Ridley Scott, who is turning 80 this year, is back to unleashing his favorite monster. He is in the middle of an alien trilogy that means to adapt horror, a ‘70s genre, to the social realities of millennials. This time around, young, attractive couples are the human explorers setting out to colonize the universe.
No more of the old, individualistic, worker-by-contract stuff we saw in the original “Alien” of 1979, nor the corporate-industrial power we saw afterward. No, it’s a new age of individualism, which Scott indicates leads to catastrophe.
The story is set about a century into the future, when massive corporations can send into space large colonization ships full of equipment to build and live. Thousands of human embryos safe in fridges in hopes of kick-starting the human race on another planet. An artificial-intelligence runs the ship and an android will take care of the crew during the long voyage.
The human crew is small, not even 20 people, but they are all couples. The captain, for example, is married to the terra-forming expert, who is supposed to use exorbitant scientific powers to tame whatever wild world they find. They’re all young, friendly, and have parties with booze and gambling. We’re not talking about lifeless experts here, defined by their job or duties. These people are fun-loving and life-affirming, to be sure. They all go into a state of suspended animation for the duration of the voyage.
The New ‘Alien’ Echoes the Old ‘Alien’
The story repeats as much of the original “Alien” movie as it can. The entire trilogy is supposed to lead up to that future. In that sense, it’s bound for disaster, since that future is grim. But when the accidents of the first story are repeated, they are no longer accidents, are they? The coincidences become meaningful.
A ship is diverted from its mission and receives a beacon signaling intelligence and maybe life. This signal is unambiguously human. The crew therefore go to an alien planet to explore an alien ship. What they find horrifies them. In their horror, they almost lose their individuality. They are mere bodies moving, life willing itself to live when threatened with extinction.
Why does this initially friendly, ambitious journey have to turn this way? We cannot leave it at mere accident, because this is a story contrived by an intelligent mind. Notice in what ways the very setting predicts and prepares the plot. Aside from the shocking experience of one fearful surprise after another, there is the necessity concealed within the art of movie-making. This crew does not know what they’re about, although they are trying to become an origin of life. The planet they’re supposed to go to is called Origin. Well, do they know the true origin of life? Can they face it? thus the accidental detour turns out to be essential to understanding life—and leads to horror.
Interpreting Marriage as Isolation, Like Space
The first thing to notice: there are no children. These are not really families. They are suitably diverse in all the ways visible to the naked eye, such as skin color and sexual attraction. There is even a Christian among them who’s a downer at parties, as well as a Hollywood-certified redneck.
But this is not a society. Scott intimates that couples only care about themselves. Even in public, they retain their private identity. Scott shows that in times of trouble each will turn to his complement and neglect the common good. Catastrophe will come of this self-love that can only extend to one’s mate, but not to others. These people are, unwittingly, each other’s enemies.
Even so, it makes sense to send couples into space. People get lonely facing the lifeless, hostile immensity of the universe. No one yet has spent years in space. Maybe people would go crazy in this kind of solitary confinement. Erotic attachment may make it tolerable. Space is supposed to give these people what they think they want. No more social oppression or even mild disapproval. Maybe space is the ultimate non-judgmental environment.
Further, these people are all married. One wonders what marriage might mean. In America, lots of married people get divorced and, not infrequently, it gets ugly. Why wouldn’t this happen in space? Well, something has changed. Marriage has again been tied up to man’s ultimate destiny. Hence the name of the ship, Covenant. At some level, these people are living out the human destiny of sexual reproduction against a cosmic backdrop that’s supposed to solemnize what in merely mundane situations can quickly collapse into pettiness and tragedy.
A Shockingly Moralistic Genre, Horror
Yet something worse than tragedy comes. The perfectly innocent social situations and social types that are beset by monsters in fact deserve punishment—or else they bring it on themselves, because they lack prudence. Either way, they are not as perfect as they might seem. Neither is the world their playground. Psychologically, their blithe attitude damns them. They would rather die than learn the ugly truth about life.
So the horror genre is shockingly moralistic. The setup of scientific power and lightly worn prosperity alone displays itself headed for disaster. All it takes is a skeptical attitude, the opposite of these characters’. I don’t mean sarcastic cleverness of feeling superior to the protagonists, but a searching skepticism of the situation in which we all live, even the clever, sarcastic people.
We live by scientific power we do not control and by a kind of friendliness that is not really political, not really social, not really friendship. We’re nice, I suppose, is the way to talk about us, and our science makes us comfortable. “Alien: Covenant” shows that niceness is a suicidal way to go through life. Niceness means not noticing anything strange about yourself, others, or the universe. That way, you never have to fear.
Niceness Can Get You Killed
Niceness, the correct attitude in America, is what gets these characters killed. Had they had a couple of gloomy, maladjusted types on board, had they listened to any of them, or even to the sarcastic clever types, things would have gone better. Why don’t they? Because they’d have to realize that there’s something deeply wrong with them. Self-awareness would be required, and that’s just not available.
Somehow, being nice is not the same as being mortal. Nice people become capable of horrible things in their horror. They lose their independence, they become as what they see. That’s what the trailers are supposed to show—anticipation of ugly things. Quick cuts of nightmare sequences that do not quite make sense and a desperately affectless singing of pop music reminds us we’re all whistling past the graveyard.
The last element of the setting that shows you what terrible thing is coming is the ship’s cargo. Scott shows these perfectly nice people who party and are well-adjusted. They are also transporting thousands of human embryos. So both humanity’s potential survival and the old-fashioned way of reproduction are present on the ship. But they are separated in an incredibly powerful way by science. Scott suggests scientific power has removed awareness of mortality from these characters by removing the fearful power of giving life from the bodies of the women. Human beings have gone too far. Payback’s coming. If Scott does not catch hell from feminists, he’s pulled a fast one on them.
We Are the Monsters
This seems to be the Jewish counterpart to the Greek insight of the previous movie, “Prometheus,” named for the Titan who brought technology and power to human beings. That movie depicted human life as invented by a race of aliens who do genetic engineering. This myth has now become a reality: We are those aliens. The earth Covenant leaves behind is genetic-engineering human life.
But how is “Covenant” Jewish? The Covenant recalls the teaching of the Bible, that God created a world habitable to man. Absent sin, life was a garden. Sinful, mortal beings that we are now, we live in hope for redemption.
Well, that’s supposed to doom us in the horror movies. We are not hard-headed and hard-hearted enough to face up to an essentially hostile universe. Not just soft Millennials, but everyone who believes in Revelation—everyone refuses to see how horrible life is. That is the deepest part of Scott’s criticism and why he has resorted to horror. The alien trilogy is moving to its necessary conclusion: the ugly truth about science and about life.