In ‘Alien: Covenant,’ the March of Progress Ends in Death

Ridley Scott's sci-fi franchise is as gruesome as ever—but this time, the horror feels disturbingly human.
In ‘Alien: Covenant,’ the March of Progress Ends in Death
Image: Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Note: This review contains major plot spoilers.

As a family doctor, I love practicing obstetrics. There is a deep sense of gratitude and fulfillment in seeing a child take his or her first breath, especially in cases where medical complications require judicious use of my medical knowledge or surgical skill. Sadly, practicing obstetrics also entails dealing with cases where things go wrong, and there is a different sensation when one extracts a dead child from his or her mother. There is a visceral sorrow and disappointment at life that could have been—or, in the cases of severely malformed children, a life that was genetically incapable of life in the world.

Alien: Covenant is about what happens when we choose to reverse those situations and seek fulfillment by trying to perfect human bodies.

In the nearly four decades since the Alien franchise’s inception, each of its entries has taken a different tack. The original Alien was a slow burn horror masterpiece, while the first sequel, Aliens, was a sci-fi action film with compelling characters. Alien 3 was a confused mess, and Alien: Resurrection was a heavy-handed, gore-laden warning against the military-industrial complex. The series’ most recent entry, Prometheus, tried to inject more explicit philosophical reflection but never quite got anywhere with it.

Alien: Covenant, which is set after Prometheus but before the original Alien, is in many ways is a pastiche of all these previous films, succeeding where some of the others failed and failing where previous entries succeeded. The plot is a mixture drawn from its forerunners: A spaceship full of colonists in “hypersleep” and frozen embryos is headed to a distant planet in order to start a human colony. The rest of the crew are all married couples except for an android named Walter (played by Michael Fassbender). They stumble upon a planet that appears remarkably hospitable to life, so they choose to explore it—which, as is customary in Alien movies, is a prelude to aliens infesting and then bursting out of the unsuspecting crew members on the ground.

The crew is rescued by android David (one of the few survivors of the Prometheus expedition from the previous film, again played by Michael Fassbender), who leads them to the ruins of a city once populated by the “Engineers” who created humanity. David and Walter are both robots played by the same actor—but the similarity ends there. Walter, the newer model, reveals that he is programmed to be less “human” than David, as David’s line of androids expressed too much emotion and were found to be unsettling.

In a masterful performance by Fassbender, David proves their creators right by demonstrating a disquieting degree of humanity as he explains that his creative inclinations led him to massacre the Engineers, experiment on his human crewmate from the Prometheus, and then spend his years alone on the planet trying to create a “perfect creature.” He infects a crew member with the fruit of his labor—the titular alien—which hunts and kills many crew members before the last two humans manage to escape with Walter back into space on their ship.

Alissa Wilkinson has noted the numerous literary and biblical allusions in the film; unfortunately, though, as she notes, none of them manage to hold together by the end. David considers himself something of a Nietzschean Übermensch—but somehow he is also Milton’s Satan? It doesn’t make much sense. Instead, he’s far more effective as an incarnation of human technological ambition, more along the lines of one of the New Gods from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Indeed, the Alien movies work best at their most understated (think of Ripley discovering her ship’s hidden mission, or Newt just before she is snatched away). It’s not so much about human interactions with the devil as it is the movie’s themes about science, power, and what happens when we choose to pervert our God-given creativity—themes that reach that perfect level of “show don’t tell” storytelling, causing it to bubble in our subconscious long after we walk away.

Bodies, Blood, and Bioethics

In the West today, scientific progress marches on, providing us with even more creative options for manipulating human life. At best, lawmakers can only hope to slow down the pace at which we gain new powers over human bodies, and current political conflicts have created a faction that celebrates “science” and rationality in their ambiguous glory. Most “pro-science” voices can articulate some sort of ethical framework, but their agitation on behalf of science at best takes this framework for granted, and at worst erodes the possibility of non-utilitarian ethics constraining scientific progress. The goal of perfecting the human body is also taken for granted, as opposed to the view of Christian bioethicists who describe the trajectory or arc of human life, with a beginning, middle, and end.

