And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. —Romans 8:28
The opening scene of Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant underscore’s the film’s most relevant theme: the horror of flawed godhood. A semi-sentient android, David, stands before his creator. Despite being merely a day old, he uses his vast skill and intelligence to play a piano recitation of Entry of the Gods into Valhalla by Richard Wagner. His creator comments that without the full orchestra, the recitation lacks. The two begin a dialog about the nature of God and creation. David, the android, was created by a human. Who is his creator’s creator? He is told that seeking out that question is life’s greatest purpose. This sentiment is echoed in the final moments of the film when David has conquered everything and placed himself at the pinnacle of his purpose. He strides across a colony ship lined from top to bottom with humans—subjects he plans to turn into ghoulish science experiments. The halls of the ship echo with the full orchestral version of the song that he played on the day of his birth. He has, on his own terms, become a god.
Alien: Covenant has proved to be one of the most controversial films of recent years and not for its content or strident themes. Merely it’s controversial for being a very strange entry in the Alien franchise. In my initial review last year I was extremely disappointed by what I saw. My reviewing partner took the opposite attitude and embraced the film in all of its quirks whereas I was very skeptical. Alien: Covenant as I understood it was a movie that largely forgets a great deal of the logic of its previous entries and throws much of the expanded universe’s material of its franchise out. The movie elaborates on questions about the origins of all the elements of this universe that were better left unexplained in the first film. Worst of all, the film doesn’t craft immediately relatable or complex characters.
But, feelings change, and I’ve had a full year to ruminate on the film now. Having seen it half a dozen times and dug through some very fascinating critical reexaminations from major online critics such as Film Crit Hulk and Patrick H. Williams, I now realize where I made my initial mistake. Properly understood, Alien: Covenant isn’t an Alien film; it’s an android movie that is meant as a meditation on the nature of godhood, creation, and how horrifying the implications of those two things are. The Xenomorph is just a piece in that puzzle. In that sense, a large number of critics I’ve read have more accurately compared Alien: Covenant to Scott’s original Blade Runner than to the original Alien film.
Ridley Scott is an atheist. A great deal of his filmography has referenced his worldview directly and indirectly such as Kingdom of Heaven and Exodus: Gods and Kings. When religion shows up in his films it’s usually as a throwaway remark by a character or something that inspires characters to act irrationally or dogmatically. When God himself shows up, he’s a cruel morally arbitrary being that lashes out at people. Going into Alien: Covenant one would assume it would pick up and continue with a great deal of the themes from its predecessor Prometheus such as the whole Ancient Aliens/Chariot of the Gods idea. That being the famed/infamous scientific theory that the old gods of legend were actually alien beings. The movie here takes those motifs into a whole new direction. All of the movie’s themes are built directly into David’s story. The story carries numerous references to Greek mythology and Christian iconography and more directly builds them into David’s story.
As stated before David’s story is one of attaining a personal godhood and the story expresses that theme through the lens of a horror story by making two simultaneous references in regard to David’s character and his morality. In addition to the regular references of David attaining godhood, the script makes references to him in contrast to Lucifer. Late in the film he quotes John Milton’s Paradise Lost by saying that “it’s better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven.” Though strange, the point is a rather thematically clear one. David’s own quest makes him a Luciferian character to those around him. In order to attain his godhood, he has to use those around him as meat puppets and things to experiment on. The ending is almost a tragic cautionary tale about the horrifying result of a god existing from a radically secular point of view.
A religious viewer of the material might have a somewhat negative reaction to the idea that the film might portray God as a Luciferian figure. It’s not like the movie necessarily treats religion well outside of these themes one way or the other. In the commentary track, Ridley Scott alludes to one of the supporting character’s fundamentalist religiosity as a somewhat negative trait and as stated before, Scott himself has severe reservations about religion. However, what makes Alien: Covenant meaningful to me, is that the film depicts a very clear, concise, and moral critique of the idea of a god from the standpoint of a mere human frustrated at the abject horror of the universe.
From a small, flawed human perspective the infinite churning and chaos of the universe can be overwhelming and for many secular people that horror is something too terrible to bear and still believe that a merciful God exists. If you follow religion and atheism debates online you’ll see the moral critique of religion as a constant sentiment against the validity of any God. To them, God is an immoral being and that wanting to live in heaven with him for an eternity would be a kind of tyrannical hell. This theologian would tell you that that is the fundamental question of theodicy and while for Christians the question is difficult, for the secular-minded that question can be clear.
What makes the movie so powerful to me is that it presents the Christian viewer with a very honest cry against injustice. To us, surrendering to God is vital to our faith because the core of our belief understands that humanity is fallen and irreparable. To many intellectually honest and moral secularists, the idea of praising a being that seems outwardly arbitrary and wrathful is terrifying and must be fought against. The celebrity atheist and member of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism Sam Harris has referenced in the recent past the idea of “steel-manning” as opposed to straw-manning. Arguments ought to be taken at their strongest and most difficult points.
Alien: Covenant offers the religious a call to do just that. Let’s take the argument that this movie presents at its face and grapple with it to understand the perspectives of people that have the harshest things to say about us. Christ calls upon us to go where the people are and many people in the world today are farther from God than ever before. The entire Alien series is all about the vast horror of the unknown and the brave people who delve into it for selfish reasons and heroic ones alike. Let us take after Ellen Ripley herself and dive into the difficult parts of life with bravery simply because we can bring light out into the darkness.