GLIMPSING BEHIND THE ALIEN CURTAIN
OR, WHY I WAS SO PENSIVE WALKING OUT OF ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)
An Analysis by Dan Keohane
So, there I was, leaving the theater with my brother Paul after having seen the newest movie in the Alien franchise, ALIEN: COVENANT (2017), and feeling… not sure, pensive, thoughtful, saturnine? It was an enjoyable enough movie (which would have been more enjoyable had I not seen the trailers and thus every significant scene in the film), and one which has been reviewed by others already, not least of which is our fearless leader’s great review here.
What you’re reading now is not a review. It’s more a discourse on the case of prequels, of letting someone (even if the someone is one of the original creators) tell you the back story behind what has always been one of your favorite science fiction films. ALIEN: COVENANT, and before it PROMETHEUS (2012), is slowly, but inexorably, answering many of the questions we have all asked over the past forty years about the original, horrifying, ALIEN (1979). Where did that ship come from; why was it carrying all of those eggs? Who are the xenomorphs, and where did they come from? All of it, thanks in no small part to the visual genius (or madness) of H.R. Geiger. His creature and set designs were so otherworldly that if there was no monster killing people in the original film, we viewers would still have been mesmerized by how different, how alien, all of it was.
Today, the director of the original film, Ridley Scott, is allowing us to peer into the past and see the answers many of us have eagerly debated over too many beers and too much imagination.
Walking out of the theater a week ago, I almost wish I hadn’t looked. Don’t meet your heroes, the expression goes. But we asked for PROMETHEUS, and COVENANT, and have gotten what we asked for.
Before I continue with this, be warned. There is no way to have a reasonable discussion about what troubles my movie-going soul with these prequels, especially the most recent one, without giving away every plot point. To wit:
No, I really mean it. I’m going to talk about everything. If you haven’t seen the film, but want to, then stop reading now. Come back later; we’ll leave the lights on.
Last chance, turn back, abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
OK, so, here we go:
Scott has borrowed much for these last two films from the universe created by the Dark Horse comics of the 1980s and 90s, especially in the overall look and tone. One such series, Aliens: Hive (1992), takes place on the aliens’ homeworld. Their “hives” look very much like what we see when the Prometheus lands in its self-titled film. (More on the concept of an alien homeworld later.) As well, the idea of a black liquid with properties to transform living creatures into aliens themselves (or something nightmarishly akin to them) was very similar to what I think is the most horrifying of the comics series, Aliens: Labyrinth (1996), where we watch, via flashbacks, passengers of a crashed ship full of families taken prisoner and experimented on for years by the xenomorphs. Humans are exposed to the contents of a pool of black goo, with which the aliens are trying to save their own species. I’ve seen nothing on the web or elsewhere comparing Scott’s films to some of these earlier comics (and there are quite a few). Look some of them up (or ask Ned Utzig, he has them all). As the comic series evolved, you’ll see how the world(s) they created are driving the look and tone of the new Scott films.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s pretty cool, especially for fans of the comics, of which I’m one.
One plot point (short-lived as it might have been in the comics) Scott did not follow, and which begins my path of angst, was the concept of the Engineers. In ALIEN, the first encounter with the long-dead pilot of the alien ship is a memorable image, with its elephantine eyes and trunk, its body nearly fossilized, so long had it been in its seat. The original script by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett called for this creature to be just that, one of an alien race unfortunate enough to encounter the xenomorphs before us humans. This hapless being was commonly referred to as the “Space Jockey” before the recent Scott films were released, and others of its kind made an occasional appearance in the Dark Horse comics.
In PROMETHEUS, we discover the truth. The elephant-like attributes of this large creature are, in fact, a spacesuit and helmet, worn by a very human-looking person. An individual whose people happened to have created, well, humans (or so this is strongly implied in PROMETHEUS). Later these humans – us – created robots, one of whom, named David….
But I get ahead of myself.
Seeing the crew of the Nostromo, even now, climbing onto the massive bridge of the alien ship, coming across the preserved body of such a uniquely alien creature in the pilot seat with a hole in its chest, the rows upon rows of creepy eggs filled with the first stage of such a nerve-shattering race of creatures, never fails to fill me with wonder. This is one way an encounter with an alien race could be like (if you’re a pessimist). Wondrous, alien (yes, I’m overusing this word but it’s the key to everything I’m talking about, trust me), and religiously demonic in its different-ness.
The back story of this scene, though obvious in some ways (Space Jockeys encountered an egg or two somewhere, were infested and died, but not before leaving a warning to others who might find their ship to stay far, far away). We wondered about the worlds they came from, their technology.
