Over the weekend, my wife and I went to see Alien: Covenant in the theater for our anniversary (I’m a lucky man, I know). The initial reviews on IMDB were pretty bad, so my hopes weren’t very high. Some of the reviews said that Covenant made Prometheus look good (a movie which also received bad reviews when it was first released).
However, after seeing Covenant, we came home and re-watched Prometheus. Taken together, these two movies make a lot more sense and are actually very thought-provoking, touching topics such as creator/creation, eugenics, and what it means to be human. I think they will fare better with age.
Synopsis of the Two Movies
Prometheus and Covenant are the first two movies in a planned series of movies (3 or 4, maybe more – depending on how far director Ridley Scott wants to take them) which chronologically precede the movie Alien (released in 1979) within the “Alien universe,” so to speak. Thus, at some point these prequels should logically lead us to the conditions which set up the beginning of Alien. Ridley Scott directed Alien as well as Prometheus and Covenant.
Both Prometheus and Covenant deal with origins. Specifically, where humans come from and who is their creator. Within the “Alien universe,” the answer these movies present is that some advanced Alien race (the “Engineers”) created humans. In Prometheus, the crew of the eponymous ship set out with Peter Weyland, the wealthy founder of the corporation Weyland-Yutani (“Building Better Worlds”), in order to find their creators (called the “Engineers”) on some distant planet’s moon, LV 223 (look up Leviticus 22:3 and ponder it in the context of the movie when the crew enter into the inner chamber of the Engineer’s structure). Weyland himself is seeking eternal life from them.
What they find instead is a former Engineer outpost which has been decimated by some bizarre organism capable of taking over its host in order to continue its lifecycle. Most of the ship’s crew are destroyed by the effects of this organism, with one of the women (Elizabeth Shaw) even giving Caesarean birth to a human/alien hybrid. The end of Prometheus sees her and David, the “Synthetic” (i.e. an android) leaving this moon in the Engineer’s ship for some unknown destination.
Covenant picks up ten years later as the crew of another ship (“Covenant”) heads to a distant planet in order to settle there as space-age frontiersmen. However, they encounter ship damage on the way and shortly thereafter receive a garbled radio message which appears to be a woman singing the John Denver song “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” They trace this transmission to a nearby solar system with a moon which appears inviting for habitation.
Thus, they alter course for this moon and send down a landing party to investigate the source of the transmission. Soon, they find artifacts belonging to Elizabeth Shaw. Two of the crew, however, become infected with an organism which uses their body as a host to morph into a much more dangerous creature. The entire party is attacked by these aliens and their landing craft is destroyed.
They are saved, however, by none other than David, the Synthetic from Prometheus. He takes them back to his “home,” which is a huge castle-like structure which he says is “perfectly safe.” It soon becomes apparent, however, that he wants to use the landing party as well as the 2000 settlers and 1500 embryos in hibernation on their mother ship as hosts for the organisms he has created. He has been genetically engineering his own creations and needs humans as hosts in order to continue his work.
Covenant ends with David in control of the mother ship, and its hibernating population, headed for an unknown world.
Theme of the Two Movies
I think it’s helpful to view David as the central character in both movies to get a better understanding of them. In a flashback scene in Covenant, it is shown that David is a creation of Peter Weyland, whom he calls his “son.” David takes his name from Michelangelo’s statue of David, which Peter has in his home.
Peter is a human, with human frailties and weaknesses. David is not bound by these human limitations, even though he is engineered to be “human-like.” David is very efficient, able to learn vast amounts of information, and – unlike his creator – will never die.
David is also imbued with the desire to create. He also develops a dislike for his creator (he says that he “pitied Peter at the end”). Thus, in Prometheus we see David taking steps to begin his own creations. He takes some of the alien “slime” and puts it in Dr. Holloway’s drink, anticipating that he will have intercourse with Elizabeth Shaw, thereby impregnating her and creating an alien-human hybrid. Then, on the moon on which he is found in Covenant, he has apparently continued his work. He has killed off the native Engineers and Elizabeth Shaw, in order to create alien hybrids. Once he lures the crew of the Covenant to the moon, he now has a sufficient number of human hosts to continue his creative work.
There are a few elements spread throughout both movies which help tie this creative theme together.
