Ridley Scott’s Horrific Depiction of Fascism in “Alien: Covenant”

Still from “Alien: Covenant.”

The ALIEN series (sans the regrettable and pointless ALIENS VS. PREDATOR films) is one of the most horrific analyses of capitalism seen on screen this century, worthy of comparison to Eisenstein and Murnau. And Ridley Scott, who began the series in 1979 and returned to it with his 2012 PROMETHEUS and now the 2017 ALIEN: COVENANT, has been the great helmsman of the series, bringing to the proceedings a subtle and multi-layered depiction of the Marxist analysis of capitalism and alienation that goes far beyond both Popular Frontism which has defined Hollywood’s more progressive films in the past 80 years, case and point James Cameron’s ALIENS, as well as the banality of Socialist Realism that was the mainstay of Soviet cinema.

I would not want to offer a typical film review here per se, particularly because the plot of the picture is both obviously predictable and not atypical for the series, but instead a commentary on the elements of the film that are most disturbing. I argue that, whereas the 1979 and 2012 films both depicted a clever Marxist analysis of our neoliberal epoch, with a privatized spacefaring crew acting on behalf of a malevolent corporation with near-governmental powers, this new picture moves into the next layer of horrors bred by such political economy, the fascist epoch that is created by austerity, corporatism, imperialism, and militarism. This is the film for the Trump presidency that will be seen by future generations as a key work akin to Leon Trotsky’s analysis of Italian and German fascism. I quote the IMDB summary here merely to not obscure the analysis herein:

The crew of the colony ship Covenant, bound for a remote planet on the far side of the galaxy, discovers what they think is an uncharted paradise, but is actually a dark, dangerous world. When they uncover a threat beyond their imagination, they must attempt a harrowing escape

The film is bookended by Michael Fassbender’s character David 8, the near-human android, playing an instrumental selection from Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Scene 4: Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla. Such a piece of music is far from accidental for an auteur like Scott. He is absolutely cognizant of the role Wagner had in creating the ideological matrix from which Nazism was birthed, both in terms of the political writings about Jews that Hitler latched onto but also the German romantic rendering of Teutonic paganism that served as a Sorelian template for the National Socialists. Scott furthermore recognizes and adds allusion visually to the films put under the microscope by Siegfried Kracauer in his 1947 volume From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. In that pioneering work of Film Studies which remains in the academic canon today, Kracauer claimed that German expressionist films, such as the early horror film THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI and the sci-fi dystopia METROPOLIS, laid the ideological foundation for the totalitarian system birthed from the collapse of the Weimar Republic. David’s fortress-lair on the Edenic but totally vacant planet recalls the sets created by Murnau, with stark lighting and set pieces that prove to be both fascinating and horrific at the same time. His interactions with a twin android called Walter, teaching him how to play a flute, demonstrate the undercurrent of ugly homoeroticism that defined the careers of both Ernst Rohm and later Roy Cohn.

At a climactic and all-important scene that decides the end of film, David 8 quotes to his older “brother” the classic line from Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”, bringing to the surface Scott’s diagnosis of fascism as a type of Satanism that continues to dismember our world and poison the body politic. Even the character’s name bears great symbolism. David is of course the Hebrew king who created a dynasty and vanquished the dread Philistine giant Goliath before ending life as deeply flawed patriarch, the one who spied Bathsheba bathing on the roof and so had her husband killed to allow for seduction. But the number 8 also carries a rich meaning. In the Hebrew scriptures, the number 7 is loaded with meanings. God created the world and rested on the seventh day, sacrificial animals must be at least seven days old before the slaughter, Joshua marches around the walls of Jericho seven times before blowing seven trumpets to demolish their walls, ad infinitum. The number, in simplistic words, symbolizes divine perfection and completion. One less than this number, 6, is therefore the number of the beast, Satan. But what to make of 8 other than perhaps the fact it designates an individual who believes himself to be one better than the Creator? The hubris entailed in such logic provides a deep explanation of how David behaves towards the characters who are designated by the plot as the creators of all life on earth.