Much of these questions Scott’s first two prequels touch on. The sets he creates are indeed wondrous and just plain cool. As the story progresses through the two films, however, and the ending of ALIEN: COVENANT reveals to us how the xenomorph we all know and fear came to be, it makes… well, it makes me walk out of the theater with brother Paul in a quiet, somber mood.
I told you there were SPOLIERS HERE, go away!…
Because humans, even if indirectly, invented the alien creature which would one day terrorize Ripley and her crew. The Space Jockeys are really human creatures who created our race ages ago. We then created David the android, who begins tinkering with the Engineers’ technology after being marooned for ten years on their planet, genetically refining it to the point where that egg, with the face-hugger inside, is ready and waiting for the crew of the Covenant when they arrive. We created David, so we’re partly responsible for what he made.
If we take Scott’s films as gospel within the ALIEN franchise, the universe suddenly becomes much smaller. If one looks behind the curtain of humanity, there’s a race of pissed off scientists with no moral fiber who eventually decide they don’t like us anymore. Assume for the moment they are human, perhaps more than we are. So, the wondrous, magical, frightening alien landscape introduced in the original film is not alien at all. It’s our past, and our future.
And that’s my gripe: Why do so many recent filmmakers seem to think that humans are, not only the center of the universe, but the only thing in it worth any effort to talk about? I’m thinking about the awesome movie INTERSTELLAR (2014), which was a trip and a half, no question, with a great story and stunning visuals, but (another SPOLIER coming, folks) ended with the revelation that the mystical, highly-advanced race helping humanity was actually the main character of the film. Again, the message is: it’s just us out there folks, just us.
How absolutely sad—and boring. We cannot be the only intelligent species among so many uncountable stars. I’ve watched sci-fi movies my whole life. I’ve read countless books and stories, have written science fiction myself. Why? Because I want to know what’s out there. If what’s out there is just us, even repackaged a little… I might as well start watching and writing documentaries.
I should reiterate, ALIEN: COVENANT (and to a much lesser degree, PROMETHEUS) is a good movie. It is well done and intense and many people not as vested emotionally in the source material (or perhaps even them) will like where he is going with the origin story. After all, there are many positives to it as well.
For instance, “the company” (Weyland-Yutani) has been trying to get their hands on an alien in every movie since 1979. They want to weapon-ize it. This concept seemed strange to me with the original few films, because these are not weapons but intelligent creatures. The introduction of the Engineers’ experiments, the black goo which transforms any living being from at very DNA core into something otherworldly and violent, is what W-T is after. The new films show that they have known about the alien technology for decades, assuming David the android kept reporting back his findings until he became marooned on the Engineers’ home planet and began his mad scientist work.
At the end of ALIEN: COVENANT, David commandeers the title ship, loaded with two thousand colonists in blissful cryo-sleep, and resumes its voyage for the planet to which they’d originally been heading. There will be a third film, I’m sure of it, and there we will see what fans of the Dark Horse comics have already known: there is an alien homeworld. Not belonging to the Engineers, but the xenomorphs themselves. Thing is, it will be created by David harvesting the colonists to grow a population of alien creatures, with an entire planet as his laboratory. At some point, an Engineer ship will arrive (or perhaps already be there), and someone will load it with the eggs laid by the David-engineered queen (if Scott sticks to the James Cameron interpretation), likely destined for Earth. The pilot will eventually be impregnated by a facehugger and crash the ship on the moon LV-426 in order to save humanity. Something like that.
It’ll work, and likely be done well. The story will have come full circle, and many people will think it was clever. It is clever, I do not argue that, but it’s not for me. Once the circle is closed, the dark, mysterious wonder of the original O’Bannon and Geiger ALIEN universe will have been shrunk to a far too manageable chunk. My universe, the one I see when standing outside looking at the stars, is much bigger, and much more frightening.
I appreciate what Ridley Scott and his writers are doing. For my part, I’m going to go home, and discard their answers; let the curtain drop behind my childhood nightmares. When I watch ALIEN, and ALIENS (1986), and pretend ALIEN3 (1992) didn’t happen, I will appreciate what PROMETHEUS and COVENANT represent: one more beer-tinged theory with a major budget to back it up. I will disregard it, and look at the Space Jockey bathed in Dallas’s flashlight with the same wonder I felt when first watching ALIEN. That was the original script’s intent, after all.
Sometimes, it’s better never to meet your heroes, or look for answers when the living, breathing mystery can be far more frightening. Because when you ask, someone will answer, and you might not like what they have to say.
© Copyright 2017 by Daniel G. Keohane