The Engineers created Humans, who ultimately (through David), destroy them. Peter Weyland created David, who seeks to destroy Humans. There is thus a tension between the creator and his/their creations who rebel against him/them. David, in particular, views himself as superior to his creator and therefore seeks to create a new species who will be superior. He is also in love with himself, as evidenced by the strange scenes he has with Walter, the other Synthetic who looks exactly like David, in Covenant.
Lawrence of Arabia
In Prometheus, David is seen watching the movie Lawrence of Arabia. He dies his hair blond and mimics Col. T. E. Lawrence’s accent (actually Peter O’Toole’s) in the movie, and often quotes from Lawrence. This is significant, as Lawrence was seen as something of an oddity of his times, never quite fitting into British society nor with his adopted Arab brethren with whom he fought in World War I. Thus, David is like Lawrence, not quite fitting into the company around him and viewed with suspicion by others.
Richard Wagner, the Nazis, and Eugenics
Wagner’s music was co-opted by Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s as an anthem of sorts for “Germanic superiority.” Wagner’s “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” is played softly by piano in one of the opening interior ship scenes in Prometheus. David also plays it in the flashback scene with Peter Weyland in Covenant. At the end of Covenant, as David enters into the storage hall of the ship (in which are located the hibernating settlers and embryos), he asks “Mother” (the ship’s computer) to play the song as well. The song plays as David places an alien embryo into a storage tray. This is fitting, as Valhalla was the hall of heroes in Norse mythology, ruled over by Odin. David seems to view himself as the “god” over a new, superior creation.
The Nazis experimented with eugenics, which was the desire to build a “superior” race of people through breeding and sterilization programs, eliminating the “weak.” This idea views humans as valuable only in light of their apparent “utility” (an idea which Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, also supported).
Creating a superior species is exactly what David is attempting to do in these movies. He views humans as weak and of little utility (except as biological hosts for his creations), and has spent his ten years in isolation trying to improve on the creatures he has bred. He plans to use the hibernating settlers and embryos of the ship Covenant to progress his work (notice in the movie how he cuts and styles his hair to match Walter’s so that later he can take Walter’s place on the ship without the crew being aware).
I would expect the next movie in this series to pick up on this theme. Using Wagner’s “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” helps to bring out the eugenics theme.
Finally, one of the little visual elements which helps tie certain scenes together is the placement of a “drinking bird” on tables. In Prometheus, David has a drinking bird with him on the ship. Towards the end of Covenant, when the audience is wondering if the Synthetic on the ship is the friendly Walter or the fiendish David, an important clue is provided by the placement of a drinking bird in the foreground as the camera pans to the Synthetic (who turns out to be David). A drinking bird is also present in Alien as well as in the video game Alien: Isolation (which takes place after the events in Alien, but before Aliens).
What Does it Mean to be Human?
This is one of the great themes of science fiction and is the reason so many works in this genre had androids or – in the case of the Alien franchise – Synthetics. This is also a role filled by Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory. Androids, or those who are apparently not quite human (like Spock in Star Trek, Cooper mentioned above, and the androids in Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep on which the movie Blade Runner was based), serve as foils for the exploration of what exactly makes a person “human.”
In Prometheus and Covenant, David is continually reminded that he is not human and can’t have emotions. Yet, he apparently does have emotions, along with a drive to create and advance his agenda. He also looks like a human and carries out human activities. He even seems to love Elizabeth Shaw, at least to the extent that he views her as the mother of his hybrids. He also loves “himself,” as evidenced by his kiss of Walter (who looks like David and is also a Synthetic).
If humans are able to create an intelligent entity who looks, acts, and behaves like a human, what then makes humans distinct? What is the “essence” of humanity?
That’s a question which we will probably confront more often as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning expands in our own world, along with androids of our creation.
That’s also the question explored in these movies.
David answers the question negatively; he was created in the image of his creator, yes, but his creator is not worthy of his creation and therefore must be destroyed so that his creation can rule.
As Christians we would disagree with David and answer the question by stating that humans were created in the image of God. God is perfect and eternal, and we are not worthy of Him, having fallen from the image in which He originally created us (due to the sin of Adam and Eve). Yet, we are being restored to that image through Christ and will be fully restored at the resurrection. Thus, we are not like David – we are not “above” our Creator.
As the world we live in continues to lose its Christian moorings, however, I would expect that people will increasingly struggle with this question of what makes humans distinct. The Church must continue to provide the answer.
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