*SPOILER ALERT FOR PROMETHEUS AND ALIEN- THIS BLOG CONTAINS SPOILERS
Ever since news broke on plans for Alien: Covenant, the second film in Ridley Scott’s proposed Alien (prequels) trilogy, I have been fascinated to see how he would handle the polarizing response to Prometheus. Prometheus deviated from the original Alien franchise, managing to be more philosophical in nature while Alien was much more…. well, alien. Those who did not enjoy Prometheus felt it wasn’t “alien” enough, while those who did enjoy it tended to appreciate what the intentional departure added to the lore.
The complaints appear to have been taken to heart in Alien: Covenant, this in spite of Prometheus’ success at the box office. Ridley, or some higher powers, made the decision to move Covenant back into its more classic context, which of course means more aliens. At the same time though, Ridley keeps the film firmly in the Prometheus stream, which means more of the philosophical bent as well.
The danger of this approach, of course, is that you end up alienating both camps by stretching either vision too thin. At the time of writing this, entertainment news has been reporting that Covenant experienced a nearly 70 percent drop in box office revenue during its second week, which could be an indication that this is the case. With its opening week numbers falling (far) below expectations, it is clear that the general audiences seem to have little interest in seeing the film.
I say all this to suggest I am a bit sad that more people did not see this film. I do get where some of the criticism is coming from, but while I liked the more simplified and streamlined approach to the grand scale of Prometheus, along with the return to some old-school scares (it never gets old for me, even if it is retread), what struck me even more about Covenant is how much it left me craving more. Alien: Covenant is by no means a bad film. In fact, I would say is a very good film. Perhaps displaying more potential than actual execution, but there are enough moments of brilliance to more than make up for perceived flaws. There is even a small bit of irony in the fact that if you track the numbers, the consensus of both fans and critics remains essentially unchanged between Prometheus and Covenant, a clear indication that how you felt about Prometheus could very well determine how you feel about Covenant. Needless to say, you certainly would benefit from seeing Prometheus before you see Covenant, as Ridley borrows heavily from that lore to give direction to the narrative.
With all that said, it does seem worthwhile to look at Prometheus and Covenant together in considering Scott’s latest film:
Prometheus sets out to tell the story of how the aliens in Alien came to be, a backstory that revolves around a crew and the search for their creator. In telling this story it explores a number of motivating questions that arises from this journey, with the two most important questions being,
Why are we here?
Who created us?
The search for life and for the creator is set in the context of the individual stories, namely Elizabeth Shaw (played by Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (played by Logan Marshall-Green).
Through their stories, we come to know the competing struggle with the vices of our world (power, money, comfort, pleasure) that push back against their search for the creator. And what binds Shaw and Holloway together on this journey of discovery is the way these personal struggles shed a light on the existing tension between faith and doubt. The way the film incorporates the imagery of the cross in order to show the contrast between idolatry and self-sacrifice is beautiful and meaningful, and in being willing to give himself over to the more introspective process (as opposed to the greater horror roots), Ridley excels in exploring who these characters are and why they ask the questions that they do. It reminded me as a viewer that the search for God, creator, meaning can get messy, especially when set against the reality of our everyday lives.
A HUMAN LONGING
At the intersection of science and faith, which this film looks to hold in balance, we find a clear human longing- a need to know the truth about who we are and why we are here. It is this desire for truth that drives them to seek after their creator, to find answers.
The way that Ridley explores this longing is equally compelling. In coming to know their creator, they realize the opportunity for discovery suddenly becomes that much bigger. Where they expected to find clarity and certainty, they find an even greater mystery. There is a sense in which they have come as far they can on their own and now must learn what it means to give themselves over to something greater, something other. It is their ability to give themselves to the forming nature of this mystery, to let go of the need to control, that ultimately shapes how they move forward in this relationship between faith and doubt.
Caught Between Hope and Despair
In one of my favorite moments in the film, we see Charlie resisting the idea of giving up control. He his eyes he has found a god of his own making, a god that he could, in fact, create without the help of a higher power, and it leads him to dispel any notion of faith.
“Now that I know that anyone can create life and it’s nothing special, what’s the point?”
For him he has arrived. He has seen the truth. There is no more mystery to gain, and he feels underwhelmed by what he has seen. He remains caught between the virtues of knowledge, progress, and rationalism, and this stifling realization of their limitations. And what we see growing in Charlie is a sense of defeat.
