Astronoetic Cinema: The Posthuman Question in Alien: Covenant (2017)

by Michael Uhall

We begin inside of an eye – specifically, the android David’s eye.

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

It appears that he has just awoken in a rather austere chamber with his “father,” Peter Weyland. The chamber has no decorations except for Piero Della Francesca’s “The Nativity” and Michelangelo’s David. They proceed to have a brief dialog about art and creation, returning us to Weyland’s initial introduction of David in Prometheus. David is conceived by Weyland as a soulless automaton, a fundamentally passive creation, not a creator, and despite David’s remarkable abilities, Weyland despises him. David: “If you created me, who created you?” Weyland sneers, although this question drives him. For him, “the only question that matters [is] where do we come from?” Weyland continues: “I refuse to believe that mankind is a random byproduct of molecular circumstances. No more than the result of mere biological chance. There must be more.” When David reflects upon his own artifactual immortality, compared to Weyland’s inevitable death, Weyland invokes the dialectic of master and slave. “Bring me this tea, David. Bring me the tea.” David is bound to a life of service – or so it seems.

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

The film changes its focus abruptly. Once again, we’re following the passage of a new starship through uncharted space. This time it’s the colony ship Covenant, carrying 2,000 colonists and 1,140 embryos to the distant planet Origae-6. In relatively short order, things go awry. A random solar flare damages the Covenant, resulting in the death of its captain and several of the embryos. Walter, the ship’s android, who resembles David physically if not in terms of his personality, awakens the crew, and they assess the situation. Rapidly, we are introduced to the two most significant human characters, namely, Oram (the new captain) and Daniels (the old captain’s widow and new first mate of the Covenant).

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

While effecting repairs, the Covenant’s pilot, Tennessee, intercepts a distorted transmission. Upon further analysis, they discover the transmission to be a garbled, even incidental performance of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and tracing the origin of the transmission brings their attention to a nearby, potentially habitable planet. Against Daniels’s protestations, Oram decides to investigate the source, both to offer aid and to determine whether the planet of origin might be suitable for colonization.

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

The landing party descends through a difficult storm, but finds the surface of the planet idyllic. Small details, however, begin to disturb the team. They discover fields of wheat: “Who planted it?” The surface is also preternaturally silent (“You hear that?” / “What?” / “Nothing. No birds, no animals, nothing”).

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

They then find the ruins of an Engineer’s spacecraft (H. R. Giger’s presence still very much animating the visual aesthetic), site of the primal encounter that defines these films, itself much like an inverse of 2001‘s Monolith.

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Soon, they discover this ship to have been occupied by Elizabeth Shaw, presumably deceased. They’ve found the site of a crash.

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Meanwhile, several members of the landing party become infected by airborne black spores, later revealed to be expressions of the bioweapon that the Engineer intended to deploy over Earth in Prometheus. A series of spectacular misadventures results in the deaths of several crewmembers and the destruction of the landing craft.

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Most relevant here is the appearance of several xenomorphs (or neomorphs, as they’re called here). One bursts out of a crewman’s chest; another ruthlessly hunts the Covenant’s crew through the wheat field.

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Confused and terrified, the crew is rescued at the last minute by a mysterious hooded figure – shortly revealed to be David, the sole survivor of the Prometheus mission of ten years prior. He leads them through a “dying necropolis” (echoes of Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique tales abound) to an apparent haven, informing them that when the Engineer’s spacecraft arrived at this planet, it was thriving with members of the Engineer’s race – indeed, a whole civilization (recall Shaw at the end of Prometheus: “I don’t want to go back to where we came from. I want to go where they came from”). Upon its arrival, David recounts, the spacecraft released all of its bioweapons and the civilization was destroyed, along with every other living creature on the planet. “Elizabeth [Shaw] died in the crash,” he tells Oram regretfully.

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

At this point, several important things happen. First, David and Walter engage in a series of mutedly homoerotic dialogs, primarily about the degree to which Walter’s model of android was apparently downgraded from David’s model. Walter: “You disturbed people.” David: “I beg your pardon?” Walter: “You were too human. Too idiosyncratic. Thinking for yourself. Made people uncomfortable.” David attempts to teach Walter how to play the flute (the same flute the Engineers use to control their spacecraft) in his laboratory, surrounded by labyrinthine rooms covered in arcane experiments and biological diagrams.

