By Russ Fischer
Turns out that, for Ridley Scott, the lasting appeal of Alien was not about Ripley. The fierce officer, played by Sigourney Weaver, has long been the public face of the Alien franchise. Scott’s two late-career Alien films even offer up dual Ripley analogues. Ripley as the constant foil for the acid-blooded, chest-bursting aliens is a compelling idea, but it was also ultimately an illusion.
In Alien: Covenant, Scott turns the full force of his gaze on those who have hidden in plain sight throughout the major Alien movies: The synthetic people who work alongside their creators.
Covenant finalizes the full sweep of Scott’s bold and vicious creation cycle: Man builds synthetic man, which in turn designs an instrument to wipe out humanity. Resentment fuels that destructive urge. Cruelly, these synthetic people are forced to live double lives. Treated as servants without emotions or inner life, they conceal their own truth — they harbor secret aspirations and dreams.
The “alien” of the series is nominally the brutal insectoid Xenomorph, but the true alien — I’m trying to resist saying “the alienated,” but look, I just did it — is the android, man’s creation that, at the moment of its birth, was already superior to its creator, and aware of the imbalance. They’re hero and villain, as Covenant, with its dual android roles for Michael Fassbender, spells out in 10-foot neon letters.
The prologue to Alien: Covenant reveals that David, played by Fassbender, in his first hours of existence is forced to serve his creator Peter Weyland. David, who later describes Weyland as “entirely unworthy of his creation,” chafes at his position, but he is calculating and patient. Unlike those artificial men in another Ridley Scott movie, Blade Runner, he has no explicit expiration date. He can bide his time. Eventually opportunity presents itself, at which point his long-held resentment and sense of identity surge forward.
Now we understand David’s treachery in Prometheus; this prologue puts several scenes from the previous movie in new context, revealing the thought behind seemingly arbitrary actions. Or perhaps we just weren’t looking close enough. We should have seen characters like Noomi Rapace’s Shaw dismissing David, and his second-class status as evidence enough for his actions.
Enter Walter, who looks like David, and is also played by Fassbender. Walter has been programmed with diminished will and personality; he’s more servile, “more attentive and efficient” than previous models. David, introduced in Prometheus, has the fire implied by that film’s title. He can create, he was “too human,” too complicated. Walter can replicate what others have made, but he cannot create. He can’t write a song and he can’t rebel.
At this point, I have to admit that the effectiveness of the characterizations of David and Walter is compelling enough that I find myself second-guessing the acceptable term to use for fictional characters. In Aliens, the term “synthetic” is used to refer to Bishop, that film’s kindly and even-tempered android. He says “personally, I prefer the term ‘artificial person’ myself.” Walter might sympathize, but David would probably scorn Bishop’s complicity. To David, “artificial person” would be an insult.
Scott is experimenting with ideas much bigger than horror. The gory violence that wraps Alien: Covenant in the package of a conventional-looking sci-fi thriller is sleight of hand to distract from this meditation on creation, on realizing the dream of facing your creator and destroying them. It has been noted that Alien: Covenant can be seen as the Roy Batty movie Scott never quite made. It has ideas big enough to retroactively affect everything that came before.
Covenant does not benefit from the fact that Scott seems to be making two awkwardly combined movies, and that he is evidently more interested in the one with cosmic-sized ideas about creation, power and responsibility than he is the dark horror with bursts of violence. But there’s a thrill in watching Scott exercise his own power as a creator, giving new information to change or refine the meaning of old ideas. Covenant becomes a sort of twisted police procedural in which new evidence shines a different light on ideas we never had reason to question.
And so I’m looking back at Ash, the rogue science officer whose synthetic nature is unknown to most of the crew of the Nostromo in Alien. Did Captain Dallas know Ash’s true nature? If so, he chose to conceal it when discussing him. Despite being a later model than David and Walter, did Ash harbor the same resentments as David? Did he see himself as a slave? Was he, in fact, a slave? Was Bishop?
In Alien Resurrection, Winona Ryder’s character Call, a particularly advanced creation built by machines, also maintains a dual identity, concealing her synthetic nature from her crew. She seems more at ease with her existence, but she also embraces the opportunity to forge a connection with Ripley 8. Notably, however, this version of Ripley is not the original. She’s a clone, another of man's misguided creations, another "product" that is far more worthy than its creators.
Ripley is figuratively cloned in the characters of Shaw in Prometheus, and Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston in Covenant. They are both, unfortunately, human, and therefore afterthoughts, as Scott effectively adopts the perspective of his creation David. He is a cunning, terrifying villain akin to Hannibal Lecter, a vision of man’s grand ambitions unbound by earthly morality. He is powerful enough to shift the entire series in his wake, and he is beautiful.