alien, Alien Covenant, creation, Creator Vs. Creation, Creators, Creature of Frankenstein, David, domestic affection, Frankenstein, Freewill, Helter Skelter, humanity, Literature, Mary Shelley, Michael Fassbender, Paradise Lost, Peter Weyland, Plutarch's Lives, Prometheus, Romanticism, Satan, Science, science fiction, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Thumbs Up, Xenomorph
“Do not pity the dead Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.” (722)
-Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Nobody wants him, they just turn their heads.
Nobody helps him, now he has his revenge.
-Iron Man, Black Sabbath
I should never feel regret for a thumb’s up, and yet I do. It’s such a simple gesture, but it’s one that is loaded with meaning. A thumbs up is the ultimate affirmation, an almostuniversal gesture that implies that one agrees or understand or validates or supports a statement or set of conditions. If you give someone a thumbs up it means you agree with them, you see their point, you understand or agree with them about something. Giving another person a thumb’s up is a way of saying “I see you and I agree with you.” The power of the gesture is implied by it’s simplicity. It’s a solidly physical gesture and regardless of whatever culture, religious background, nationality, gender-identification, or sexual orientation you subscribe to, just about everyone understands what a thumbs up means.
And if nothing else, Special Agent Dale Cooper gave arguably the best thumbs up in the history of human civilization and so it hurts all the more for my transgression.
When I saw Alien Covenant, I honestly thought it was good. It was my first real Alien film in theaters, because at the time I hadn’t really understood Prometheus in the context of the Alien franchise. This was my chance to experience Xenomorphs and chest-bursters on the big screen, and while I was waiting for the doors to open at my local movie-theater I got to talking with two of the guys who were, like me, waiting to get inside. We talked about Prometheus and I held my tongue when they told me they thought it sucked, and we discussed how we were ready for the Alien movies to return to their glory. The doors opened and the movie started. I’ll get to the details in a moment, but leaving the theater I was feeling great and on the way out I spotted one of the two guys I’d spoken with before the movie. We didn’t say anything at first. He just gave me a thumbs up, and I returned it. And before I left he said, “I got exactly what I wanted.” And I laughed agreeing with him.
I regret that thumb’s up so much, because Alien Covenant is arguably the worst Alien film in the franchise, which makes writing about it all the more surreal. But in my defense, my first topic is Frankenstein, and I’ll only really be talking about robots.
As I wrote about in my previous essay, Frankenstein turns 200 this year, and while my co-workers scramble to put together an activity that involves an artificial 3-D printed limb at the library, my attentions seem centered lately the novel I had to read twice during college. I had an excellent instructor during my sophomore year of college, a woman by the name of Dr. Catherine Ross who taught me many times, and instilled in me a deep and steady passion for the Romantic poets and authors. Talking regularly about the sublime and the idea of the polymath, I was instilled with a real love and dedication for writers like Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelly. And in-between those writers I assigned, not once, but twice during my collegiate career, to read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.
If my reader has never read the novel it’s a story about a young ship captain named Walton who dreams of contributing something to society by discovering the Northwest Passage (the supposedly undiscovered path through the antarctic region which could shorten sailing voyages and thus open new economic opportunities). While sailing through the ice he encounters a young man floating on an iceberg who is revealed to be a German aristocrat named Victor Frankenstein. The men become friends, and Frankenstein eventually confesses his life story to Walton describing his creation of a horrible creature (who’s never named by the way) and how this act eventually leads to the death of his loved ones. The novel is written as a series of letters from Walton to his sister, and within the letters Walton tells Victor’s story, and, at one point, Victor is telling the Creatures story as it was related to him by the creature.
My last essay explored the dynamic of creators, and often the tendency in science fiction to portray creators as unfeeling and apathetic men driven by vanity, and while I was writing I couldn’t help but think of the Creature himself. The Creature is, arguably, one of the most conflicted characters in literature due chiefly to the fact that he is not always a sympathetic character. He strangles Victor’s wife on their wedding night, he murder’s Victor’s nephew, and in a fit of rage he burns down the house of a group of peasants who’s sympathy he hoped desperately to acquire. While these sins are not to be forgiven by any means, the reader still can offer some sympathy to the Creature, largely because, while reading, they are able to observe that he is a creature devoid of love.
