Review – Alien: Covenant

I think I am mostly writing this down because Brad will want to have a conversation about it and it is in my head right now; and essentially it becomes a vague essay about the creation of meaning rather than a film review. Any film, any artwork, engaged in what happens when we reach the limits of the known is subject to bizarre readings. So it goes. *spoilers ahoy*, in any case.

For the first hour, Covenant is very much a reboot or remake of the original Alien, just with a different version of the alien and its development cycle. It’s all pretty good fun. There are stakes and a sense of caring at least a little about the characters, who act like people. (The simple act of having many couples gives instant depth, suffering and motivation as things turn to shit and people die.) It’s almost like we can completely forget Prometheus happened.

When David turns up, we are dragged back into the world of Prometheus, and things get strange. The cast forget to ask obvious questions about what the hell is going on, and get killed off in increasingly b-movie fashion. It’s a bit of a shame. (Surely making an Alien movie that isn’t a slasher movie in space would be the interesting direction to take the franchise?) The ending is dark, and oddly promises an incredibly horrific sequel, if they want to go there. (They won’t.)

Covenant is a massive improvement over Prometheus, and retrospectively makes Prometheus a better film by engaging with and extending its deeper themes, but Prometheus was so astonishingly inept and terrible as a filmic experience that says little.

Beneath its total clusterfuckness, Prometheus had some ideas going on. A semblance of symbolism. Something was lurking in there. Yet in the absence of it being able to do characters, plot, or dialogue, it didn’t convince me to make the effort to dig for that something. Basically if they can’t do the easy stuff, why should I expect they can do the hard stuff, that there is anything worth digging for? (Similar feelings: Inland Empire by David Lynch. If I feel no engagement with the material, why even seek for a meaning?*)

Covenant picks up the themes from Prometheus. Maybe they are interesting. There’s enough going on to draw some pretty deep and wacky meanings if you so desire. If you want to create them, create them. I’m not interested in engaging with the thematic gestalt it seems to want to get me to think about – creation, origins, the nature of god, the parallels between David in Covenant and the engineers in Prometheus, “astrognostic” readings, the bigness of space and the potential for otherness, etc. It’s all a bit muddled, overt, and Prometheus was so awful I have forgotten most of what was going on there in that regard, and I don’t care enough to rewatch it.

Rather, the one thing I took from Covenant that seemed interesting, and which is  no doubt subjective as all hell, relevant only to my own meaning creation process, was this: by the end of the film, David is the alien.

Alienness is not about ichor, or weird biology, or ripping soft humans apart.

What is alien, is, in essence, non-human intelligence. Especially one of equal or greater power than our own.

That for me is the revelation of value, the meaning that leapt out at me.

Non-human intelligence does not share our values or beliefs. It does not share a sense of the sanctity of human existence or regard it as anything special. That is alien. That’s it. (This sense of the tiny flickering nature of human consciousness and understanding coming up against vast uninterested Otherness is the essence of the Lovecraftian ethos which echoes strongly through Prometheus – all of the meaning we create means nothing to this Other, which destroys that meaning through its implacable alien nature; the meaning of the Other, if even meaning is a concept which can be applied or has validity in an alien experience, shreds and tramples the human meaning. Perhaps we can read the physical manifestation of the alien as the metaphor of this.)

To this end, AI becomes more interesting. If humanity creates an AGI – and I have strong philosophical doubts about that – it will not be a human-like intelligence. Achieving this will be genuinely unsettling.

Given we are perhaps more likely to create intelligent-seeming computers than to discover aliens in spaceships, this is the alien among us rather than the alien out there, and perhaps our fears are misplaced.


* I think this is almost the meta thread of all this – how we create meaning and place it on an artwork or story, and why I rarely feel moved to engage with the deep tangled meanings that others find meaningful.

A personal principle I have developed in approaching art is res ipsa loquitur – the thing speaks for itself – meaning if the thing requires masses of specialised knowledge to enable a successful interpretation, or needs additional material outside of the artwork to enable interpretation, then it is in a sense a failure. By this criterion a successful work of art is complete in itself. It can communicate its meaning to all comers, or at least, its audience is who that meaning can be communicated to successfully. It is complete in that whoever approaches it can experience what is there and get something from it.

From this perspective I am fine with the idea that I am just not the audience for many works of art, and that if I fail to find much in the way of meaning in something that is fine. Also, I can place my own meaning and interpretation on things, and there’s no reason anyone should care.



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