In 2013, the Ebola virus broke loose across West Africa. It was the most destructive outbreak the of the virus in history, with over 28,000 cases and 11,000 deaths reported (which accounts for only 17-70% of all infections). It was one of the most severe biological epidemics in recent memory, causing widespread panic and paranoia as countries scrambled to close their borders in the hopes of containing the virus to African countries (a move which no doubt resulted in even more unnecessary deaths and reflected our inability to respond to catastrophes like this). The outbreak lasted until 2016, though cases are still being reported and the effects of the outbreak will continue to be felt for years. While by far the most notable viral epidemic in recent memory, Ebola is only one point in a history of life-threatening diseases as old as humanity itself. It is difficult to date many diseases before the rise of recorded history, but even within such a short period exists a lineup of outbreaks which cause Ebola to look positively harmless in comparison. The Black Death alone – a plague which erupted along the Silk Road in 1343 – holds a death count of 75-100 million, to say nothing of more “minor” plagues such as those of Antonine (165 AD) and Justinian (541 AD) which destroyed 30-40% of their respective populations. With how persistent and devastating disease has been throughout history, it’s a wonder anyone survived to count the bodies.
It wasn’t until modern medicine began to develop in the 19th century that humanity started to have any means to combat diseases short of chucking the infected out of the city and locking the door. That didn’t stop the 1918 flu pandemic from taking some 75 million lives, roughly twice the number of deaths caused by the first World War taking place alongside the outbreak, but as we moved into the 21st century there seemed to be a general feeling that science had figured things out. Cancer was an ongoing issue, but the plague was gone, hand-sanitizer could be found in every home, and vaccines existed for many of the remaining viral dangers. At least within the developed world, viruses were rendered an occasional weekend in bed and day absent from work, rarely threatening the lives of anyone but the elderly and severely malnourished.
All of this only served to make the Ebola virus all the more terrifying. It reminded the world that disease is not a set problem that can be solved, but an unknown opponent we are scrambling to outrun. The costs of failing to do so, Ebola demonstrated, would be immense. Furthermore, it invited a voice into the back of many people’s heads, that if nature could come up with viruses as deadly as this all on its own what would happen if we wanted to build our own? Would we have as much faith in medicine if we knew it was being used for more than helping people?
Potential spoilers for Alien, Prometheus, and Alien: Covenant follow.
Watching Alien (1979) and Prometheus (2012) in quick succession, it becomes clear that the two films are separated by more than just years. The original Alien remains a horror classic, as claustrophobic and visually astounding today as it was on release. Though comparatively light on plot compared to the films which would follow, it nevertheless succeeds at establishing a captivating retro-futuristic world steeped in the dangers of sexual assault and corporate greed. That even now, nearly four-decades since its release, we are still finding more to say about Alien speaks to its craftsmanship and timelessness. For every following Alien film to be compared to the original almost seems cruel.
Prometheus, a prequel of sorts to Alien, is a very different sort of film. Where Alien was concerned primarily with saving the lives of the Nostromo’s crew in the face of capitalism gone amok, Prometheus had far heavier and intangible objectives to resolve: why are we here, who created us, and why did they change their mind and now want us gone? Though many panned the film for moving away from action-movie bombast to intimate philosophical pondering – asking questions that it couldn’t hope to answer and feeling in large part like only the first half of a larger work (more on that later) – Prometheus remains a remarkably ambitious and contemplative film which will almost certainly be remembered more fondly than it was initially received. In fact, this is already beginning to happen as people shift their attention towards Alien: Covenant (2017), criticizing it for many of the same reasons as Prometheus but determining that they liked Covenant’s themes more five years ago. Funny how everything begins to look better in hindsight.
