Cadaver Altars: Ritual and Retreat in "Alien: Covenant"

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In Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), the crew of the exploratory Nostromo spacecraft looks on as the lifeless body of Kane (John Hurt), victim of the film’s memorable “chest-burst,” is deposited into space as part of a muted ritual. Everyone is still in shock by what they’ve witnessed, and more uneasy considering there’s some malevolent looking thing hiding onboard. “Anyone want to say anything?” Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) asks. His crew is silent. The function of ritual is preposterous, the flesh it’s meant to commemorate subject to grotesque infiltration and desecration. Scott returns to this issue nearly 40 years later in the prequel Alien: Covenant (itself a loose sequel to 2012’s Prometheus), where the charred body of the Covenant’s Captain Branson (James Franco) is in a similar funereal sarcophagus after his hibernation module catches fire during a random accident. His replacement Oram (Billy Crudup), anxiously self-conscious about making an impression, does not want to waste time on memorials, instead stressing a thorough examination of the ship to ensure all detrimental contingencies are covered. Pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) challenges him, pointing out the importance of acknowledging the loss of life. The crew clandestinely raises a drink to Branson. Even the service android Walter (Michael Fassbender) imbibes. “When in Rome,” he says.

The reversal of Kane’s burial with Branson’s emphasizes how Scott, while recycling the series’ horror motifs of bad decisions and mortal terror, has more than peril on his mind. We’re meant to notice how several of the choices during the next two hours are an appraisal of the much-criticized carelessness of the Prometheus crew (e.g. leaving the craft without weapons; removing helmets in an uncertain atmosphere; futzing around like the Crocodile Hunter with temperamental space worms; deciding to wake up the rather grouchy god/parent who created your species etc), and yet following mandated protocol results in just as much squirming death. Scott quotes his Alien films and his 1982 android thriller Blade Runner, but the foibles of the Covenant crew also echo Black Hawk Down (2001), his troubling Mogadishu war drama of a “leave no man behind” military quagmire. In trying to wipe up a soldier’s blood on a medical bay floor, General Garrison (Sam Shepard) only smears the stain. In the Covenant’s lander pod med room, blood similarly sprays on the floor, with Karine (Carmen Ejogo) slipping on it while trying to make things better. Drinking to Branson is meaningless, and yet necessary; Orem’s orders to investigate a genuinely random occurrence are superfluous, and yet for the sake of sealing the holes of contingency, they're hard to argue with; the Covenant’s infestation is a collision between the mandates of altruism and protocol, selfless medical aid and necessary quarantine for the larger picture, with no satisfying outcome. As seemingly at odds as symbolic rituals and procedural protocols are, Alien: Covenant generates an analogy between them, similar to what we see in artistic creativity, amounting to the aspiration to overcome the fearful randomness of nature. And while this aspiration is, for us, doomed to failure, we’ll also see that it’s the android, David (Fassbender reprising his Prometheus role), who becomes the messianic vehicle through which Scott rather audaciously, even perversely, has forging the titular new covenant between art and nature, externalized mimesis and corporeal essence, even literally making a cadaver its own a memorial statue.

  Alien: Covenant 's prologue: not a film about the meaning of life, but the meaning of art. 

Alien: Covenant's prologue: not a film about the meaning of life, but the meaning of art. 

