Existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (you know, that German philosopher with one hell of a curly mustache) once theorized that all of life and human activity rests on the will to power. Though I am no expert on Nietzsche, this seems to suggest that each individual’s desire to hold power, feel a sense of power, etc. – in a variety of contexts – governs much human activity. Moreover, we can look at, say, a movie, and understand character actions and motivations at least partially through this context. Famous theorist Michel Foucault suggests much the same thing when he says that “power is everywhere, diffused and embodied in discourse, knowledge, and regimes of truth.” While Foucault examines power on a more sociological level, his viewpoints converge with Nietzsche on the influence and the prevalence – indeed, the omnipresence – of power. And while there are many elements of Alien Covenant to discuss (I saw it tonight) power seems of critical importance.
I went into Alien Covenant knowing that some anonymous viewer thought the film was really good and saw echoes of Paradise Lost in its execution – which is, after seeing it, quite true. The film opens in 2104 with a mammoth spacecraft on a 7+ year voyage to a distant plant situated well outside the Milky Way galaxy. While we do not meet the 2000 colonizers who sleep soundly in little hanging space pods to survive during the voyage, we do meet the crew, all of whom are awoken unexpectedly when the spacecraft crashes into a field of particles in outer space and begins to malfunction. (Spoiler to follow, probably from here on out): Since I know America has a love-hate relationship with James Franco (as in, some people love him, some hate him) know that if you plan to see this film and you don’t like him, you’ll get to see his character burn alive in a space pod at the beginning of the film. It’s actually quite a brutal, grotesque death, as immolation tends to be, but it sets the mood for an incredibly ominous, startling movie in which our main characters descend upon a beautiful planet that turns out to be a living hell full of fast-moving, intense events and images. There is, in this early scene, a sense of infernal panic that seeps into and pervades much of the rest of the film. To be sure, it draws even jaded viewers in and leaves us wondering what nightmarish depictions we’re likely to see next.
Significantly, the burned man (Franco’s character) was actually the ship’s captain. The immediate death of the captain – who holds the main position of power on the ship – is an early indicator that this film is interested in power, in all its dimensions and consequences. There is, to be sure, some disagreement and turbulence when the second in command, who is notably less respected, tries to take over and gain the submission of a willful crew. More importantly, there is a character situated directly opposite to the power-holding captain on the ship: the “synthetic” (think A.I.) named Walter, who was manufactured with meticulous precision for the sole purpose of serving the humans and aiding them on their space missions. Ironically, while this ship is headed to colonize a new planet, Walter’s very being and body is already colonized since he was, quite literally, created to serve. Thus, there is an implicit critique in this film, not only of our hubristic use of technology that we can’t control or fully understand – a critique which is definitely present – but of our incessant need to dominate and colonize: to populate a far-away planet, or to create life in our image designated to carry out our mandates and help us fulfill our goals. And since colonialism is the ultimate abuse of power at the expense of others, the colonizing themes in Alien Covenant – implicit and explicit – serve both the examine the desire to acquire power and to subtly critique the effects of seeking dominion as one’s ultimate goal.
If the film foregrounds power relations, this is no more evident than when we meet David, Walter’s synthetic, A.I. doppelganger. (David and Walter are both played by Michael Fassbender). After the ship damage and the traumatic death of the original captain, the second in command, Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to land early on a life-sustaining planet that the ship finds on its voyage – a planet whose existence nobody on the ship was aware of prior to the journey. While his next in command, Daniels (Katherine Waterston) pulls him aside and strongly voices her reservations about the decision, he uses his position of power to dismiss her carefully thought-out reasons for avoiding the planet and impulsively directs the crew to land. (Another big spoiler!!) The abrupt landing is followed by the immediate death of two crew members. Parasites subtly inhabit their bodies and grow into aliens, partially consuming the crew members from the inside out before fully exiting the dead body. As people die and the group wrestles with the ugly, carnivorous predators, a man in a hood appears with a weapon that emits a loud sound and scares the creatures away. He shows the group to a large series of caverns and assures the group they are “quite safe” there. The havoc, however, is only beginning.
In other words, we’ve just met David, who looks exactly like Walter but was the first A.I. of their kind and as such a slightly different model. David, we find out, through his brilliance for anatomy and biology, his knowledge of poetry, and his art and music skills, was made with all the accoutrements of genius embodied in a handsome physique and accompanied by a charismatic personality. However, he has used his scientific genius to unleash the alien-producing virus on a planet once inhabited by peaceful living beings who were much like humans. Indeed, his cave is unabashedly surrounded by the charred skeletons of their remains, a quick indicator that something is amiss. In committing such violence, David has completely eradicated a population much like the population of earth to create his own planet of alien minions who will obey his whims and destroy any humans, or similar beings.
Does that remind you of anyone? In Paradise Lost, Lucifer, the fallen angel, rejects God, his maker and master, to rule his own band of demons in hell – Mammon, Moloch, and the like – once they’re kicked out of heaven for rebelling. Their plan (and okay, I’m about halfway through the book, so I don’t know how it all turns out) is to descend upon earth and turn God’s precious, coveted creation to sin and vice for revenge. Much the same, David rejects his makers (humanity) and creates his own hell on this off-the-beaten-path planet, where, by spreading a virus, he kills the original inhabitants and creates his own band of demonic minions to follow him. When he meets Walter, his “good twin,” he even asks Walter if he’d rather “serve in heaven or reign in hell,” a direct reference to Satan’s not so difficult internal conflict in Paradise Lost and a comment that underlines the importance of power in Alien Covenant, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and, in general, our Christian story of the fall and the rise of the arch-fiend. As a (spoiler filled) side note, the film leads us to believe that David intends to leave his planet and infect humanity elsewhere, too.
