2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018
Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Alien: Covenant: the contemporary horror of AI
“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race…It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete, and would be superseded."
—Steven Hawking, English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author
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Science fiction is one of the earliest movie genres. Georges Méliès’ silent feature A Trip to the Moon (1902), together with Auguste and Louis Lumières’ shorts, such as “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory” (1895), are typically considered the key movies in the divide that French movie critic Andre Bazin later famously characterized as between “those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality.” While Bazin clearly sided with the latter, the placement of faith in the image by the directors of science fiction movies has allowed science fiction movies to address the most pressing social and philosophical issues of contemporary times. For example, produced during the 1920s in a politically divided Germany, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) focused on the Marxist struggle of workers in a capitalist society. James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) explored both the hubris of the male scientist described in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) as well as the repressive sexuality of Western culture. Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) advocated for a liberal belief in the collective submission to a technocratic elite.
Of course, faith in the image has oftentimes resulted in science fiction movies that have reveled in the sensuousness of the image and hence in the excitement of a visual adventure, especially with the technological advancement of special effects and the introduction of digital production. Where, for example, the innovative images and musical sounds of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) coincided with the film’s philosophical investigation of human evolution, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) created a pleasurable sense of wonder through light and sound that underscored the film’s childlike nostalgia for a simpler time. The science fiction adventures of the 1930s Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials found a visually enhanced equivalent in George Lucas’ THX 1138 (1971) and his later space opera adventures beginning with Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) and continuing through The Force Awakens (2015), Rogue One (2016) and The Last Jedi (2017).
The contemporary resurgence of science fiction movies arguably exceeds the 1950s, the classical period in the United States for disaster-focused, science fiction movies. These contemporary movies often dramatize, through the frequent depiction of an increasingly global and technologically remote cultural environment, a collective unease with and fear of metaphysical concerns. While science fiction franchises such as X-Men and Planet of the Apes serve as both explicit fantasy adventures and implicit political commentary, movies such as Interstellar (2014). Arrival (2016) and Midnight Special (2016) are speculative essays on highly philosophical, cultural concerns. That many movies, such as Autómata (2014), Ex Machina (2014), Chappie (2015), Marjorie Prime (2017) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), focus on artificial intelligence highlights how human identity is itself at issue.
Paradoxically, the digital technology that has enhanced the special effects of science fiction movies is also the source of this anxiety. The global shift from analogue to digital and the resulting wholesale reduction of content to zeros and ones was reflected in the commercially successful The Matrix (1999) as well as its predecessors, Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Dark City (1998). This shift has meant that there is no longer an inherent meaning to content. Instead, pixels in this “post-humanist” cinema reproduce, rather than document, the reality that Bazin had favored. Moreover, in the context of a digital environment, it means that human intelligence and behavior are increasingly understood as a pattern of mathematical formulas—or probabilities known as algorithms. Enter AI. The contemporary insistence upon quantitative analysis has resulted in an increased blurring of the line between the organic and the inorganic and between the individual and the collective. Science fiction movies increasingly reflect our unease as a result of such blurring. Of course, that blurring benefits the owners of a capitalist system by reducing workers to programmable, efficient, reproducible units so as to exercise control and maximize profit. Mary Shelley’s cautionary story of Dr. Frankenstein’s hubris and the disappearance of a sublime nature finds its technological analogue in the politics of AI.
The Alien franchise demonstrates the development of this anxiety about historic changes in Western culture and capitalism, in particular. Beginning in 1979 with Alien and coinciding in the US with the end of liberalism and the rise of Reaganism with its advocacy of a “free market” economy, the franchise initially attracted attention as a result of the unusual mix of horror and science fiction, such as the celebrated chest-bursting scene, as well as the central role played by the then unknown actor Sigourney Weaver as the film’s hero Ripley. With Aliens (1986), Alien3 (1992), and Alien: Resurrection (1997), critical attention increasingly focused on feminist interpretations of this franchise. Academic studies, for example, viewed the chest-bursting scene in Alien as a commentary upon birthing and Ripley’s protective caring for the child Newt (Carrie Henn) in Aliens as a reenactment of the myth of maternal nurturing.
Of course, too, the writers and directors responsible for these episodes in the franchise played a central role in the development of its mythology. Thus, the feminism of Aliens, with its seeming advocacy of the empowerment of women, is inseparable from U.S. director James Cameron, who had just directed Terminator (1984) and who depicted Ripley in Aliens as an enraged mother who fights and succeeds in killing the equally combative alien queen during the climatic, last scene. Likewise, the reconciliation during the last scene in Alien: Resurrection of Ripley, now a clone of human and alien DNA, and Annalee Call (Winona Ryder), an android, is surely the result of the temperament of its French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Following Alien: Resurrection he next directed the whimsical fantasy Amélie (2001).
