Let it never be said that Alien: Covenant takes its time. It does not.
Right out of the gate Scott's latest hits the ground running and never lets up. Such is its pace that many scenes seem confusing or truncated. For instance, the early scenes with Daniels and Walter are so brief and singular as to potentially fail to resonate with audiences. These moments are unable to establish an emotional connection with those watching due to the brevity and largely-interchangeable or -anonymous quality of the cast.
Yet, this scene is a coda, which we return to at the very end. Here, the point is not to establish an emotional bond with Daniels, but rather to show us the chink in her armor, the unlikely bond she shares with Walter that David exploits, later on.
Of course, as an audience, we might go into that scene expecting the bond, but not the chink in Daniels' armor. It's important to recognize such expectations. Yet, at the same time, what the scene contains versus what we, as an audience are looking for, is also germane. Scott, I suspect, is fully aware that we'd be too busy searching for a bond to notice what the scene is really about; this latter aspect, is, of course, only something that makes sense in retrospect, to be fully appreciated upon a second viewing of the film, perhaps not even then. On that note, what fun would a film be to give up all of its secrets all at once?
By and large, Covenant operates in this fashion. There is so much to see and study that grasping everything initially is not possible, say nothing of Scott's intentions to hide his true motives in plain sight, within the montage, itself. Indeed, Covenant is focused on showing us familiar chess pieces, not bothering to disguise them, but instead playing with them in ways that subvert or ignore our expectations. At times, the proceedings accelerate to such extremes as to make the sleight-of-hand almost too effective, verging on downright confusion, throughout. Some might feel cheated, as a result. To them, I would implore as follows: Set aside one's bruised pride, for there is much to appreciate in Scott's deception, once you move past initial disappointments.
Naysayers, of course, might insist that, while the best tricks are subtle, a danger exists in being too subtle, to the point of going over everyone's head. Detractors of the film could further diagnose this as incompetence—a term, I, myself, would only use if Scott were trying to actually aim for empathetic scenes, like those centered on Daniel's grief, following Captain Branson's immolation. However, if Scott's aim were to fool the audience by presenting us with a heroic trope only to transmute it right under our noses, the adjective I'd use to describe him would actually be “trickster.” Some people don't like to be tricked, certainly, but isn't any good mystery centered around deception by the author writing it?
The problem lies with Aliens, Covenant's predecessor. That is, Aliens introduced us to an exceptional heroine, but also an absurd one: Ellen Ripley.
Onscreen, she's depicted as an invincible force of nature, single-handedly dispatching hordes of alien monsters while simultaneously carrying Newt to safety. She quite literally cannot be stopped. Alas, the monumental warrant officer makes such a lasting mark on audiences that three decades later they still yearn for that kind of presence onscreen, one more time. Alas, in Alien: Covenant, we see Daniels, the ostensible heroine befitting that archetype, become the fool, the victim. Audiences, as a result, cry foul, deploring her stupidity (despite how Scott cleverly reveals her weak spot, early on) while simultaneously yearning for the unstoppable Ripley of yore.
In Covenant, there's a lack of the heroic payoff Cameron got us hooked on, in 1986. Since then, we've come to know and expect it, based on what the series delivers, each and every time. In general, I don't think audiences like to be played with, and this can leave people feeling cheated when a movie fails to give them what they want: in this case, a true predecessor worthy of the Ripley crown. However, with Scott, I enjoy his deceptions. While he misleads me, I don't feel lied to. Rather, I've come to expect and enjoy how he takes old ideas and puts a different spin on them, so what we get isn't simply more of the same.
Many call certain scenes in Covenant not only impotent, but pointless. I disagree. Instead, I would argue that these scenes are actually connected, like a sequence of codas: a) David and Weyland's initial discussion foreshadows the evolved discourse, later on, between David and Walter—the infamous scene with the flute. Never before have I seen a scene so widely misunderstood.
It may seem pointless, but only if we fail to address its subject matter beyond that of the double entendres people reliably get hung up on. David and Walter, in classical terms, are doubles of each other, drawing their differences into sharper focus when both are either onscreen or otherwise compared, side-by side. Their contrast complements them, as a pair, while, at the same time, commenting on the flawed hubris manifest in the sire, Weyland, that carries on through the son, David. Walter exists to illustrate this, by effectively being everything that David is not: dutiful, obedient, and stable. He can play what he is shown, but not create, himself. It may seem like a pointless or isolated ramble except the theme of creation runs rampant throughout the film, starting with David and Weyland, and leading up to David and Walter. What David wasn't, when speaking to Weyland, he now has become, when meeting Walter, who's there to conveniently trim the fat for us.
To digress, it also speaks volumes about Weyland that he chose to create David in his own image—a god-like decision undermined posthumously once Weyland's corporate successors are pushed to the breaking point by the uncanny David 8 model. Their suspicions are largely confirmed by Walter, who catches David making a mistake, lending the latter's entire enterprise an air of madness. The knowledge he reaches for isn't merely forbidden, it would seem, but intangible, reinforced by the unreliability of David, due to his insane nature (and inability to correctly cite poetry authors).
