[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Alien: Covenant]
The opening scene of Alien: Covenant sets the tone for the film to come, and may come as a slight surprise, or disappointment, to anyone expecting the new Ridley Scott film to throw back to his 1979 classic. We begin with the “birth” of David, the “synthetic” played by Michael Fassbender in 2012’s Prometheus. In the opener, David speaks with Peter Weyland (an uncredited Guy Pearce) about the origins of humanity and coming face to face with one’s creator. Here, and throughout Covenant, the film is less reminiscent of Alien than it is of Blade Runner.
One of the 1982 film’s most remarkable elements was its villain, Rutger Hauer’s replicant Roy Batty. Batty is ruthless, and desperate to extend his short lifespan by meeting his creator, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel). Once he does, and is informed that his finite life can’t be revised or expanded, he cruelly murders Tyrell. David doesn’t have the same struggle — though he can be destroyed, as any synthetic could, he could also be immortal. He meets his mortal creator immediately upon his birth. But both David and Roy are exceptionally intelligent, curious, and violent, qualities that serve the former character better than the latter.
Fassbender gets even more screen time in Covenant than he did in Prometheus; this time, he’s not just playing David, but an updated synthetic character named Walter who’s on the eponymous ship that winds up landing on a mysterious planet that’s home not only to David but early versions of the Xenomorphs. Unquestionably, Fassbender is the best part of Covenant, while also representing its worst impulse, which is to be an Alien movie in name only.
David isn’t the first treacherous robot in one of these films — a climactic fight between his character and Katherine Waterston’s Ripley-like Daniels deliberately recalls the violent scene in the first Alien where Ian Holm’s synthetic character Ash attacks Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), trying to suffocate her with a rolled-up piece of paper. But by making Covenant about David, it suggests that Scott’s interests lie well beyond the Xenomorphs.
If anything, watching Fassbender in Covenant suggests that maybe Ridley Scott would have been better served to direct a sequel to Blade Runner as opposed to just producing the upcoming Blade Runner 2049. That, or perhaps if Scott directed a version of the first film now, Roy Batty would emerge victorious instead of dying after a protracted battle in the rain. Blade Runner, much in the same way as Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, is weighted with philosophical questions of humanity and creation, yet it seems less bleak in terms of whatever the future of humanity is.
In Covenant, David sometimes cuts an oddly sympathetic figure (as when he attempts to pacify an early version of a Xenomorph before one of the humans attacks it), but seems far more diabolical in moments such as the final turn of the screw. After Daniels fights off a Xenomorph and returns to the ship, she’s put into hyper-sleep by what she believes to be the kindly synthetic Walter; instead, it’s David in disguise, presumably having killed Walter and taken his place on the Covenant to perform more experiments with alien embryos.
What was closer to genuine curiosity in Prometheus now manifests as a form of supervillainy. The final moments where David walks among the hibernating human colonists are cruel and menacing, and his final sign-off to Earth, impersonating Walter, is a cynical echo of Ripley’s sign-off in Alien.
Both Alien and Aliens are violent and intense, and they don’t shy away from portraying the nasty side of humanity (arguably, Paul Reiser’s corporate baddie in Aliens is worse than anyone in the 1979 film). But they both end on a slim note of hope: Ripley escapes on her own with Jones the cat in the first film, and Ripley, her surrogate daughter Newt, military man Hicks, and robot Bishop make it out alive in Aliens. There’s a sense that even if there are more Xenomorphs around the bend, there’s a brief amount of satisfaction to be had for now. Both Prometheus and Covenant are grimmer, as exemplified by David, who causes a great deal of the chaos in both films, if only to see what happens, and is rewarded by being the last one standing.
The bleak tone set in Covenant, so quickly established in its opening scene where a newborn David is smart enough to taunt his creator for the fact that he will be immortal, is more apt for Blade Runner. Depending on your read of that film’s final moments, replicants are taking over for humans without even realizing it. While Fassbender’s portrayal of two robots in Alien: Covenant is memorable (and that’s without even mentioning the homoerotic scene where the wiser David teaches Walter how to play the recorder), it represents the problem with this film: it’s not an Alien movie. It’s half of a Blade Runner sequel, and an underdeveloped one at that.