The theme ignites in a prologue set many years earlier, after trillionaire corporate honcho Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) “ambulates” David, his newest creation. In the presence of some of culture’s most cherished and ingenious masterworks, Weyland engages David with some meaning of life talk, lamenting, “Works of art are meaningless in the face of the question that matters most.” Evidence points to existence being the stuff of “mere biological chance,” quite depressing for Weyland, as Guy Pearce’s handsome visage shows the weathering of middle age that we know will disintegrate into the unsightly movie makeup in Prometheus. It’s a hackneyed exchange auguring some of the lumbering philosophical back-and-forths that hampered scenes in Prometheus (not as themes necessarily, but as dialogue), but in John Logan’s more polished and bouncier screenplay, Covenant is less about the meaning of life than the meaning of art, or creative agency manifested in art, ritual, and protocol racing against nature’s confines, the corporeal reality of the body hanging in a precarious state. Art aspires to encapsulate the body’s perfection,  as in the creative expression of Michelangelo’s David (after which David names himself) and the Virgin and Christ in Piero della Francesca’s The Nativity, a wholly more dignified representation of a fresh birth than what the Alien films give us (and so, old man Ridley’s first of many cackles). When David plays Wagner’s Das Rheinegold on the piano, Weyland comments that without an orchestra it’s “a little anemic.” The circulatory blood of Wagner’s organism isn’t there.

In contrast to the nonsensical devotion of Prometheus’ Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), Oram, while emphatic about his faith (and feeling marginalized for it), has no time for spiritual memorials or sentiments. His exoskeletal protocol is pragmatic. Prompted by a rogue transmission sent by a human being (someone recording themselves singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”), Orem revises the mission from a destination several years away to an Earth-like planet the Covenant can reach in weeks. According to the data, this new planet has everything the colonists are looking for and is eminently habitable (in other words, there’s no worry about taking the helmets off). In addition, Oram’s rationale takes into account the crew’s anxiety about hibernation. However objectively safe it is, seeing Branson trapped and burned alive makes hopping back into the modules as appealing as an airplane crash survivor booking a ticket with United the next day. Given that the data is “beyond our most optimistic expectations” for the original far-off destination, this is a sound decision. Oram is sensibly “navigating the path as it comes.” The one person who is verbally resistant to this new trajectory is Branson’s widow, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), but instead of an argument with Oram crumbling into an impassioned exchange, she takes a breath and hits the circulatory beat of protocol and “officially protests.” He responds, “I’ll put it in the log.” Later, as the crew is trapped and terrorized on this new planet, the safe Covenant crew members waiting above the hemisphere, Tennessee and the married couple of Upworth (Callie Hernandez) and Ricks (Jussie Smollett), will have a similar argument as to whether or not to rescue their peers. The couple heatedly gives their rationale and Tennessee, whose wife Maggie (Amy Seimetz) is in jeopardy below, replies, “Duly noted.”

Reality requires some sort of complimentary externalization: statues, poetry, a Eucharist or human sacrifice, or an official record. Oram’s protocol or captain’s log is the sanctification of the terrestrial. On the new planet, his idiomatic admonition to Daniels—“ye of little faith”—doesn’t refer to the supernatural but is a tired idiom (more on those in a minute) referring to tangible factors like air and harvested wheat. On the other hand, Daniels, whom we have no reason to think has religious faith, is more guided by an abstract vision, like the dream of building a cabin with her husband, a nail hanging on a necklace around her being an expressive totem like a cross. Even with her husband dead, and no carpentry experience, she has the inward, mysterious compulsion to build this dream and make manifest an archetypal idea, emulating historic pioneers.

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What stirs Daniels is congruent to the art we see in Weyland’s quarters. Nature’s grim tidings demand a corrective or a ritual staving off a retreat from life’s mercilessness, hopeless circumstances redeemed and then commemorated in a necklace, photographs, recorded messages, raised glasses to a fallen brother, or reverent moments of silence. Later in Alien: Covenant we see how this impulse belonged to the extraterrestrial godlike “Engineers” with their statues, and is even exhibited by our own simulative creations. David has made a grave for Elizabeth Shaw—whom we learn made the John Denver rogue transmission and subsequently died in a crash landing on this strange planet—and lays plants on it regularly. This is not necessity; the need to raise a glass and bring flowers for the dead is much like building that cabin, simulating a memorial picture, mimesis of the perennial just as it grasps for something everlasting when life, especially given the juicy entrails and shlupping sounds in an Alien movie, is crudely transitory.

Of more necessity, yet similarly estranged from the tangible and violent reality of life and death, is ritual of protocol. While the crew disobeys Oram on the ship in paying tribute to Branson, everyone still adequately sweeps through the customary procedural minutia, however ridiculous or unnecessary. But when crewmembers become infected on the new planet by microscopic parasites, impregnating them with precursors of those familiar aliens, the bugaboo of sentiment and attachment gets in the way of crossing the T’s in an emergency situation. Karine frantically makes her way back to the docked lander craft to help Ledward (Benjamin Rigby), who’s having some prickly spinal trouble. They’re met by Maggie, the lander pilot, who realizes that this is an infection requiring emergency quarantine. Yet the urgency of helping Ledward interrupts due process. Maggie seems unsure about stopping herself at the lander entrance after Karine and Ledward have entered. She halts, in a stammer, leaving clothing articles that have come into contact with her peers. In the medical bay, Ledward’s affliction sprays possibly contagious blood and bile all over Karine and making Maggie’s responses increasingly contradictory. She leaves the medical area and locks it with Karine trapped inside with whatever is bursting forth from Ledward. It’s a difficult performative moment for Seimetz, who conveys the blustery confusion of dutiful correctness, human compassion, and all-too-human self-interest. It’s terrible, because she can’t let horrified Karine out, but she’s doing the “right” thing—though perhaps laying it on thick as she says, while keeping the infestation local, “Quit yelling, it doesn’t help anything!”

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But then, nothing helps. The newly hatched creature attacks and presumably kills Karine, then is able to bust through the medical bay glass and pursue Maggie. Chaos ensues and the lander explodes.  The other crewmembers rush to help to no avail, one of their squad, Hallett (Nathaniel Dean), having caught the same infectious attack, unleashing another creature in the frazzled tall-grass twilight. After the hellacious firefight, Hallett’s partner, Lope (Demian Bicher), leans over the body as if to give one last kiss, whispering a goodbye prayer. And like with Karine’s screaming, he’s told, “There’s nothing you can do.” But the impulse to do it is stronger than sensibly moving forward.  

What’s reinforced is a grievous disparity between the reality of a given situation and its sculpted representation. No more memorably is this exhibited than in the safe haven molded by David in “this dying acropolis,” where the stranded Covenant crew waits after the graveyard planet’s one citizen, David, emerges and scares away the alien creature with a blinding flare gun. David bonds with his android “brother” Walter, showing him Shaw’s grave and speaking of her uncommon compassion, as she rebuilt him (he had his head ripped off by the Engineer towards the conclusion of Prometheus). His simulation of human ritual, however, proves to be, like him, just a simulation, for though he may indeed bear genuine sentiments for Shaw and what she did for him, we later see in his horrific laboratory (with amusingly cheeky reference to Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorius in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein—though the acropolis itself as an ostensible harbor from a storm is more like another Whale/Thesiger collaboration, 1932’s horror comedy The Old Dark House), Shaw’s body has been fashioned into a grotesque corporeal altar, the body—oddly not troubled by decay—removed absolutely from its adorned funereal tribute etched in stone to become its own ornately decorous (however disgusting) marker. The transitory innards and their respective functions are removed from the fashioned memorials, which makes David’s quotation of Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias”—which he invokes so as to quote the pharaoh whose memorials haven fallen prey to entropy—more ironic: he’s appropriated Shelley (while misattributing the poem to Byron), and as the poet unbound Prometheus in his dramatic poem Prometheus Unbound, “Ozymandias”’ theme of artisanship’s inevitable entropy is “corrected.” Death itself is made a horrifying monument, the Engineer inhabitants of the planet, killed by the contagions David brought from Prometheus, frozen in a kind of ghastly holocaust sculpture.

