Last spring saw the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, opening to underwhelming fanfare. Posturing as both a sequel of sorts to Prometheus and a prequel of sorts to the Alien franchise at large, Scott’s latest attempt at polarizing both critics and audiences was a mixed bag at best. The film plays as a sci-fi sampler platter of the best and worst moments the motion picture saga has to offer, showcasing some of the action of Aliens (and all the pretense of Prometheus), a bit of the ambition of Blade Runner and much of the absurdity of Resurrection.
But while we could sit and criticize plot redundancies, poor character motivations and retconned conceits regarding the eponymous xenomorph, the problems with Covenant are far more intrinsic than mere fanboy nitpickery. And it all really started in Prometheus, which hit at the pseudo-philosophy, quasi-theology, crank magnetism and psychology of a once beloved, now aged director who many believe to be long past his prime.
Fire from the Gods?
To the casual moviegoer entering theaters in summer of 2012, Prometheus perhaps came off as a largely innocuous, mildly stimulating popcorn flick and not the travesty forewarned by the Mayans in the Mesoamerican days of old. This contingent of movie-goer represents the “I don’t get all the hate, it really wasn’t that bad you guys” base.
One prime concern I have as a lifelong Alien fan (who in adolescence wore out the magnetic strip on his parents’ VHS cassette tape of Aliens) is why Scott’s recent duology of Alien films feel like an overly fundy Sunday school class. Or, even worse, why do they feel like fringe History/Syfy channel programming featuring Giorgio A. Tsoukalos?
Virtually the whole plot of Prometheus hinges on the notion that extraterrestrials kickstarted and manipulated human evolution. The film begins with an introduction to the infamous Engineer, the being that we’ll later learn (to much fan dismay) is of the same race as the first film’s Space Jockey. This early Engineer is utilizing his own genetic material in order to seed a planet, presumably earth, with organic life (a scientific concept, popular in certain fringe circles, known as panspermia).
We then come to meet our two protagonists, Doctors Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, played by Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green, respectively. We’re first acquainted with the scientist couple as they excavate an ancient cave wherein they find a pictogram of a star map. Not only does this scene help to set up outdated, Erich von Däniken-esque ideas regarding ancient aliens, it’s also very much a callback to the discredited “UFO abduction” case of Betty and Barney Hill.
As any UFOlogist worth their space salt will tell you, the Hills were an eccentric New Hampshire couple that claimed to be abducted by real life aliens and later had hypnotically-induced visions of a star map. The map depicted a double star system known as Zeta Reticuli, the alleged celestial stomping grounds of their interplanetary abductors. Many elements of the Hill account contain aspects from popular science-fiction of the time — namely an Outer Limits episode entitled “The Bellero Shield” and the 1953 film Invaders from Mars.
Once aboard Prometheus (a name which represents yet another reference regarding humanity’s relation to the divine), the themes of creation and the quest for understanding among those who’ve been created are further bolstered by the synthetic known as David (played to perfection by Michael Fassbender, one of the film’s few highlights). David is an artificial person created by billionaire tycoon Peter Weyland, played by Guy Pearce. Weyland is an aged industrialist in search of the higher powers that created him in their image as he himself has also created intelligent life in his own image. On the cusp of death, he (like Roy Batty in the infinitely superior Blade Runner) seeks to prolong his ever dwindling-life by way of divine intervention.
Shaw, a character that oddly (and oft hypocritically) straddles the line between science and spiritualism, spends much of her time aboard the ship either gripping or griping about her father’s crucifix, which she wears around her neck simply because, as she puts it, “It’s what I choose to believe.” Despite his apt criticisms of Shaw, the crew’s geologist, Fifield, represents yet another poorly realized representation of a scientist, as he and biologist Millburn are first to fall victim to a space worm. Interstellar alien terror is merely the backdrop to this crisis-of-faith melodrama.
Later, when the crew eventually and unceremoniously discover extraterrestrial life (the corpse of an aforementioned Engineer), they date its head back to some 2,000 years before, around the time of Christ’s crucifixion. Also, for no other reason than to place a firmer stamp on where the director’s attentions lie, the film just so happens to take place around Christmas, even featuring a scene of Janek, the ship’s captain (Idris Elba), decorating a Christmas tree.
The last line of the film is Shaw entering a ship log shortly after reacquiring her misplaced crucifix, wherein she states, “It is New Year’s Day, the year of our Lord, 2094. My name is Elizabeth Shaw, the last survivor of the Prometheus. And I am still searching.” The overarching theme here appears to be one of unwavering spiritual faith in the face of adversity; a theme that I strongly doubt was on the minds of James Cameron or David Fincher during their tenure at the helm of an Alien film.
This discourse in theological rhetoric of course continues into Covenant, albeit under the thin veneer of action schlock. David is still struggling with identity and the humans who created him, as well as the engineers who created them. The ship’s first mate, Oram (played by Billy Crudup), was apparently denied the captain’s spot for his ill-defined characterization as being a “man of faith.” And, of course, there’s the ship/film’s decidedly Abrahamic name, Covenant.
It’s as if Scott saw that one scene from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier where Captain Kirk asks, “What does God need with a starship?” and decided to make an entire Alien spinoff franchise about it. Why does the Alien franchise, of all things, have to ask questions regarding the nature of humanity, questions regarding our place in the universe, questions regarding the meaning of life? And, more importantly, why must it ask these questions so poorly?
Sympathy for the Devil
I don’t wish to levee too harsh an assault against Scott. He is, after all, older and likely coping with thoughts of mortality. His brother’s terminal illness and eventual suicide likely/understandably also play a part in his current state of deep introspection. And certainly screenwriters such as Damon Lindelof and Jack Paglen share partial blame. That all being said, Scott better managed many of these same themes as a younger man, particularly with the film Blade Runner; one that better juggles notions of mortality and the nature of identity without all the hocus pocus, mumbo jumbo of Scott’s latter cinematic efforts.
The original Alien is a landmark film that utilizes elements of effects-driven blockbuster sci-fi such as Star Wars, while also serving as the last visage of hard-edged, gritty, ’70s inhibition. Sadly however, Scott has since become something of a George Lucas. Both men originated a popular sci-fi franchise in the late ’70s that they then handed over to filmmakers who managed to craft a follow-up feature that many circles regard as being better than the original. Both came back to their respective franchises decades later in vain attempts to reclaim ownership of series whose diminishing returns they only further contributed to.
With middling box-office returns for Covenant and Disney’s recent acquisition of 21 Century Fox, the future of the Alien franchise is uncertain. It’s certainly a marketable title and the release in some form or another of a new entry into the series is nigh a foregone conclusion. Scott’s involvement however, is decidedly less so. Perhaps fans will be treated to a series of soft-reboots helmed by J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy. Maybe that long-speculated Neill Blomkamp sequel (interquel? semi-sequel?) will finally get the greenlight. Perhaps studio execs will opt to reintroduce the Predator, calling back to the two Alien films more roundly despised than the two harped on in this article. Or perhaps Scott will return, under stricter financial and creative control, to flesh out and finalize his vision.
Whatever the future holds in store for we Alien enthusiasts, we xenophiles, let’s save the pseudoscience for today’s innumerable “fake news outlets.” Save the religious rhetoric for our biblical epics starring Christian Bale. Let’s return to high-concept, escapist, sci-fi/horror.