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The Art of Literary Misinterpretation in Alien: Covenant

“But a terror of this nature, as it occupies and expands the mind, and elevates it to high expectation, is purely sublime, and leads us, by a kind of fascination, to seek even the object, from which we appear to shrink” – Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) [1]

Most people are aware of the Gothic as an aesthetic. It’s hard to avoid teenagers dressed in all black, heavy metal music, haunted castles. These elements have formed a deeply, profoundly important part of our popular culture for the last 30-something years. However, when I refer to the Gothic, I’m talking about something rather different. When I use ‘Gothic’ in this article, I am referring to the literary genre – a specific moment in literary history that flourished at the dawn of the 19th century in Western Europe, and England in particular. Gothic novels were indescribably popular, and yet also dismissed as not entirely ‘respectable’; perhaps due to their popularity with young women. The work of Ann Radcliffe went some way to remedying the gap between popularity and respectability through her series of Gothic novels published in the final decade of the 18th century.

It’s worth asking what it is, for there are many misconceptions. Some believe that the Gothic is simply an aesthetic, and if asked to describe a Gothic novel, they’d describe billowing robes and castles on stormy nights, fainting ingénues and dark, brooding men. This is correct, to a certain extent. Those elements can be found in Gothic novels, but that’s not all there is. Radcliffe, in particular, was famous for giving her heroines rational, scientifically-oriented minds. They were sceptical and curious, pushing at the boundaries of what was acceptable for upper-class young women to know. It’s worth bearing in mind that these novels, far from being regressive tracts where swooning women resisted their desires for dark tormentors before finally giving in, were actually far more nuanced and interesting than that. In a way, Gothic novels were highly sexual, in that these novels encouraged their female protagonists to indulge their curiosity – sexual or not, and explore that, venturing into dark rooms with only a candle to guide them. Radcliffe’s heroines would face their fears with fortitude and come out the other side wiser and worldlier. In that sense, you could argue that the events of the novels represented a sexual awakening for its protagonists, or at the very least a coming-of-age.

But this isn’t a history lesson or even an opportunity for me to extol the virtues of Ann Radcliffe and Gothic fiction more generally. It’s just to say that the popular perception of the Gothic is not entirely accurate. It misses something important.

And that idea, more than any, was picked up by Ridley Scott in last year’s Alien: Covenant [2]. I realise it was a controversial release for many fans of the franchise, and I’m not here to discuss how it fits into a broader franchise continuity, or even how it functions as a horror movie. Instead, I want to discuss the centrality of the Gothic, and the misinterpretation thereof, to the movie on a thematic and narrative level.

David was, without a doubt, the most interesting part of Prometheus [3]. He is introduced styling his hair to resemble T.E. Lawrence, as depicted in Lawrence of Arabia [4], entertaining himself with mundane activities while his human crewmates still sleep in their cryopods. He is curious and appropriately inhuman. He shows kindness to Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw because she treated him as a crew member, rather than as their android servant. Ultimately, though, his curiosity entails cruelty – his experiments with the ‘black goo’ lead to the brutal deaths of the other crew members and him and Shaw venturing off together to try to find the Engineer homeworld at the end of the movie. Covenant picks up a decade later and it is clear that Ridley Scott was paying attention when it came time to add to the story. The audience liked the android Michael Fassbender in Prometheus? Good news, now there are two android Michael Fassbenders. Walter – altogether more personable and compassionate than David, perhaps due to him being fully integrated and accepted by the crew – is the American-accented android watching over Katherine Waterston’s Daniels and the rest of the very doomed crew of the Covenant. David, on the other hand, made it to the world of the Engineers and, apparently, fully leaned into his cruelty and curiosity over the years.

On a less serious note, I appreciate the amount of fun Michael Fassbender clearly had as David.

David is fascinating in Covenant – simultaneously Frankenstein and the Monster, he has a flair for the dramatic that I can’t help but appreciate. About halfway through the movie, he has a conversation with Walter, wherein he tells of how he committed genocide against the Engineers, infecting them with poison and destroying their civilisation in the space of mere moments. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair”, he whispers dramatically, before telling Walter that he was quoting Lord Byron. My heart froze in the cinema at that moment – Percy Shelley wrote ‘Ozymandias’, the sonnet that he was quoting. It was definitely not written by Lord Byron. This is what I mean when I say that Alien: Covenant trades in misinterpretation. Lord Byron, perhaps, fits David’s aesthetic more – they share a proclivity for drama, hubris, and exile. Not that Percy Shelley didn’t have all of these things, he certainly did, but he has not become a symbol for it in the same way as Byron. David, at this moment, is leaning into the popular myth of the poet that wasn’t quite true, or at least not the whole story. He is essentially a parody of the Byronic myth – a misunderstood rebel who was a genius and doomed to forever be exiled. Walter tells David later on that he was wrong, that he was thinking of Shelley and not Byron, saying, “When one note is off, it eventually destroys the entire symphony”, belying David’s claims to perfection. But even then, I believe that focussing on this question of authorship misses the point regarding David’s arrogance.