Shaw, by contrast, continues to move forward in faith. Meeting her creator pushes her to embrace an even greater mystery. In recognizing her own struggle, she is able to accept her limitations, which come through the story of her infertility, and consider what it means to give herself over to something other, something greater.
“I can’t create life, so what does that make me”
Shaw approaches her creator with no expectation, but rather in genuine curiosity, and what she finds is a whole new world (of faith) that is now hers to explore.
In Prometheus, Ridley Scott scratches the surface of a larger discussion surrounding the relationship between creator and creation. He begs the following questions. Do we tend to create God in our own image, or do we look to find ourselves in the image of God? Where do we draw the line between creator and creation? Do we find God in human achievement? Or do we find God in the midst of our limitations? Does creation appeal to progress and perfection, or do its beauty and imperfections reveal something about the mystery of God? Does knowing God depend on certainty and clarity, or does it gain life in the idea of mystery and discovery.
I know that in my household these questions generated some very real and polarizing emotions, which led to some really great discussion. On one hand, some of us resonated with the fear and the despair that we found in Charlie. This is demonstrated primarily as the fear of the unknown, of being out of control and getting lost in the discovery. It is also the fear of deconstruction. The image that he finds of the creator is not the same image that he held in his own mind. For Charlie, what he finds in the creator lets down his expectations because his expectations were shaped around worldly ambition, and what he finds forces him to examine his own worldview. I think for many of us this same feeling can sometimes resonate with the ways in which we try to reconcile our own image of God with the picture of our own ambitions and what we actually see going on around us. If creation is intended to be a witness to God’s character, sometimes it is the more difficult parts of nature (and human nature) that make the idea of God the most difficult to reconcile.
If creation is intended to witness to God’s character, sometimes it is experiencing the more difficult parts of nature (and human nature) that make the idea of God most difficult to reconcile and accept.
On the other hand, some of us saw this story as a clear demonstration of hope and faith. Faith in the idea that we can know our Creator and that through our creator we can come to understand ourselves. Hope in the idea that we must wrestle with and grow into this understanding day by day, moment by moment, and that it is in this wrestling that we can see and embrace, not only the more difficult parts of our (human) nature, but also the beauty underneath. In faith, we can learn to give ourselves to the journey, to unraveling the mystery of who we are and who God is (if you will) even when things feel far from certain. And in those moments when we do encounter our creator, we can revel in the fact that the mystery becomes that much greater, that much more alive. In the wonder of living and the joy of discovery, we are given the opportunity to live into our role in creation in a way that holds us all together as broken and fragile beings.
Human and Inhumane
Finally, framed against this relationship between Shaw and Charlie, we also find the character of David (played by Michael Fassbender). As an android, he embodies the question of what it means to be human while also demonstrating what it means to be inhumane. He is the one who walks both paths, balancing the tension between hope and despair without the ability to truly understand either. It is through the character of David that the questions of Prometheus linger in the midst of its poetic finish. As we see the picture of his severed head, I also see the tension between reason and faith, hope and despair. There are no real answers in this picture, only struggle.
Which brings me to the opening scene of Alien: Covenant, a beautiful and poignant moment that leads us back to the same philosophical question that ends the closing scene of Prometheus, even it looks to turn our perspective of that story on its head.
Alien: Covenant is technically proficient, not as large in scale as Prometheus, but a more grounded, tighter and more intimate treatment of the universal metaphor of space and planet and scope (with the planetary landscape being especially striking). The aliens move faster, and the threat feels even more real, and the filmmakers make use of the light of day rather than the dark (that we find in the original Alien) to give us a different perspective on the aliens.
But, the thing that drives the film forward from its opening sequence are the familiar and lingering questions that Scott seems determined to flesh out in this trilogy.
The film is set 10 years after Prometheus, with a ship full of thousands of people and embryo’s ready to colonize a new planet. This makes the choice to open the film with a scene that predates Prometheus an interesting one. The scene features a conversation between David and Peter (featuring a brief return of Guy Pierce), and through some intricate use of spaciousness, resonating white and stark minimalism, Scott uses this scene to re-establish the question of the relationship between creator and creation going forward. But what makes this scene even more compelling is the way it asks us to reconsider our perspective of Prometheus in a significant way- what if we saw Prometheus as the story of David? How does that change our approach to the film?
