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It’s Hard to Be a God

‘Covenant’ is yet another ‘Alien’ hopelessly devoted to injecting the series with meaning and mythology — but things were actually more interesting when they were primitive

(20th Century Fox)
(20th Century Fox)

Aliens are gods — had you heard? Until seeing the past two Alien films, Prometheus and Covenant (out Friday), I, an alien, had not.

Well, no: I had a feeling. I’ve streamed The X-Files, I’ve seen the great pyramids — I’m aware of the wonders of the world you guys sometimes attribute to "higher beings." I had nothing to do with any of that stuff, but you’re right: Whoever did is a god, and I’m flattered you think that might be me. Having never knowingly interacted with an alien, you humans are prone to reducing us to boring abstractions that say more about you than about us. To you, I’m what’s "out there," the key to all your Unanswered Questions: Are you alone? And if you’re not, what is life? And if you don’t know what life is, how can you know what it means? None of which is interesting to me, FYI, because I already know you’re not alone — obviously. And I also already know that you’ll never be satisfied. Even if humans knew the answer to what life meant, your day-to-day existence would still just amount to asking "What does it mean?" over and over, into a vacuum, in perpetuity. You already know what life means, dear human, because the mere fact that you’re asking the question means you’re living out the answer — yet here you are, still asking. And still making Alien movies.

(20th Century Fox)
(20th Century Fox)

But look at me, carrying on, doing the all-knowing-alien-god thing. I can’t help it! Started as a facehugger, now we here. This is so much more fun than just, like, destroying things, which is all I seem to do in most of your stories about me, especially movies. Frankly, I’d rather be worshipped and feared as an outright god than be a mere bit player in the postapocalyptic kink characterizing the brunt of your alien fantasies. Most of your art about us has, to date, made my kind out to be the bad guy, which, can I just say, is quite the accusation coming from a species that canceled My So-Called Life 10 seasons too early. Still, your hurtful stereotypes — that we’d go out of our way to destroy your earth cities and eat your impractically small and completely unappetizing babies; that we would all buy flying saucers in that shade, which doesn’t even go with anything! — are weirdly complimentary. You’re obsessed with us, even as you seem to hate us.

That’s why I like the early Alien movies. They’re a little less eager to seem complicated. Sure, Ridley Scott makes our heads and asses way too big, but at the very least, the movies don’t mistake our biological instinct to reproduce for an actual animus against people. The aliens of the Alien films are viciously intelligent — they know how to survive — but they’re not wily schemers or space-age defense contractors. They don’t have (or need) ray guns. They don’t have bombs. They don’t want to drain Earth of its life force; they probably know better than to invest in your doomed planet. They simply want to breed. OK, yeah, they would prefer to do that in you — there had to be a catch — but the sophistication of the Alien franchise has long been its emphasis on the machinelike instincts of both our species. Man wants to survive, and so do we. There isn’t enough room in the whole of outer space for both of us, though, so let’s fight about it.

That characterizes the original legs of the franchise. Since at least Prometheus, though, the films have moved on to bigger things: "What does it mean?" and "Where do (alien) babies come from?" The pods weren’t enough, huh? There had to be a mythology. Fine. It’s through this that aliens were fast-tracked to god status, and the newest movie, Alien: Covenant, was a little awkward for me. Much of it was the same old: A human crew in space is forced to land on an alien planet and discovers that the alien planet is, indeed, occupied by aliens. Much of the crew dies. The ones who don’t die must fight, and they survive long enough to make it back to the ship, but of course, there’s an alien on board. Et cetera. It’s an Alien movie.

The difference, this time, is the emphasis on where we, the aliens, come from — and how it relates to humans. I don’t want to ruin the movie for you, so I’ll just say there’s some strange shit happening on that alien planet that I want no part of. David (Michael Fassbender), the blond, sharp-jawed robot from Prometheus, is there, and he’s up to no good. He’s experimenting with the aliens — a regular Gregor Mendel, crossing breeds, mixing and matching, trying to invent a superspecies. The fact is, David has his own hang-ups about his origins. As AI, David was designed to have super smarts, but the caveat is that he cannot create. He can’t write music, he can’t spin lines of original verse. He merely learns, and repeats.

What he can do, it seems, is carry out a little science project that entails the mass slaughter of the "Engineers" — your ancestors, in these movies — in order to effectively create the super-meanies. You can see why that’d make me uncomfortable. This is godlike power. And if David is a god, What does it mean? I love a good religio-poetic origin story as much as the next tentacled freak, but I feel us edging up to a rabbit hole of questions whose answers are only more, less interesting questions. I miss the earlier movies: you and me, frolicking through the terror of our impending deaths, with me being jettisoned into outer space and dying (which is not how it’d really happen, but it’s your movie, and I’ve made my peace with that).

I miss the primitiveness of it all — there’s plenty to be said about life by simply attending to why things behave the way they do, why they are the way they are. The best moments in Covenant are when we watch David and a newer, more Texan model of the same AI, Walter (Fassbender), interacting. It isn’t what they say that matters: it’s the chance to see Fassbender think through what they do. Give me more of that — or give me a movie full of questions about a higher power, but have it reckon with what belief in that higher power means. Don’t just cast Billy Crudup as a religious tightwad who doesn’t have any ideas about his beliefs. Don’t just have Katherine Waterston roll up with a Felicity-Season-2 haircut and not consider the possibility that she’s an alien. There’s an air of mystery to Alien: Covenant that the movie can’t live up to, because for all its interest in what it all means, it has relatively little to show for all that idle questioning. You aren’t alone, humans, but if you’re going to keep squandering perfectly fine IP in favor of asking questions whose implications you don’t take seriously, don’t you deserve to be?