Throughout these films artificial intelligence has played a role. The villain in Alien is the science officer Ash (English actor Ian Holm) who overrides the quarantine protocol by allowing on board the alien, studies without emotion this “perfect organism,” and is revealed midway through the film to be an android. The ship’s computer, which is nicknamed “mother” and is modeled after HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is also a villain in its blindly carrying out the wishes of its programmer, the Weyland Corporation. Not surprisingly, Ripley, the film’s hero, eventually incinerates “mother” with a flamethrower when “mother” – “Bitch!” – refuses to turn off the ship’s self-destruct mechanism.
In contrast, in Aliens Bishop (U.S. actor Lance Henriksen), whom the crew knows from the outset is an android, unexpectedly turns out to be good, risking his “life” to retrieve the marine dropship and later saving Newt as well as helping Ripley defeat the alien queen. While Bishop, as an android, returns briefly in Alien3 to help Ripley (and then asks that Ripley disconnect or “kill” him), Bishop also appears during the film’s final scene as the android’s human creator who unsuccessfully tries to persuade Ripley not to kill the alien growing within her. Thus, the film openly reverses our expectation, shifting our sympathy from human to android.
Alien: Resurrection reinforces that shift. Once again, we learn midway through the film that mercenary crewmember Call is, in fact, an advanced android (created by an earlier generation of androids). As Ripley observes, “I should have known. No human being is that humane.” Displaying empathy for humans, seeking to prevent the aliens from reaching Earth and reprogramming the ship’s computer from “father,” which the military scientists control, to “mother” (“father’s dead, ass hole”), Call represents the franchise’s most optimistic view of AI. Successful in defeating the aliens and their human benefactors, Call and Ripley descend and gaze upon the Earth’s beautiful, verdant landscape and openly ponder what comes next.
Call: What happens now?
Ripley: I don't know. I'm a stranger here myself.
It is the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, and by extension the military, which threatens humanity in these films. The franchise increasingly views AI as “more human than humans.”
Years later, with Prometheus (2012), and Alien: Covenant (2017), the franchise returned to the direction of Alien’s Ridley Scott. While these films are ostensibly prequels in terms of their narratives, they sharply differ from the earlier films in their focus upon and view of AI. This shift is apparent in the promotional video for Prometheus titled “Peter Weyland at TED2023: I Will Change the World” (2012). Conceived, in part, by Ridley Scott and directed by his son, Luke Scott, this 7-minute video shows a young Peter Weyland (the UK born, Australian actor Guy Pearce) strutting upon a stage surrounded by thousands of admirers and articulating his apocalyptic vision of the future. If Prometheus stole from the gods and brought fire to humans, then the history of humankind, according to Weyland, consists of the ever-faster development of other “pieces of technology.” Moreover, his political vision is wholly consistent with our contemporary digital and global world—an entrepreneurial, free market environment, which is currently centered in Silicon Valley and in which everything is possible and nothing forbidden. Strutting on a vast stage like a well-dressed Mark Zuckerberg or other leader of technology and advocating the continued creation of “cybernetic individuals” indistinguishable from humans but that many have criticized as “unnatural,” Weyland announces with pride:
“We are the gods now…We wield incredible power…. Rules, restrictions, laws, ethical guidelines, all but forbidding us from moving forwards…. These rules exist because the people who created them were afraid of what would happen if they didn’t. Well, I am not afraid. For those of you who know me, you will be aware by now that my ambition is unlimited…. My name is Peter Weyland. And if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to change the world.”
Human uniqueness, organic limitations and Kantian laws are simply irrelevant in Weyland’s envisioned “new age” era. Instead, Weyland evokes the same male hubris that had motivated the fictional Dr. Frankenstein to create his monster. Mary Shelley, however, in her novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus had criticized such imperialistic hubris and instead affirmed a Romantic belief in the sublime of the natural world and its limitations. Likewise, director James Whale in his classic Hollywood films, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, had criticized male hubris by depicting the “monster” as sympathetic, notwithstanding endings in which the “monster” is destroyed. In contrast, the latest two episodes in the Alien franchise position Dr. Frankenstein and his monster as mutually evil and utterly without redemption. The AI mythology of capitalism is itself the source of the horror.