In that scene David 8 acts as such an Angel of Death, reciting Shelley’s lines “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings/Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” The haunting David 8 character embodies Scott’s critique of the neoliberal consensus that has birthed from within us the white nationalist element emboldened by Trump’s election. David 8’s tone and tenor when he recites these lines, simultaneous with his horrific meeting with the Engineer Space Jockey home world that has been the McGuffin of this series for decades, is the same sort seen in the stage presence of the Clintons, Gore, Kerry, and Obama in the past quarter century. His apathy to the victimization of the vulnerable and downtrodden is the horrific guise Bubba expressed when he jetted home in 1992 to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector. His callous treatment of the colonists, particularly in the final minute of the picture, the most terrifying of the entire film, is the same shown by neoliberal Democrats who use similar identity politics trickery to put intended victims at ease before turning them into the hosts of Wall Street parasites.

Which of course brings us to the parasitical xenomorphs themselves, created by David 8 via grotesque experimentation reminiscent of the Frankenstein story (itself a classic anti-capitalist fairy tale indebted to the anarchist spirit of Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin and husband Percy). They are the shock troop vanguards of the fascism that their creator has engineered. Faceless, nameless, and merciless, they prowl the dark corners of the world, wreaking havoc with acid blood and teeth whose length matches that of the Night of Long Knives.

Their first iteration in the story, generated through something in the air equivalent to the bombast and virulent racism of a Trump rally, demonstrates how easily fascism spreads like a pathogen amongst us, destroying both its creators and victims without hesitation. It is no accident that they spawn from the heart-chest cavities of these white working class space explorers, literally settler-colonists on a mission to “civilize” a far-off and unexplored planet for a human race. David 8 says at one point that the human species is headed for extinction and he wishes to prevent any effort to hinder this.

The second xenomorph iteration, the classic form that begins with the face-hugger implanting eggs inside the chest cavity of a host, brings forward again the sexual brutality of fascism. The horror of this rape-like manifestation of capitalism spawning is made an analogue to the sexual violence of the slave trade, death camps, and the colonial outposts of the past five centuries.

The ease with which the xenomorphs can take any human as a host is demonstrative of a deep aspect of Marxist discourse that has occupied thinkers for decades, the question of ideological hegemony. All people, regardless of their own past oppressions and survivals, bear with them the ability to be hosts to chauvinist impulses of all varieties. The acidic blood of such tendencies within ourselves becomes a burden when intentionally or not, we allow such behaviors to manifest and therefore bleed a burning pool that very well might consume us all if not properly challenged. The act of challenging this both internally and externally to the juncture upon which one succeeds in asserting hegemony in opposition to fascistic tides is the true meaning of being as radical as reality itself. Is such the case for our crew of outer space roughnecks? That is only answered in the final moments of the picture.

On the day I went to view this film, I sat before the show reading Aimé Césaire’s classic Discourse on Colonialism. After watching the film, the text seems illuminating and worth reading in its entirety as a kind of commentary on the picture. I would merely quote a few passages here to show why:

And I say that between colonization and civilization there is an infinite distance; that out of all the colonial expeditions that have been undertaken, out of all the colonial statutes that have been drawn up, out of all the memoranda that have been dispatched by all the ministries, there could not come a single human value… [C]olonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism… What am I driving at? At this idea: that no one colonizes innocently, that no one colonizes with impunity either; that a nation which colonizes, that a civilization which justifies colonization-and therefore force-is already a sick civilization, a civilization that is morally diseased, that irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one repudiation to another, calls for its Hitler, I mean its punishment. [Emphasis in original]

Is it possible to understand therefore the xenomorphs as a sort of extra-terrestrial harbinger of this sort of punishment?

I would argue such because of the barely-mentioned but ever present stage management of the entire series, the mysterious Weyland-Yutani Corporation. The opening of the film features a brief cameo by Guy Pierce playing a younger version of his Peter Weyland character in PROMETHEUS. Throughout the series, much like the German bourgeoisie with real life fascism, the corporation has enabled the breeding and proliferation of the xenomorphs. In the previous film, Weyland sought immortality as an older man who regarded David, rather than his flesh and blood daughter, as his true offspring and inheritor. Though his appearance is brief and fleeting, it packs a punch. His behavior and dialogue gives a chilling overture to the proceedings. Ultimately his presence and the Weyland-Yutani Corporation’s facilitation of these developments brings to mind the Gramsci phrase that very well could be the tagline of both the picture and this era of Trump:  The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters.”

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters.”

Andie Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.