Like Prometheus, its immediate predecessor in the Alien movie franchise, Alien: Covenant throws around a lot of religious references. The prologue paraphrases the meaninglessness mentioned in Ecclesiastes. A supporting character is vaguely described as a person of faith. Little comes of most of this, yet the scriptural allusion in the movie’s title does prove intriguing. If a biblical covenant refers to the promise of relationship that God makes to his people, it’s worth asking: who are the film’s characters in covenant with?
As the movie begins, we learn that the Covenant spacecraft is a colonization vessel. Its crew consists of married couples (and one synthetic android) whose mission is to transport both hypersleeping colonists and numerous drawers of developing human embryos. They are in search of not a promised land, but an unpromised planet, a place among the stars where future generations might flourish. In Genesis, God illustrates his covenant with Abram by promising that Abram’s descendants would be as vast as the stars. In Alien: Covenant the covenantal children are far less metaphorical.
The plot begins in earnest when the crew detects a signal from a nearby, previously unmapped planet. Early indications suggest that the planet might be hospitable to human life, so a team sets off to determine if it could indeed serve as their final stop.
If these would-be world builders have made a covenant with anything, at this point, it is with the technology that has taken them this far. Like all the installments in this franchise, Alien: Covenant features impeccable production design, giving a tactile immediacy to details like the hypersleep chambers (which look like space-age sarcophagi) and the intuitively lit Covenant corridors. Once they land on the planet, via a nifty hovercraft that settles elegantly onto the surface of a lake, the crew explores their new surroundings with all sorts of futuristic gizmos and gadgets. It is with this technology that they will establish a foothold in this a land of plenty.
In Alien: Covenant, everyone wants to be the Creator, not the creature.
Perhaps the mission’s most impressive piece of technology is Walter (Michael Fassbender), the synthetic that is a next-generation version of Prometheus’ David (also played by Fassbender). Early on in Alien: Covenant, while even the crew is still in hypersleep, Walter opens a drawer to check on the embryos. Seeing that one has died, he matter-of-factly disposes of it. There is something chilling about this biological-technological exchange, a sense that “life” in this instance has been so removed from its Creator that death seems inevitable. Indeed, the movie as a whole begins to head in that direction. Disaster strikes not long after the crew lands on the planet, notably resulting in the death of one partner in each marriage. Plans for procreation are torn asunder. As they explore the planet further, death becomes an overwhelming presence; at one point they encounter a horrific place that a character describes as a “necropolis.”
What exactly this necropolis is and how it came to be I won’t reveal, except to say that it involves both the terrible alien creatures—known as xenomorphs—from which the series gets its name and the return of David. Fassbender is wonderful in the dual role, using subtle vocal inflections and physical movements to distinguish the two synthetics. In a sense, Walter and David are both in covenant with their human creators. But will they keep the “promises” they have made?
Writing at Ligonier Ministries, Mark Jones notes that “in divine covenants, God sovereignly establishes the relationship with his creatures.” In Alien: Covenant, everyone wants to be the Creator, not the creature. Through their technology, the crew and the colonists they are transporting seek to create new life for themselves almost from scratch. That very technology, in the form of David, desires to create as well. (Fassbender forlornly delivers this great line: “No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams.”)
It’s fitting that one of the characters references the Shelley poem "Ozymandias," which captures the futility of humankind’s quest to achieve god-like greatness. When we do so, we reject the offer of relationship that is inherent in God’s covenant with us. Left to our own devices, we're doomed to the fate that greets most of Alien: Covenant’s characters: certain death.