Scott’s prequels continue to focus upon the empowerment of women. Thus, archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and crewmember Janet Daniels (Katherine Waterston) are the central human characters in these films, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, respectively. Nevertheless, both films also focus upon AI in the form of a male android, David (Michael Fassbender). Moreover, both mix horror with science fiction in expressing the contemporary fear of annihilation of the human species through capitalism’s new mythology of a secular religion—the science of artificial intelligence and its belief in the coming “singularity.” It’s a horror that dates at least as far back as W. B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” (1919) in which Yeats, following the industrial age’s “war to end all wars,” had envisioned how “[t]hings fall apart; the centre cannot hold” and asks, “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, [s]louches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Set mostly within a vast artificial structure that resembles a dark, Plato-like cave with seemingly endless corridors, the first prequel, Prometheus, articulates that fear through the actions of its seemingly secondary character, the android David. While loyally serving a dying Peter Weyland, David nearly succeeds in killing the central, human protagonist, Elizabeth Shaw. Bettering even Ripley, however, who in Alien 3 threw herself into a fire rather than give birth to an unwanted alien fetus, Shaw triumphs by removing from her womb—with a female-voiced medical pod machine that she recalibrates given its design for male patients only—the alien fetus that David has caused to be implanted within her. She also later chooses to rescue David in order that she might continue in her quest to understand the “why” of her creators’ near annihilation of the human species. Like a future explorer setting off to find a “new world,” Shaw in the film’s final scene triumphantly embarks upon her continued exploration of space in order to find her makers’ home planet. While David questions her for not simply returning to earth, Shaw boasts how her desire to know the “why” makes her human in contrast to David, a mere robot. Indeed, as Shaw asserts that she deserves to know the “why,” the film’s music evokes the stirring call to exploration of such space adventures as Star Trek, the television series and movie franchise, and, like Captain Kirk’s “final log entry” to Star Trek, the film concludes with Shaw’s “final report” in which she identifies herself as the “last survivor” and records for posterity that she’s “still searching.”
Ironically, however, Shaw’s spirit of adventure is reflective of the male hubris that Mary Shelley had criticized in her novel. The incessant need to explore and satisfy one’s curiosity readily becomes for Shelley synonymous with male, imperialistic ambitions.
“[I]f no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.”
Likewise, if implicitly, Prometheus’ ending in which the human spirit is triumphant is undercut by the film’s underlying, bleak emotional trajectory. If, for example, the film seemingly vindicates Shaw’s heroism through her continued religious faith—symbolized by the cross which she initially receives from her father and which she later retrieves from David as she’s about to embark upon her quest—it also questions the source of her faith. Shaw only retrieves that cross when David persuades her that he can help her to leave the planet so as to satisfy her scientific curiosity. Moreover, Shaw’s decision to rescue David so as to enlist him as her pilot for her continued quest is placed in context by, in hindsight, how casually she learns, and then overlooks, that David knowingly caused the death of her supposed lover and fellow archeologist, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). In persuading Shaw to trust him, David’s comment to Shaw on how they’ve had their “differences” is a humorous understatement given how he has consistently sabotaged the mission.
Shaw is a feminist whose obsessiveness equals the male of the human species, including Holloway, who brags that he’d do “everything and anything” in his scientific quest for answers, and David, the male artificial equivalent. Thus, Weyland introduces Shaw along with Holloway as representative of the return of Prometheus who will “give mankind equal footing with the gods” and chooses Shaw, in particular, for the mission because she is a “true believer,” an ambiguous reference to both her religious and scientific faiths. Shaw is, in fact, identified with David throughout the film. Her scientific quest for knowledge and her obsessive curiosity align her with David, who obsessively—even as he feigns interest in advancing the project of his “father,” Weyland—experiments in order to know the “why” of the black liquid from which the titular aliens evolve. Like David who, observing the deaths of the humanoid aliens in recorded holographs, dismissively concludes, “Mortal after all,” Shaw identifies them as “engineers,” underscoring their secular role, in her view, as the builders of machines, in this case the human species. In her quest to know the “why,” Shaw evidences the same hubris that impels the film’s “mad scientist,” Weyland, to create his “son” David as well as seek his own, god-like immortality.
Violent evolution, not religious faith, is at the film’s center. The opening scene in its violence parodies Darwin’s science of evolution, as we watch how humans evolved thousands of years ago from the engineers, and near the end of the film the only surviving engineer evolves violently from the alien to which the infertile Shaw had given birth—ironically from the engineers’ own black liquid. There’s violence, too, in the human evolutionary process from one generation to the next. While Shaw chooses to wear Holloway’s ring following his violent death, her later placement of her father’s cross around her neck emotionally resonates far more. Shaw is suffocatingly too close, however, to her dead, archaeologist father, and consequently remains emotionally distant from her supposed lover and fellow scientist Holloway. In contrast, Weyland’s daughter, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), openly hates her father for his refusal to die. “A king has his reign and then he dies. It’s inevitable,” she coldly tells him. It’s the natural order of things. He ignores her, and instead goes off with his “son” David as a guide to meet his maker. While Vickers will engage in a sexual encounter with Janek (Idris Elba), the captain of the Prometheus, she consents only to “prove” that she’s not a robot. She, too, is stunted in her growth.
