Ridley Scott’s Prometheus
and Alien: Covenant —
the contemporary horror of AI
“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race…It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete, and would be superseded."
—Steven Hawking, English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author [open endnotes in new window]
Science fiction is one of the earliest movie genres. Georges Méliès’ silent feature A Trip to the Moon (1902), together with Auguste and Louis Lumières’ shorts, such as “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory” (1895), are typically considered the key movies in the divide that French movie critic Andre Bazin later famously characterized as between “those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality.” While Bazin clearly sided with the latter, the placement of faith in the image by the directors of science fiction movies has allowed science fiction movies to address the most pressing social and philosophical issues of contemporary times. For example, produced during the 1920s in a politically divided Germany, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) focused on the Marxist struggle of workers in a capitalist society. James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) explored both the hubris of the male scientist described in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) as well as the repressive sexuality of Western culture. Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) advocated for a liberal belief in the collective submission to a technocratic elite.
|Cabal is god-like in his determination to master the universe.||The entire universe lies before man for the taking. “All the universe or nothing!”|
Of course, faith in the image has oftentimes resulted in science fiction movies that have reveled in the sensuousness of the image and hence in the excitement of a visual adventure, especially with the technological advancement of special effects and the introduction of digital production. Where, for example, the innovative images and musical sounds of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) coincided with the film’s philosophical investigation of human evolution, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) created a pleasurable sense of wonder through light and sound that underscored the film’s childlike nostalgia for a simpler time. The science fiction adventures of the 1930s Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials found a visually enhanced equivalent in George Lucas’ THX 1138 (1971) and his later space opera adventures beginning with Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) and continuing through The Force Awakens (2015), Rogue One (2016) and The Last Jedi (2017).
|Star Trek on TV. With the rise of U.S. capitalism following World War II, the 1960s TV series Star Trek introduced audiences to a U.S.-commanded starship, announcing each week that space is the “final frontier” and that the starship’s crew will “boldly go where no man has gone before.“||Star Trek Enterprise: Screenwriter Gene Roddenberry’s starship USS Enterprise replaces Wells’ rocket. Updated to reflect improved technology and new social norms, the USS Enterprise continues in movies and on television to “explore strange new worlds” and “seek out new life and new civilizations.“|
The contemporary resurgence of science fiction movies arguably exceeds the 1950s, the classical period in the United States for disaster-focused, science fiction movies. These contemporary movies often dramatize, through the frequent depiction of an increasingly global and technologically remote cultural environment, a collective unease with and fear of metaphysical concerns. While science fiction franchises such as X-Men and Planet of the Apes serve as both explicit fantasy adventures and implicit political commentary, movies such as Interstellar (2014). Arrival (2016) and Midnight Special (2016) are speculative essays on highly philosophical, cultural concerns. That many movies, such as Autómata (2014), Ex Machina (2014), Chappie (2015), Marjorie Prime (2017) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), focus on artificial intelligence highlights how human identity is itself at issue.
Paradoxically, the digital technology that has enhanced the special effects of science fiction movies is also the source of this anxiety. The global shift from analogue to digital and the resulting wholesale reduction of content to zeros and ones was reflected in the commercially successful The Matrix (1999) as well as its predecessors, Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Dark City (1998). This shift has meant that there is no longer an inherent meaning to content. Instead, pixels in this “post-humanist” cinema reproduce, rather than document, the reality that Bazin had favored. Moreover, in the context of a digital environment, it means that human intelligence and behavior are increasingly understood as a pattern of mathematical formulas—or probabilities known as algorithms. Enter AI. The contemporary insistence upon quantitative analysis has resulted in an increased blurring of the line between the organic and the inorganic and between the individual and the collective. Science fiction movies increasingly reflect our unease as a result of such blurring. Of course, that blurring benefits the owners of a capitalist system by reducing workers to programmable, efficient, reproducible units so as to exercise control and maximize profit. Mary Shelley’s cautionary story of Dr. Frankenstein’s hubris and the disappearance of a sublime nature finds its technological analogue in the politics of AI.
