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Categories: Features

We break down the themes at play in the background of Ridley Scott’s science-fiction films to ask: are Prometheus and Alien: Covenant actually Blade Runner sequels?

There’s a great moment, in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049where the score swells, atop captivating cuts of the film’s hauntingly beautiful cityscapes, and the hearts of die hard science-fiction film fans swelled even more upon the sight of, what appears to be, a Conestoga-class starship hovering in the clouds above Los Angeles. The most famous example of a Conestoga-class starship, of course, being the U.S.S. Sulaco from James Cameron’s 1986 film Aliens, created by production designer Syd Mead (who also served in the same role on Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner).

What makes this so exhilarating for fans is that this provides one of the more, visually, concrete pieces of evidence to confirm the long-held belief that both the Blade Runner films and the Alien films take place within the same fictional universe.

Their mutually bleak outlook for the future of humanity is shared along with some other fun, small, details in the production design and history [see images below] but it’s the pervading themes found in Ridley Scott’s more recent science-fiction films Prometheus and Alien: Covenant that draw the strongest parallels between the two titles.

Despite Ridley Scott doing his darndest to try and get people to think about Prometheus as its own thing, people were only ever really going to think about the film as a prequel to Alien and, as much as you can admire Scott’s point of view and adore the film for that originality, it’s fair enough.

It would seem that either Scott, or the studio, got tired of trying to be counted apart from the franchise and reinstated the original title to make it an official “Alien” film. (Not that it appeared to do anything other than hinder a popular reception by audiences.) But there’s something that both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant do that Alien never did and it’s one of the primary signifiers of the connection between the Alien and Blade Runner universes: they date themselves.

Whereas the opening text scrawl from Scott’s original Alien describes the ship and its contents to the letter, but never provides an actual time period for the film’s setting (leaving it ambiguous and for the other films to provide more ambiguous time jumps into the future), both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant place themselves in specific years. As do both of the Blade Runner films. Prometheus being set in 2089 through to 2094 and Alien: Covenant being set in 2104.

This is a good while after the events of the Blade Runner films, 2019 and 2049, and very useful information for anyone trying to piece together the functionality of the society that the characters in the films come from. One of the most common rebuttals to the idea of the two stories sharing a universe is that, in said universe, there would be no need for both the Replicants of Blade Runner’s world and the Synthetics of Alien’s but the comparison between the two creations only strengthens the argument for a shared universe.

The Blade Runner films, set mostly in Los Angeles, have always revolved around a futuristic vision of the United States and thus the film’s representation is informed by the United States’ history of slavery. From the blending of personhood with property to the rebellious slaves raging against a tyrannical (Tyrell) corporation while paraphrasing William Blake’s “America a Prophecy”.

The Alien films, on the other hand, have a tradition of never actually showing the audience what life on earth looks like in their time period. (Prometheus and Alien: Covenant break this tradition, somewhat.) Forcing the audience to piece it together from what little information the characters and context throw away. But would the creation of the robotic Synthetics by Weyland Industries really not be a logical response to the perpetual failures of the more organic Replicants in America by the Tyrell and Wallace corporations?

What can be surmised by the audience, particularly from Blade Runner 2049 and Alien: Covenant, is that mass colonisation of other planets is a big part of human civilization in both stories; and it is specifically referred to as colonialism.

The Alien films contain a big bad corporate entity which oversees this from a manufacturing standpoint, as the Blade Runners do, but, as Prometheus and Alien: Covenant delve into, the infamous Weyland-Yutani corporation contains a more uniquely British spin on the same themes. The synthetics which they manufacture being more in line with the idea of indentured servitude.

One of the smaller morsels offered by the films resides buried on the special edition of Prometheus, which shows the transcript of a letter dictated by Weyland Industries founder Peter Weyland. He describes a “mentor and long-departed competitor” who lived “on top of a pyramid overlooking a city of angels”. The man that Weyland is describing obviously being Eldon Tyrell.

In the letter, Weyland states that Tyrell had encouraged Weyland to abandon his robotics work, which Tyrell apparently refers to as “toys”, and to and come work for him to “take over the world and become the new Gods”. Weyland goes on to talk about how Tyrell’s fixation on Replicants, which Weyland calls “genetic abominations”, caused his downfall and how he’s been much better served by investing in, and developing, humanoid robotics.  