‘Ozymandias’ is a poem about a terrifying, tyrannical emperor that crushed his enemies – and was crushed in return. Shelley’s narrator meets a “traveller” [5] who tells him of seeing the words, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” on a half-submerged statue in the desert. In fact, Walter draws attention to this by completing the quote, the full passage reads…

“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The ‘point’ of the sonnet is not that the tyrant ruled, but that he ruled and then fell, just as all tyrants do. Whether it was to violence or time, nothing lasts, and David very much did not pick up on that lesson. David uses the cruelty he learned at the hands of his creator, Weyland, to justify his actions – he thinks that creating his monsters and xenomorphs is the way to become a God, but he’s wrong. Scott uses these literary allusions to draw the audience’s attention to this discussion. ‘Ozymandias’ isn’t a tale of a Modern Prometheus, like Frankenstein [6], but about the corrosive effect of time on all beings. “You will die, and I will not”, he tells Weyland in the very first scene of the movie, but he’s wrong. All things die – even if it is through a gradual breakdown, eventually, David will become irreparable; he, like all beings, is dependent on others to keep him alive.

His arrogance and rebellion against his creator is a not-so-subtle allusion to Paradise Lost [7]. A fact which is confirmed during Walter and David’s brawl at the end of the movie, “To reign in Hell or serve in Heaven?” David whispers to his other self. Of course, this is taken straight from John Milton’s epic poem. Like Gothic literature, and ‘Ozymandias’, Paradise Lost has been subject to much distortion and misinterpretation throughout the centuries. There is a popular perception, courtesy of Romantic poets such as Byron and William Blake, that Satan is some form of anti-hero, a rebellious loner raging a righteous war against God. This is because the verses from his perspective (like the one David chooses to quote) are entertaining. They’re fun and exciting to read, and Satan comes across as far more dynamic and interesting than any other biblical figure in the poem. This was intentional on Milton’s part. You must remember the context – he was writing as his own revolutionary cause, the establishment of an English Republic had decidedly failed. Oliver Cromwell was a tyrant, and the monarchy was eventually restored. All his Republican dreams came to nothing, and Milton was deeply disillusioned by this. Satan represents the danger of idealism, of buying into a cause and being too dazzled by rhetoric to see the underlying truth. Again, David has misunderstood this, instead choosing to identify with the figure and see in him a model to emulate.

The working title of Alien: Covenant was ‘Alien: Paradise Lost’. I was annoyed before I saw the movie; Paradise Lost is a very specific reference, as far as I’m concerned, and by choosing that title, you’d be making specific promises to your audience that isn’t simply, “This land was once beautiful and now it’s not”. I needn’t have worried. Alien: Covenant is remarkably engaged with Milton’s poem. Through David and Walter, the movie not only references Paradise Lost but engages with its critical history and public reputation. Its use, along with ‘Ozymandias’, illuminates our understanding of Alien: Covenant, and Scott’s vision for the movie.

The same applies to the movie’s engagement with the Gothic. David lives in a gloomy castle-like structure, on a planet where it seems to always be caught in the midst of a thunderstorm. He isolates the characters from each other, encouraging them to indulge their curiosity and thus lead them to some rather gruesome deaths. He needs new bodies for his experiments, you see. Doctor Frankenstein dug up corpses, it’s not too great a leap for David to just create his own. What stands out, as far as Covenant’s engagement with the Gothic goes, is its treatment of sexuality. As in Radcliffe’s novels (and those of other Gothic authors such as Matthew Lewis, who wrote perhaps the most insane novel I’ve ever read in The Monk), sexuality and intellectual curiosity are linked. Much has been made of the Alien franchise in terms of its treatment of body horror – specifically framing it as a bodily violation akin to rape, with the famous ‘chestburster’ playing on fears of childbirth. Whereas in traditional Gothic, the sexuality is latent – implied in references to hidden knowledge that would chill any woman to the bone, Alien: Covenant has no such restraint. Its violent sexuality and visual allusions to rape is there (in the shower scene, in the moment where David attempts to murder Daniels and kisses her, to disturb and scare her – making something affectionate into something frightening and violent), but so is an added homoeroticism, or even self-eroticism, if that’s possible, in the interactions between David and Walter.