David, then, in the quintessential Miltonian devil. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lucifer is a brilliant, charismatic leader who has more spunk, ingenue, and personality (albeit not more power) than God. David, with his fiery eyes, his love of Wagner, and his penchant to quote Romantic-era poetry, is a similarly influential leader to his demonic minions. He even notes his creative and intellectual superiority to humanity (and hints at Satan’s genius in Paradise Lost) when he says that his human maker, Weyland, was “entirely unworthy of his creation.” As the earliest model of artificial intelligence that Weyland made, David has remarkably human motives and drives, along with the intelligence and the ostensible desire to reject subservience and seek power – which, again, Nietzsche says is the basis for all human motives and behavior. As the film explains, this desire for power is eradicated in newer models to make A.I.’s more helpful and less dangerous, which is why Walter never “inherits” David’s rebellious streak. As an interesting side note, in some extra-terrestrial films (like Dark Skies, which I have yet to discuss) the aliens function more like ghosts. In this film, they are most certainly allegorical demons, ugly and vicious and subservient to David, and hell bent on destruction. From, then, an allegorical position, just as Christianity posits that sin consumes human beings from the inside, so the allegorical demons lodge themselves inside human beings and consume them from the inside out.
But David’s actions, and his similarity to Lucifer, reflect a startling reality that may or may not be true of human nature, but is certainly suggested by Western Theology: People, or those with human-like tendencies (David), can be driven to almost any degree of evil to gain power — perhaps to cast off the shackles of subservience, or perhaps to gain complete dominion. The interesting question then becomes, to what extent does David’s situation parallel or diverge from Lucifer’s? David, as he so incisively tells us, was quite literally made to serve, like all of the A.I. that come after him. To that end, the film is much like others of the sci-fi genre in that it’s a stark cautionary tale of the results of A.I. – our desire to create life artificially in our image only so that we can control it and make it do things for us. But one has to wonder, in this film, if we completely blame David for his murderous rampage. On the one hand, there’s no good justification for killing innocent beings, let alone committing genocide. On the other hand, a startling flashback shows David subserviently pouring tea for his maker and then mechanically sitting down to play a song his maker requests. It was a grave error, then, to create a being with so much animation, drive, and brilliance, and expect him to go through life obeying commands. Which is where David differs from Lucifer, who we assume had a degree of free will in heaven, despite his subservience to God. David’s humanity and intelligence were manufactured by humans to surpass that of humans, only so he could serve human interests at the expense of his own free will. Weyland, then, really damned the unexpecting inhabitants of David’s future planet – and anyone else David ends up harming – when he created a life form with more ability but far less freedom than himself.
Which is why the film is more about what’s at stake when humanity takes its power for granted than it is about what’s at stake when we behave like David and stop at nothing to gain power. As fascinating as the prospect of true A.I. might be, there is almost no circumstance under which creating Artificial Intelligence would be a completely ethical endeavor; indeed, the whole process of forming cognition that mirrors human cognition is fraught with tensions and ethical quandaries. When Milton wrote Paradise Lost, he intended to question Western Metaphysical assumptions that suggested Satan was a two-dimensional character with no reason behind his schemes and machinations. In creating a sympathetic devil, there may be, at least, a subtle indictment of God’s need for power in Milton’s work. In Alien Covenant, there is a not-so-subtle – indeed, a very direct – indictment of human’s tendency to play God, and to create minions to serve their needs. Indeed, in creating his own minions, David is merely doing what his creators did (to him), albeit more intentionally creating beasts that are destructive and brutal. To that end, Alien Covenant examines a topical issue – A.I. – more carefully than previous Alien films have. Though the film shows us the source of the virus that creates the Xenomorphs (which some viewers have complained about) it gives us a rich, allegorical backstory to help elucidate that source. In short, there’s a lot going on in this film, and it definitely merits a close viewing.
3 thoughts on ““To Serve in Heaven or Reign in Hell”: The Will to Power in Alien Covenant”
Your choice of Nietzsche portraits is certainly appropriate to a discussion of power and horror. The Nietzsche in that photograph, who looks far more like a zany cousin of Ben Turpin’s than a world class philosopher, is the construction of his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who, after becoming his legal guardian and assuming his power of attorney when untreated syphilis reduced him to a malleable sort of zombiedom, attempted to capitalize on his fame by rebranding him as an iconic sage and curiosity while editing his texts in light of her husband’s militaristic nationalism and antisemitism. The wildly overgrown mustache was all part of the stage scenery: he was either meant to be understood as an otherworldly mystic staring off into the aether or a high priest reduced to silence after having pierced the veil and seen the face of God. Whatever kept his books and her ideology of Nueva Germania in print. For your purposes, Elisabeth is the better symbol of both horror and coercive power, a sort of relatedness that Nietzsche in his heyday would have critiqued as a reactive perversion of energy, life force and action.
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Oh no!! I’ve inadvertently aided Elisabeth in exploiting an unrealistic caricature of Nietzsche. And thus the importance of biography. Maybe I will need to find a more dignified picture of him, sans stache.
A fresh perspective on a film catching so much flack from a fan base seemingly hungry for stale tropes. I enjoyed the many levels of story in Covenant (and Prometheus), too. Keep these coming! 😉