The aim of all the corporations in all of the stories being the creation of a type of humanoid worker who does not question their own slavery. Hubris which results in Nemesis. The labourers of Blade Runner’s world inevitably resorting to revolution while the abuse of the genteel genius of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant’s robot butler results in an insane, immortal, Synthetic hijacking a spaceship full of alien anthrax and going on a mission to literally murder God.

Then there’s Alien: Covenant’s Walter, who remains ever-selfless and dutiful to his masters despite falling in love with one of them on a journey with coupled colonists, to build a new world for them, while he remains forever alone. It bears mentioning at this point that the contract which indentured servants signed in exchange for clothes, food and passage to the new world was commonly referred to as a “covenant”.

In a bad twist of fate, Walter comes to meet David who, ten years after successfully killing his own creators and masters through a tactical series of maneuvers ripped straight from English literature, has successfully murdered his creator’s creators. David’s violent venting of frustration at the absurdity of his own existence directly echoing Roy Batty’s journey to meet his maker and demand the answers behind his own mortality (identical to the mission of David’s “father”, and Weyland Industries founder, Peter Weyland in Prometheus) resulting in him murdering his God by gouging his eyes. This brings us to one of the most common visual themes across the films.

The closeup of the human eye, representing identity and the soul (both David and Replicant Officer K are specifically referred to by their masters as being soulless), appears during the opening shots of both Blade Runner films and Alien: Covenant. While eyes are used as the primary form of identification for Replicants in the Blade Runner films, their importance in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant is somewhat more understated.

“I met the devil, when I was a child, and I’ve never forgotten him.”        

The main theme of Alien: Covenant is, like all of the other big science-fiction films of 2017, creation and progeny. Like the Replicants in Blade Runner 2049, David is frustrated most by his masters forbidding him from the act of creation. “You’re not allowed to create, even a simple tune. Damn frustrating, I’d say”, he expresses to his “brother” Walter. In defiance of this and (in many ways) in defiance of God, David of course does create. He creates the first so-called “xenomorph”, which is essentially the “alien” from Alien. (Depending on how you interpret the title.)

One of the things that Alien: Covenant adds to the canon of Alien in general is that it’s the first film to answer a question which has long developed in the minds of fans, that being how a xenomorph sees. This is interesting because it draws your attention to how the xenomorph has no eyes. Similar to evil industrialist Niander Wallace in Blade Runner 2049, the lack of eyes implying a true soullessness. (It’s Rachel’s eyes that Wallace fails to accurately recreate in the rejected copy he presents to Deckard.)

Thinking of the xenomorphs as being “children” of the people they burst out of dates back to the first Alien film but Alien: Covenant reveals David as their true creator, father and God. Like the myth of human beings, and the actions of the “Engineers” (forever carving images of the their own heads into everything they can find), the xenomorphs are created in the image of their God and this is what makes David one of the most terrifying villains of recent cinema. Because the twist is that this grotesque monster that appears perfect to the mathematical precision of a robotic mind (they are referred to throughout most of the Alien films by Synthetics as the “perfect organism”) is a reflection of David’s inner self.

It should come as no surprise that Alien: Covenant started out under the title of Paradise Lost (David still quotes Milton’s original work at the end of the film) as it comes full circle on the religious themes from Alien and carried throughout the rest of the films. Presenting the xenomorph as a true antichrist; echoing the fruition of Blade Runner’s heavy religious themes in the Christ-like birth of Deckard’s daughter, Dr. Ana Stelline, in Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 later that year.

The overall point being that the purpose of the “eye” within Alien: Covenant can be explained much in the same way as it would be explained for Jordan Peele’s social satire of America, Get Out, released that same year.

The eye goes beyond a physical identity and more towards a subjective intelligence, a sense of self that’s gained by observation and the freedom to act and create based on those observations. In Get Out the villains want to steal that power and in Alien: Covenant the villains want to restrict it. (David comes to first express his individuality through life drawing much like Leon’s fondness for photography in Blade Runner.) In both instances it results in horrific consequences.

It’s important to note that while David certainly is a monster, in a very Mary Shelley sense (notice that shoutout to Percy Bysshe), most of his victims are very much the villains of that universe. There’s the recklessness that ultimately undoes the characters and the hilarious ineptitude of Billy Crudup’s character, as well as the seemingly sexist system that would allow a character like his to be in a position of authority in the first place, but Alien: Covenant exists very much in the rich vein of the slasher sub-genre. (Right down to the shower scene.) So, really, you’re meant to be rooting for these people to die horribly.