Nowhere are these tensions more obvious than in the world of sex and childbearing, which the Alien franchise loves to explore. Oliver O’Donovan puts it this way: “The primary characteristic of a technological society is not the things it may do with the aid of machines, but the way it thinks of everything it does as a kind of mechanical production. Once begetting is acknowledged to be under the laws of time and motion efficiency, then its absorption into the world of productive technique is complete.” Even our language reflects this: The theological language of “procreation” reflects our status as image-bearers of God, while “reproduction” speaks to an industrial process of control.

In Alien: Covenant, the industrial process of control is taken to an appropriately violent and dark conclusion. David, who rejects all limits on his exercise of power over the human body, adds insult to injury by favoring the genetically modified perversity that should have been rejected by its human host. Rather than accepting the human body’s limits, David decides that human bodies are only as valuable as they are perfectible—which, to him, means eliminating humanity by creating a series of monsters.

There is a moment in the film of natural procreation as a married couple kiss in the shower. Before the husband can penetrate his wife, however, he himself is violently penetrated by the alien creature. The usual horror-movie trope punishes teenagers with a gory death for premarital sex, but here the good of marital sex is eviscerated by a biomechanical monster. Indeed, the Alien franchise has long explored themes of sexuality (including rape), and a key moment in Prometheus also included a perversion of procreation. This time, though, the product of industrial reproduction does not merely exist as an option side-by-side with natural procreation—it is a violent force that tears apart human covenants and the sexual love that strengthens them.

Fighting to Escape Our Unkind Humanity

Unmoored from rigorous ethics that understands the arc of human life, the dignity of the human body, and the role of procreation within it, scientific progress will go bad. David's megalomania and indifference to human life is obviously deranged, but these qualities are reflections of his nature as a technological being. He is an avatar of human ambition and an incarnation of human rationality. David was clearly intended for good by his human creator, but two moments in the film show how hollow half-measures of goodness are.

In the first of these moments, after luring a crew member into his experimental chamber, David’s delight is unmistakable as his creation bursts from his victim’s chest. The scene is shocking with its gore, but this disgust underscores the ultimate destination when man’s scientific and creative power is divorced from his God-ordained purposes and human bodies are a means, not an end. Other gross-out moments in the film are failed attempts to recreate the shock of the original Alien’s iconic dinner table scene, but David’s perverse joy at the birth of his “perfect creature” is visceral horror at its best. It should caution us against destroying living human bodies for any purpose—but especially for the sake of perfecting the human body.

There is a moment at the end of Alien: Covenant, though, that is even more horrifying. After having finally expelled the creature from the ship, the remaining crew members are being put back into hypersleep to continue their colonization mission. One of the survivors, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), asks her android companion what he thinks life will be like when they colonize this other planet. He responds: “I think if we are kind, it will be a kind world.” It's the sort of sentiment that undergirds a lot of “pro-science” talk we hear today: All that it takes for human endeavors to be good is for us to be kind to one another. Good intentions will redeem and guide the power of science.

Moments later, though, Daniels realizes that it is the wicked David who followed them onto the ship, impersonating the servile Walter. David smiles as he puts a screaming Daniels into hypersleep, setting us up for a sequel in which he undoubtedly continues his awful experiments on her and the rest of the ship. David's line about being kind puts the lie to the neutrality of science’s power: As we exercise human power, we must acknowledge that certain endeavors are bent by their nature towards unkindness, and human beings are bent towards unkindness.

The terror of the first Alien film was that a destructive, evil being could live inside of your body and burst out when you least expect it. There, the rare moment of bloody violence punctuated long stretches of fear of invasion from the outside in. The gore of Alien: Covenant is more pronounced and frequent, forcing us to confront the ugliness of destroying human life for some higher purpose. Here, we see that the destructive evil has always lived inside our own hearts—and will follow us relentlessly, even to the deepest reaches of space.

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices family medicine in East Africa and Baltimore. You can learn more about his work and writing at MatthewAndMaggie.org.

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In ‘Alien: Covenant,’ the March of Progress Ends in Death