This post contains spoilers for ‘Prometheus‘ and ‘Alien: Covenant’.
Many marvelous and beautiful things are mysterious. We do not need to know something’s source to know its value. This is particularly true of stories; we love stories in which forces unexplained and irresistible wreak havoc in human affairs: magic, witches, vampires, demons, zombies, these creatures appear again and again in the tales we tell each other.
And, in our most beloved stories, we don’t provide the origin of these supernatural things. We allow them simply to be, and we spend the energy of our story trying to cope with them.
But, sometimes, the tellers of stories are seized by the urge to demystify their monsters, to write their backstories. This is usually a mistake (anyone else remember the midichlorians?). And they are doing this now to that most magnificent of all monsters, the Alien.
The Alien, which first appeared in ‘Alien’ in 1979, was based on a 1976 print by the artist H.R. Giger, ‘Necronom IV’. It is a predatory, eusocial creature with a parasitic stage in a complex life cycle, and, for my money, it is the finest contribution that film has made to science fiction. It is terrifying, the perfect combination of familiar and bizarre, a scrabbling, insectoid nightmare which communicates menace with every move.
The Alien, according to the original conception, was an alien, which added to its horrifying effect. Somewhere out in the endless black expanse of space, life had burst forth. But the same process which made us, the same process of selection and evolution, had, in some twisted alien world, produced this thing, this ravening killing machine. Imagining the world which would have produced the Alien was almost as frightening as the Alien itself.
But, lately, alas, Ridley Scott has turned his attention (and enormous funding) to the creation of an Alien prequel trilogy. The first of these movies, ‘Prometheus’, was released in 2012 and the second, ‘Alien: Covenant’, released last week*. These movies reveal (in a not super-coherent way) that the Alien was, in fact, the result of an infection of humans by a malignant extraterrestrial virus orchestrated by a pathologically grandiose droid. Got that?
Obviously, this is a stupid plot, but what really bothers me is that it is completely unnecessary. No one was clamoring to see the specific evolution of the Alien, and, if we wanted to know more about it, it was because we were interested in the ways in which it was unlike us. We did not want to know that the alien was a human xenomorph all along – that completely ruins the point of it being an alien!
Why must we always do this? Why are we possessed of this mania for origin stories? I understand why we have it for characters, why we are driven to go back and witness the births of Darth Vader and James Bond and Wolverine. We know that people have psychologies, that they are informed by their past, that they are products of their upbringing, of their loves and their traumas, and that we can’t understand them without knowing whence they came.
But the Alien isn’t a character; it doesn’t have a psychology (I don’t care what ‘Alien Resurrection’ implies). The Alien is a force, and forces must be grappled with in the present, whenever and however they find you.
Learning that the Alien comes, in part, from us adds nothing to its narrative power. It only diminishes the effect your encounter with it will have on you: things which are like us or of us are almost always less frightening than things which are completely, ahem, alien, and things seen clearly are less scary than shapes which move in the darkness. The Alien was at its best when it came, screaming at us, out of the black, unexpected and incomprehensible. We were all better off before it was dragged into the light.
*Baffling side note: According to Rottentomatoes, ‘Prometheus’ actually got slightly better reviews (and was better liked by audiences) than ‘Alien: Covenant’, which is confounding, since ‘Prometheus’ a) was terrible and b) has none of the franchise’s most valuable asset, namely, the Alien.