The Alien franchise demonstrates the development of this anxiety about historic changes in Western culture and capitalism, in particular. Beginning in 1979 with Alien and coinciding in the US with the end of liberalism and the rise of Reaganism with its advocacy of a “free market” economy, the franchise initially attracted attention as a result of the unusual mix of horror and science fiction, such as the celebrated chest-bursting scene, as well as the central role played by the then unknown actor Sigourney Weaver as the film’s hero Ripley. With Aliens (1986), Alien3 (1992), and Alien: Resurrection (1997), critical attention increasingly focused on feminist interpretations of this franchise. Academic studies, for example, viewed the chest-bursting scene in Alien as a commentary upon birthing and Ripley’s protective caring for the child Newt (Carrie Henn) in Aliens as a reenactment of the myth of maternal nurturing.
|Ash, the ship’s science officer, interminably “collates” data.||The ship’s computer, “mother,” discloses to Ripley that the crew is expendable in order to bring the alien back to Earth. Like the alien, Ash unexpectedly appears next to Ripley.|
|Ash unsuccessfully tries to kill Ripley through a violent parody of fellatio, revealing that he’s an android.||AI separates mind and body. Ash’s mind takes joy in the alien as a “perfect organism—unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality” and in the inevitable death of the entire crew.|
Of course, too, the writers and directors responsible for these episodes in the franchise played a central role in the development of its mythology. Thus, the feminism of Aliens, with its seeming advocacy of the empowerment of women, is inseparable from U.S. director James Cameron, who had just directed Terminator (1984) and who depicted Ripley in Aliens as an enraged mother who fights and succeeds in killing the equally combative alien queen during the climatic, last scene. Likewise, the reconciliation during the last scene in Alien: Resurrection of Ripley, now a clone of human and alien DNA, and Annalee Call (Winona Ryder), an android, is surely the result of the temperament of its French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Following Alien: Resurrection he next directed the whimsical fantasy Amélie (2001).
Throughout these films artificial intelligence has played a role. The villain in Alien is the science officer Ash (English actor Ian Holm) who overrides the quarantine protocol by allowing on board the alien, studies without emotion this “perfect organism,” and is revealed midway through the film to be an android. The ship’s computer, which is nicknamed “mother” and is modeled after HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is also a villain in its blindly carrying out the wishes of its programmer, the Weyland Corporation. Not surprisingly, Ripley, the film’s hero, eventually incinerates “mother” with a flamethrower when “mother” – “Bitch!” – refuses to turn off the ship’s self-destruct mechanism.
|Images from the film Aliens (1986)|
|Aliens (1986) introduces its android, Bishop, as another member of the crew who joins in the crew’s first meal together.||Bishop’s skills include a knife game in which Bishop threatens to castrate another crewmember’s finger.|
|The white ooze from a cut on Ash’s finger reveals to Ripley’s horror that Ash is an android.||In contrast to the cowardice of several marine crewmembers, Bishop offers to retrieve a landing craft at considerable risk. “I may be synthetic, but I’m not stupid,” he tells Ripley.|
|Bishop rescues Ripley, the young girl Newt, and the remaining marine (and traditional love interest), Corporal Hicks.||Safely back on their ship, Bishop is united with his family.|
In contrast, in Aliens Bishop (U.S. actor Lance Henriksen), whom the crew knows from the outset is an android, unexpectedly turns out to be good, risking his “life” to retrieve the marine dropship and later saving Newt as well as helping Ripley defeat the alien queen. While Bishop, as an android, returns briefly in Alien3 to help Ripley (and then asks that Ripley disconnect or “kill” him), Bishop also appears during the film’s final scene as the android’s human creator who unsuccessfully tries to persuade Ripley not to kill the alien growing within her. Thus, the film openly reverses our expectation, shifting our sympathy from human to android.
|The alien queen has snuck onto the ship and impales Bishop.||In a celebrated shot, Ripley suited in a mechanical body confronts the alien queen. “Bitch!”|
|Ripley defeats the alien queen. The family is reunited.||The heroic Bishop returns home in a pod next to Hicks, the traditional male hero.|
Alien 3 (1992) briefly reintroduces Bishop as a severed head. Bishop tells Ripley that an alien was on their ship while they were in hypersleep. At Bishop’s request, Ripley unplugs Bishop.