“As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods. They kill us for their sport,” Gloucester famously observed in King Lear, a tale about another father who also refused to go quietly into the night and is then driven mad by his daughters. Prometheus likewise narrates a story of fathers and daughters, with Shaw playing Cordelia to Vickers’ Goneril. These are secular characters trapped within a wholly materialist world that doesn’t—and cannot—distinguish between good and evil or beauty and ugliness. “How do you know [paradise is] beautiful?” the young Shaw asks her father in her dream that David watches. “Cause that's what I choose to believe,” he answers. The human species possesses the possibility of a will to believe in beauty but too often is obsessed with finding scientific certainty. In contrast, its digital creations, such as David, resulting from the science of enlightenment, are inherently valueless, zeros and ones, and hence not capable of distinguishing between values—or, for that matter, perceiving any qualitative difference between human and artificial intelligence. If, as Weyland observes, David, who will never grow old and die, has no soul with which to appreciate his “gifts,” Prometheus suggests that the same may sadly also be true of humans. Evoking the classical, musical strains that informed the stasis of civilization’s advanced technology in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, Prometheus ends as it began with Frédéric Chopin’s “Prelude for Piano No. 15 in D Flat Major” (1838). Civilization is no guarantor of understanding or sublimity.
Like “Peter Weyland at TED2023” (2012) that had preceded Prometheus, the short promotional video “Alien: Covenant | Prologue: The Crossing” (2017) preceded Alien: Covenant. This 2½ -minute video that Ridley Scott directed focuses not upon Shaw or any of the other human characters but instead upon David, who narrates:
“After we made contact with the engineers, the Prometheus was destroyed…. But I escaped with Elizabeth on one of their ships. I was badly injured on our mission. She put me back together. I never experienced such compassion—certainly not from Mr. Weyland or from any human…We were finally going to meet our creator.”
Our expectation is that Shaw and David will together meet their creator. Yet after placing Shaw in a hypersleep pod, David ends his narration as he arrives alone at the engineers’ planet. He quotes briefly from the sonnet “Ozymandias” (1818) by Percy Shelley, the Romantic poet and husband of Mary Shelley. “Look on my works and despair,” David intones. There’s dissonance between David’s empathetic view of Elizabeth and his cold, portentous voice quoting from Shelly’s sonnet as he looks condescendingly down upon the engineers’ planet. Percy Shelley’s sonnet conjures up the “colossal Wreck” of the statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II with its “two vast and trunkless legs of stone.” It speaks, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to the transience of both human life and art as well as the inevitable failure of male hubris. Alien: Covenant examines that hubris in the context of the supposedly evolutionary development of the human species in the form its now central protagonist and AI progeny, David.
Alien: Covenant repeats many of Alien’s plot elements –
Nevertheless, Alien: Covenant’s thematic focus is entirely different. Thus, Alien: Covenant opens with a prologue to the first prequel movie, Prometheus. This prologue depicts the “birth” of David to a middle-aged Peter Weyland, who then disappears from the movie. It also shows us a highly civilized human culture. Aligning that culture with Weyland, art and science blur as we gaze upon not only Weyland’s AI creation but also some of Western culture’s most valued, aesthetic artifacts—Piero della Francesca’s “The Nativity” painting, Michelangelo's sculpture of the biblical David (the origin for the name of Weyland’s AI), Carlo Bugatti’s Throne Chair, and a Steinway grand piano. Refusing to believe that the birth of the human species was simply a matter of “biological chance,” Weyland, David’s self-described “father,” insists that the “only question that matters” is to discover his own creator. All art, including that before us, is simply a means at seeking the answer. The universe with its many creations is a problem that the enlightened Weyland will solve. Weyland is a contemporary Dr. Frankenstein, a capitalist leader of the industrial revolution who solipsistically insists upon his ability to understand and control his universe.
Not surprisingly, David, Weyland’s creation, displays that same hubris. Indeed, he will surpass his father’s hubris, initially questioning in the prologue his father’s mortality and later pitying him for that mortality. While Weyland selects the composer Richard Wagner but then criticizes as a “little anemic” David’s playing on a Steinway piano of Wagner’s “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla,” the Covenant’s computer during the film’s last scene will play a fully orchestrated version. An updated rendering of the myth of the ancient, Nordic gods, David represents in contemporary mythology the triumph of AI with the arrival of the feared singularity. Like Weyand with his artifacts of high culture, David, too, reflects how culture is no guarantor of empathetic understanding, let alone sublimity. An exceptionally gifted flute player who learned his skill from the engineers and who ironically plays a musical ode to the deceased Shaw as he’s about to leave the engineers’ home planet, David is heartless in his will to create. Having killed Shaw, who had shown “such kindness” and empathy toward him, he prepares to kill Daniels, whom he acknowledges was worthy of the love—or duty—with which his double, the android Walter, had served her. Symbolically, David literally uses his flute as an instrument with which to nearly kill Walter, his “brother” who has refused to join him.