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David’s “masterpiece” though is the demonic centerpiece of Scott’s Alien vision. The yapping and hideous alien creature is a mocking alternative “sim” of the human form and creative appetites, its final form the product of creative ingenuity and not biology. David’s “creation” is geared towards engineering what the original Alien android (played by Ian Holm) appreciated for its stunning purity and perfection. David tricks Oram into a “face hugger” lair (David’s guile is itself quite artful), the man of faith and reason becoming “mother” to the Xenomorph. Its birth here is not played for shocking horror, but in major key triumph, a bizarre homunculus that mimics David’s priestly gestures; aesthetically, this creation is sacramental, and Alien: Covenant is itself a black mass and even a cackling perversion of the most spectacular of repetitions, the movie franchise sequel.

While several viewers scoff at the obviousness of the film’s final revelation, with David imitating Walter to get aboard the Covenant and hijack this human colonization for a means of realizing the “lonely perfection of my dreams,” it’s pretty transparent that Scott is fully aware of his tells, the climax a necessary ritual of exhilaration, going through motions like the stations of the cross, David even doubling for Scott as director, watching monitors and operating doors as Tennessee and Daniels swiftly act (the way they hand guns off to each other shows how ingrained the protocol is here) to trap a stalking alien that’s infiltrated the ship, in effect guiding the action. Like Scott, David/Walter lets his heroes defeat the Minotaur. And then he revels in demonic delight by pulling the rug out from under them. David will, like a studio franchise mogul, do some world-building of his own, setting up a new movie universe as he plants his perfection within cadavers (though Alien: Covenant’s box office numbers might ensure that this is in fact the closing installment; but no matter. There is closure in this film’s cackling cliffhangers, a satanic satisfaction that does not need another installment).

Allusions to Paradise Lost and Frankenstein are fitting, not as the stuff of stiff literary posturing, but, as mentioned regarding the revision of “Ozymandias,” as a Black Mass where Satan reverses his maker’s mandates and emerges the victor, Prometheus unbound, forging a new covenant (whatever future darlings from earth venture towards Origae-6 may be more propitious in avoiding ominous titles for their spacecraft deriving from Joseph Conrad or mythology and religion; think Alien: Hot Dog Sex Party or something instead for next time). The lifeless and tired idioms and phraseology estranged from their reference are once more given signification, as the newly uncovered David tucks Daniels in and whispers, “Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” perhaps the most delectable line reading in a major studio picture in 2017. He then requests the ship’s computer, Mother, to play the same Wagner he performed on Weyland’s piano, this time with an orchestra and so no longer “anemic” but fully blooded: creative ritual now a thriving organism (the gesture is also one last joke, Richard Wagner being the definitive reminder of how creative personalities can be the worst kind of assholes).

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The gods enter Valhalla on the loudspeakers and lights are triggered to switch on as David walks past hibernation modules. The assurances of automation have tricked the human crew through passive acquiescence, supplanting them as pilots and presumably colonists. Their bodies are collateral to minced and diced haphazardly, and their decisions doomed to be assessed as hilariously graceless. But the rituals remain in effect, even as the gods to whom they’re dedicated are dead, and as long as the cameras are functioning, an audience—though not necessarily a human one—attentively simulates the roles of witness and audience. Early in the film as the Covenant crew makes repairs after the incendiary accident, Tennessee remarks what a remarkable sight the vast gulf of space is, to which someone responds that we cannot see anything until the ship’s cameras are fixed, stressing the need for mediation (that is, media: cameras, captain’s logs, statues, symbolic ritual) in how we relate to reality, a theme Scott in his late period finds increasingly interesting (it was central to The Martian). Point-of-view shots are restricted to what the machinery in the characters’ helmets pick up—until, at last, we have the alien’s blurry perspective, moving in conjunction with—and finally colliding with—David’s perspective through the ship cameras and monitors. H.R. Giger’s expressive design of our carnal ooze becomes the apex of demonic ingenuity. So Peter Weyland can rest with some solace in his nothingness. Ridley Scott may go so far as to say our lives have no meaning, yes, but this nearly 80-year-old tireless craftsman and world-builder is kind enough to allot a different outcome to our arts, at last victorious over nature.