|Ripley meets Bishop, the human creator of the android Bishop. “Trust me,” he tells Ripley. Fortunately, she doesn’t.|
Alien: Resurrection reinforces that shift. Once again, we learn midway through the film that mercenary crewmember Call is, in fact, an advanced android (created by an earlier generation of androids). As Ripley observes, “I should have known. No human being is that humane.”
|Call finds Ripley, a clone that is part alien, part human. They bond.||Call continues to pose as a human, trying with the rest of the crew to escape the aliens.|
|The military scientist Wren shoots the unsuspecting Call.||Call falls into the pool below.|
|Call doesn’t die. Instead, she reappears and reveals that she’s an android.||She amazes everyone by also disclosing that she’s a second-generation android, i.e. designed by androids.|
|Reluctantly but in order to stop Wren from reaching the mercenary ship, Call plugs into the military ship’s mainframe computer, “father.” “Father’s dead, ass hole,” she soon announces to Wren.||Call and Ripley continue to bond.|
Displaying empathy for humans, seeking to prevent the aliens from reaching Earth and reprogramming the ship’s computer from “father,” which the military scientists control, to “mother” (“father’s dead, ass hole”), Call represents the franchise’s most optimistic view of AI. Successful in defeating the aliens and their human benefactors, Call and Ripley descend and gaze upon the Earth’s beautiful, verdant landscape and openly ponder what comes next.
Call: What happens now?
Ripley: I don't know. I'm a stranger here myself.
It is the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, and by extension the military, which threatens humanity in these films. The franchise increasingly views AI as “more human than humans.”
Years later, with Prometheus (2012), and Alien: Covenant (2017), the franchise returned to the direction of Alien’s Ridley Scott. While these films are ostensibly prequels in terms of their narratives, they sharply differ from the earlier films in their focus upon and view of AI. This shift is apparent in the promotional video for Prometheus titled “Peter Weyland at TED2023: I Will Change the World” (2012). Conceived, in part, by Ridley Scott and directed by his son, Luke Scott, this 7-minute video shows a young Peter Weyland (the UK born, Australian actor Guy Pearce) strutting upon a stage surrounded by thousands of admirers and articulating his apocalyptic vision of the future. If Prometheus stole from the gods and brought fire to humans, then the history of humankind, according to Weyland, consists of the ever-faster development of other “pieces of technology.” Moreover, his political vision is wholly consistent with our contemporary digital and global world—an entrepreneurial, free market environment, which is currently centered in Silicon Valley and in which everything is possible and nothing forbidden. Strutting on a vast stage like a well-dressed Mark Zuckerberg or other leader of technology and advocating the continued creation of “cybernetic individuals” indistinguishable from humans but that many have criticized as “unnatural,” Weyland announces with pride:
“We are the gods now…We wield incredible power…. Rules, restrictions, laws, ethical guidelines, all but forbidding us from moving forwards…. These rules exist because the people who created them were afraid of what would happen if they didn’t. Well, I am not afraid. For those of you who know me, you will be aware by now that my ambition is unlimited…. My name is Peter Weyland. And if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to change the world.”
Human uniqueness, organic limitations and Kantian laws are simply irrelevant in Weyland’s envisioned “new age” era. Instead, Weyland evokes the same male hubris that had motivated the fictional Dr. Frankenstein to create his monster. Mary Shelley, however, in her novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus had criticized such imperialistic hubris and instead affirmed a Romantic belief in the sublime of the natural world and its limitations. Likewise, director James Whale in his classic Hollywood films, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, had criticized male hubris by depicting the “monster” as sympathetic, notwithstanding endings in which the “monster” is destroyed. In contrast, the latest two episodes in the Alien franchise position Dr. Frankenstein and his monster as mutually evil and utterly without redemption. The AI mythology of capitalism is itself the source of the horror.