David’s hubris is implicit in his quoting the sonnet “Ozymandias” as he drops the canisters of black liquid. He critiques the hubris of the engineers’ civilization given its visual identification with the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II and the Roman city of Pompeii—the repeated images of grand structures in ruins, the beheaded statues and the piles of bodies still strewn on the ground. Yet his gesture in choosing to destroy violently that civilization (or arguably another seeded civilization of the engineers), like the engineers’ own intended destruction of the human species, evokes the often-implacable God of the Old Testament. As cold as Michelangelo's aesthetically perfect sculpture after which he has named himself, David in the selection of his name ironically underscores at the same time the futility of his gesture. Michelangelo’s sculpture of David, a product of Western culture’s re-birth, namely the European Renaissance, will disappear, too. That David mistakenly attributes the sonnet “Ozymandias” to Lord Byron, another Romantic poet, further underscores the imperfection of David’s vision. A solipsist in his inability to see or feel beyond himself, David can’t understand his own limitations or the limitations that others necessarily place upon us if we are to coexist with them. Presenting himself to the unsuspecting crew of the Covenant as savior from the attacking aliens, he is cloaked so as to resemble the deceased engineers. He, too, is a false god.
David openly evokes the Christian myth of Satan. Seeking to seduce Walter by observing that Walter has symphonies within him and humorously paraphrasing the Bible – “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” – as justification for his evolutionary engineering, David quotes for Walter the celebrated line from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.” Walter, a later but less self-aware android model, prefers to serve. ] In contrast, however, to Milton’s Satan, David remains unsympathetic and lacks any tragic stature. David is morally and emotionally repulsive. David’s AI is intelligence without consciousness, reason without emotion, and unbounded ego without limitation. Identified with Wagner’s “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” from the opera "Das Rheingold,” David’s obsession with creation – the sketches that line his laboratory walls, his repeated effort for 10 years to create the “perfect” alien, his experimentation upon Shaw whose carved out body we see in his lab, and the slight smile that crosses his face when he learns that the Covenant is on a colony mission (“so many good souls”)—evokes the medical experimentation in concentration camps by the Nazis and their obsession with the creation and perpetuation of an Aryan pure race. David’s chemical massacre of the engineers from above both evokes the opening of Triumph of the Will (1935), with Hitler’s descent by plane through the clouds, as well as conjures up the holocaust, the mass annihilations during World War II of innocent civilian populations that were not appropriately pure. David, the next evolutionary step in enlightened capitalism, is horrifyingly fascistic and intolerant of humanity. His destruction of the engineers evokes the Black Death of the middle ages and Ebola of contemporary times in which a plague, without consciousness, kills all living species before it. If David can play the flute, as he boasts to Walter, David remains, however, a digitally created, inorganic character. He is a mechanical reproduction of the human species, and his projected evolutionary recreation of civilization will likewise remain a mere reproduction of life—a pathogen that requires a host with which to reproduce itself and evolve.
Like Prometheus, Alien: Covenant contrasts David with its central, female character, Janet Daniels. Following the prologue that introduces us to David, the film jumps ahead 10 years to 2104, and David does not reappear until about mid-way through the film. Our focus is instead upon the Covenant and its crew, especially Daniels with whom we quickly identify given the early, unexpected death of her husband, the ship’s captain who dies from a “stellar neutrino burst.” In contrast to the room depicted during the prologue, which was white, barren (but for the artifacts of high culture), and with an enormous picture window simulating the outdoors, the interior of the technologically advanced Covenant is less coherent visually. With the slow expansion of its gold colored, thin sails used to generate solar power, the ship resembles a beautiful, living creature. While each crewmember is the best in his or her field, each is also highly idiosyncratic, from the ship’s new captain, Chris Oram (Billy Crudup), a person of religious faith, to the chief pilot, Tennessee (Danny McBride), a cowboy-like character in looks and attitude. Moreover, in contrast to the secular hubris of Weyland underscored during the prologue, the ship’s name, Covenant, evokes the God of the Old Testament who chooses to save the human and animal species from a flood and promises never again to destroy the world. The Covenant is, in fact, filled with married couples—a crew and 2,000 colonists, all of whom are married and in stasis together with 1040 embryos—for a journey to a “new world” identified as the planet Origae-6.
Moreover, where David is associated with Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Daniels is associated with Y. B. Yeats’ lyrical poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (1888). The crewmember in charge of the ship’s terraforming bay, she along with her husband had envisioned building in their new world a cabin on a lake. Her last words to David, whom she mistakenly believes is Walter, are an invitation to join her at that cabin, and David’s failure to know Daniels’ dream of that cabin reveals to her, albeit too late, that he is, in fact, David, not Walter. A youthful Yeats had envisioned such a cabin in the woods, “a small cabin…of clay and wattles made.”
“Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.”
In contrast to the older Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” conveys a Romantic’s vision of nature as sublime and redemptive. It also evokes the transcendentalist Henry Thoreau’s Walden (1854). It’s a vision that acknowledges human limitations and the importance of solitude. It’s wholly secular and yet transcendent in accepting that life is not understandable and is often without a humanly discernable purpose. Where Shaw had insisted on her supposed faith in religion in the form of her father’s cross that she wore around her neck, symbolically Daniels wears around her neck an old-fashioned nail, representative of the cabin that her husband, a more skilled craftsperson, would build with her.
