First thing’s first: Here’s the link to my review of Alien: Covenant at Paste Magazine.
Second thing’s, uh, second: Spoilers. I have to get some shit off my chest after the baffling defenses mounted in the film’s favor by some of the most respected names in contemporary film criticism, mostly because their defenses hinge on the idea that Covenant‘s detractors are too stupid to “get” Ridley Scott. Basically, if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably want to get outta here.
So, let’s start with the basics. The argument in Alien: Covenant‘s favor is a case of moving the goalposts, where the initial premise – that the suspense of the film’s third act lies not in whether the audience understands that Walter is actually David, but whether the characters will figure that out – keeps on changing as the conversation goes on. I’ve read claims that Scott doesn’t include any shots that reveal the truth: That David is merely posing as Walter. I’ve also read claims that he doesn’t have to. Basically, the Internet’s swirling maelstrom of back-patting groupthink can’t unfuck itself enough to come up with a cogent argument, here, but I digress.
Here’s the thing: Scott does show us, quite blatantly, that Walter is David, and this is the root of my disappointment in the more eminent critics sticking up for Covenant, because whether they think Scott doesn’t show us, or doesn’t have to, they’re wrong.
David stabs Walter through the neck with a flute following one of the film’s more interesting scenes (or, one of the more interesting scenes in its incredibly frustrating second act). Walter, for a moment, is presumed dead. Then Scott zooms in on Walter’s wound as he lies prone and we see his skin in the process of self-repair of a sort, sizzling as though putting itself back together. When he later emerges to save Branson from David, David expresses something like puzzlement, which Walter responds to with this: “They’ve made a few upgrades since your time.”
So we know that Walter can self-repair, at least to an extent, and David can’t. We know this. The characters might not, but being as Walter is the synthetic aboard their ship, which they presumably know how to operate, it seems like a real big convenience that they wouldn’t be aware of Walter’s upgrades. Thus, when Branson later stares WalterDavid in the face as he staples his fucking skin back together, we immediately know that Walter is David, because Walter wouldn’t need to staple his fucking skin back together.
It says a lot about Scott that the third act of Covenant manages to be suspenseful at all, but come on: The suspense is diluted significantly by the fact that we all know what’s going on here, and then mocked by the reveal that Branson doesn’t. By anyone’s definition, this isn’t suspense. By Hitchcock’s definition in particular it isn’t. If you want to argue that Alien: Covenant is meant as some kind of commentary on characters making dumb decisions in movies, go right ahead (though this takes me right back to that “goalposts” argument), but the film is never meaningfully about that, so crediting Scott for something he hasn’t really been doing for most of the movie at the very end is generous. Ultimately, the movie operates on insulting contrivances and conveniences; characters are as dumb as Scott needs them to be in order to resolve his story. He’s a great filmmaker, but boy, his skills as a narrator are dulled here.
Well, I feel better now! Go read my review. Or just go watch a better movie.