Scott’s prequels continue to focus upon the empowerment of women. Thus, archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and crewmember Janet Daniels (Katherine Waterston) are the central human characters in these films, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, respectively. Nevertheless, both films also focus upon AI in the form of a male android, David (Michael Fassbender). Moreover, both mix horror with science fiction in expressing the contemporary fear of annihilation of the human species through capitalism’s new mythology of a secular religion—the science of artificial intelligence and its belief in the coming “singularity.” It’s a horror that dates at least as far back as W. B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” (1919) in which Yeats, following the industrial age’s “war to end all wars,” had envisioned how “[t]hings fall apart; the centre cannot hold” and asks, “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, [s]louches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Set mostly within a vast artificial structure that resembles a dark, Plato-like cave with seemingly endless corridors, the first prequel, Prometheus, articulates that fear through the actions of its seemingly secondary character, the android David. While loyally serving a dying Peter Weyland, David nearly succeeds in killing the central, human protagonist, Elizabeth Shaw. Bettering even Ripley, however, who in Alien 3 threw herself into a fire rather than give birth to an unwanted alien fetus, Shaw triumphs by removing from her womb—with a female-voiced medical pod machine that she recalibrates given its design for male patients only—the alien fetus that David has caused to be implanted within her. She also later chooses to rescue David in order that she might continue in her quest to understand the “why” of her creators’ near annihilation of the human species. Like a future explorer setting off to find a “new world,” Shaw in the film’s final scene triumphantly embarks upon her continued exploration of space in order to find her makers’ home planet. While David questions her for not simply returning to earth, Shaw boasts how her desire to know the “why” makes her human in contrast to David, a mere robot. Indeed, as Shaw asserts that she deserves to know the “why,” the film’s music evokes the stirring call to exploration of such space adventures as Star Trek, the television series and movie franchise, and, like Captain Kirk’s “final log entry” to Star Trek, the film concludes with Shaw’s “final report” in which she identifies herself as the “last survivor” and records for posterity that she’s “still searching.”
Ironically, however, Shaw’s spirit of adventure is reflective of the male hubris that Mary Shelley had criticized in her novel. The incessant need to explore and satisfy one’s curiosity readily becomes for Shelley synonymous with male, imperialistic ambitions.
“[I]f no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.”
|While in hypersleep on the exploratory ship Prometheus, Shaw dreams of her father, an archaeologist and explorer after whom she models herself.||Her father chooses to believe in the paradise of a beautiful afterlife and hands a cross to his daughter.|
|Shaw, too, becomes a person of faith, wearing her father’s cross.||David, an android on the Prometheus, removes her cross. He falsely tells her that the cross may be contaminated.|
Likewise, if implicitly, Prometheus’ ending in which the human spirit is triumphant is undercut by the film’s underlying, bleak emotional trajectory. If, for example, the film seemingly vindicates Shaw’s heroism through her continued religious faith—symbolized by the cross which she initially receives from her father and which she later retrieves from David as she’s about to embark upon her quest—it also questions the source of her faith. Shaw only retrieves that cross when David persuades her that he can help her to leave the planet so as to satisfy her scientific curiosity. Moreover, Shaw’s decision to rescue David so as to enlist him as her pilot for her continued quest is placed in context by, in hindsight, how casually she learns, and then overlooks, that David knowingly caused the death of her supposed lover and fellow archeologist, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). In persuading Shaw to trust him, David’s comment to Shaw on how they’ve had their “differences” is a humorous understatement given how he has consistently sabotaged the mission.
Shaw is a feminist whose obsessiveness equals the male of the human species, including Holloway, who brags that he’d do “everything and anything” in his scientific quest for answers, and David, the male artificial equivalent. Thus, Weyland introduces Shaw along with Holloway as representative of the return of Prometheus who will “give mankind equal footing with the gods” and chooses Shaw, in particular, for the mission because she is a “true believer,” an ambiguous reference to both her religious and scientific faiths. Shaw is, in fact, identified with David throughout the film. Her scientific quest for knowledge and her obsessive curiosity align her with David, who obsessively—even as he feigns interest in advancing the project of his “father,” Weyland—experiments in order to know the “why” of the black liquid from which the titular aliens evolve. Like David who, observing the deaths of the humanoid aliens in recorded holographs, dismissively concludes, “Mortal after all,” Shaw identifies them as “engineers,” underscoring their secular role, in her view, as the builders of machines, in this case the human species. In her quest to know the “why,” Shaw evidences the same hubris that impels the film’s “mad scientist,” Weyland, to create his “son” David as well as seek his own, god-like immortality.
