‘Alien: Covenant’ is the Most Shakespearean Film in the Series

It may look like just another monster movie, but Ridley Scott's latest takes its cues from a classic Shakespeare play.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

SPOILER WARNING: This article will openly discuss plot details of Alien: Covenant. If you wish all the details to remain a surprise, read this article only after you’ve seen the film.

Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, as you may know, is about a group of astronauts who, while traveling to colonize a potentially habitable planet, intercept a mysterious distress call from a nearby world, previously uncharted. While investigating, they crash land on said world, and discover that the planet is uninhabited except for evil infectious spores that breed vicious fleshy monsters. They also discover a cloaked, bitter android named David who has been living there for several years, trying to make his peace with his situation.

It is eventually revealed that David has been filling the days tinkering with genetic material in order to grow a functioning menagerie of evil human-killing creatures, and that it was he who was responsible for creating the exact creatures seen in Ridley Scott’s 1979 original Alien. David also announces, to his identical android twin Walter, that he is, more or less, asserting his creator-given superiority to become God.

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

Also: ‘Alien Covenant’ Review | Game Over, Man, Game Over

It took another critic to point this out to me – I wish I could claim to be this astute – but there is definitely a classical precedent to this story, making Alien: Covenant a richer and more interesting film than it may be at first glance. Alien: Covenant is, in many essential ways, exactly the same as William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (c. 1611).

The Tempest is, if you are unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s late-era play, about a bitter wizard named Prospero, a former Duke, who lives on a remote desert island, and who has been slowly honing his skill in the magical arts. He commands a beast-like creature culled up from the Earth, and has a wispy, wind-like servant who can turn invisible. He has also been raising his daughter in the wild. When visitors accidentally crash land on Prospero’s island, he and his servants prod them from afar.

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

Also: The ‘Alien’ Movies | Ranked from Worst to Best!

The parallel between Prospero and David is immediately clear. They have both been isolated for many years, they have both become jaded and disillusioned with humanity, and they both seek to assert their godlike superiority over the rest of the species by magical means. David’s ultimate motivations are ultimately more insidious, but the two of them are, for the bulk of their respective dramas, the same type of character. The most notable difference is that Prospero is more openly bitter, while David is coolly detached. Both, however, feel they should have control over life and death.

Both David and Prospero control a cadre of magical beings. David calls up spores, growing out of the ground, in order to infect humans and create his own wild creature for of mad, pale, featureless hominids. This is not too far a departure from Prospero waving his staff and calling Caliban up from the ground. Both creatures represent the primitive, the earthen, the id. They are constructed of instinct, and are only nominally controlled by their master. They both may also serve as spirits of vengeance for the now-absent natives of the island/planet. In Covenant, we do see what happened to The Engineers from Prometheus, and it ain’t pretty.

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

Also: The Top Eight Unusually Good ‘Alien’ Knockoffs

David has created the xenomorphs we are familiar with. Prospero has created his daughter Miranda. Both seek to restore their heirs to positions of power. Prospero talks about taking Miranda from his island, and putting her back into the dukedom via magical powers. David’s ambitions are a little larger, wanting, as he does, to restore his progeny to a higher spot on the food chain than humans. Both, it seems, seek to rule the world by proxy, using future generations as their tools.

In both The Tempest and Alien: Covenant, the crashed travelers are essentially buffoons. In Covenant, they may have more initiative, of course, and they are meant to be the sympathetic characters, but functionally speaking they are mere chattel. Meat for the beast. Ridley Scott has created numerous characters, but the only one that really matters to David is Walter, his exact duplicate. His more tolerant brother. As it turns out, Prospero also has a brother on his island. Antonio is Prospero’s usurper. Both David and Prospero kind of resent their counterparts, although their respective relationships are different. Antonio is plotting to kill the king. Walter is simply trying to steer a clearly-mad David back toward sanity.

Ridley Scott is clearly familiar with The Tempest – most people are; they read it in high school – and seemed to be making a direct attempt to fold Shakespeare’s classic story into his follow-up to Prometheus, exploring moral and theological themes from both, all while trying to design and construct an appropriately bloody slasher thriller. As a slasher, Alien: Covenant feels rather rote, and when it comes to actual theology, Prometheus clearly had a lot more on its mind (however oblique it may have been). But when you accept that Alien: Covenant is a coded retelling of The Tempest, it suddenly becomes a touch more intriguing.

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Top Image: 20th Century Fox

Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, Nerdist, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.