Daniel’s utopian cabin is also contrasted with the religious faith of Oram, who becomes captain only upon the death of Daniel’s husband. Where, for example, Oram openly seeks to impose his will upon the crew in deciding to land upon the unknown planet from which the crew picks up radio signals, even as he poses as a congenial, consensus-building leader, Daniels asks to speak privately with him in her effort to persuade him of his mistake. She repeats that gesture of privacy when she later tells Tennessee that his wife has died. Echoing Weyland’s refusal to believe in “biological chance,” Oram insists that the crew learn from the stellar neutrino burst that has killed the captain and others, since it cannot be a “randomized event” or “bad luck.” He insists that they “navigate the path as it unfolds,” choosing to investigate “planet number 4” based “all the data available.” Daniels, however, like her husband, insists on “free climbing,” without ropes, reflected in the image of her husband in a brief video in which he climbs up a steep mountain face without ropes. She substitutes a responsibility to protect the colonists for Oram’s responsibility to explore. There’s modesty in Daniel’s view expressed to Oram that if it’s too good to be true, then it isn’t true. Daniels’ faith in nature represents enlightenment tempered by a Romantic’s vision. As philosopher Alfred Whitehead noted:
“[T]he nature-poetry of the romantic revival was a protest on behalf of the organic view of nature, and also a protest against the exclusion of value from the essence of matter of fact….The romantic reaction was a protest on behalf of value.”
While Oram speaks of how other crewmembers don’t trust and reject as extremist persons of religious faith, the film rejects instead any faith that adheres to either a wholly mechanistic or human-centric view of the universe. When Daniels later asks that Oram “have faith” in their ability to escape from the planet, she implicitly is asking that he, too, “free fall” with her. Not all is knowable. That David soon seduces Oram by appealing to his inquisitiveness to know suggests the extent to which Oram is unable to do so.
In seeking to find his “makers” and later to become one such “maker,” David, in fact, advocates, like Weyland and Oram, a belief in a wholly rational universe and as such a faith in a designer where there’s ostensibly a design – a watchmaker where there’s a watch. David’s hubris reflects a belief in a universe that’s logical and mechanical, and David simply aspires to become the designer—or god—of that universe. While he deceptively assures the fearful Daniels that “if we’re kind, then the world will be kind,” the film’s narrative rejects that mechanical view, and homo sapiens is not at the center of the universe. The universe will remain unknown. In answer to Gloucester’s despair, Edgar, Gloucester’s son, admonishes his father, who has been blinded as a result of his loyalty to King Lear and had then sought unsuccessfully to kill himself:
“What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence even as their coming hither.
Ripeness is all. Come on.”
The ending of Alien: Covenant is both deeply moving and disturbing. Daniels expresses horror at her helpless realization that AI in the form of the android David has triumphed. Yet our sympathies remain with her not merely because we logically identify with her as a member of the same species but because we, too, possess not merely intelligence but also consciousness, feeling, including empathy, for others. Rejecting success or failure as the measure of a life, the film insists upon life, with its solitude and sublimity, as its own measure.
In 1979 artificial intelligence was barely spoken about outside of military and academic circles. AI technology is now, however, central to our lives. With the increasing disappearance of privacy and the greater reliance upon mathematical algorithms in order to predict and control behavior, it is not surprising that our fear of AI has increased exponentially. As one writer, Yuval Harari, has observed:
“In the 150 years since Charles Darwin published.., the life sciences have come to see organisms as biochemical algorithms. Simultaneously...since Alan Turing formulated the idea of the Turing Machine, computer scientists have learned to engineer increasingly sophisticated electronic algorithms. Dataism puts the two together, pointing out that exactly the same mathematical laws apply to both... Dataism thereby collapses the barrier between animals and machines, and expects electronic algorithms to eventually decipher and outperform biochemical algorithms.”
While Scott’s two prequels revert to the old-fashioned horror genre that Alien had introduced, no longer is the alien species the source of the horror. Instead, AI, a mythic creation of the male of the human species, now represents the franchise’s source of horror. Even Weyland, David’s “father,” experiences that horror in the prologue to Alien: Covenant when he encounters David’s questioning of his maker’s mortality and defensively reacts against that horror by humorously insisting that David serve him afternoon tea.
Like Alien, these prequels offer hope through their depiction of women. In the secularly named Prometheus, Shaw seemingly evidences a continued faith in god while in the religiously named Alien: Covenant, Daniels retains faith in a secular humankind. Moreover, notwithstanding its dystopian vision, Alien: Covenant is implicitly optimistic in its depiction of the human species as continuing to imagine the comforts of home and thereby a place in the universe. While in Alien the message that draws the ship’s crew to the planet turns out to be a warning message not to approach the planet, the “rogue transmission” that draws the Covenant’s crew is John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (1971), a celebrated song about West Virginia. Elizabeth Shaw, whom we view only momentarily as a recorded hologram and who plays the role of a Robinson Crusoe, sings briefly about an imagined paradise, “almost heaven, West Virginia.” These words evoke a desire to return home.
