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In Ridley Scott's New Alien Movies, The Xenomorphs Are Really Trojan Horses

  | May 25, 2017 17:10 IST (Washington)
Alien: Covenant

A still from Alien: Covenant.

Alien: Covenant, like Prometheus before it, mines a nearly-40-year-old mythology in an effort to keep a hugely successful franchise running

Bloomberg published an odd piece earlier in the week suggesting that Alien: Covenant is finding success by being the "anti-Star Wars."

It's an unduly complicated formulation for an essay making a rather simple point - specifically, that by keeping its budget closer to $100 million than $200 million, the film's break-even point is much lower - and in some ways the headline is almost the opposite of the truth. After all, Alien: Covenant, like Prometheus before it, mines a nearly-40-year-old mythology in an effort to keep a hugely successful franchise running. How this is the "anti-Star Wars" escapes me.

But thinking about them in relation to Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rogue One did help me clarify what I appreciated about Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Whereas the recent spate of Star Wars retreads has spent unseemly gobs of money to aid us in our never-ending quest to wallow in nostalgia and consume "member berries," Sir Ridley Scott has used the combined quarter-billion budgets for Prometheus and Alien: Covenant to explore ideas that he finds interesting and concepts worth discussing.

Now, Scott's efforts haven't been entirely successful. The most frustrating thing about Prometheus is that it felt as if it were two different movies forced to mate before being injected into the gullet of a third, unrelated property.

At its best, Prometheus feels like a two-hour disquisition into the nature of creation and man's relationship to his maker. It's a movie that asks a simple question - what if you found your maker and realized he hated you, thought you were a mistake? - and does so in an often compelling fashion.

The relationship between Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his android creation David (Michael Fassbender) is fraught, the robot hoping to both please his creator and also transcend the limitations of his programming. This is nothing compared with the relationship between the Engineers - the giant, hairless beings who created humanity that Weyland and the crew of the Prometheus discover in an almost-empty alien ship - and humanity; as we learn in Prometheus," the Engineers were on their way back to Earth to wipe out mankind, possibly for killing Christ.

One exchange helpfully sums up the film's ethos. "Why do you think your people made me?" David asks scientist Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green). "We made you because we could," Charlie replies, dismissively. "Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?" David asks, a mixture of quiet desperation and wicked amusement creeping into his robotic eyes.

This is weighty stuff! Unfortunately, it has to compete with a second film, a body-horror-slash-action picture filled with some of the most unpleasantly dimwitted cinematic creations this side of a Friday the 13th picture. And, on top of that, it's glommed on to - for no discernible reason - the Alien mythos that Scott helped give birth to in 1979. It's almost as if Scott had an idea for a movie and a budget in mind and the studio said "no," so he came back with "OK, but what if it was also an 'Alien' movie?" and they just handed over a sack of cash with a dollar sign on it and said, "Hey, go nuts."

Alien: Covenant continues exploring the ideas raised by Prometheus, better synthesizing those questions and the "Alien mythos in the process. David, marooned on the Engineers' home world after wiping them out with a bioweapon seen in Prometheus, has turned into something of a mad scientist: By the time the crew of the Covenant shows up, David has spent years breeding the mutations the aforementioned bioweapon helped create, tinkering away until he developed the classic facehugger/xenomorph we all remember from Alien.

The Engineers created man in the hopes of helping life flourish across the galaxy, only to see him crucify his savior. Man created the android David because he could, but he made him too well - too smart, too strong, too long-lived. He turned on man just as we turned on the Engineers. And David, in turn, made a "perfect organism," as the psychotic android Ash described the xenomorph in Alien. "Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility."

Viewers of Alien and its successors know how that turned out.

Fans of the series have complained that Alien: Covenant and Prometheus have basically destroyed the continuity of the series carefully cultivated from Alien to Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, as if it matters what ship crashed where and why and when. This is the danger of using the trappings of a franchise to secure a big-enough budget to bring a vision to life.

What these fans are underselling is the way Scott's philosophical through-line has endured over the years. We marvel at creation and dabble in it ourselves. But playing God and pursuing perfection is a dangerous game - one that could lead to our own extinction.

(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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