choose the tune. David settles on Wagner, his own transcription of a piece of Das Rheingold.
Weyland says he is David’s father, and David, like the incipient rebel that he is, asks an awkward question. ‘If you created me, who created you?’ Weyland says, ‘Ah, the question of the ages,’ and we know the script is in trouble. He continues with his non-credo. ‘I refuse to believe that mankind is a matter of “molecular circumstance” … There is more,’ he says. ‘There must be more.’ Then he cuts off the conversation by ordering David to bring him a cup of tea. No wonder David says later in the movie that Weyland ‘was not entirely worthy of his creature’. A little earlier Weyland instructs David to ‘ambulate’ – does he think his creature will not understand a simpler word? We could describe David’s walk across the room as pedantic, the gait of a creature that wants to walk like a human, only slightly better: a tidier, more stately process. But then who is walking here, who has devised this wonderful simulation of a simulation? Fassbender’s impersonation of the pedantry is a perfect work of human art.