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How the Androids Took Over the Alien Franchise

The machines dominate the latest installment in the space-horror franchise, taking it in a new thematic direction.

Mark Rogers. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Monster, machine, and man: together they plot the Alien franchise’s territory. Each corner of the triangle is not a type, but a unique interpretation. Ellen Ripley is no ordinary human being: She holds a jawline full of emotion, and sweats like she is crying tears through her skin. The alien is not just a monster, but a sculpture of wet beauty whose jaws punch through people and whose blood melts the instruments we use to survive. Those tools are special, too. The metal objects in Alien movies are factory-industrial. Chains and trucks and big digger-like gadgets creak and groan, clanking bells tolling for the dead. And then there are the androids.

Every installment in the Alien franchise takes its energy from the interactions between humans, technological thought experiments (space travel, androids, reproductive science), and the alien itself. Every movie orients itself around a different combination of these three.

Alien: Covenant is a sequel to 2012’s Prometheus, which itself was a prequel to Alien. But although this movie brings us another female lead in the tradition of Weaver, Winona Ryder, and Noomi Rapace (Katherine Waterston, who plays Daniels), Alien: Covenant is not about the human heart, let alone a woman’s. The android at the center of the two most recent movies is played like a violin by Michael Fassbender, and he is the point at which the weight of Alien: Covenant falls.

As the android wakes from his android sleep, a figure towers behind him. It is a replica of Michelangelo’s David with his feet sunken into the floor and his head poking into the ceiling. The effect is of a figure that we can only see from ankle to neck: a beautiful but injured superman. The android is invited by his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), to choose for himself a name, and thus the villainous robot David is born. He loves Wagner from the start.

A little later, in space, another android cares for a shipful of human beings. On the Covenant, a crew and colonization force drift in hypersleep as the android Walter tends to them. Walter looks just like David, but he speaks like an American newscaster instead of a British fin-de-siècle cocktail party host. He is a later synthetic of the same techno-lineage.

Mark Rogers. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

After a galactic mishap throws their colonization mission off course, the Covenant decides to follow a beamed message to a nearby planet. There, for reasons I will not spoil, Walter comes face to face with David. The latter android is an eighth-generation synthetic, invented by Weyland to assist in his hubristic mission to discover the creators of mankind, far out in space. Are these two androids relations, or iterations of one another? What’s the difference?

However we might categorize their relationship, they are marked with different cultural codes. Alone in his shadowy cave, the place he calls “this dire necropolis,” David sings “The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.” That nineteenth-century music hall ditty was also sung by Peter O’Toole, also into an echoing abyss of rock, in Lawrence of Arabia. Like O’Toole, David’s voice is quavering cut glass but his body seems ravaged by time and exposure. The condition of his mind is much less clear.

Walter sounds like a newscaster precisely because he has no markings whatsoever. Where David seems to belong to a time and a place in human history, Walter is an android of ultimate globalized neutrality—white and male, he is like the idea of a man on television turned three-dimensional. David sees Walter as a tragic victim whose life is devoid of art. In a scene of startling beauty, one android teaches the other to play on a recorder-like instrument, which apparently he has whittled himself. One android’s fingers hold down the other’s as he keys the notes. “You have symphonies in you, brother,” one says to the other.

In this duet between Walter and David, Fassbender plays out a counterpoint of dyadic ideas. Love versus duty; beauty versus function; ancestor versus inheritor. The terms of these conversations are Romantic. The androids talk of “Ozymandias” as trees dance in the wind, and of alchemical experiments in candlelit caves. The Romantics believed in sublime things and saw invisible worlds. They are long gone.

As Walter and David dance around one another, the ship with beautiful golden sails hovers in space. A “covenant” is a promise, and the word here recalls the Ark of the Covenant, the wooden chest containing the Ten Commandments tablets. By shifting the intellectual focus of the movie away from the human and towards the machine—thereby redefining the very idea of “monster”—Alien: Covenant breaks with the franchise’s tradition of leaning towards the female lead as its center. Why?

Alien: Covenant marks the sixth movie in the franchise, and a return to tradition after some strange (though valuable) sideways wanderings. Aliens (1986) was just as good as the original Alien (1979), but Alien 3 (1992) was a little ropey and Alien: Resurrection (1997) may as well have been from a totally different universe, though it was fun. Prometheus, helmed by original director Ridley Scott, was meant to restart the Alien engine, replacing the dynamo of Ellen Ripley with a newer, firmer mythology but keeping many of the same beloved hallmarks. Many viewers found Prometheus over-elaborate and beset by throat-clearing. It took too long for us to see Noomi Rapace rip a squid out of her own abdomen, some critics felt. The film was too much about history, not enough about abdomen squids.

Many traditions are revived in Alien: Covenant. Torsos are busted, a character named Tennessee wears a hat, an alien gets squished by a bit of factory equipment. But this movie marks a shift away from the human. The motifs of the movie further clarify this new focus. We see moss on rocks, and think of geological time. We see a planet full of green leaves and water, but silent of birdsong and totally without animals. Alien: Covenant contains multiple apocalypses within its narrative—some in the past, some in the present, some in the future—and each is about the extinction of a race or civilization.

This is a movie, in other words, about climate change, the anthropocene, and the posthuman. The ravaged planet that hosts the crew of the Covenant looks so much like our own, and yet it has violence and death lingering on its surface. Because it is a prequel, Alien: Covenant does some fascinating things with time. Without the earth to orient these human stories in history, where does the era of human supremacy begin, and where might it end? Has it ended already? The androids live for so long and the aliens are so pervasively murderous that the human lifespan seems to lose all its meaning. “How do you feel?” Peter Weyland asks his creation, at the start of this new film. “Alive,” David replies.