‘Alien: Covenant’ and the Nature of Horror

A look at where ‘Covenant’ is similar to the original ‘Alien,’ and where it differs.
By  · Published on May 30th, 2017

A look at where ‘Covenant’ is similar to the original ‘Alien,’ and where it differs.

Much has changed in the 38 years since Ridley Scott’s Alien was first released — or, more precisely, unleashed. The claustrophobia and primality of that first film have given way, in Alien: Covenant, to expansive planets, lost civilizations, and ponderous mythologies. This is not to say that the franchise has been drained of all its thrills; Covenant’s pallid neomorphs would give even Ellen Ripley a real shiver. But the prevailing impression left by Scott’s latest installment is less of horror than of existential gloom. The threats it conveys feel at once larger and more diffuse than any one creature.

To get to the bottom of what makes Covenant so different from the original Alien, it may be useful to define the genre that the latter so thoroughly exemplifies. Horror, the philosopher Noël Carroll explains, “is a compound of at least two other emotions: fear and disgust.” These emotions are often evoked, in horror films and literature, by the presence of a monster – and what a monster the xenomorph is. Rapacious and vile, it’s an amalgam of all the qualities natural selection made most salient and repulsive to human beings. This is, of course, true of all monsters: they are more real than real, more predatory than any natural predator. But they are not threatening in the way that a nuclear bomb is threatening. Rather, they are designed – and here we can use the word “design” unselfconsciously – to push our evolutionary buttons, to shake us all the way to the bottom of the brain stem.

The original Alien is, in some ways, explicitly Darwinian: it is about one species struggling to survive the predation of another more well-adapted one. The xenomorph’s acidic blood and retractable jaw are not meant to be supernatural powers but survival adaptations. As Ash puts it to Ripley, it’s “a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” As viewers, we respond to the xenomorph on a primal level. Few of us have ever encountered slimy beasts intent on eating us, but we nevertheless bear deeply programmed instincts about malice and contagion that horror films powerfully exploit.  In his book, The Anatomy of Disgust, the writer William Ian Miller provides a precise summary of the type of circumstance for which the emotion of horror evolved. It would be difficult to conceive of a better description of the Xenomorph:


“Because the threatening thing is disgusting, one does not want to strike it, touch it, or grapple with it. Because it is frequently something that has already gotten inside of you or takes you over and possesses you, there is often no distinct other to fight anyway. Thus the nightmarish quality of no way out, no exit, no way to save oneself except by destroying oneself in the process. Horrifying things stick, like glue, like slime. Horror is horror because it is perceived as denying all strategy, all option. It seems that horror is a subset of disgust, being specifically that disgust for which no distancing or evasive strategies exist that are not in themselves utterly contaminating. Not all disgust evokes horror; there are routine petty loathings and gorge raisings which do not horrify. Disgust admits of ranges of intensity from relatively mild to major. But horror makes no sense except as an intense experience. Mild horror is no longer horror.”


How does this description map onto Alien: Covenant? To be sure, the film has its share of creepy contagions working their way into various orifices. It’s in these moments that the movie feels most fun, most like an Alien film. But the emotional timbre changes when the crew meets David, and when he is gradually revealed to be the film’s primary villain. The cat and mouse game between alien and human turns into something far weightier, if somewhat less affecting. Of course, Scott had already dispensed with Darwinian trappings when, in Prometheus, he revealed that the Alien universe is characterized by design, not natural selection. Ripley’s rugged survivalism was replaced with Elizabeth Shaw’s blind faith. By the time we get to Covenant, Shaw’s faith in God has in turn been replaced by David’s singular belief in “creation.”

As I recently wrote in my piece on AI and human nature, reflecting artificial intelligence on screen presents a problem for our emotional machinery. Unlike the xenomorph, whose every feature evokes an ingrained fear response, AI poses a threat that our genes have not prepared us to encounter. Where the xenomorph is hostile, AI is merely indifferent; where the xenomorph is slimy, AI is fastidiously clean. Covenant exploits this fact: the humans in the film are lulled into complacency by David’s unthreatening appearance and do not realize the threat he poses until it is too late. But as his plan begins to unfurl, the emotions we feel as an audience are not the primitive fear and disgust that constitute horror.

A further distinction is useful here: Carroll draws a line between art-horror, of which monster films are a subset, and natural horror, which might describe the Holocaust or some other real-life atrocity. This distinction gets to the heart of the paradox of horror itself; namely, why do we pay to experience an emotion that in many ways seem negative? Art-horror, built as it is on the excitation of certain emotions, can be pleasant in much the same way that a rollercoaster is pleasant. It provides the thrill and novelty of danger without its actual consequences. Natural horror, by contrast, is all consequences. It is the sort of event for which the phrase “the banality of evil” was coined.

It is precisely this mechanistic, banal sort of horror that David evokes in Covenant. This wasn’t always the case: in Prometheus, David’s stiltedness made him an embodiment of the uncanny, which evokes a type of art-horror rooted in eerie curiosity. When, at the end of that film, he is reduced to a severed head (like Ash in Alien), he becomes a reminder of the frailty and vulnerability of the human body. This, too, can be called uncanny, and thereby an extension of art-horror. But in Covenant, David has transcended these limitations; he is, as Walter tells him, “too human.” Thus, his evil stops feeling like that of a monster and begins to feel merely monstrous.

None of this amounts to a critique of Alien: Covenant; on the contrary, the film illuminates the boundaries of horror in a way that Alien, in its lean efficiency, could not. But in clarifying these boundaries, Covenant also shows us the many ways in which our emotional equipment leaves us ill-prepared for the challenges of the 21st Century. Violence allures and excites us – until it doesn’t. We are easily animated against individual villains but find it difficult to counter impersonal systems. And if, as some have argued, our unconcern about AI and global warming constitutes a “failure of intuition,” perhaps horror is a poor guide for what to be afraid of.

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