Old Dressings, Big Ideas: Prometheus and Alien: Covenant

I was and am a big fan of Prometheus.

I saw it on blu ray, months after the rancor of the Internet response had become calcified.  My expectations were low, figuring it was another middling but proficient late period Ridley Scott film, but what I ended up watching was a gorgeous, sumptuous, and vital science fiction film that used an R rating to its full effect.  Also, it was grappling with some very big ideas that tie into religion and mythology, as well as centuries of literary contemplation.

Most of the complaints that I have seen center on the stupidity of the characters.  Millburn, the biologist, engaging with a weird snake-worm like it was a puppy, or Vickers and Shaw running away from the giant croissant-shaped ship that was rolling like a wheel towards them, but not running to the side.  I think a lot of the complaints were also about how it didn’t directly tie into Alien (the planet in Prometheus is LV-223 instead of LV-426). Also…plot holes, which is the type of stuff that I barely register when I am watching a movie I like.

The thing is, I have watched this movie four or five times (and I just watched again it last night), and none of this detracts from the film for me.  Like, at all.  Every once in a while, some movie will have a collective response that I find myself utterly baffled by, and this is probably one of the most pronounced instances of that phenomenon.  It is not that I am going to go out of my way to defend the actions of the characters, because, quite frankly, the biologist getting over-excited about encountering a new species seems like a non-issue.  I also don’t think that I’d have the wherewithal to figure out which direction I should run when I know that a metric fuckton of space ship is going to crush me to death.  I’m just gonna run as fast as I can in the opposite direction.

What stands out to me is that Scott has ideas that he wants to explore.  He’s returning to science fiction after 30 years to explore those ideas, and he’s always wanted to explore the origin of the Space Jockey since the original Alien was released.  And Prometheus, for all its dumb biologists and leaps of logic, manages to develop a compelling new thread about creation and destruction.  It is a movie that tackles the accidental miracles of existence, and how people are compelled to create life and death.  Not only does it explore these themes with tremendous style and care, but it also managed to create a remarkable new central character in David.

Ripley was the hero of the original films, representing courage, compassion, and resilience in the face of a horrific being. What these new films do is offer the source of that being, and that it is born from the dual impulse of creation and destruction.  David is a product of humanity’s dual impulses, and throughout Prometheus, he both serves and self-actualizes, making choices that are born from curiosity.  He represents the creation that knows his maker, and the humans on the expedition of the Prometheus are in search of what he already possesses.  He knows who his God is, and so the next phase is to create his own life, to explore the next phase.  He’s “more human than human” to borrow a line from Blade Runner, and sees the people that surround him as test subjects in his own journey of discovery.

But all of this is simply alluded to in Prometheus.   It becomes direct text in Alien: Covenant.

Alien: Covenant is a direct sequel, picking up on the story 10 years after the events of Prometheus.  And I think it is a weaker film in terms of execution.  I still like it, but what hinders it is a clumsy last half that must meet the demands of of a typical Alien franchise entry.  I’ll get the criticisms out of the way first, because the process by which the familiar monsters enter the picture feels like a series of compromises that Scott made.  The timeline in the film is jarring, as facehuggers and monsters develop at accelerated rates in a way that seems to trip up the pacing of the film and results in repetitive scenes that call attention to the screenwriting following the well-worn gears of the series.

To reverse this line of thinking, everything else works for me just fine.  It’s clear that Scott and Fassbender are quite captivated by David’s story, because that aspect of the film is brilliant.  In some ways, I’d say that this segue from the first film into the second is as smooth as James Whale’s Frankenstein folds into Bride of Frankenstein.  They feel like two parts of a whole, and the the development of the David character is perhaps as accomplished as Ripley from the first film into Aliens.  David’s motivations are complex and insane, but they are communicated in such a way as to almost make sense from an emotional standpoint.  He’s a horrific creature, being responsible for so much death, but he’s a lens that zeroes in on the antithesis of Ripley’s humanity.  The fact that he has taken ancient engineering and spent a decade tinkering with it to create a cruel perfection is a human impulse, as human as Ripley caring for Newt.  He’s a murderer, but he’s also the product of a murderous and cruel species.  It’s an interesting theme that is picked up from the original set of films, in that there are always humans (and the corporation of Weyland-Yutani as a whole) who want to weaponize and refine the Alien, and it also provides something of an explanation as to why there are always people (and androids) obsessed with these creatures.

The over-arching thematic elements here of seeking our creator, being creators ourselves, and pairing that with the impulse to create a means of mass death through our search for understanding, is so firmly and elegantly communicated in both of these films that I can’t help but consider them something of a miracle. They have weak elements, to be sure, and while I still prefer the first two original films in the series, I really do believe that Prometheus and Alien: Covenant form a fascinating, and sometimes masterful exploration of some very big concepts.  Scott doesn’t have the same effortless handle of the themes and the execution of tropes that he so wonderfully balanced in the first Alien, but I admire and am kind of in awe of what he has managed to craft from a tired franchise.  And that’s just it; Scott couldn’t make these films and explore these themes in an original film in today’s marketplace, so he’s used the branding of the Alien series as a means to make some very exciting and interesting science fiction on a broad, stylish canvas.  I am grateful that Scott has done so, as I truly believe that these films are worthy of admiration.