Another coda other than the flute scene is b) Daniels' aforementioned soliloquy in the terraforming bay. This scene reveals to us the vulnerability that eventually leads to her downfall. In other words, she trusts Walter enough to show him the wounded side of herself, which explains why she, the most skeptical and dubious character of the bunch, might be so easily fooled by David's semi-transparent falsehood. It's important to remember that the target for this specific lie is not us. We're supposed to suspect, equating to what Scott describes as drama: the audience knowing what the characters onscreen do not.
There is also, I might add, a certain satisfaction in seeing Daniels being caught off guard. This is not to say that Oram is right—he, himself, admits that he made a mistake, going to this planet. Rather, Daniels climbing back into her pod at the end of the film effectively spells her doom—all the more ironic given that she so desperately fought for it, early on. One might call her the Roman fool, having fallen on her sword; she certainly is strong-willed, but as I will explain in a moment, her strength not only plays a role in her own defeat, but also a place in the film's symbolic constellation.
To call her the heroine of the picture is to be on the mark, but also to miss the point: Daniels is easily recognizable as the so-called Ripley archetype, yet so was Ripley herself, presented as the only character in Alien with half a brain, and no shortage of courage. She won (though wouldn't have if Ridley had had his way with his original scrapped ending where the alien kills her); likewise, so does Daniels, towards Covenant's conclusion. Yet, our mutual celebration towards the latter's so-called victory is premature, as is our criticism of Ridley for failing to fashion a “successful” protagonist (of course, there's more to success than mere replication, but tell that to Aliens fans).
Daniels' accomplishment is ultimately eclipsed by David's personal triumph. He is the true hero of the picture—the victor who, in the end, comes out on top. It's largely similar to Milton, playing with ideas of the hero by producing the ambiguous and confusing Satan, who at the end of the story corrupts God's Eden by tempting Eve to eat the apple. Audience expectations are ignored; Scott simultaneously plays tricks on us and advances his own agenda, producing a narrative more idiosyncratic than many of those led by James Cameron's example.
I mention Cameron because, while touching on or nodding to his creative descendant's classic, Aliens, Scott produces a movie largely invested in its own themes, including what amounts to rape through artistic expression. David selects female victims with heroic qualities, or “spirit,” choosing those worthy to be his queen. This sexual relationship between artist and model is very much like a spider eating its mate, or a serial killer manipulating his prey before killing and converting it into a perverse idol that represents his desire to create. For David, creation and rape are synonymous; his creations mirror a phrase he uttered earlier, in Prometheus: “Sometimes, to create, one must first destroy.”
To backtrack, another coda employed by Scott is c) that of the flare, during the ambush sequence with the neomorphs. What we see onscreen is symbolic: Religiously-speaking David represents the devil, Satan, a bringer-of-light who blinds or deceives those around him to his true motives. David's “light” is symbolized by the light of the flare, which he uses to “save” the colonists. Alas, he soon abandons saving them in favor of pursuing his stalled artistic endeavors. He is duplicitous.
So, too, is the film. Whilst Scott's scenes fly past at rocket speed, for all their alacrity they aren't shallow for it. Quite the contrary, for apart from the flare, itself, we also have Walter gazing into the light directly. Apart from being a nice touch, this little quirk foreshadows the android's unique ability to not be fooled by David's lies, the way that everyone else, including Daniels, is: all of the human members of the squad look away from the light, blinded by it; Walter stares directly into the flash, seeing through his alter-ego's nefarious deception.
The symbolic quality to this scene is layered further still. Note how the sudden appearance of the light out of darkness alludes to God's famous phrase, in Genesis: “Let there be light.” This parallel further accents or expounds on David's obsession with creation, and of seeing himself as a god. And yet, quite similar to how Lilith, the mother of demons, was fashioned from an older, pre-existing god, David, himself, was a creation of someone who proceeded him. Yet, all of these mythologies come from the same source: humans, which, in Scott's universe, are an extension of a god-like race called the Engineers. In his “Proverbs of Hell,” William Blake once wrote, “Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.” In Scott's movie, one could interpret this quite literally when Oram's chest is emptied of its devilish contents to reveal the little god inside.
David is a liar. Of this, there is no question. His multifaceted dishonesty most triumphantly manifests through his ability to defeat the ostensible “heroine” of the movie, Daniels. She is the most obvious embodiment of the Ripley archetype: strong-willed, skeptical, and willing to combat the creature, defeating two incarnations of it and becoming the captain of the ship. In a sense, she, and characters like her, are the ultimate litmus test for David's offspring. As such, he sees in them strength, or merit, given that women, in general, represent creation, and nothing is more important to David than that (or, as we discover, necessary).