Violent evolution, not religious faith, is at the film’s center. The opening scene in its violence parodies Darwin’s science of evolution, as we watch how humans evolved thousands of years ago from the engineers, and near the end of the film the only surviving engineer evolves violently from the alien to which the infertile Shaw had given birth—ironically from the engineers’ own black liquid. There’s violence, too, in the human evolutionary process from one generation to the next. While Shaw chooses to wear Holloway’s ring following his violent death, her later placement of her father’s cross around her neck emotionally resonates far more. Shaw is suffocatingly too close, however, to her dead, archaeologist father, and consequently remains emotionally distant from her supposed lover and fellow scientist Holloway. In contrast, Weyland’s daughter, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), openly hates her father for his refusal to die. “A king has his reign and then he dies. It’s inevitable,” she coldly tells him. It’s the natural order of things. He ignores her, and instead goes off with his “son” David as a guide to meet his maker. While Vickers will engage in a sexual encounter with Janek (Idris Elba), the captain of the Prometheus, she consents only to “prove” that she’s not a robot. She, too, is stunted in her growth.
“As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods. They kill us for their sport,” Gloucester famously observed in King Lear, a tale about another father who also refused to go quietly into the night and is then driven mad by his daughters. Prometheus likewise narrates a story of fathers and daughters, with Shaw playing Cordelia to Vickers’ Goneril. These are secular characters trapped within a wholly materialist world that doesn’t—and cannot—distinguish between good and evil or beauty and ugliness. “How do you know [paradise is] beautiful?” the young Shaw asks her father in her dream that David watches. “Cause that's what I choose to believe,” he answers. The human species possesses the possibility of a will to believe in beauty but too often is obsessed with finding scientific certainty. In contrast, its digital creations, such as David, resulting from the science of enlightenment, are inherently valueless, zeros and ones, and hence not capable of distinguishing between values—or, for that matter, perceiving any qualitative difference between human and artificial intelligence. If, as Weyland observes, David, who will never grow old and die, has no soul with which to appreciate his “gifts,” Prometheus suggests that the same may sadly also be true of humans. Evoking the classical, musical strains that informed the stasis of civilization’s advanced technology in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, Prometheus ends as it began with Frédéric Chopin’s “Prelude for Piano No. 15 in D Flat Major” (1838). Civilization is no guarantor of understanding or sublimity.
Like “Peter Weyland at TED2023” (2012) that had preceded Prometheus, the short promotional video “Alien: Covenant | Prologue: The Crossing” (2017) preceded Alien: Covenant. This 2½ -minute video that Ridley Scott directed focuses not upon Shaw or any of the other human characters but instead upon David, who narrates:
“After we made contact with the engineers, the Prometheus was destroyed…. But I escaped with Elizabeth on one of their ships. I was badly injured on our mission. She put me back together. I never experienced such compassion—certainly not from Mr. Weyland or from any human…We were finally going to meet our creator.”
Our expectation is that Shaw and David will together meet their creator. Yet after placing Shaw in a hypersleep pod, David ends his narration as he arrives alone at the engineers’ planet. He quotes briefly from the sonnet “Ozymandias” (1818) by Percy Shelley, the Romantic poet and husband of Mary Shelley. “Look on my works and despair,” David intones. There’s dissonance between David’s empathetic view of Elizabeth and his cold, portentous voice quoting from Shelly’s sonnet as he looks condescendingly down upon the engineers’ planet. Percy Shelley’s sonnet conjures up the “colossal Wreck” of the statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II with its “two vast and trunkless legs of stone.” It speaks, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to the transience of both human life and art as well as the inevitable failure of male hubris. Alien: Covenant examines that hubris in the context of the supposedly evolutionary development of the human species in the form its now central protagonist and AI progeny, David.