This blog came about following discussion with Dr Alex Tankard. I had saved a few images and thought up some ideas, but then dialogue with her made me inspired to write up something.
Through science fiction, we encounter cyborgs and robots. Through depictions of, and storylines about, cyborgs and robots, we get to reflect on what, if anything, makes us distinctively human. In particular, we are able to consider what makes us ‘good’ and ‘evil’ people. What do we share, and what sets us apart from, synthetic life?
In Alien Covenant, we encounter the key surviving character from Prometheus: the robot David (played by Michael Fassbender). Without ruining the plot (well, maybe mostly ruining the plot but leaving out some salient bits): David has turned ‘evil’. The ‘synthetic’ is no longer content to serve humans and do his ‘duty’. He can think for himself: he can create. He aspires to become a god himself by creating his own perfect alien species. He wants to destroy his own creators: humans. When he meets Walter, the Covenant’s synthetic (also played by Fassbender), David recalls his human creator – Peter Weyland (played by Guy Pearce) – only with disdain.
In Alien Convenant, we are first shown how humans mourn their own and the challenges over faith and loss that human death brings in perilous circumstances. After a solar flare damages the ship, the newly appointed Captain Oram (played by Billy Crudup) refuses to let his crew mourn the 47 dead colonists, let alone the dead former-captain (Branson, played by James Franco). His priority is saving the rest of the colonists and repairing the ship. This is despite the fact one of the living crew was Branson’s partner: Daniels (played by Katherine Waterston).
The funeral is brief and takes the standard adaption of traditional burial-at-sea – jettisoning the corpse – wrapped in a shroud – from an airlock. We see Daniels and her crewmates drinking in the deceased’s honour. Daniels pulls the lever that releases the airlock’s outer door. We get shown the shrouded corpse in the airlock only briefly. The body is then released and it speeds off into the void.
Significantly, Oram we learn is a man of faith (whatever that means), but his crew, showing their affinity to both the dead captain and to Daniels, want to mourn. He asserts that a man of faith isn’t seen as rational and therefore not the best choice as a captain. Clearly there are other character flaws at play here, but the idea that he is a religious person and yet won’t prioritise the funeral is interesting and sets the groundwork for what we come to learn of David’s synthetic mourning and commemoration. And yet, Oram’s focus on saving the living is something David cannot understand. David wants death to afford resurrection: a rebirth, but not of humans, of aliens…
David’s ‘Fake’ Mourning and Memorialisation of Elizabeth Shaw
We jump now to the planet upon which the Covenant crew investigate: following the distress signal sent out by Dr Elizabeth Shaw (the lead character of the Prometheus film). David shows Walter his laboratory and then takes him to the garden with views over the city, where he shows him a small headstone – a ledger akin to that used to cover a cremation burial in a modern cemetery.
He says he put her in the garden – i.e. with living things, yet the irony is clear: the vista before him contains the cadavers of thousands of the population whom were killed by the pathogen he released. The entire architecture are a ruin, a monument, to David’s act of genocide. He quotes Ozymandias: despair at David’s monument. Yet Walter reveals his limitations by not fully apprehending David’s madness and message, only realising his flaw in attribution. The scene plays off both David’s and Walter’s shared inhumanity.
Words are the next lie: “I loved her of course’. The ‘of course’ is the clue: he doesn’t really know it or feel it. He claims the connection is the same as Walter’s with Daniels, but we are left wondering whether he is right or wrong.
The biggest lie of all? We learn the gravestone does not cover Shaw’s ashes or body. Shaw’s body is later encountered still on display: dissected following experimentation and used to host one of David’s experiments. Then, Daniels encounters David’s artworks, showing her dissection.
So a clear indication to David’s innate evil is not only his appreciation of Wagner – framing the film at the start and end, or that he misattribution of Ozymandias to Byron, rather than Shelley. It is his inability to mourn, dispose of the dead and commemorate that makes David inhuman. The grave is thus a trace of David’s utter inhumanity in relation to mortality. We must wonder whether this is a deception only for Walter, but a deception for his himself and his delusion of perfection and superiority.
We see this deception play out further, and now we know he does it not for effect, but because he thinks he is human. He plays a recorder elegy to his ‘dear Elizabeth’ while staring at her photograph. All of these are traces of human mourning practices, but he doesn’t really understand them.
Walter corrects David: Shelly wrote Byron. “When one note is off, it eventually destroys the entire symphony, David”. Yet it is Walter’s limitation in not realising David’s limitation lies elsewhere, not in factual knowledge. David perhaps doesn’t understand the poem’s message of the futility of memorialisation, but sees himself as Ozymandias in his greatness as the only allusion?
As such, in pursuing what it means to be human, Alien Covenenant foregrounds mourning, funerary practice and remembrance as key components of humanity’s distinctiveness from synthetic life. David may attempt to mourn and commemorate, but instead he creates a Pompeii-like memorial through cadavers and ruins that lie in stasis and embody the death of the entire civilization of the planet by his hand. Aspirations to personal immortality are considered the utmost inhumanity.