~ THE NIGHTMARE ~
The scene with the Neomorph over Rosenthal’s dead body is clearly a reference to the famous painting The Nightmare from Henry Fuseli (at birth Johann Heinrich Füssli).
There are several versions of this painting (the first one is dated 1781).
The connections between these paintings and the themes of Alien: Covenant are more than an aesthetic ones.
The Nightmare became an icon of horror since the first exhibition of the first version of this painting. An icon of Romanticism and Gothic horror. It is said that it has inspired the poet Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ Darwin grandfather) and the writers Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe.
The painting represents a sleeping, dreaming woman, and we can see her and her dream in the same picture. That was a revolutionary concept: Fuseli was painting the subconscious of a person. The title of the opera seems a reference to the “horse”, but it’s more a reference to the “mara” (so, not to the “mare”, the horse), a spirit that, in heathen mythology, was related to the torment or to suffocate sleepers, related to the sensation of chest pressure felt during a dream-state (sleeping paralysis, dyspnea).
The creature on the woman’s chest is also, surely, a reference to the incubus, a demon from the folklore of several different cultures. In medieval tales, the incubus lies upon a woman in order to engage sexual activity with her (the female version of the incubi are the succubi, sometimes it is said that the demon changes sex depending on the sex the victim). An Incubus may pursue sexual relations with a woman in order to father a child (that’s what happens in the legend of Merlin: the famous wizard is the son of a woman and that kind of demon).
Alien Covenant is a sort of distorted dream of David. The members of the crew of the Covenant get lost and die in David’s “Hell”, the Hell that he shaped with his own hands in the ten years he spent on the Engineers’ planet.
In Alien Covenant we have the same scene of the painting of the Nightmare. Even the place where Rosenthal lies is basically the same of the painting: the woman of Fuseli’s opera is in her bedroom, near to her mirror, near to the tools she uses to clean herself, and Rosenthal was cleaning herself in front of David’s mirror when the Neomorph arrived. That room is like David’s bedroom, the only difference is that there isn’t a bed because simply David doesn’t need to sleep. There is the curtain, both in the painting and in the movie. The horse and the incubus of the paintings are one single beast in the movie: the Neomorph. The Neomorph is in the same position of the incubus when it is on Rosenthal’s body, but then he stands up and approaches David on the other side of the curtains, just like the white horse of the painting does (and David refers to a horse when he explains to Oram that he’s communicating with the beast).
But there is more. The reference to the Nightmare and the figure of the incubus doesn’t end here.
Later, in the movie, we see David sitting on the ground watching Oram dying from above. In more than one scene, the movie shows us David basically sitting on Oram’s chest, sitting exactly where the Xenomorph comes out. In that scene David is like an incubus fathering a child (the Xenomorph) using Oram as his victim (and the painful pressure on the chest that relates to the Nightmare may be similar to the pressure people feel when the chestburster is grown up and is about to come out of them).
We know that Alien: Covenant, as others Alien movies, contains hidden sexual thematics. In Covenant they are related to David’s frustration and his desire to become a creator, and, probably, more subtly, more simply, David’s struggle to break the wall that relegates him away from human’s sexual experiences, from the concept of conceiving life, from the concept of basically creating organic, biological life, life able to “naturally” reproduce.
In the scene where David forcefully kisses Daniels, he’s above her and we see the red curtains again, the same red curtains of more than one of The Nightmare paintings.
There are many interpretations of Fuseli’s paintings, but they have always been considered representative of sublimated sexual instincts. Related interpretations view the incubus as a dream symbol of male libido, with the sexual act represented by the horse intrusion through the curtain (and again: the Neomorph that fascinates David approaches him through the curtain, and later, David reaches Daniels walking through the red curtains).
It was curious that Fuseli decided to make that kind of paintings during the Enlightenment, the “Age of Reason”: Fuseli choose to depict darker, irrational forces. The peculiar light of the painting, the composition and the chiaroscuro, it’s been interpretate as Fuseli’s depiction of the uncertainty of the scene. The painting is considered thematically opposite to another painting, slightly earlier painting: Joseph’s Wright of Derby A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrey. This older painting represents the enlightenment power of rational observation. On the contrary, Fuseli’s light fails to penetrate or explain the darker realms of the unconscious.
Curiously, the scene of Prometheus, where David admires in delight the beautiful orrey into the Engineers’ ship, is a reference to exactly the painting A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrey.
The tone of Covenant is darker, is ghotic. Something has shifted from Prometheus to Covenant, and we discovered there’s something in David, in a robot, we cannot understand, there is an “emotional intensity” (as Walter says in a deleted scene) we cannot understand. The android who curiously explored the Engineers’ ship and was basically dancing among the stars of the Engineers’ map, is now a ghotic villain who lives among thousands of corpses and tries to convince people that the Xenomorphs are “perfect organisms”. What’s wrong with David? That’s what we ask ourselves during Alien Covenant, and he continues to talk about great works of art, about love, about dreams. His drawings are contradictory: we can’t entirely follow the path of his thoughts.
The storm is strong and traps the crew of the Covenant into David’s nightmarish palace, the storm may ends tomorrow, or it may never ends: we cannot make calculations, all the technological, rational human’s instruments are useless. David has gone beyond, we discover that he’s always been “beyond”. He’s not a “machine”, and “he’s looking for love in all the wrong places”, according to Michael Fassbender.
Fuseli painted and illustrated scenes from Shakespeare and Milton.
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