On Ozymandias & Alien
It was the best of Alien films, it was the worst of Alien films, it was the sequel to Prometheus, it was the prequel to Alien, it was the story of David, it was the story of Lucifer, it had an awesome ending, it had the worst ending ever—in short, Alien: Covenant can only be discussed it in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Immediately, let’s note that Alien: Covenant could never accurately be considered the best or the worst Alien film. The only contenders for best Alien film are the original Ridley Scott masterpiece and Aliens, the James Cameron action sequel. The worst, depending on who you ask, is the third or the fourth installment, or, if you’re considering them as contenders, the Alien vs Predator movies.
Rather than discuss the film as a whole—as there are many critics whose job it is to review films in depth, and many armchair critics whose hobby is the same—I’d like to focus on one small aspect of Alien: Covenant that I think was missed by many of its viewers. The film was derided by various bloggers, commenters, and critics as having an “obvious twist ending.” As you know, based on the headline of this article, my argument is that this should not be called either a twist ending or an obvious twist ending.
I’ve also waited long enough to write this so that:
- no one is talking about Alien: Covenant anymore
- I’ve had enough time to consider it to know that this is how I feel, and
- we know how well the film did at the box office (not quite $250 million on a nearly $100 million budget, so not awesome.)
First, let’s recap the Alien: Covenant ending, before debating its flaws and strengths
Before calling it a failure or a success, let’s recap what happens at the end of the film. (Yes, spoilers from here on.)
In Alien: Covenant, Michael Fassbender plays two androids, named David and Walter. For the purposes of this recap, let’s call them Good Robot (Walter) and Evil Robot (David). They are physically identical by the film’s third act, other than Good Robot is missing a hand and they have different voices (Good Robot is gruff and American, Evil Robot is eloquent and has a mid-Atlantic accent.)
Prior to the film’s climax, the Fassbenders have two superhero-esque fights, including throwing one another at walls and lots of punching. Naturally, the camera cuts away before we can see which Fassbender wins the fight, but we are led to hope it was Good Robot, despite not having any real reason to believe that.
Then, as the remaining good guys escape from the dangerous planet in their spaceship, a Fassbender comes running out to jump on the ship with them. Because of his voice and his missing hand, the characters jump to the conclusion that this is Walter “Good Robot” Fassbender, and not David “Evil Robot” Fassbender.
After a whole lot of excitement and classic Alien tropes—including facehuggers hugging faces, xenomorphs getting sucked into space, and a few gruesome kills—the film reaches its final reveal: Evil Robot David has been posing as Good Robot Walter and now has control of the ship and its destination, as the only two survivors have just been locked into their sleep freezer pods. Cue Wagner’s “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla.”
What an obvious twist!
This is where a large amount of criticism has been leveled at the film, with reactions like:
- “…its twist ending—which pretty much everyone on the planet saw coming…” – The AV Club
- “…the movie gets bogged down in an obvious “Gotcha” that the audience has to suffer through…” – Collider
- “Also, on a narrative-level, it’s such a clearly telegraphed twist…” – Thrillist
The list goes on. Check Twitter or reddit or any other place where fans gather, and you will find large amounts of haters for the Alien: Covenant ending.
Or can you fairly call it a twist?
No, no you can’t. To say that Alien: Covenant has a twist ending is unfair and inaccurate. Sure, it has a surprise for the characters, but this surprise for the protagonist should not be interpreted as a surprise intended for the audience. If it had, then yes, one could argue that it was a “twist.”
Instead, we have to view this as it was: dramatic irony.
Define: “dramatic irony”
Surely you remember this concept from eighth grade English. You learned it alongside iambic pentameter, poetic justice, foreshadowing, and tragic flaws.
At its most simple, dramatic irony is a literary technique in which the audience knows something significant that the characters do not.
- The miscommunication regarding who was dead and who was alive at the end of Romeo & Juliet (no spoilers).
- When Michael Myers puts on a sheet in Halloween and an impending victim mistakes him for a different, harmless character.
- Generally, any time a character in a horror film shouldn’t go in there but does go in there.
- All those moments in Greek tragedy in which the audience realizes something horrible or tragic before the folks on stage reach the same realization (remember Oedipus?)
And now, of course, the moment in Alien: Covenant when the characters realize Bad Fassbender is posing as Good Fassbender in the final act.
Why the distinction between a twist and dramatic irony is important
There is an important reason why one should stop and ponder the distinction between a twist and dramatic irony, and to consider which of these two techniques is unfolding onscreen. To call something a “stupid twist,” when it was indeed never intended to be a twist, an audience member baselessly strips merit from the artistic work. Imagine if audiences had called Oedipus Rex boring because everyone knew the twist was coming? This is about as insightful and thoughtful as looking at a Pollock painting and saying “I could’ve done that.”
Of course, dramatic irony and surprise endings do go hand-in-hand. A good twist ending is one that, upon a second viewing, holds up because the audience is able to view the work through the lens of dramatic irony. Consider The Sixth Sense or Fight Club or The Prestige. What makes these films good is not their use of a twist, but the strength of the narrative when viewed through the knowledge gained at the end of the film.
Furthermore, to strip away the narrative devices and deride them as plot holes is about as lazy as fans who predict the ending to television shows and boast that they’ve invented fan theories (a practice I’ve written about here.)
How the dramatic irony of the Alien: Covenant ending was foreshadowed by Fassbender’s recitation of the poem “Ozymandias”
And while we could wrap this blog post up with the tidy little conclusion that surprise endings are not the same as dramatic irony, we have to pause to note two things:
- I am not the only person to say “that twist was not a twist.” It has been pointed out in this reddit thread (which is otherwise crowded with Alien detractors), and hinted at in this article on The Verge by Tasha Robinson. (I feel compelled to say this, for the sake of credit given where credit is due).
- More importantly, the second act of Alien: Covenant contains a more subtle use of dramatic irony that foreshadows its ending and places a stronger use on the theme of characters who are blind to their own flaws.
Now, you may recall earlier in this article when some literary devices were mentioned, and one of them was foreshadowing. Well, that was some unsubtle foreshadowing to the discussion of foreshadowing that is now happening.
“The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed…”
Most of the good scenes in Alien: Covenant have Michael Fassbender in them, and the best scenes in Alien: Covenant have two Michael Fassbenders in them. In one of the aforementioned best scenes, Evil Robot Fassbender recites a fragment of the poem (and sonnet) “Ozymandias” to the other Fassbender.
This reciting of “Ozymandias” in Alien: Covenant alone should be enough to excite all the English majors in the audience—especially when one considers that the character reciting “Ozymandias” is basically a direct adaptation of Milton’s Lucifer—but then something strange happens. David, the ostensibly perfect android, misattributes the poem, crediting it to Byron rather than Shelley. Walter, the noble robot, says nothing, leaving the audience to wonder if Walter realizes David’s mistake.
Or, at least, this is where my mind went. But another possibility did occur to me as well… did the filmmakers make a mistake? Did no one involved in this movie realize that “Ozymandias” was written not by Lord Byron but by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the husband of Mary Shelley and friend of Lord Byron? And if the filmmakers made such a mistake, did anyone else in theater get it? Or, if it wasn’t a mistake but it was never address by any other character, why?
Well, of course I was wrong. This quiet (and, one might say, poetic?) falter by the evil Fassbender android was absolutely intentional on the parts of the filmmakers, as he is ultimately confronted on his mistake by Walter, the benevolent and loyal Fassbender.
Nothing beside remains…
It is this quiet detail and plot device that says a great deal, both about Alien: Covenant and the “surprise” ending that surprised no one. The ending was never meant to surprise. Just like Evil Fassbender’s inaccurate knowledge of Ozymandias and its author, the protagonists of Alien: Covenant were blind to their own flaws and this dramatic irony led them to an ugly fate.
The only real question is what happens to the fallen angel, Evil Fassbender. He is the last man standing at the end of the film, reigning in space rather than serving on Earth.
And if the heavy-handed imagery is too much for you, that’s fine. I get that. But I’m willing to look past the trite allegories and questionable pacing, as a science-fiction film where robots mimic classic literature and quote Shelley at one another is exactly up my alley. (For those of you who don’t realize how quite up my alley that is, you may want to read Pat Sponaugle’s review of The Moonborn.)
So go ahead and voice your opinion when you don’t like a film, its pacing, its trite allegories or heavy-handed metaphors.
But use caution when criticizing any “twist ending”, or the dramatic irony might be on you….
Enjoy this read? You may enjoy D. F. Lovett’s The Moonborn, complete with dangerous robots and Ozymandias references!
nah, it was obviously intended as a twist. the other examples you gave, the audience was in on the trickery from the very getgo. whereas the end of the fight between the two androids was deliberately obscured to play with the audience’s perceptions.
Nice condescension in this piece, you must be fun at parties, thinking you’re the smart guy in the room.
yeah I’m pretty cool at parties, thank you for the compliment