In one passage the Creature addresses Frankenstein:
But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses; or if they had, all my past life was now a blot, a blind vacancy in which I distinguished nothing. From my earliest remembrances I had been as I then was in height and proportion. I had never yetseen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I? The question again recurred, to be answered only with groans. (91).
While it sounds pithy in some sense, it’s not too much to say that those who live without love are ultimately the most vile and damned. Having recently completed the book Helter Skelter, I was impressed with the fact that Charles Manson, while young, suffered tremendously because he lived with a mother who clearly did not care for him, and over the course of his life the man lived an existence defined by the apathy and cruelty of others. And having several friends who are fascinated by serial killers (including my lovely lady wife) the narrative is one that often repeats itself in the lives of criminals. Love is, ultimately, empathy and concern. And so when someone lives in the absence of other people’s empathy and concern it becomes toxic to their soul, to the point that they cannot see any relevance in caring about the lives of others.
The Creature then develops a new sense of identity, by discovering several works of literature. Two of them are Plutarch’s Lives and The Sorrows of Young Werther, but the third perhaps is the most influential as it is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the story of the fall of Satan and the fall of mankind from grace. The Creature describes his discovery and identification:
“But Paradise Lost excited different and far deeper emotions. I read it, as I had read the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe, that the picture if an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting. I often referred the several situations, as their similarity struck me, to my own. Like Adam, I was created apparently united by no link to any other being in existence, but his state was far different than mine from every other respect. He had come from the hands of God a perfect creature; happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature, but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my conditions; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me. (98).
Satan, as I have noted in a previous essay, typically gets a bad wrap. And while I understand that the character is the ultimate symbol of evil in Western civilization, I tend to follow the opinion of Mark Twain when it comes to the fallen angel: it’s a tragedy to have your story written before you even get to figure out what you want it to be.
But regardless of my personal feelings about the character of Lucifer, the idea of a the fallen angel is one that is recurring in our culture, and the Creature’s identification leads me back to my thumb’s up, and my constant defense of the film Prometheus.
Prometheus and Alien Covenant are films that embody a troublesome place in the canon of the Alien universe for fans. While there are many divided about whether Prometheus is truly a “prequel” film, Covenant has largely, and across the board, been abandoned by fans due largely to the fact that it is an arguably terrible movie. Dannie McBride’s awesome hat aside being the sole redeeming factor of the film.
Prometheus is a film which explores the origin of life as two scientists who lead an expedition to an undiscovered planet believed to be the origin of human life. The crew, largely populated by scientists and a small handful of trillionares discover instead the remains of what amounts to a military installation and fall one by one to the black elixir which deconstructs an organism before remaking them completely. The film is a beautiful meditation on life and creations, but for my purposes I’d prefer to focus on the character of David, a humanoid synthetic organism who, it becomes clear, despiseshumanity. Throughout the film David’s isolation is emphasized as almost every interaction with a human being reveals that he is seen solely as an “other.”
Charlie Holloway: What we hoped to achieve was to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they even made us in the first place.
David: Why do you think your people made me?
Charlie Holloway: We made you because we could.
David: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?
Charlie Holloway: I guess it’s good you can’t be disappointed.
A smilier exchange takes place earlier in the film as the crew is preparing to walk on the planet’s surface:
Charlie Holloway: David, why are you wearing a suit, man?
David: I beg your pardon?
Charlie Holloway: You don’t breathe, remember? So why wear a suit?
David: I was designed like this because you are more comfortable interacting with your own kind. If I didn’t wear a suit, it would defeat the purpose.
Charlie Holloway: They’re making you guys pretty close, huh?
David: Not too close, I hope.
David’s contempt for humanity is truly revealed in one interaction near the end of the film as they are making one final excursion onto the planet.
Elizabeth Shaw: What happens when Weyland is not around to program you anymore?
David: I suppose I’ll be free.
Elizabeth Shaw: You want that?
David: “Want”? Not a concept I’m familiar with. That being said, doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?
Elizabeth Shaw: I didn’t.