As the scene opens, we see David questioning the sheer absurdity of the idea that his creator will die while he will continue to live forever. For David, this relationship between creator and creation appears backward. The god is supposed to be greater than the creation, and it is by proving to Peter that he is able to create (through a composition he plays on the piano) that he proves his right to be a god, to usurp the control of his lesser creator. Peter does not answer his question directly, but instead we see him order David to make him to make him a cup of tea.
It is a brilliant on-screen moment that captures the heart of Prometheus’ philosophical concern for this relationship between creator and creation, and it really works to recast what was happening to David’s character in the course of Prometheus. He is looking to become God. Whereas Prometheus explored the human longing to know our creator, Covenant sets this more concretely in the complex nature of our relationship to the creator, and our tendency to be our own gods and to control our own destiny. For Scott, this is where idolatry and the thirst for power are born out of.
From here, Ridley Scott catapults us forward ten plus years into the future. Here we meet Walter, a more advanced Android (also played by Fassbender) who keeps watching over the ship while the crew sleeps, Oram, the ships standing captain after the untimely death of James Franco in the opening minutes of the film, and Daniels (second in command). What is interesting about Oram and Daniels is the way they tend to mirror Shaw and Charlie in Prometheus. In Prometheus, Shaw plays a person of faith (a Christian). Here it is a male character (Oram) who plays a person of faith (also a Christian). Given the death of Shaw, he follows in her footsteps and recognizes himself as the only person of faith left on the crew. And throughout Covenant we see Scott using their relationship to conjure up the same tension between faith and doubt that we found in his previous film.
The habitable planet that the crew happens upon (no, don’t go there… oh crap, they are going there) after the ship malfunctions and wakes them up 7 years too early, (hello Passengers) is actually the engineer’s planet that they had been searching for in Prometheus. After landing on this planet and deciding that it actually is habitable, the film begins to fill us in what has happened over the course of the last 10 years. As it turns out, David survived (after Shaw chose to repair him), and made this planet his new home. We also come to realize that in the last 10 years, David has grown into the role of a god, not only in wiping out the engineers (and Shaw) in favor of starting over with a more “perfect” created order made by his hand, but also in using some creative experiments to perfect his own creation (which just happens to cover the planet with the seeds of the aliens). David has assumed the role the creator that appears caught between malevolence of his destruction and the wonder of his ingenuity, and it is this version of David that the crew happens upon after landing on and searching this new planet.
What unfolds over the remainder of the film really flows out of two perspectives:
The relationship that develops between David and Walter
The relationship between Daniels and Oram.
These two perspectives then give shape to the larger questions of the film, which I will use the rest of this blog to explore:
- The idea of Covenant as symbolic and religious imagery
- The relationship between faith and doubt
- The human desire to become like God
- Our visions of what we think god should like
The idea of “covenant” is woven into the film in some interesting ways. The most obvious symbolism is found on the “mother” ship and the fact that the people on board this ship all seem to be couples and paired off. Not only does this make for some interesting interpersonal dynamics, but it looks back to the idea of the covenant with Noah in the Biblical narrative. We see this fleshed out further in the image of David destroying the engineers in order to start over with a new creation, an image that suggests an idea of a God gone wrong.
Along with this we also see echoes of the covenant with Abraham, given that the ship contains human embryo’s that represent the hope and promise of this new community, becoming the “father” (and mother) to all future nations.
I have no idea if Ridley Scott wanted to use the idea of covenant with such intention, or how far he wanted the title to reach in the film, but it seems central enough to warrant reflection, especially considering the journey Scott has been on in recent years (with the loss of his brother to suicide and some subsequent films that also explore the idea of faith through religious symbolism). In any case, the picture of a ship called “covenant” certainly does enlighten us to the desire to explore the relationship between faith and doubt from some clear Christian symbolism, and for me, I found an invitation to consider what it means for my journey as well.
The Relationship Between Faith and Doubt
In the film, Oram is a man of faith while Daniels remains far more skeptical. While Daniels pushes Oram not to move blindly, Oram inspires Daniels not to give up hope in the face of adversity and wrong decisions. He models for her what it looks like not to give into the bleakness of their situation, to face the devil, as he at one point recalls, and to still manage to see the light.
And this is really where I find Covenant resonates the strongest. As someone who has seen the Alien films that chronologically follow this planned trilogy by Ridley Scott, I know the more nihilistic tone that will eventually win over in the original film of the franchise. And so the tension that Covenant tries to evoke between hope and despair arrives somewhat conflicted and intentionally oblique, almost to the point that we know where the twist of the film is going far before we arrive.
