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By Mike Kugler
In my last essay I proposed that Shelley’s Frankenstein remains our most powerful modern myth. The new series of Alien movies, beginning with Prometheus, returned to the Frankenstein theme that we have far more to fear from our own scientific intervention in nature than from brutal, remorseless nature itself. Frankenstein and Prometheus are romantic anxieties about our lack of reverence for nature, how science only encourages our basic desire to be little gods, giving us nearly divine power. Why might creatures like us pray, for example, if we have airplanes, the internet and MRIs? The modern world has outgrown God, it appears.
But our SciFi “what ifs” have not outgrown Frankenstein. Alien: Covenant follows another crew, eleven years after Prometheus, this one over 2000 colonists traveling to a new home. A space storm awakens the crew early from hypersleep and they home in on a beacon from an unknown planet. Dismissing suspicions, the crew investigates. That theme is consistent throughout each of the now six Alien films (not counting the Alien/Predator series). Suspicions–“I’ve got a bad feeling about this” (a meme from Aliens)—or cautionary resistance are always overthrown for the bold, adventurous and ultimately disastrous option.
That’s the Promethean theme, too. Whether Aeschylus, Ovid or Percy Shelley, Prometheus defied the Gods. Hubris. Hence Mary Shelley’s subtitle. Scott is one of the finest cinematographic directors ever. His films just glow. But this new series in the franchise is a re-invention. Linking ideas from the O’Bannon/Scott original to Prometheus’ Jon Spaihts/Damon Lindelof and Scott, now Covenant’s John Logan/D.W. Harper and Scott, is confusing. To avoid too much of a spoiler, I will say that the force of evil has shifted from nature itself in Alien, paralleled by corporate greed and indifference to people, to super-intelligences meddling with powerful bio-forces they cannot really discipline, or which they, madly, want to unleash.
Covenant’s style digs deep into that of Alien, though in front of a much larger landscape. The first film’s crew was very blue collar, “space truckers” as O’Bannon imagined them. You sympathized with them; they didn’t sign on for the disaster. This was also true about Aliens, where the space Marines were typical grunts sent to protect average colonist families. But the crews of the new Alien films are educated, skilled technicians, led by super-wealthy patricians. With a few exceptions, Scott begs the audience to have contempt for them, eagerly awaiting who, in what order and how ickily how each will die. That level of scorn for one’s characters is more reminiscent of slasher films set in the Social Darwinian American high school. Scott and his writers have now also shifted the attention away from the evil corporations, and onto the synthetic humans, David in Prometheus and Walter in Covenant (both played remarkably by Michael Fassbender). Even if the source of evil has shifted from cruelly instinctive Nature to human hubris and reckless ambition, encouraged by astonishing intelligence and technical sophistication, discovering the latter drives home the conviction that education, cultural sophistication, wealth and privilege do nothing to moderate or redirect selfishness.
Oh, for the days of Star Trek. Even if often philosophically soft, even sentimentally so, Gene Rodenberry’s hopefulness came through in almost every episode and movie he oversaw. It is interesting to contemplate which is our preferred kind of SciFi. Do we see humans as participating agents or stewards of divine redemption, or do you find the world typically an overwhelmingly grim place dominated by cruel brutes? They aren’t mutually exclusive, but they differ in tone.
As I suggested before, these films put a story and faces to the anxieties we face in this modern or late modern world. Many, perhaps too many, Christian thinkers have lamented our modern tendency to desacralize the natural world, to consider nature, including us, as merely material. What if, instead, this offers an opportunity? Abandoning the ideal that the Creator somehow gave our physical world a spiritual essence, and continues as the mighty ontological guarantor of our moral and political order, modern people no longer need belief in a mighty interventionist creator to maintain the pillars of the world. Modernity, strangely enough, gives us the opportunity to return to the God of Jesus Christ of the Good News. He is the God of the Cross, the God who comes in flesh for our flesh, comes in weakness to join with our weakness. He doesn’t sky lift us from danger, but died and rose so He can accompany us through even the most anxious, even terrifying moments of our lives. We honor and serve Him by bearing those same burdens among the weakest and most threatened people among us. Thrilling, exciting as Alien: Covenant may be, this other story restores my hope when I leave the theater for the real world.
Mike Kugler teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA