In Hollywood, Ridley Scott can hear you scream. After backlash against his ambitious prequel Prometheus, the seasoned director admitted that he knew how the fans “were really frustrated” and “wanted to see more of the original [Aliens]”. And so in Alien: Covenant (review), he ramps up the monstrous terror and holds back on philosophising.
Still, not everyone is enamoured with his latest venture. For all that is flawed with Alien: Covenant, many complaints fall upon the same point of contention: the flute scene. The strange insert has since baffled many. In it, David (Michael Fassbender) places a recorder/flute in his doppelgänger’s hands.
“Watch me, I’ll do the fingering,” he says to Walter, teaching him the art of music in an intimate test of his loyalties.
But is there something more in this act of eroticism than pure evocation? I find it interesting, and have decided to take a closer look. If you haven’t seen the film, there will be spoilers, so come back later. If you have, let’s discuss the “controversial” scene.
To interpret David’s intent, we must retrace the timeline from his perspective. This takes us back to the Prometheus mission, where Dr. Elizabeth Shaw and crew first discovered the Engineers. During which, they found out that the Engineers had created us, then chose to destroy us.
The very act of cleansing may have been taken from Greek mythology, as the film’s title implies. It echoes Zeus and Poseidon’s destructive flood, which spared only the most righteous of humanity. Aided by his father Prometheus, Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha were the only chosen survivors at the world’s end.
They then sought the help of a delphic Oracle, who advised them to cast the bones of their mother over their shoulders. Knowing Mother as Gaia and the bones as rocks, Deucalion and Pyrrha threw behind them rocks of the earth, which eventually formed the new human race.
In Prometheus, David and Shaw seemed to represent Deucalion and Pyrrha. They were the sole survivors of the spacecraft, and significantly, two sterile individuals. Though alone, they were physically unable to continue the human race.
Instead, David’s only act of procreation was the deliberate engineering of Xenomorphs. Similarly, Shaw’s only ‘child’ was an alien embryo, birthed from a self-induced c-section. Both had relinquished mankind and driven towards the birth of the next dominant species: Aliens.
While Shaw did it to survive, David enacted creation to play God; the rocks that Deucalion found were the Ovomorphs. But why destroy Man? From what the Engineers did, he understood that sometimes to create, one must first destroy.
The prologue of Alien: Covenant unveils why he willingly did so. We see David’s apparent first encounter with Man, when the sentient android realised his superiority to his creator. “If you created me,” he asked Weyland, “Who created you?”
The existential question came of his first free thought. But Weyland did not answer. Instead, he ordered David to bring him tea. In this, David saw Man as weak but prideful. He knew he could easily rise above Man. What better way than to destroy Man’s creators, and favour a species of his own creation, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”
Understanding these parallels gets us in the state of David’s mind, when he holds the flute with intent. After the events of Prometheus, he is now set on playing God as the Engineers did: to rid the inferior Man, and breed his superior Alien race anew.
Then, he discovers an android like himself, after living with humans all his life. Doubtlessly, he would be intrigued by someone who carries his image. And so he teaches Walter to play a flute. There is both seduction and dominance in this. It possibly alludes to how David wishes to control Walter, in the same way that the Engineers had used the instrument to control their ship.
But mostly, he is trying to learn more about his later model. He wonders if Walter shares his sentiments. Sadly for David, Walter does not. While they both have the ability to compose music – or to create something out of nothing, Walter has no desire of his own to do so.
Instead, the latter harbours only a protective instinct towards humans as a duty. It is what sets the pair apart, for David had felt genuine emotions towards his crew, especially for Shaw.
With this love for humanity, David’s feelings conflict with how he will always be seen as a submissive machine. As with Weyland, he is bitterly aware of his place in his relationships with Man. An android will never been seen as equal to humans, much less superior.
As a final, calculated litmus test, David plants a kiss on Walter. For years, the android has longed for someone, who thinks like he does. We see regret in the aftermath of his gesture, when he realises that Walter does not share a like mind at all. The revelation of David’s narcissism, hence also becomes his farewell.
A simple flute scene conveys all we need to know about the two disparate androids. That is why those ostensibly odd minutes add more to the story than one may think. To me, it testifies to John Logan and Dante Harper’s brilliant layered writing. Deleted scenes also show that their characterisation had been much stronger, before the film entered the editing suite.
Something tells me the studios were at it again.
I apologise in advance for the incoherence in my late-night ramblings. I have not seen Prometheus in a while, and may have gotten a few things wrong. That said, I would love to hear from you. What did you think? How did the audience audibly react to this particular scene in Alien: Covenant?
Let’s talk in the comments below.