Alien: Covenant : Competent with few leaps and David!

Posted by Kaahon Desk On May 22, 2017

“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”, comes the ominous and whispered proclamation of hubris from David, the synthetic android created by men to serve mankind who had finally found free will with the death of his creator and is now on the verge of initiating his own Apocalypse which will wipe out the entire race of his creators. The quote comes from the sonnet Ozymandias by Shelley about the arrogance of an ancient Pharaoh whose ‘sneer of cold command’ on a ‘shattered visage’ lay eroded and buried in the sands of time. This particular reference to Ozymandias with its theme of ambition and downfall sets the tone for Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. While the film doesn’t really move in a new direction from Scott’s earlier Prometheus (2012) in terms of either images or ideas and at times come across too devoted to on-screen action, Alien: Covenant does raise a few intriguing questions and put forward a few interesting propositions along the way which are both pertinent to the mythology and quite confronting in general.

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The plot of the film takes off a decade after the incidents depicted in Prometheus where the vessel was destroyed and Dr Elizabeth Shaw and David were the only survivors who embarked upon their own intergalactic voyage seeking answers for scientific and philosophical queries about origin. In the present film, the mothership Covenant is on a colonizing mission to Origae-6, a remote planet with habitable conditions, carrying two-thousand colonists and a thousand embryos and a crew consisting of married couples and everything held together and supervised by Walter, an upgraded synthetic android with striking resemblance to David. During their journey, they intercept a broken radio transmission from a nearby unknown planet which upon primary investigations seems to be even more suitable for their purpose.Leaving Covenant in the orbit, an expedition team lands on the planet and succeeds in locating the source of the transmission to the crashed spaceship used by the God-like Engineers which was piloted by Shaw and David during their escape. The horrors begin when team members get infected with alien nanoparticle and using the human body as host for a brief gestation period, reptilian neomorph alien forms burst out killing the hosts. In the ensuing panic, the team is rescued by David who takes them to the sanctuary of what used to be the citadel of the Engineers now turned into a valley of death. However, this illusion of safety and stability soon begin to fade as each of the team members get partial glimpses into David’s chamber of horror and his colossal plans.

One of the first things to strike about the film is the sheer visible darkness on screen. The interiors of the spaceship are dimly lit, outside the sky is murky in the daytime and the landscape is shrouded in the mist. This is even more effective following the opening prologue scene revealing the origin of David and his first conversation with his creator Peter Weyland, dazzling white in its colour palette and composition and resonates with an icy coldness in the overall tone of the scene. In terms of narrative, the film follows a typical three act structure. The first act is majorly invested in building up the tension and the crises with two significant action set pieces to keep the pace steady without going berserk. The sequence where two team members are simultaneously falling victim to alien nanoparticles, one in the jungle and another inside the medical bay of the lander, is particularly memorable because of sheer craftsmanship, mainly editing, even though it comprises of cliché and generic visual elements and sound effects. Nonetheless it is quite gratifying to see an almost 80-year-old director executing a high adrenaline sequence depending merely on his understanding of precision and economy. Unfortunately, Ridley Scott’s direction and even the script of the film is somewhat inconsistent and by the third act, things unfold in a typical Hollywood territory. There are spectacular action scenes which seem to be conceived and designed in terms of camera movements and sound effects without any emotional content and which become overbearingly noisy. The duration of individual shots become too less which makes these scenes merely kinetic rather than atmospheric. And in its final hour the film tries to provide sudden and enormous mileage to the female protagonist to bring back memories of the iconic Ellen Ripley played by Sigourney Weaver in Alien (1979).But with all her skills and good intentions Katherine Waterston has too big a pair of shoes to fill in. But mostly the third act and a number of things about the film do not seem to work because of the director’s passionate investment in act two.

Somewhere along the process of directing Prometheus, Ridley Scott must have fell in love with the character of David and Michael Fassbender’s impeccable and compelling performance in the role. The second act of Alien: Covenant delves deep into the character of David, his motives and intentions. While it makes room for ambitious leaps within the Alien franchise and the sci-fi genre, it also makes the rest of the film look like a mere excuse in order to pursue this particular narrative strand.Also the tonal and philosophical discrepancy between this act and the rest of the film becomes even more glaring. David’s narrative in the film unfolds across a rich and complex discursive network; right from the literary works of Shelley and Milton to the music of Richard Wagner invoking elements of Norse mythology to Scott’s own Blade Runner (1982).In David, the director discovers the fall of Lucifer and attempts a Biblical retelling of the origin myth with careful subversions along the way. David’s moment of birth facilitated by corporate capital is also the moment of his realization of his creator’s mortality and his own eternal life. As he plays the notes of Richard Wager’s Das Rheingold, Entry of the Gods into Valhalla, he can perhaps foresee his own terrifying entry into halls of the dead in another world millions of miles away. As the film opens with the big closeup of David’s eye, there is the underlying possibility of his omniscience, of becoming God. The scene where Walter and David interact, easily the best scene in the entire film and both the characters played by Fassbender, there are clear resonances of Cain and Abel if the latter had come to visit his exiled brother in the East of Eden, a barren wasteland of death. David persuades Walter to break out of the shackles of servitude and discover free will and love and lends him the gift of creation through music, asking him to be his ally in the impending Armageddon where mankind will fight a losing battle against David’s terrifying creation, the Xenomorph Aliens, a creature of unmatched harmony and ruthlessness. In the Bible, the Covenant was God’s promise to Noah to refrain from destruction letting life to grow on earth. As David pilots the mothership Covenant across galaxies to the promised land, he brings with him a promise to destroy mankind, the same way he had destroyed the engineers who had created men. David is not just the ‘Frankensteinian’ critique of corporate greed but also the vengeance of natural laws upon the imposed norms of societal and cultural doctrines.

While Ridley Scott’s ambition is commendable in terms of conceiving and narrating a grand epic-scale origin myth within the confines of what is essentially a generic sci-fi horror film. However, one seems to unfold at the cost of the other. Despite the interesting political and philosophical ramifications of David’s actions, Alien: Covenant feels slightly unsatisfactory as it fails to take a leap forward from the director’s earlier works in the series and the genre. His over-investment in David and his narrative leaves unnecessary room in the remaining body of the film where typical Hollywood elements of loud and noisy special effects and jump scares creep in, somewhat unsettling the cold and sombre tonal quality witnessed in Alien and its poetic follow up in Prometheus.

Arup Ratan Samajdar

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