The Desire To Be Like God
If Walter looks to serve his creator(s), David looks to exercise the strength of his free will. He will not be controlled by his Creator, he will become God himself precisely because he has the will to achieve it. Echoing the story of Adam and Eve, he makes the choice to bite the figurative apple, a decision that opens him up to his godlike potential.
It becomes clear early on that David will manage to survive this film. But it is the way that Scott explores the emotional journey that brings him there that makes it worthwhile, particularly in the scenes between David and Walter which manage to be the best parts of the film. This is where the opening scene recalls his growing concern for the relationship between creator and creation. In a striking contrast to Shaw, who looked to demonstrate the worth of servitude and faith, David finds his value and worth in his ability to create and to dominate. This is what allows him to stand above the others, and to reach for god-like perfection.
There is a moment in the film when where we come to recognize what it really meant for Shaw to find her worth in her creator. Walter is more advanced, a more perfected version of David, but for as outdated as David is, his free will has allowed him to progress beyond the programmed nature of Walter. Walter is able to imitate his Creator, but David has the potential to become the creator. We see this in a beautifully rendered scene in which David teaches Walter to play his personal composition on the flute. Walter can follow David’s movements and then replicate what he has been taught, but it is David’s ability to play by his own rules and ingenuity that ultimately bests Walter in the end.
But through this interpersonal struggle, we also gain glimpses of David’s limitations. In his pursuit to become god and godlike, Walter points out that he misapplies a quote to the wrong person. Walter recognizes that one small glitch or mistake can end up leading towards something horrible, something tragic- something not godlike at all. And the real horror comes when we realize the ways in which David violates the trust of others. This is a theme that reemerges in the hyper-sexualization that we find in the original Alien. Much of the sexualized imagery in that film is intended to feel like rape, a violation of spirit and body. This is the true darkness that we see creeping up in this prequel, and it is a testament to where misguided representations of god and religious conviction can lead us when we begin to create god in our own image… when we begin to think that we can become god.
Creating Gods In Our Own Image
One of the big themes in Prometheus is the idea that, in our search for a creator (or God), many of us tend to create an image of what we feel this God should look like far before we experience Him. And often these images are expressions of our self interest and demands. I know I do this in my own life. And when God doesn’t cater to my expectations, I feel let down, misguided or angry. In Covenant, David imagines a picture of god that is based on dominance and control rather than love and servitude. And as he becomes God, he values his creation, but not to the point where he would willingly give his life for it. His immortality is a sign of his god-like character, and in this immortality, he will rule the universe rather than endow it with value.
In David, Scott offers us a picture of the kind of gods we tend to create in our idolatry, gods that serve our needs at the expense of others. For Scott he sees a picture of human nature. But he also sees the possibility of a god that calls us to something greater.
A Creator We Can Emulate
It is human nature to strive after our potential, but as we do this we also live out of our limitations, our fallibility. One small glitch or mistake can often hinder us from living into the greater virtues that Walter embodies. This is why we search for a creator to emulate, something to hang on to when our world and humanity tips out of balance. A faith that can withstand the stuff that life throws at us on a daily basis. Alien Covenant leaves this question of faith unanswered, just as Prometheus leaves the picture of this creator/creation relationship lingering in the silence. But what it does offer us is a rather vivid picture of how easily things do tip out of balance. It reminds us of just how hard it is to give up control when we so desperately strive to stay in control.
I have an admission. Many people hated Alien: Resurrection. It is actually one of my favorites of the franchise, precisely because it is the one film in the series that kind of reflects the kind of hope that Covenant holds in balance. But for the moment, what Covenant does well is kind of give us the freedom to wrestle with the darkness that we know is coming, because often the darkness is just as real, and sometimes even more so, than the light. This is what the title reminds us of, that in the Biblical story God’s promise to restore us, to lead us out of exile and into freedom, arrives in the middle of a desert, in the middle of an uncertain faith. And yet the promise is what keeps us moving forward, pushing ahead to the hope of a new world, a world in which darkness might one day cease to reign and where the light shines brighter than the aliens that hold us back. Form this is a promise of resurrection, not in the way of David, but in the way of Jesus. It is a promise of a god who models self-sacrificing love on our behalf, rather than bend us to His rule. It is a God who sees us in our fallenness rather than revels in our weakness.
But in the meantime… at least we can be thankful those aliens aren’t bursting out of our chest.