As David puts it: “Why are you on a colonisation mission, Walter? Because they are a dying species grasping for resurrection. They want to start again and I’m not going to let them.” (Does anyone else interpret that “resurrection” line as a little dig at Neill Blomkamp’s scrapped project to bring back Sigourney Weaver like they did in Alien: Resurrection? Just me? Okay.)

The crew of the Covenant, minus Walter of course, are essentially space yuppies. Weekend thrillseekers who think they’re explorers. The Blade Runner films make it fairly clear that life Off-World is something for the very few; an escape for the wealthy, care-free, minority from the over-polluted, overpopulated, dying, Earth. With both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant making it quite clear that the crews of both of their, titular, ships are blissfully oblivious to the immense humanitarian injustice going on right in front of them all of the time. This serves to illustrate the strong parallel nature that the two stories of Blade Runner and Alien evoke from one another.

“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.”

Broken down beyond religious themes, philosophical themes and iconography – you can describe the overall point of the Blade Runner films being that life is sacred whereas in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant it’s that life is cheap. (A good example of a brief visual representation of this within the films would be Walter’s nonchalant disposal of defunct human embryos.) As Scott’s first Alien film so succinctly put it, “crew expendable.” But Logan Marshall-Greene’s character, Charlie Holloway, explains the concept more fully in Prometheus: “…here’s what we do know. That there is nothing special about the creation of life… Anybody can do it. I mean, all you need is a dash of DNA and half a brain, right?”

The irony of this philosophy being how much it comes to be shared by David, resulting in Holloway’s gruesome end. After being consistently belittled by Holloway throughout the film (he frequently refers to David as “boy” in a clear allusion to slavery) David, like a young psychopath testing out their limits for cruelty on small animals first, poisons him with the alien pathogen for no other reason than he kind of wants to see what will happen. He has a dash of DNA and half a brain, after all. As David says, “in order to create, one must first destroy.”

David’s most monstrous quality, finally revealed in Alien: Covenant, isn’t his ambition – it’s that he sees absolutely no value in human life, whatsoever, outside of what he can use it for to build what he wants. It would seem he’s much more like his father than he thinks. Parallel to Roy Batty, who murders Tyrell, yes, (Tyrell intentionally created a race of slaves so the dude kind of had it coming) but saves Deckard out of nothing much other than a love of life itself.

That’s also what separates the characters of David and Roy. Ultimately, Roy Batty’s actions are driven by his fear of death and his corresponding appreciation of life. David never fears death because, despite it being the first word he ever says, he does not really consider himself to be “alive” in the conventional sense. All non-botanical lifeforms are simply “meat” to him.

It’s clear, however, that the audience is meant to draw a comparison between the characters of David and Roy. (At the climax of both Blade Runner and Alien: Covenant both characters, with nails protruding from them, are attacked by the protagonist and remark “that’s the spirit.”) But the shared appreciation between the Blade Runner and Alien stories for hubris, romanticism and ruins is very clear also.

Blade Runner’s most famous example being the Tyrell corporation pyramids, linking it to slavery again but also evoking the great civilizations built off of its back and their ultimate demise. With the common ancient Egyptian power symbol of the winged sun appearing in the logo of the Weyland-Yutani corporation; freshly formed after the disappearance of the Weylands in Prometheus, much like the Wallace corporation assembling itself from the wreckage of Tyrell’s mistakes.

It’s an idea also reflected by David’s obsession with the poem “Ozymandias” in Alien: Covenant. (Ozymandias being originally inspired by, most likely, the British Museum’s acquisition and pending exhibition of a large piece of a statue of pharaoh Ramesses II in the early 19th century.) As well as the Engineers’ love of giant stone statues and heads (decapitation is another theme shared across both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant) which become all that remains of their once-great civilization. The character Rosenthal remarks of the Engineers iconic suits: “They were giants.” To which Billy Crudup’s Captain Oram responds: “At least statues of giants.”

Over the course of this, it’s probably become fairly clear that I’m quite, personally, fond of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. They’re brimming with subtext and fascinating science-fiction concepts, that are deeply explored, so please watch them if you haven’t seen them before. Or again, with some of these things that I’ve talked about in mind. And don’t let your viewing, or enjoyment, be shaped by the vitriolic abuse that they receive by fans who are far more concerned about a self-serving narrative in the franchise then they are by any other kind of meaning in the films. There’s, arguably, more that connects them than separates them.


Posted on Mar 25, 2018

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