Monday, May 22, 2017

Alien: Covenant. A review and meditation on the grim view of humanity's future

"As a morality tale, the message is so well worn now as to be hackneyed: We are the monsters. Worse, we make the monsters. And we make the monsters that make the monsters. Right. We get it."

13 years ago, I blogged, asking the question “Is the remake of Battlestar Galactica merely the worst kind of crap, or does it actually represent the end of Western Civilisation?”

Today, I want to talk about the Alien movie franchise, having seen the latest instalment, Alien: Covenant last night (and yes, this essay contains spoilers). As you can see, I weigh in on such questions rarely, and the purpose of my musing is not merely to offer either just a review or fanboy speculation, but to ask a wider question about the way our civilisation regards itself. The entertainment of our age, be they movies, TV shows or books, reflect in some way self-esteem of late Western society. And by “late”, I presage the view of future historians who will see this time in our history as an ending of whatever it is that we are, before it is replaced by something else.

The Alien franchise has held a curious fascination for me since my teens. I remember going to the State Library and poring over a rare copy of H.R Giger’s Necronomicon as though it were every bit the “terrible and forbidden” grimoire its namesake, via H.P Lovecraft’s Abdul Alhazred, described. There was something genuinely original and disturbing about Giger’s vaguely pornographic, biomechanical nightmares.

After decades of science fiction depictions of aliens that were little more than men in rubber suits, the sense of otherness exuded from Giger's work; of the cadaverous and monstrous, was unsettling in the extreme. I pored over them with a mixture of horrified curiosity and revulsion. I wondered how such creatures would “work”, and I reflected on what it was that Giger tapped in our collective subconscious that made us so uneasy. Subverted motifs of sexual congress, and violent birth; of the mechanical infiltrating even the integrity of our bodies, borg-like; they all combined to made me shudder.

And then there was the Pilot, later depicted in the original Alien as the “Space Jockey”.

This strange creature and its lonely enthronement in an ancient, fossilised and ill-fortuned ship, struck me as sad, and deeply mysterious. What happened? What race did it represent? Was it even separate from the device it controlled, seemingly growing from its chair? The architecture of its ship, resembling the inside of a ribcage, suggested technologies so unfamiliar as to be beyond even our speculation.
The genius of any fiction lays in its ability to invoke our imagination, rather than laying everything out, pre-digested. And the 1979 Alien did that. The titular monster was far scarier because of how little we saw of it. And that was its appeal. We were meant to yearn for answers, and equally, never to have them. Like a magic trick that loses its appeal once it is explained; like Oz behind his curtain; like the Force before we were told about Midichlorians;  the riddle of the Engineers is perhaps better left unexplained.

Crucially, neither the Engineers or the Alien had anything to do with humans. We were just the hapless and recently spacefaring species that stumbled along to realise how scary outer space is. And here’s the parallel with the remake of Battlestar Galactica. Suddenly, we are responsible for the creation of the Cylons, and some of the mystery of their origins is dispelled. Plus, all of humanity become both Victor Frankenstein and Eldon Tyrell, rueing the return of our creations to wreak havoc among us, and to teach us the terrible price for our sin of Pride; of usurping the prerogative of God in creating life. Now, we have Peter Weyland to add to that dubious pantheon. In creating a synthetic life-form capable of better-than-human reasoning but possessing no empathy, he creates in David the monster that creates all other monsters. Considering Ridley Scott directed Bladerunner as well, it’s safe to say that this motif is deliberate. Expect the imminent Blade Runner sequel (also a Ridley Scott vehicle) to repeat the same mantra: the Creation is in some way better than the Creator, and the impulse of all created beings is to become disillusioned with, and then kill, their gods.

The decision to declare that Giger’s otherworldly vision of the Pilot should give way to the revelation that its form was merely a spacesuit and that the inhabitants were basically ancient giant humans, right down to our DNA (and now living in "space Rome", rather than a biomechanical city), was the biggest cop-out ever, and one that the writers of Prometheus like Damon Lindelof should be ashamed of. The whole point of the Pilot and the Juggernaut, and the Xenomorphs were that they weren’t human. That’s what “Alien” means. Now, courtesy of the latest installment, we learn that even the lifecycle of the egg/facehugger/xenomorph we considered "original" is because of a human-made android tinkering in solitude and madness.
Implication? Somehow, we deserve our fate. We brought it upon ourselves in our pride and cruelty. In fact, the Engineers saw how bad we were, and were about to wipe us out, until we got to them first. And ethically, the Engineers were far from benign themselves. Was it a shared failing, that they seemed capable of indiscriminate genocide? Were we more alike than either thought?