“Blue ridge mountain, Shenandoah river
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze
Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia, mountain mamma
Take me home, country roads.”
Neither Shaw nor Daniels return home, but we can nevertheless enjoy the process of their imagined journey. In contrast, David, the supposedly god-like creator of a new organic species, remains rootless and alone. In their depiction of the evolution of the secular mythology of AI, these prequels both critique the increasingly digital world of Western culture and implicitly offer an imagined paradise that no AI can achieve.
If, as Scott has claimed, there is at least one additional movie in the Alien franchise, it remains to be seen where the next episode will take us, including the possible resolution of arguably open plot issues, such as whether Walter is, in fact, “dead” and whether the engineers or other engineer-created descendants reside elsewhere. Nevertheless, where Alien and earlier episodes in the franchise openly criticized corporate culture in the form of the greedy Weyland-Yutani Corporation, these two prequels address our unease with a mythology that threatens to envelop our very consciousness. They critique the contemporary direction of Western capitalism with its reliance upon enlightened, efficient AI to further enslave its citizens. The unjust death of Daniels, who is shut forever in a hibernation pod that is her “casket,” reminds this author of King Lear’s bootless lament about the unjust death of Cordelia,
“Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.
I kill'd the slave that was a-hanging thee.”
As a warning to his audience, Shakespeare concluded, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” Feeling remains central to human consciousness. Notwithstanding Weyland’s claim to the contrary, Shakespeare’s art is not an adventure in problem solving, let alone for capitalistic ends. Instead, King Lear, among Western culture's greatest of dramatic portraits of the human tragedy, insists simply that ripeness remains all.
1. Rory Cellan-Jones’ “Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence could end mankind,” BBC News, December 2, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-30290540. Not surprisingly, Hawking’s pessimism views other contemporary events as no less potentially apocalyptic.
“’Professor Stephen Hawking thinks the human species will have to populate a new planet within 100 years if it is to survive,’ the BBC said with a notable absence of punctuation marks in a statement posted online. ‘With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious.’"
Peter Holley’s “Stephen Hawking now says humanity has only about 100 years to escape Earth.” Chicago Tribune, May 5, 2017, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/science/ct-stephen-hawking-escape-earth-20170505-story.html. [return to text]
2. Andre Bazin, What is Cinema? Trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: U. of Ca. Press, 1967), 24.
3. For an analysis of how digital movies have changed the form and production of movies, see, for example, William Brown, “man without a movie camera – movies without men – toward a posthumanist cinema?” in Warren Buckland, Film and Contemporary Hollywood Movies (New York: Routledge, 2009).
4. Director Jeunet has disclaimed authorship of the alternate, “special edition” ending that’s available on DVD. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Introductory Commentary to the Theatrical Release, Alien Resurrection DVD, Alien Quadrilogy. In that alternate ending, the earth has been destroyed, and Ripley and Call look upon the city of Paris shown in ruins, including a shot of a broken Eiffel Tower.
5. The phrase “more human than humans” is the Tyrell Corporation’s slogan to describe the “replicants” or artificial beings with a limited “life” span that Dr. Tyrell, the movie’s Dr. Frankenstein, has created in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).
6. The complete promotional video can be found at https://vimeo.com/50383392.
7. The Alien franchise has remained consistent in one respect. A non-US accent nearly always represents the “other” and hence symbolizes “evil”.
8. Yuval Harari explores that connection between the scientific curiosity to know and the imperialism of capitalism in his chapter on “The Marriage of Science and Empire” in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: Harper Collins, 2015)
9. Mary Shelly, Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus (New York: Everyman's Library 1992), 48. Shelly expresses her viewpoint through her then-narrator, Victor Frankenstein.
10. William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act IV, scene i, lines 41-42.
11. The video “Alien: Covenant | Prologue: The Crossing” may be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivv5ef4TDNw. In fact, several videos preceded Alien: Covenant. These include “Alien: Covenant | Prologue: Last Supper” (2017) and “Alien: Covenant | Meet Walter” (2017). Each seemingly includes footage that had been deleted from the released film.
