"Who was the author of Ozymandias?"
"Shelley, when one note is off it destroys the whole symphony."
Shortly after I finished watching the latest Alien film I felt compelled to write something about it. I didn’t feel like Alien: Covenant was a great film, but I was curious why I was drawn to it and the other films in the series. I knew that I didn’t necessarily want to write solely about Covenant itself, but rather about its place in the series as well as within the larger genre of SF.
First of all, let it be said that I enjoyed this most recent installment and think it fits in nicely with the rest of the series. I knew going in that the reviews were mixed and not terribly high. This didn’t faze me much considering that every film, save the first two, has reviewed poorly.
Metacritic: Rotten Tomatoes: My order of preference:
Alien 83 97 1
Aliens 87 98 3
Alien 3 59 46 2
Alien Resurrection 63 54 6
Prometheus 65 68 4
Alien Covenant 65 60 5
There have been many criticisms launched at Covenant. I’ve heard the second half of it described as torture porn, others complained that there were not enough aliens while ironically admitting that the android scenes were the best parts of the film. It has been said to be both too serious and shallow. Like Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection it has been said to be so bad as to have turned people permanently off from the series.
Regarding the “torture porn” aspect, while I agree it is there, the depictions of torture in Covenant didn’t sink the film for me, as much as I hated having Shaw killed off. The series has always straddled the line between horror and SF. The screenwriter of Alien, Dan O’Bannon, was pretty explicit about his intention to create a film that assaulted its viewers in the most graphic means possible (see the article in Cracked).
Killing off Elizabeth Shaw and the Engineers before the movie began was a personal disappointment, although I have to admit that this too has precedent in the earlier films. The reasoning is, I assume, that each film, while obviously interconnected with the others, is also clearly a stand-alone work. One can merely note the variety of directors and tones in the first four films to see that they were never intended to be a seamless whole.
That brings us to the question of genre—are these films SF, horror, or something else? Of course, they have obvious SF elements. SF itself has no single definition and many SF films, such as Star Wars, are more akin to romance than hard SF. Amongst SF's many definitions, the one I most prefer is Samuel Delany’s. Delany describes the work of science fiction to lie more in redefining or re-creating reality rather than in providing metaphors for reality. His famous example is of a dilating door. To describe a door as dilating is to expand our view of how doors can operate. This is the kind of work SF does best. That said, when we consider the Alien films from a literal and hard SF angle they can seem rather absurd. The earlier films pushed too hard on the idea that the aliens posed an existential threat to humanity. The refrain, most prevalent in Aliens, that if the aliens reach Earth they will wipe out humanity, is comical. The aliens’ slow reproductive cycle and the fact that they each require their own human host are evidence enough that impact would be slight. Nonetheless, they remain terrifying as images and this is why I feel the films are better seen as fables or allegories. The aliens are more threatening as metaphors than as a reality. As visions of the insatiable drive for survival they are vivid and arresting, fit horses for Shelley’s blind charioteer in his poem, The Triumph of Life.
Another criticism of Covenant is that it takes itself too seriously. The viewers who don’t mind the references to Wagner and Shelley, still find them unsubstantiated by the rest of the film. I don’t mind the references because I see them as serving two simple functions. First, they point to the Romanticism of the series and second, they work to outline the dimensions that creation has in the film. To these ends they are successful.
Covenant makes clear an argument first began in Prometheus. The pathos of Prometheus is found in Shaw’s drive to find the creators of life on Earth. Even after these creators present themselves as violent and hateful of Earth life she still holds out hope that she may be able to pry a reason for humanity's existence out of them. Just as there is an antagonism between the Engineers and humanity, so too is there an antagonism between humans and androids. Prometheus depicted the beginnings of this antagonism, showing the human crew of the Prometheus as generally looking down on David as something less-than-human. David responds, as if in spite, by making a creative gesture all his own. Covenant centers on this storyline, abandoning Shaw’s gnostic quest for knowledge entirely. There is a theme in these films of creations turning against their creators, mostly out of envy. Why? Well, if God is the creator then humans most closely approach godhood in so far as they are able to create. So why is this a horror SF film? It is interesting to observe that Frankenstein, often claimed to be the first SF novel, is also a horror novel. Just as there is an awe of god and a terror in Frankenstein’s creation, so too is their terror in the act of creation in these films. Covenant is successful for me because of how it advances these themes of biological creation with artistic creation. As far as I’m aware, the series remains unique as films in its juxtaposition of biological and artistic creation.
I’m hesitant to read too deeply into the Alien mythology. The series, for whatever intricacies it may possess, seems to be more important for the pure visceral reaction it creates. Whether this be from the disturbing sense of gestating and giving birth to an alien in the first film to the fear of an android subsuming the throne of God in Covenant. There is a great Slate article that traces the history of scholarship on the first film and can serve as a hilarious warning to the dangers of over-reading (it even includes a bibliography).
In conclusion, what was most attractive to me about both Prometheus and Covenant is not only Scott’s explicit Romanticism, but also a noticeable lowercase “g” gnosticism. The depiction of the creator as a tyrant and one’s world as a prison is central to Gnosticism. Likewise, the act of defiance seen most strongly in the films’ leading women are the central elements of the Gnostic mythos. In Covenant the colonists desire to recreate Eden. If Prometheus depicted the creations being both rejected by their creators and in turn the creations rising up against their creators. Covenant hardly seems to be a new pact being formed between creations and creators. What is being promised? What we do know is that before the promise came the flood.