David explains this to Oram shortly before his demise. Afterward, we watch Oram “give birth,” and it's clear that men can capably serve as “mothers.” However, they can only act as hosts, or incubators to these parasites, not create, or spawn, parasites, themselves. I posit that the perverted idol of the Queen, in Aliens, potentially represents the culmination of what David strives for in his endeavors: quite literally a crowning achievement as his experiment self-perpetuates, perhaps outlasting him, as he, in the sequels, is nowhere to be found.
All in all, Scott's tricks and layered symbolism make for a fast-moving puzzle that doesn't yield its answers after a single viewing. At times, it can even be confusing as one attempts to understand David's motives.
After several viewings of the movie, I was confused by the third act. Once on board the Covenant, for instance, why did David continue his subterfuge? Furthermore, while pretending to be Walter, why did he “help” Daniels and Tennessee? Why not just kill them, then and there, and steal the ship in a more obvious manner? These questions, it turns out, were the result of me feeling like something wasn't quite right with what I was seeing.
However, it went beyond David merely being Walter. I had my suspicions of this, right off the bat. Yet, despite knowing this, I felt like his actions, as David, were strange, as though something didn't quite add up. I couldn't say what it was, at the time, because I didn't have all the information; I needed time to think, and I didn't want to merely chalk it up to madness, on David's part (or Scott's).
Given ample time to reflect, I discovered that, like other scenes in the film, the motives for David's curious aid becomes clear through retrospection—that is, many events in the film, especially David's actions, have a duplicitous or two-sided quality to them. To this, what David appeared to be doing onscreen wasn't actually what he was doing. He wasn't Walter, and he certainly wasn't helping Daniels, anymore than he was helping Shaw in Prometheus. And yet what was David getting at by taking the time to falsely assist Daniels and Tennessee? Why not lock them into a chamber and lead the creature right to them?
The answer? He was grooming Daniels.
It's not presented as such, onscreen; or rather, it isn't spelled out. But like other events in the film, there's a hidden meaning beneath the surface of what we're shown. In effect, Daniels' battle with the protomorph at the end is a trial by combat (and it is very much her battle, as she is the captain, whereas Tennessee is relegated to the sidelines throughout). It certainly isn't a given that she'll survive. In fact, she very nearly doesn't. David shows interest in her, earlier in the film, but is interrupted by Walter before he can proceed. With Walter dealt with, David is given a second chance at Daniels.
Perhaps, with Daniels having defeated Oram's son on the platform, David was prepared to move forward, only to have Lope's unexpected birth complicate matters. David would to have needed to decide what to do in this situation, and his choice seems fairly clear given how the protomorph is so violent and chaotic, presenting a real threat to his future experiments on board the ship. So, he decides to get a second opinion, again putting his creation to the test.
Should Daniels die, she wasn't worthy to be the queen; if she lives, she's dealt with the inferior offspring and walked right into David's hands, effectively killing two pigs with one rock. And after Daniels' brush with death, David effectively traps her in the pod, at the end, and the choice is made. Realizing his work is unfinished, as suggested by the protomorph's defeat, he can now continue his quest, experimenting on the very woman who threatened to undo everything.
I would further argue that David's morbid selection of female specimens alludes to mythological themes present in Wagner's Das Reingold, chosen by the writers for very pointed reasons. The second movement is titled “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla.” According to myth, Valhalla was populated by those chosen to enter it. This selection process was conducted by the Valkyrie, whose name literally translates to “choosers of the slain.” The role of the Valkyrie is to recognize the bravest and strongest warriors and then to inspire them, mid-battle, to such stages of uncontrolled fury as to render them careless and, thus, invariably prone to mortal injury. Following their subsequent demise, the Valkyrie would usher their chosen slain into Valhalla, immortalizing them.
In essence, David is effectively as much a Valkyrie as he is a god, recognizing the chosen slain through their prowess and spirit as worthy of entering Valhalla. An added layer of complexity is provided by Scott, who fashions David in the manner of a sexually-motivated lunatic whose actions are guided as much by lust as ambition. Regardless, at the end of the film, the Covenant, itself, has become Valhalla, while David, through his own covenant, or pact, ushers the worthy Daniels within to be immortalized against her will as his queen. By doing so, he has cemented his own status as a king who reigns in a mutated paradise. Or, to put it in Milton's terms, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
David takes and turns upside-down so many ideas and symbols. This isn't unusual in the series, at large, though: In Alien, Ripley reversed the role of the last man standing by making it the last woman; and in Covenant, the heroine becomes the victim, while David reverses the gender of the Valkyrie, which were traditionally females, designed to lure male warriors to their doom. In this case, the warrior lured to her doom is Daniels, a woman.
This is why I love Covenant. So many movies, especially Marvel films, are singular affairs with simple dramas that yield little beneath the surface. Yet, the more I study Alien: Covenant, the more I find to appreciate. All the more disheartening this revelation is, considering how many disgruntled fans, these days, scream for Scott's head. “Better to reign in Hell,” I expect his reply would be if he deigned to acknowledge them at all.