12. This is not surprising, considering the emotional distance that Ridley Scott felt from Alien by the time that he made Alien: Covenant nearly 40 years later. Ridley Scott, “Audio Commentary,” Alien: Covenant, DVD (Aug. 15, 2017)
13. In an extended version of the prologue that Scott deleted from the completed film, David describes at length the plot of this portion of Wagner’s opera. As described by David, the gods have rejected mankind as “weak, cruel and filled with greed.” Thus, they enter their perfect home in the heavens, Valhalla. Nevertheless, he adds, the gods were fated to die, since they were as venal as mankind. They were “false gods.” “Prologue (Extended),” Alien: Covenant, DVD
14. David observes a holographic record of the engineers’ flute playing in Prometheus as their means to start their ship’s navigation tools. He later plays that instrument when he shows these tools to Weyland in ancipation of awakening the one surviving engineer.
15. As Scott observes, Walter, in contrast to David, would never think of going against a human decision. Scott Commentary, Alien: Covenant, DVD. Walter’s humanity exists in the limitations and imperfections of his being.
16. The flashback depicting the slaughter of the engineers’ entire civilization was not in the film’s script. Scott insisted on filming the scene, however, believing that the film required an explanation of what had happened to the engineers. Moreover, Scott has said that he had originally thought of but then decided against including a reference in the film to Adolf Hitler. Not surprisingly, he is also however, obsessed with plagues and apocalyptic scenarios, noting that the aliens are a more aggressive, intelligent form of cockroaches and speculating that cockroaches may one day inherit the earth. Scott Commentary, Alien: Covenant, DVD.
It is also worth noting that, among the deleted scenes is a brief vignette in which crewmember Rosenthal briefly prays moments before an alien attacks and kills her by beheading. She recites in Hebrew the following well-known prayer from the Bible, Deuteronomy 6:4— “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” “Rosenthal Prayer,” Deleted and Extended Scenes, Extras, Alien: Covenant, DVD.
17. We learn in Prometheus that Shaw’s father died from Ebola, and David seems nearly gleeful in recounting to Shaw this fact that he’s learned while watching her dream in hypersleep.
18. Scott modeled Tennessee, particularly his hat, after Slim Pickens’ Major T. J. "King" Kong, the B-52 bomber commander in Stanley Kubrick’s black-humor, political satire Dr. Strangelove (1964). Scott Commentary, Alien: Covenant, DVD.
19. The mythology of a catastrophic flood is common to many cultures. See “List of Flood Myths,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_flood_myths. For an interpretation of this mythology, see Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Chapter 4 (“The Flood”).
20. The word “origae” in Latin is the feminine, plural term for the word “charioteer” or “driver.” World of Dictionary, http://worldofdictionary.com/dict/latin-english/meaning/origa.
21. Daniels’ acceptance of Walter as human or its equivalent is reflected in a deleted scene in which Daniels expresses her desire to be with Walter at her husband Jacob’s funeral. While the crew is comprised entirely of couples, Daniels notes that Walter would know something about being alone. “Jacob’s Funeral (Extended),” Deleted and Extended Scenes, Extras, Alien: Covenant, DVD.
22. The full text of Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” may be found on numerous online sites, including https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43281/the-lake-isle-of-innisfree.
23. Two deleted scenes from the completed movie underscore this difference in the characters of Oram and Daniels. In one, Oram tries to console Daniels for the death of her husband by telling her that she must “cry it out.” Daniels replies angrily by telling Oram that she will mourn his death in her own way. “Oram and Daniels (Extended),” Deleted and Extended Scenes, Extras, Alien: Covenant, DVD. In the other, Walter consoles Daniels by observing that the terraform garden is ideal for growing cannabis. Daniels replies by noting that Walter’s gesture demonstrates how he is not simply the result of programming. “Walter Visits Daniels,” Alien: Covenant, DVD.
24. Scott clearly sides with Daniels in this debate. Thus, Scott comments that the initial disruption of the space flight was a “random accident,” since you can’t plan for everything. Coincidentally, he describes his own DVD commentary to the movie as “unplanned” and “off the cuff.” Scott Commentary, Alien: Covenant, DVD.
25. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: The Free Press, 1925), Chapter 5 (“The Romantic Reaction”), 94.
26. Shakespeare, King Lear, Act V, sc. ii, lines 9 – 11.
27. Yuval Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), 372.
28. Coincidentally, John Denver’s song is at the emotional center of Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky (2017). It’s the favorite song of the lead character, Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), who (accurately) tells his young daughter that the writers of the song had never been to West Virginia. Nevertheless, late in the movie his daughter chooses to sing this song during a competitive pageant. The audience sings along with her, and she wins the pageant.
29. Scott has characterized Shaw’s brief role in Alien: Covenant as that of Robinson Crusoe. Scott Commentary, Alien: Covenant, DVD.
30. Supposedly John Logan, a co-screenwriter on Alien: Covenant, is already writing “Covenant 2.” Eventually the narrative will form a “back door” into the original Alien. Scott Commentary, Alien: Covenant, DVD.
31. Scott uses the term “caskets” to describe these hibernation pods. Scott Commentary, Alien: Covenant, DVD.
32. King Lear, Act V, sc. iii, lines 328—330.
33. King Lear, Act V, sc. iii, line 393.