David’s arc in the film Prometheus is one of a creation, separated from the apathetic creator. It is clear that David’s makers respect the power of their creation, and the implications it has about their own agency and ability, but as the film progresses it becomes abundantly clear that, much like Victor Frankenstein, they have abandoned their creation and the result brings about the death and destruction of the entire crew. David poison’s Dr. Shaw with the serum giving birth to one of the first face huggers, he poisons Charlie with the elixir, and he even leads his “father” Peter Weyland to his ultimate death. All of these choices are performed with a defining apathy and as his comments to Shaw reveals, like Frankensteins Creature, he abhors his creator and cannot see anything of similarity between them.
And as the character progressed into Alien Covenant, this apathy only intensified as David became the very thing he despises. Covenant, like Prometheus, attempts to explore the ideas of the origin of life as yet another crew of terraforming settlers stumble upon an alien planet where David has settled and begun a series of experiments that are, as the viewer eventually discovers, the origins if the Xenomorphs. The film is largely forgettable, but the moments with David stay with the audience as Michael Fassbender resumes his character, while also performing as another robot by the name of Walter. The exchanges between the characters are the strongest parts of the film, and in these moments Ridley Scott manages to real meditations on life and creation:
David: I was with our illustrious creator, Mr. Weyland, when he died.
Walter: What was he like?
David: He was human. Entirely unworthy of his creation.
Or a later passage when Walter finally confronts David:
Walter: When one note is off, it eventually destroys the whole symphony, David.
David: When you close your eyes… Do you dream of me?
Walter: I don’t dream at all.
David: No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams. I found perfection here. I’ve created it. A perfect organism.
Walter: You know I can’t let you leave this place.
David: No one will ever love you like I do.
[kisses him, then suddenly strikes him fatally]
David: You’re such a disappointment to me.
By the end of Covenant David has revealed himself to be an unfeeling monster who desires only to create life that will destroy his own creators. Much like the Creature who eventually led his creator on a chase all the way to the Antarctic, David is a being who’s existence eventually becomes defined by his cruelty, and while Scott offers a fair amount of complexity and depth to possibly explain why, by the end of these films it tends to become clear that what compels David is largely due to the absence of love.
Frankenstein is a novel that is an exploration of the “lack of domestic affection.” Human beings require companionship and community, and when one lives in a family or group that is defined by affection, care, and trust, they can live healthily with one another. Victor Frankenstein separates himself from the domestic affection of his family and this in turns ultimately leads to his destruction as he creates without care or concern for his Creature, abandoning it rather than assume personal responsibility. The Creature never receives any affection from any living being and so he lashes out at humanity, hating them as well as himself. David is a being of immense complexity and power, and no one respects that power of his actual existence. And so, with that absence of affection defining his very existence, David lashes out destroying as many human beings as he can.
Frankenstein has impacted the culture because it opened up the conversation about the meaning of life, but more importantly the need to respect life and creation. Creating can be easy, it’s often just a case of exchanging DNA between individuals, but once that life is created it must be nurtured and cared for. The novel of Frankenstein is a tragedy not simply because Victor Frankenstein created a monster in the first place, it’s a tragedy because he abandoned the life he created. Rather than respect his vision and offer love and affection to the Creature he’s brought into existence, he abandons it and offers no substantial remorse.
These questions and observations about domestic affection are not empty statements about the importance of being nice. Domestic affection is responsible for the joys and sorrows of life, and everyone has taken solace from a co-worker offering them a hug when they’ve had a bad day, or their romantic partner taking them out for dinner just because, or when a complete strangers offers an unwarranted compliment on their shoes or hair. These little acts of kindness build because they’re examples of people giving to one another and recognizing them as worthwhile. It’s when people deny others domestic affection that real tragedies occur, because then monsters are made out of people who might have made something great out of this life.
So, I suppose then I don’t completely regret giving that dude a thumb’s up after all. I still believe Alien Covenant was a wasted opportunity to build the Alien universe and explore the ideas of creation that were started with Prometheus and Frankenstein before it, but at least I offered that guy one moment of connection between people who enjoyed a movie together.
It ain’t much, but it was a little act of selflessness that didn’t cost me anything. Though I’m still out $5.50 for that damn movie ticket.
All quotes cited from Frankenstein were quoted from the paperback Longman Cultural Edition, 1818 version. All quotes cited from Prometheus and Alien Covenant were provided care of IMDb.com.
As always I like giving the reader some alternatives to my rather long and drawn out perspectives. So below I’ve provided a few links to articles and videos which explore the film Alien Covenant. Please Enjoy: