Alien Contra Art
June 24, 2017
Ridley Scott enjoys a reputation as one of Hollywood’s last remaining auteurs. A man with a long career of iconic, and at times even, artistically innovative films behind him, Scott has succeeded in cementing himself in the public consciousness as a kind of second-rate, second-generation Stanley Kubrick. I say second-rate because glancing through his filmography he’s been responsible for more than his fair share of questionable films: 1492: The Conquest of Paradise, Robin Hood, Exodus. Movies like GI Jane and Black Hawk Down would make more sense in the filmography of Michael Bay. The bleary slow motion action of Gladiator feels like something out of a bad History Channel reenactment. And for all it’s sumptuous orientalism, one can’t help but wish Kingdom of Heaven would have used Tasso as a script rather than the generic and confused historical material Scott chose to serve up.
The Alien prequel Prometheus though outdoes them all in terms of shallowness; a movie about creation that’s more interested in spinning a Chariots of The Gods inspired deep mythology to prop up the ailing franchise than it is in exploring the psycho-historical origins of Humanity, not just as a species, but also as an idea and ideal. As is the case for every Hollywood remake or re-imagining there was a simmering, and largely unwarranted, excitement at the prospect of Scott producing another (proper) Alien movie, as if the only problem with Prometheus was that, despite having plenty of alien horrors, they didn’t look enough like the one from the original for it to count.
There have now, counting Prometheus, been six Alien films, and that’s not including spinoffs like Alien vs Predator. For such a beloved franchise it’s strange that, on the whole, the general quality level across the different episodes doesn’t average out all that well. Truth be told though, in Alien: Covenant all the pieces are in place. There’s the colony crew of somewhat schlubby civilians with half-unspoken personal problems. There’s the android run amok. There’s the cyclopean alien ruins looming ominously around the characters as they discover unspeakable cosmic nightmares. Eventually a woman with short hair and pointed nipples in a tank top runs around the ship and blows the alien out an airlock.
Judged by the internal standards of the series, Covenant is adequate, and that’s more or less the agreement the critic’s consensus has come to. The elements are there, in more or less the correct proportions, and in today’s cultural environment that’s usually counted as a success, but as a whole, judged against the standards of Art rather than those set by the franchise, as a self-sufficient work it fails. It’s the latter standard of judging the latest mass produced form of entertainment that prevails among critics, both online and off. When it comes to every new super hero or Star Wars movie, the critical consensus goes about reproducing itself, spreading itself like the alien virus of Covenant, hijacking our cultural DNA until a thousand identical mutant clones spring forth and run roughshod over taste.
In Prometheus man mounts an expedition, to discover the most antediluvian architects of the human race: the Engineers. What they discover, as one might expect, turns out to be quite upsetting. The forebearers of our species consider us a mistake, and plan to eradicate us using a mutagenic bioweapon. The film concludes with all but two members of the exploratory crew dead. The only survivors, the android David among them, set out in one of the Engineer’s ships to visit their homeworld and confront them about their designs for Humanity. This premise, which it took an entire film to set up, is concluded off screen prior to the opening of Covenant, and this new film finds a new crew accidentally stumbling on the aftermath of David’s encounter with the beings who created mankind millions of years ago.
The center of Covenant’s attempt to pick up the questions Prometheus asked is to be found in the central segment of the movie, after the survivors of the crew recover from their initial brutalization at the ends of the alien virus which David used to genocide the Engineers. The details are ultimately unimportant. Still, it’s the all-too brief scenes with David in the Necropolis that are not only the most unnerving, but which also do most of the conceptual legwork for the film.
It’s David, we learn, who has created the alien species which has disemboweled so many throughout the series. He’s been experimenting, creating new forms of life using the Engineer’s technology. At last, he tells us, he believes he has finally perfected life. This, for some, may come across as confusing. In what sense could the monstrous forms he’s concocted ever be considered “perfect”? From a certain perspective, he may have succeeded. The creature is virulent, infecting all forms of life it comes into contact with, using them to reproduce itself. As it matures it becomes all but unstoppable. It can survive in otherwise uninhabitable conditions, even in deep space seemingly. Attempts to kill it cause it to spray acid blood strong enough to melt through the hull of a spaceship. Etc. From a perspective of pure biological utilitarianism, David has created a life form if not perfect, than at least not far off.
What’s most disturbing, perhaps, about all this, is that David has adopted such a perspective in the first place. It’s a principle against which Humanity appears poorly, a standard we are poorly suited to measure up to. It’s not necessarily the disgust his creations inspire that induces us to fill ill at ease at him, but what they say about the role of Human-ness in the universe, at least in David’s eyes. The morality of civilization is reduced to a necropolis overrun by nightmares made in our own twisted image, a species devoid of Humanity, but one that’s capable of conquering all life in the Universe through its virulence and revolting adaptability.
Covenant opens with a brief introduction of the themes in intends to explore, that it more or less never gets around to doing so with its undivided attention is beside the point. A newly created David, prior to the events of Prometheus, is meeting his creator for the first time. A painting hangs on the wall. A piano sits to one side. The David of Michelangelo runs like a column through the ceiling, as if to hold up the whole scene. David (the android, not the statue) carries on a brief conversation with his maker regarding his own intended perfection. What perfection though? For both David and his creator it seems that perfection consists in immortality, which is the one characteristic the two will never share.
In Prometheus this idea was reduced to a somewhat contrived quest by David’s geriatric inventor to learn the secrets of immortality from the Engineers. His quest fails, and the Engineer rips of David’s head and uses it to beat him to death. Why are the engineer’s trying to destroy us? Neither film ever gets around to answering that, but we might plausibly infer that it’s because they look on our own creations, on David, the way we look at the monster’s which David later creates in Covenant. It’s not necessarily the form our creation has assumed which the Engineer’s hold against us, but maybe the perspective which we have assumed from which such creations appear “perfect” to us in the first place. This is, of course, speculation, and in Alien: Covenant, these themes only serve as detours to Scott’s primary mission of connecting point A to point B to point C in the Alien cinematic universe.
As David sits surrounded by perfect creations of man, the high points of the Arts & Sciences, as traditionally conceived, he is enshrined by the Museum setting as a work of Art. Whereas artworks typically only comprehend themselves however, David, in his perfection, comprehends more fundamentally the ability of Man to create such things generally, and through this comprehension, he compounds within himself all these works, everything that this creative drive can produce. The value of these works, as David is instructed by his designer, is their enduring quality, their immortality, and that is why David, too, is ‘perfect’; he is a man raised to the status of an artistic object, but only in the sense that he’s an object which will can persist beyond the lifespans of ordinary men.
David, in Covenant, eventually confesses to his counterpart, an identical, but intellectually sterile and begin android named Walter, that he has developed a great antipathy towards Humanity. They are a dying race, David pronounces with conviction. They don’t deserve to spread themselves through the universe. They are unworthy. The form of life David has created is more deserving of the cosmic real estate Man would end up inhabiting. There is no further elaboration, as to why Man is unworthy. We can speculate though: Man uses his creative ability to perpetuate his own biological weakness in service of an enduring, if ephemeral and elusive spark of Humanity. David uses his creative ability to perpetuate biological strength in service of an ideal of virulence, adaptation and linear extensiveness. Man’s ‘failure,’ in his eyes, consists in his human perspective, his sense that ideal principles in operation within the soul possess an independent validity and value beyond their ability to reproduce, survive, and adapt. As David is immortal, there is no need for Man to perpetuate his Humanity. Humanity has been raised to the level of a machine-object, which, finally being freed from any need to reproduce itself, may now go about perfecting the reproduction of life itself.
The civilization of the Engineers is ancient, their city, which none of the crew have even the slightest curiosity or interest in, stretches out like the ruins of some non-euclidean Atlantis, a cosmic Pergamon millions of years older than Mankind’s earliest tribal settlement. As David’s creations frighten Daniels and the rest of the colony crew, the Engineers are frightened, and in the end done in by David, as we will in turn be done in by David’s perfect lifeforms. Here then a reductive algorithm is running its course. In the beginning, with the Engineers, we have a personification of spirit in its earliest stages. Through man, and David, and the aliens he creates, we see the degradation of that essence. We see it being bred out of life, and personified in a machine who, unleashed from the physio-organic constraints conditioning the development of its own powers, creates a form of life unleashed from the constraints of higher puroposiveness, reducing life down to a vicious biological mechanism of virulent infestation and linear multiplication.
This is a discussion which is largely absent from Alien: Covenant. One merely suggested in a brief prologue, a few conversations with David and some deleted scenes. It is here where we meet with the real problem regarding not only this film, but the overall outlook which prevails in Hollywood and among critics of all stripes as well. The standard that David applies is the standard of Ridley Scott, and by extension, Hollywood. It is a standard by which films like Alien: Covenant are judged: against their virulence as strains of their respective franchises. Here, the outward appearances of the artwork are taken as the rule of survival. What are the elements of the series, of the original movie that established it, and what is the correct proportion to mix them in to ensure maximum virulence in the current box office environment.
There are two stances we can assume when approaching Alien: Covenant (or any other blockbuster franchise film): Firstly, the perspective where they’re judged as additional reproductions of an original object manufacturing itself in order to persist and infect as much of culture as possible. Secondly, the perspective of a more fundamental standard of Art, not as something possessing the quality of endurance, but something that endures in relation to its realization of an idea of Human-ness which exists only through its own effort to comprehend some aspect of that idea.
Most current among critics, especially of the internet variety, adopt the first stance, where the quality valued above all others is the most potent reproduction of the outward elements of plot and design associated with some ‘classic’ movie they were raised on. By this measure Alien: Covenant does well enough for itself. It’s a sufficiently graphic remix of the familiar elements of the long-winded series to meet with fan approval. The film is only marred by a few strange moments in the middle where David explains his ideas of Creation to the crew.
From the other perspective, however, the film is such a half-hearted exploration of what it purports to be interested in discussing that it’s deserving of minimal praise. Two competing perspectives were at work in Alien: Covenant, and the one that won out was David’s, of the Alien series as precisely the kind of linearly multiplying infectious phenomenon which serves as his ideal. This may make for decent enough entertainment, but as a perspective which forms the basis for how our overarching cultural enterprises conceive of themselves, there’s something deeply unsettling about it and the creatures it engineers.
Why bother criticizing it? Why waste time on inferior productions? Because criticism is only productive when it assumes the other perspective, when it doesn’t reduce the value of culture to its infectiousness, but judges according to a more fundamentally human perspective, where reproduction of the material conditions of civilization is seen as secondary to the development of Humanity as an idea across a never-ending dialog of activity through which it is not reproduced, but developed. As adequate as Alien: Covenant is, as art, it falls short. It is not necessarily the form the monster takes which terrifies, but the perspective from which its creator judges its hideous perfection.