Why did it take me so long to see Alien: Covenant? I suppose because my friends who saw it seemed disappointed and the response to it otherwise seems to be lukewarm. The negative reaction to Prometheus seemed better because it was the kind of whining you hear from fans when a movie did something right and it was out of their comfort zones. Now Ridley Scott, the pushover that he is, gave the fans what they want and the fans yawned. To be sure, the old fashioned xenomorph and face huggers are the worst parts of Alien: Covenent but I didn't hate the film. I loved all the references, particularly to Paradise Lost, since I'm a big John Milton nut (as anyone who's read my web comic knows).
I also like Wagner a lot so I loved the use of music from Das Rheingold. It's a lot of fun watching the movie and seeing how perfectly it suits references to Der Ring des Nibelungen and Paradise Lost. Yet the film is not a direct adaptation of either work, which is appropriate, though David, Michael Fassbender's android character introduced in Prometheus, is a far less complex figure than Satan in Paradise Lost. He's a less complex figure than he was in Prometheus, actually. Despite his conversations with Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and the newer model android, Walter (also Fassbender), which emphasise the life of forced servitude androids are forced into, it's hard to see David as anything but a two dimensional villain. Say what you will about Satan in Paradise Lost but he never murdered and dissected Eve.
Still, the parallels to Milton's poem are so perfect it's easy to see why Scott was inspired to explicitly correlate the two with his original title for the film, Alien: Paradise Lost. The obvious point is that David is rebelling against his creator--like Satan in Paradise Lost, who doesn't see why Jesus should be considered more worthy of being called God's number one son than himself, David immediately questions Weyland's assertion that he is David's father. In a reversal of Roy and Tyrell in Blade Runner, it's David who has the longer lifespan than his creator. But there are even more specific ways in which Covenant and Paradise Lost parallel, as in the focus on weapons development in both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, which brought to mind this piece from a section on the war in heaven:
Whereto with look compos'd SATAN repli'd.
Not uninvented that, which thou aright
Beleivst so main to our success, I bring;
Which of us who beholds the bright surface
Of this Ethereous mould whereon we stand,
This continent of spacious Heav'n, adornd
With Plant, Fruit, Flour Ambrosial, Gemms & Gold,
Whose Eye so superficially surveyes
These things, as not to mind from whence they grow
Deep under ground, materials dark and crude,
Of spiritous and fierie spume, till toucht
With Heav'ns ray, and temperd they shoot forth
So beauteous, op'ning to the ambient light.
These in thir dark Nativitie the Deep
Shall yeild us, pregnant with infernal flame,
Which into hallow Engins long and round
Thick-rammd, at th' other bore with touch of fire
Dilated and infuriate shall send forth
From far with thundring noise among our foes
Such implements of mischief as shall dash
To pieces, and orewhelm whatever stands
Adverse, that they shall fear we have disarmd
The Thunderer of his only dreaded bolt.
Nor long shall be our labour, yet ere dawne,
Effect shall end our wish. Mean while revive;
Abandon fear; to strength and counsel joind
Think nothing hard, much less to be despaird.
He ended, and his words thir drooping chere
Enlightn'd, and thir languisht hope reviv'd.
Th' invention all admir'd, and each, how hee
To be th' inventer miss'd, so easie it seemd
Once found, which yet unfound most would have thought
Impossible: yet haply of thy Race
In future dayes, if Malice should abound,
Some one intent on mischief, or inspir'd
With dev'lish machination might devise
Like instrument to plague the Sons of men
For sin, on warr and mutual slaughter bent.
In Paradise Lost, we see Satan cleaved almost in two by Michael's sword but, of course, Satan, being an angel, pulls himself back together, good as new (so to speak). Much like David. It all seems less like parallels Scott intended at first but like parallels he saw in retrospect and decided to emphasise. The film also is quite conscious of its echoes of Blade Runner, David even at one point having Roy's "That's the spirit!" line in a pivotal fight scene. So, oddly enough, Blade Runner actually functions as a closer compliment to Paradise Lost because of the greater moral complexity inherent in Roy.
In general, the characters in Alien: Covenant fall into more explicit hero and villain slots than those seen in Prometheus, which may have been another of Scott's concessions to fans, who complained that two of the scientists were too foolish in their first encounter with an alien life in Prometheus. The only character in Covenant who really seems flawed is Oram, who seems so really more for Billy Crudup's fascinating performance than for any other reason. Crudup may be the most underrated actor in Hollywood. As much as I hate Zack Snyder's testosterone wank adaptation of Watchmen, Crudup's performance in it showed his willingness to commit to a role. In Covenant, he creates this character who's distinguished as a man of faith but who comes off as thoroughly insecure thanks to the plaintive, muttering and stuttering speaking ticks Crudup gives him.
I also thought Danny McBride was really good in a dramatic role as Tennessee and he and Scott get a lot of effective tension from the scenes where Tennessee is deciding whether to take the ship to a hazardously low altitude. I really wasn't sure if he was doing the right thing or taking a needless risk and the scenes played up that tension beautifully.
Katherine Waterston in an explicitly Ripley-ish role I just thought was fine. Maybe she would have come off stronger for me if the last act of the film wasn't a pointless retread of the climaxes from Alien and Aliens. It's hard to get invested in the old xenomorph as a villain when the biological weapons introduced in Prometheus and early in Covenant seem far more efficient--and a lot scarier. It almost feels like self-parody when David is obliged to sit and wait, idly tossing pebbles, while the xenomorph embryo gestates in a victim. The newer or more primitive version of the xenomorph from the earlier parts of the film was also more effective for how strange it looked--possibly the eeriest moment in the film is when David seems like he's about to tame one that stands in front of him, inscrutable for its apparent complete lack of facial features.
After the unsatisfying retread of the Alien climax, the revelation that David had killed Walter and taken his place was disappointing in another way. It's a downer, yes, but it's unsatisfying for more reasons than that. Really, it would have been a lot more interesting if Walter had survived. I loved the fact that the one direct quote from Paradise Lost, the famous line about how it's better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, is the thing that makes Walter hesitate. It's fitting, I guess, that it's what gets him killed but what could have been the really interesting thing about it is that it shows Walter is conflicted. David is absolutely certain at this point, confident in his own perfection despite getting Byron and Shelly mixed up (what a surprisingly stupid mistake). Walter is the character in the middle, trying to figure things out--with a little of David's ambition added he would be a much worthier Satan figure than David.
I wonder if there's meant to be any significance in David naming himself after Michelangelo's David and by extension the biblical David. All I can think of is that the statue's supposed only flaw is that its head is slightly disproportionately large and Michael Fassbender actually has kind of a proportionately oversized head. He does a fine job in the movie, though.
Twitter Sonnet #1004
Impertinence impressed the puzzle piece.
Insouciance ensued to wrench the leg.
The butter born of nut belonged to Reese.
But chocolate came from out the faerie egg.
If day turns out to be a planet eat.
A swifter hat could never scroll the sky.
Rejoicing sifts the ghost from out the peat.
A kinder clap applauds the solar fly.
A wayward crown eclipsed the boiling brow.
In nothing rules a relished dog too hot.
For sandwich carts were patrons paid for now.
In tumbling sheets arrests the tater's tot.
In concrete snakes the town constructs a gut.
Tomato dots arranged the garden's rut.