Covenant opens with a young (30-40 something) Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) of Weyland Industries talking to his ultimate creation: the synthetic human David (Michael Fassbender). David, Weyland informs him, has been created for the express purpose of helping answer the question that has troubled Weyland all his life: who created us, and why? At this, David inquires as to the nature of creation, and, furthermore, why Weyland made him. It is in this seemingly arbitrary scene that we see David rapidly develop his view towards humanity. We live, we create, and then we die while David, a machine, lives on possibly forever. The scene seems to wish to convey a sense of David’s early antagonism towards humanity, but what it succeeds more at is showcasing his early sense of isolation and intense loneliness. David is not human. He will never be human. He will only ever be different.
From this point the movie shifts to the ship Covenant, journeying to find a new world with 2,000 colonists on board. After a freak electrical storm which results in the death of the ship’s captain, the crew intercepts a beacon from a nearby planet – one seemingly even more ideal for colonization than their original destination – and decide to investigate. It is at this point where everything, predictably, goes to shit.
There was likely a point where fear of technological progress could be written off as superstitious or an unwillingness or inability to change. The benefits of technology are undeniable and scarcely need be delved into. Where would we be, after all, without the wheel? What would modern society look like if we never learned to fly? How would we wait out the time until the void inevitably consumes us without the internet and its infinite quantity of funny cat videos? But for as remarkable as the things technology has given us are, and how exciting the future looks, a concern has begun to creep up on us: what will happen when we have created technology which is not only as capable as humans, but better? How far off is this point, really? A lifetime, maybe two? What will humanity do when it has rendered itself obsolete?
As Ryan Avent writes for The Guardian, “the most difficult challenge posed by an economic revolution is not how to come up with the magical new technologies in the first place; it is how to reshape society so that the technologies can be put to good use while also keeping the great mass of workers satisfied with their lot in life.” The idea of a world operated and run by technology is simultaneously appealing and terrifying. Will we all be living happily alongside our robotic overlords, fat and happy in our lounge chairs as WALL-E attempts to remind us of the beauty of farming? Or will our future be closer to the war-torn landscapes of Terminator, where humanity is fighting just to hang on as our creations turn against us? Nobody can say for sure, but with much of the developed world increasing its military budget – just this May, Trump proposed a $54 billion military increase, and both Russia and North Korea have recently conducted displays of military might – dreams of robot-run human utopias are looking more and more like only that: dreams.
This encroaching anxiety around the development of new technology parallels many of the feelings felt in the immediate aftermath of World War II. With the leveling of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, a coldness settled over the world. That such immense power existed and had been exercised possibly without due cause or necessity was more than alarming. WWII had incited a technological race as each country worked to out-engineer their opponents. Nothing incites human ingenuity and produces the means to turn that ingenuity into a reality like war, and no technology left as much of a mark as the atomic bomb. After Hiroshima, however, the general public seemed to finally understand just what their governments were working with. These were not mere explosives, but could theoretically end humanity altogether should opposing countries come into possession with atomic weapons and decide to use them. That the subsequent Cold War ended with neither side nuking the other did little to lessen this tension, largely because the weapons never went away. Nobody really knows what to do with the nuclear weapons we have developed, but that hasn’t stopped them from developing more. At some point it seems worth asking who we are really protecting ourselves from, and if we are not merely encouraging our own destruction.
In one of Covenant’s most intense scenes, we witness the death of a civilization at the hands of their own creation: a biological weapon engineered off planet is brought back and unleashed upon a populace that never anticipated what may happen if their weapon was turned against them. They set out to play god, but in the process forgot that they were but men and that all men one day die. Watching a society crumble, a mighty people suddenly made small and helpless, is uncomfortable but not nauseating. At this point we have seen many far more gruesome deaths, and have little reason to sympathize with this distant race. It is distressingly easy, it turns out, to find death bearable when it is someone who doesn’t look like us. That Covenant spends so much time talking of difference and prejudice and then explicitly showcases its effects doesn’t feel like an accident. Whether the echoes of Hiroshima heard in the destruction of this alien race were intentional or not seems beside the point.