In a moment that has become infamous for its blatant innuendo, David encourages his fellow synthetic to “create” by playing the flute. “I’ll do the fingering”, he says, as he encourages Walter to blow into it. Yeah. It is a deeply strange and disturbing moment – Michael Fassbender in a sexually-charged moment with himself, and it certainly elicited laughs in my cinema. David kisses Walter and tells him, “No one will ever love you like I do” towards the end of the movie before stabbing him in an act of betrayal – as dramatic as ever, but it is also a moment that gets at the Byronic references of the movie more clearly than any other. It is simultaneously a moment of self-worship, as well as self-hatred and destruction. Now that is truly Byronic. This positions Walter as the Gothic heroine, as it were. He is driven by curiosity, not just regarding the planet, but David himself. Characters die as a result of their curiosity, to be sure, but it is framed as something very human, thus allowing Scott to blur the lines between the human and synthetic. David is Bluebeard-esque, with Shaw acting as the dead wife in the cellar. He splits the role of his new wife between Daniels and Walter – he desires the companionship of Walter but needs the raw biological material (the actual reproductive system) of Daniels to complete his plans.

The end of the movie comes as he settles for one of them – Daniels. Ridley Scott teases his audience in the final stretch of the movie; either David or Walter emerged from their fight, but which? He only confirms that it was David in the movie’s very final moments, depriving Daniels of hope and condemning her to be tortured and used at his hands until he gets bored, or destroyed by one of his own creations. This is a subversion of a Radcliffean novel, where the heroine uses her wits and virtue to triumph over the dark secrets of the castle and the machinations of the man holding her against her will. Daniels is never afforded that chance, the movie closing on Wagner’s ‘Entry of the Gods into Valhalla’ [8].

Radcliffe was adamant that there was a distinction between terror and horror. Terror, she believed, elicited a curiosity in the reader, they wanted to know more, even as they shrink away from the source. Horror, on the other hand, served only to scare and to shock, paralysing the reader, and had no place in her imagination. The Alien franchise is a horror franchise. Its goal is to thrill the viewer and appeal to certain primal fears, to shock the viewer with its special effects and give them a rush of adrenaline. However, Alien: Covenant is more interested in terror. It doesn’t want the viewer to disengage their brains and get so scared they are paralysed. It wants to arouse suspicion – the misattribution of authorship of ‘Ozymandias’ is certainly something that Scott could reasonably expect a decent portion of his audience to notice. It is a movie that is invested not only in its references, but in engaging with them, in drawing attention to what they mean not just for the characters within the movie, but for the audience. Its working title of ‘Paradise Lost’ is intentionally provocative, it shows the movie’s commitment to playing on those very expectations, but perhaps it was deemed to be too direct a mission statement.

I certainly didn’t expect a pulpy, messy sci-fi horror to engage with some of my favourite works of literature in this way, and I’m grateful that it was a surprise. There has been enough misinterpretation of Gothic literature, and Byron, and Shelley, and Paradise Lost over the years that we truly did not need another shallow reading of them in a big-budget Hollywood movie. One that attributes quasi-godhood to lone men while ignoring and dismissing the works of women, and misunderstanding the core premise of the men’s work in the first place. Alien: Covenant refuses to do that. In all of its glorious messiness, it asks the viewer to remain engaged and sceptical, to not become distracted by the gore and horror on display. It forges us, the viewer, into Gothic heroines – frightened but rational. We may enter this movie with expectations of what an Alien movie ‘should’ be, but we emerge wiser and worldlier for having been challenged.

[1] The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance, Ann Radcliffe, (Penguin Classics: London, 2011)

[2] Alien: Covenant, Directed by Ridley Scott, Screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper, Story by Michael Green and Jack Paglen, 2017

[3] Prometheus, Directed by Ridley Scott, Written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof,  2012

[4] Lawrence of Arabia, Directed by David Lean, Written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, 1962

[5] ‘Ozymandias’, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in Percy Shelley: The Major Works (OUP: Oxford, 2014)

[6] Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, (Penguin Classics: London, 1995)

[7] Paradise Lost, John Milton, (Harper Collins Classics: London, 2013)

[8] ‘Entry of the Gods into Valhalla’, Richard Wagner, in Das Rheingold, 1869

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Written by Hannah Searson

Hannah Searson is a UK-based staff writer for 25 Years Later and occasional freelancer. Her main interests lie in ghosts, action films, sad people crying about their feelings, and reality television.

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