The film Alien: Covenant is a multi-layered experience. One level is the predictable body-bursting horror flick. But there is much more: a computer named Muthur that takes care of everything, the anomalous introduction into a sci-fi adventure of John Denver singing Take Me Home and an exploration of the evil twin theme. All these intertwine in a Gothic interpretation of parenthood and creation.
The film is one of the Alien sequence. It opens with a scene in which Peter Weyland, founder of a mega-technology firm is taking his new android creation for a trial run. On command, it walks, talks and plays the classics on a grand piano. Asked to name itself, the android looks up at another creation, Michelangelo’s statue, David, and chooses that name for himself. Weyland promises David that one day, together, they will search for the creator of mankind.
This a prelude the account of the 22nd century voyage of the colonization ship, Covenant, en route to a distant planet with several thousand colonists and a thousand embryos—and an android, Walter, a newer model of David, who, with Muthur, manages the ship. A violent neutrino storm damages the ship, flinging it off course, and killing many colonists as well as the ship’s captain. After repairing the ship, the crew picks up an unexpected radio transmission from a near-by planet—John Denver singing Take Me Home.
Deciding to investigate, the space ship approaches the planet and sends a shuttle with an exploring party that includes Walter. They find a planet that seems designed for humans—breathable air and lush vegetation, including wheat. Appearances are deceptive. The seemingly supportive environment includes spores that invade the bodies of some of the explorers, creating xenomorphs, alien forms that quickly mature bloodily and painfully to erupt from their dying, involuntary hosts. In the battle with the aliens the shuttle is destroyed. Those remaining are met by David, Walter’s predecessor, the only survivor of the earlier Prometheus mission, which, David tells them, ended in chaos when their ship crashed, accidentally releasing a bioweapon that killed the planet’s native population.
Revealing the details of the ensuing complications would constitute a spoiler, but I must disclose that David’s role as a rescuer is also deceptive. He has been experimenting at creating xenomorphic life. That sets off a battle between Walter, whose duty is to protect his human charges, and David whose interest is finding hosts for his “progeny”.
Questions about creation and about motherhood are posed by the story. One might wonder if the bloody eruption of aliens from the body reflect a masculine fear of the essence of motherhood. And perhaps the exigency of current political struggles over abortion rights/wrongs is fed by similar fears.
On another level, the Alien series raises the questions about another kind of parenthood, the human creation of technology, and about evolution. Can technology evolve into a threat to humanity? Does humanity have a warrant to protection against a future in which it is replaced?
We began with a reference to the evil twin theme. Michael Fassbender’s adroit portrayal of both David and Walter was anticipated in Star Trek by Brent Spiner’s playing both of Dr. Soon’s creations, the androids Data and Lore.
But the relationship between David and Walter has an erotic component revealed in David’s teaching Walter to play his flute—almost embarrassingly clear symbolism—and his kissing him in the midst of their final struggle.
Walter and David, Abel and Cain, Jeckyl and Hyde, twins that can’t co-exist. All these, and their attraction to each other, are literary expressions the persistence in all of us of disowned, disavowed elements of ourselves. Elements that, suppressed, can erupt without warning, bloodily.