This scene is almost certainly the most important during the entirety of Covenant’s 123-minute runtime. It represents the end of a circle which stretches from Prometheus through the entire Alien saga, while simultaneously upending almost everything we thought we knew about the franchise. But, beyond the film, this scene also encapsulates Covenant’s largest thematic questions (or perhaps they are better interpreted as warnings). It is a badly kept secret that many countries (including the US) have failed to uphold agreements made in the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) which attempted to outlaw the development, stockpiling, and use of biological weapons. In just 2013, sarin gas was fired into Damascus suburbs in Syria, killing anywhere from 281-1729 people and injuring thousands more. Most suspect the Syrian military as firing the gas, but it is the existence of such weapons and the readiness with which they were used that is most alarming. Humanity’s capability to destroy itself is fast approaching its epoch, and this is reflected in Covenant’s intense despair and ceaseless casualties.
Covenant is meant as a prequel to Alien but in most ways, it is much more of a sequel to Prometheus, tackling many of the same thematic questions while providing closure to many of that film’s unresolved plotlines. What is remarkable about both films is their pertinence to, and awareness (whether accidental or otherwise) of the many anxieties facing the world today. Biological warfare, technology usurping humanity, and a crippling fear that perhaps we really are alone in this universe, are not only discussed at length but make up the near entirety of Covenant’s plot.
Though it connects directly with the larger Alien universe, Covenant is ultimately David’s movie. He is the driving force behind not only the film’s largest thematic questions, but is also almost solely responsible for the calamity that befalls the crew once they set down. More than merely an intensely compelling villain, however, David functions as a catalyst for humanity’s fears, both within and outside the context of the film. His nature as a synthetic and clear disdain for humanity align with present fears that one day technology will outpace us, even as we continue to engineer better and better means of destroying one another. The horror at the root of Covenant is not if the ship’s motley (and, it should be said, thoroughly likeable and well developed) crew will survive, but if this could mean the end of humanity altogether. Previous Alien films have toyed with the horror of what would happen if a Xenomorph made its way to Earth, but it has always been a far-off concern; a reason to propel characters forward but not a danger that ever feels especially, well, dangerous. Covenant changes this by making humanity’s survival the crux of the third act, weaving in plotlines from both Prometheus and Alien without ever feeling self-indulgent or self-serious.
Covenant does not joke around with its themes, but neither does it treat them as mere philosophical fodder. The concerns of David and the crew of the Covenant are concerns that can be mapped and felt all around us, and that causes the stakes to feel that much higher. There are only so many times you can see a Xenomorph devour a human before it starts to lose its bite. What that Xenomorph represents, however – isolation, the inability of either science or faith to save us from ourselves, how utterly helpless we are in the face of forces as anonymous and powerful as disease and technology, the seeming meaningless of life in the presence of an endless cycle of creation and destruction – that is a horror that lingers and only grows as it becomes clear that Covenant is not prepared to answer any of the questions which are so integral to its plot.
That might seem cheap or frustrating to some, perhaps even cause to write Covenant off as a failure outright, but it feels necessary. Because to give us answers no matter how improbable, to give us a happy ending of any variety – it would undo the carefully orchestrated dread that causes Covenant to be so unsettling. We can kill the alien, destroy the nest, leave the accursed necropolis behind entirely – but we cannot escape ourselves; our ambition and desire to learn more even as we dislike the answers we find; our habit of engineering weapons simply because we can, and so we must; our refusal to accept that we may be alone out here in the universe. These are concerns which stretch far beyond a simple movie or franchise, and perhaps Covenant takes on more than it can handle, but the mere fact that it is taking it on at all ought to give us pause for thought. Covenant does not want to be merely an expertly orchestrated action-horror movie, it wants to leave us with something to chew on and keep us up at night. Whether it succeeds on that front likely determines heavily on your internal philosophies, but it has been days since I saw the film and I have been unable to think of much else. Covenant left me cold, and somehow that feels like the highest compliment I can pay it.
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