This is nothing if not a post-modernist conceit, an increasingly popular trope not just in entertainment, but in history, to regard humanity as irredeemable, despite our miraculous advances of technology.
James Cameron’s films do the same thing:
Titanic: Build a boat, a wonder of the technological age. Sunk by pride. People behave ignobly in the aftermath.
Avatar: Develop a spacefaring civilisation. Rape innocent worlds for their resources. Cue heavy-handed metaphors between westerners and native americans.
Terminator: Develop A.I. Watch it immediately conclude that all humans should be wiped out.

I could say that this is entirely the wrong emphasis, and that the outlook of our speculative fiction should be less bleak. But then I realised that the genre of the Alien films is less Sci-Fi than Horror. One of the purposes of horror stories are to reveal not only the darkness under the bed, but within the human heart as well. As we contemplate the (quite genuine) horror of the situation in the final twist of the Alien: Covenant movie, we realise that, in part, we have created that situation.
As a morality tale, the message is so well worn now as to be hackneyed: We are the monsters. Worse, we make the monsters. And we make the monsters that make the monsters. Right. We get it.

Worse, the implication is that space is not a majestic tabula rasa for us to paint our future on, but a darkness concealing uncountable horrors beyond imagination, and that humanity is presumptious to the point of folly to even seek to tread there. H.P Lovecraft would be proud. Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!

But here’s the flipside: We’ve created faster-than-light drives. We’re colonising the galaxy. We’ve built artificial intelligences, which (in every alternate model, at least) can be noble and good. The good ship Covenant is peopled by crew we could like; who want a better life, a cabin by the lake, and clean air to raise a new generation in. The future does not yet seem to be ruled by the questionable ethics of the Weyland-Yutani corporation. And much of the ill-fortune we seem to experience “out there” arises from bad luck, plus supposedly smart people doing really dumb things. This is a mandatory requirement for any horror film, when you think about it… Don’t go alone into the dark place. Ignore even the most basic rules about safety or quarantine. Don’t wake up the dude who runs the facility making the goo intended to wipe out humanity and ask him for immortality before he’s had his coffee. That kind of thing. Despite this, there's a lot to like about this vision of humanity's future, and that perhaps explains the enduring popularity of Star Trek.

The conclusion I reach is that Ridley Scott must have a really low opinion of both humanity, and of his audiences.  We shouldn’t be fooled by the fact that these movies are all luxuriantly produced and visually stunning. (I found myself in New Zealand last year and arrived at Milford Sound smack-bang in the middle of filming for the movie – all the scenes where the landing craft arrive at the fjord and land in the water).
Holiday photos from Milford Sound, 2016. The set for the spaceship-lander is in the distance.

The production design of Arthur Max and Chris Seagers are first rate and just jaw-dropping, as are the (very faint) echoes of Giger, where they let it leak in around the edges. In terms of the hardware, it’s a vision of a future in space that’s completely compelling. But, even withstanding the genre of film into which these films fit, Ridley Scott’s laziness and shallowness ruin the opportunities to tell more genuinely interesting stories based on the premises they start with. It’s like what someone has said recently of the vacuity of President Trump: “We try to analyse what we see for deeper motivations or meanings, but what if there’s no ‘there’, there?” And that’s the key. Even in 1979, Scott had no idea what to make of the Pilot, referring to it merely as the “big dental patient” while the mad genius Giger did his work. When returning to the franchise and seeking a hook for his plot, Scott speculated that Jesus Christ was an Engineer sent to Earth and our treatment of Jesus was ultimately what made then Engineers mad at us. WTF? What kind of brain fart is that?
What this tells me is that there's no real philosophy going on here, and no actual overarching meaning. Don't look for it. It's merely a bunch of hack writers spitballing inane ideas with no idea of what "canon" ought to mean, at least in the sense of avoiding simple errors that prevent you from telling a story that's coherent to the broader fictional universe in which it's set. Attempts like mine to remonstrate with Ridley Scott are like arguing over pareidolia; people are just going to see what they're going to see.

It’s vexing that Ridley Scott can make films that are beautiful to look at, and even films with an important message (last year’s “the Martian” was outstanding, but that was exclusively because of Andy Weir’s brilliant source-novel), but then treats so contemptuously the opportunity to tell a good story with glib ideas like “Jesus was an alien” or “humans are indirectly responsible for the variety of Xenomorph that will be found on a thousand-year-old crashed ship only 18 years later”, or “Xenomorphs can grow from chestburster to full-adult in five minutes”. Retconning is one thing, but Alien: Covenant does very little to correct the egregious sins of its predecessor: namely, making smart characters do dumb things, and invoking plot twists so illogical as to lift us out of the narrative.

How hard can it be to make films that don’t insult the intelligence of their audiences? Obviously, in Hollywood, no one can hear us screaming.

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