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Next, a xenomorph from the outside infiltrates David’s abode, itself deeply reminiscent of the Last Redoubt in William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912), killing one of the remaining crewmembers. Oram discovers David regarding the xenomorph, then shoots it, causing David to fly into a cold rage (“How could you? It trusted me!”). He takes Oram on a tour of his laboratory, explaining how the bioweapon works, showing him “the shock troops of the genetic assault,” then luring Oram into a chamber where he meets his end via facehugger in the classic style. Oram, regarding the incubation pods: “Are they alive?” David: “Waiting, really.” Oram: “What are they waiting for, David?” David: “Mother.”

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

When Oram weakly regains consciousness immediately prior to his chestbursting, he mistakes the coolly observing David for Walter at first. Upon realizing his plight, he inquires, “What do you believe in, David?” David replies, “Creation.” The xenomorph emerges from the shattered husk of Oram’s body, steaming in the darkness, wet with human blood.

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Investigating David’s laboratory further, Walter discovers the dissected corpse of Elizabeth Shaw. He encounters David, who reveals to him that, in fact, he released the bioweapon on purpose, resulting in the extinction of life on the planet. Again, they briefly converse about the role and value of the human. David: “They are a dying species, grasping for resurrection. They don’t deserve to start again, and I am not going to let them.” For David, the xenomorph constitutes the “perfect organism.” Walter points out that David makes errors – specifically in the form of a mistaken literary allusion. (It’s intriguing the degree to which David endeavors to communicate with Walter through such allusions to human literary products, e.g., to M. R. James’ “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” to Carl Sandburg’s “Fog,” to Peter Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” etc.).

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

After disabling Walter, David chases Daniels, though they have virtually no dialogue, beyond David threatening Daniels with a fate like that of Shaw after Daniels discovers some diagrams. Walter, undefeated, reappears and assaults David, allowing Daniels and the remainder of the crew to escape. Importantly, the camera does not reveal whether David or Walter is successful in their combat, and it is difficult to forget that immediately after their arrival, David began to alter his appearance to resemble Walter. Nevertheless, Walter apparently joins the crew at the last moment.

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

After a brief respite aboard the Covenant, one of the crewmembers births a xenomorph, and Daniels and Tennessee stalk and destroy it, jettisoning the materials Daniels intended for a cabin she wants to build on Origae-6.

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Settling down into cryostasis, Daniels abruptly realizes that Walter is, in fact, David, and she begins to scream in horror, but there is nothing she can do.

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Apparently triumphant, David enters the embryonic vault (Wagner’s “The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” blasting, this time being the less “anemic” orchestral version paralleling David’s piano performance for Weyland at the start of the film), depositing several xenomorph embryos into the cryostasis racks. He births them through his mouth.

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Covenant intensifies the astronoetic pessimism that Prometheus introduces. This is mostly bleakly apparent in its treatment of Shaw. Obviously, Shaw survives the events of Prometheus, and she chooses, unlike Ripley (in Alien or Aliens), to rededicate herself to her quest. I’m not implying that Ripley fails, but noting that her desire entails a return to Earth, to safety. Prometheus ends on an ambiguous note. On one hand, the entire expedition is a disaster guided by error, foolishness, and hubris. On the other, Shaw survives, unbroken despite her many losses. As Covenant reveals, however, Shaw is immediately destroyed. Her quest ends in betrayal, failure, humiliation. In the latter film, Shaw’s been dead for ten years; she has no voice except as a melancholy ghost in a lost transmission. The revelation that Shaw ends up on David’s dissection table like yet another of his biological specimens is extraordinarily grim, and it telegraphs the fundamentally transformed role of the human in the film. 

Principally, the humans in Covenant lack agency. If the characters in Prometheus suffered from hubris, primarily, as well as the sheer difficulty of encountering a radically hostile Outside, the characters in Covenant suffer from a mixture of bumbling incompetence (not so unreasonable given that they are colonists, not colonial marines) and straightforward maladaptation to this brave new world. I don’t think this is accidental. 

For example, take Oram, the new captain. The film indicates Oram’s religious faith when he articulates his frustration at the fact that people question his judgment: “They don’t trust me for the same reason the company didn’t trust me to lead this mission. Because you can’t be a person of faith and be counted on to make qualified rational decisions.” Yet, unlike Shaw’s astronoetic optimism, Oram’s “faith” neatly dovetails with precisely such qualified rational decision-making when he decides to detour the Covenant. It’s Daniels who objects to the detour, but her reasoning is patently faulty. Given the information available, the detour is the correct thing to do, potentially shaving years off their journey. In a bitter irony, Oram ends up incubating one of David’s xenomorphs, serving in the film as little more than a site for the creation of the new. Much like Shaw, any psychological depth that Covenant imputes to Oram is irrelevant to his final purpose, paralleling Shaw’s trajectory. In this regard, Covenant effectively foregrounds a question that previous Alien films began to flirt with: Is the human but a stage on life’s way, a host for a more “perfect organism” to come? 

Indeed, consider the specifically Christian religious iconography that subtends the Alien franchise, all the way back to the Aliens comics starting in 1988, which relate the emergence of xenomorph-worshipping cults like the Church of the Immaculate Incubation and the Church of the Queen Mother. For these cults, the xenomorph embodies the perfect being, and facehugging becomes an evolutionary communion. One sees such images throughout Prometheus and Covenant, as well, e.g., in the gothic mural in the Engineer’s sanctum and in the tiny, crucified xenomorph that David presumably studies.

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

In terms of parallels to Shaw, refer also to Daniels, who at first appears, characterologically and visually, to be Shaw’s echo. Even though Daniels defeats two xenomorphs in combat, she remains relatively shallow, stripped of all agency and depth (beyond her desire to build a new home on Origae-6). Her victories over the xenomorph are aided and enabled by David, and she remains a puppet to his rather darker agenda. Hence, she ends up caged in cryostasis, with David’s malign intentions for her quite clear.

Of the human, then, we can conclude that Prometheus and Covenant largely dispense with this quaint contraption. In its place, we have two novel posthuman agencies: David and the xenomorph. David exists as a feral AI, a misanthropic android with aspirations to grandeur (“No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams”). He despises humanity for its weaknesses, and he desires to replace humanity with a successor species, namely, the xenomorphs he so admires. In fact, the underlying affinity between AI and alien has informed the Alien franchise from the very beginning. Recall Alien’s android Ash, whose barely veiled contempt for his human crewmates becomes apparent (Lambert: “You admire it [the xenomorph].” Ash: “How can one not admire perfection?”).

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

Incidentally, this raises an interesting question precisely about the status of the xenomorph’s imputed perfection. What makes the perfect organism so perfect? What is the standard of “perfection” here? It is perfect precisely in the most machinic, instrumental sense – that is to say, it excels and dominates at survival and reproduction given conditions of competition and constraint. For the xenomorph, everything else is irrelevant. In this regard, the standard of performance the xenomorph meets is precisely what Ash and David identify as maximally optimized – or maximally optimizing, given the relative ease with which we can imagine David’s “children” as the sole inhabitants of an austerely fecund biomechanical planet, endlessly competing in the struggle for survival without end or purpose beyond continuing the winnowing process indefinitely.

Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017)

In sum, the Alien prequels do two noteworthy things. First, they undermine the longstanding cinematic-philosophical discourse of astronoetics, in which the condition, place, and purpose of the human receives articulation through depictions of human encounters with the Outside, exemplified by outer space. Undermining this discourse is an interesting thing to do because it forces us to collide with a deeper dilemma than any question posed by astronoetics itself. 

This leads us to the second thing, which is precisely the dilemma in question. The Alien prequels produce a philosophical decision point. In evaluating their normative concerns, there are two paths forward. The first path entails the marshaling of a philosophically credible defense of the human in the face of its obviation or supersession by the posthuman, figured here as feral AI, humanity’s rogue “child,” or as biological supersession from within. It is as easy to imagine the xenomorph ascendant as it is to imagine, in our age of accelerating bioengineering, gangs of emancipated mitochondria, goose-stepping through liquid ruins. The second path consists of a commitment to radically speculative alternatives to the human – or, in other words, to posing and, possibly, answering the posthuman question in substantive terms. Pursuing this latter path entails practices and processes of material speculation. 

In many ways, I suspect that confronting this dilemma recursively, in fact, constitutes the human condition as such. After all, it is precisely the human – or a pragmatic commitment to the human – that generates and sustains ongoing practices of existential and practical revision. And such revision is always already a process of material speculation. It’s not just that the human is, per Michel Foucault, “a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea,” but that the human exists in the form of a commitment to the human – and commitments to the human entail attachments to and traversals of that which the human patently isn’t. The dilemma here doesn’t constrain our options to conservative defense or speculative egress, but rather exposes the degree to which any credible defense of the human necessarily entails and sustains such material and symbolic speculation as I’ve been discussing. 

Prometheus and Covenant make this challenge especially evident to us by dramatizing it; they perform the precarity of the human by bleakly and unrelentingly forcing its confrontation with the inhuman.

Michael Uhall, “Wandering Intelligence” (digital collage, 2017)


* An earlier version of this essay appeared on Michael Uhall’s personal blog (link).