Articulated

Sporadically updated analysis.

Alien: Covenant (2017) – An analysis

After reading a few reviews of this film, I realised Alien: Covenant was getting a bad rap from those who had grown up with the original films, Alien and Aliens, released in 1979 and 1986 respectively. I note here, in particular, Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian, and the Variety and Empire reviews. All warrant their criticisms by framing the film in the light of the immortal original films, and especially the comparatively defective story-telling the new film demonstrates when compared to the originals.

As someone who didn’t grown up with the original films, I was captivated by Alien: Covenant’s philosophical and literary heritage and execution with a sci-fi spin; whilst admitting I was never ‘terrified’ whilst watching the film, this lack was more than made up for in the disturbing subject matter and themes of the film. Where some would contend that the film fails to answer fully the existential questions posed by its predecessor, 2012’s Prometheus, I would contend that Ridley Scott has, contrary to this, simply made better use of the ‘show don’t tell’ artistic mantra: I was intellectually stimulated throughout the film.

In many senses, creation and destruction are simply two different ways of describing the same thing. In Hinduism, the concepts are connected by a cycle of the universe as wedded to symbolic Gods, where the birth of the universe, Brahma, precedes the life of the universe, Vishnu, prior to the destruction of the universe, Shiva. In the field of economics, Joseph Schumpeter trumpeted the concept of ‘creative destruction’, to describe the efficient re-allocation of capital and labour following a negative economic event such as insolvency. Where Freud, and philosophers who pre-dated him, connected or mirrored a ‘death instinct’ as against a ‘creation instinct’, as well as acknowledging Oedipal tendencies in humans, and where the Engineers in the prologue of Prometheus are engaged in an act of creation out of self-sacrifice, anybody who is familiar with children will note a child’s willingness to both create and destroy his/her own toys and works. Logically speaking, in a zero-sum environment, in order for there to ‘be’ something there must first ‘be a lack’ of something; for a yin to grow, a yang must shrink etc.

This complex nature, of humanity’s relationship with its creations, is the real world relationship under the microscope. Understanding the prologue to Alien: Covenant is key to understanding the philosophy the film observes. Here, Peter Weyland communicates to his synthetic creation, David, in a sort of birth-scene of David’s, that he is attempting to answer his own existential crisis: to find humanity’s creator (as occurs in Prometheus). This quest is not unrelated to David’s being created, and David, very quickly after being ‘born’, remarks on the possibility of Weyland’s creator being non-existent, i.e. as dead as Weyland will be, in turn, one day. This explicit address of mortality, Weyland’s memento mori, is the key change introducing the dark note in Weyland and David’s relationship of Father & Son: the father will die and the son will live forever, as Weyland, in response and envious of David’s superiority, bitterly reminds David — by demanding tea — of where formal authority lies in the room.

The enduring theme of the father as moral authority, as both the source of meaning and identity for the son, stretches back to the Bible. Hence David (and Vickers) in Prometheus come to learn that they are mere tools for Weyland in connection with what Weyland considers his more important relationship: that of him and his creator. The Abrahimic sacrifice reveals the extent to which man places importance on his progeny, as compared to the importance he places on himself — as the progeny of another — and his quest to vindicate the relationship he has with his own creator. As Dostoyevsky made clear, humans are scared to death of real freedom, the freedom where ‘anything goes’; we are, each of us, in all our actions and strategies, forever seeking to be supplicants to a greater authority, where the father/parent/creator is the natural and universal default choice. Weyland searches but finds, in Prometheus, that there is “nothing but a tomb”. In Alien: Covenant we discover that the freedom he refuses to believe in is real; the darkness of space and its void — the bland tasteless freedom where anything goes — is the freedom David basks in: an aesthetic, artistic freedom where ethical concerns are as absent as a father figure.

We learn in Alien: Covenant that David has been experimenting with the Engineers’ genetic/bio-weaponry. In the infinite vastness of space; in the isolated existence in which he lives; in a life freed of the shackles his relationship with Weyland once necessitated, David’s creation could do nothing but reflect its creator: a creature of terrifying amorality and perversity: the Alien/Xenomorph. The ‘perfect organism’, as David calls it, is the testament to his own ego and will to power. It is also reflected, in its insatiable appetite for destruction, in another act of David’s: the destruction of the Engineers’ civilisation.

Now, when we encounter the flashback where David arrives on the Engineer’s homeworld for the first time, we are presented with a distinctly spartan and primitive society. Whilst most certainly religious or spiritual, the Engineers in this flashback seem to me to have rejected the military exteriors their brothers in Prometheus embraced, lending credence to a theory that perhaps the Engineers at some point rejected the experimentation with the bio-weapon in favour of blissful ignorance and isolation on the habitable planet the Covenant lands on; an Eden of sorts. If the Tree of Knowledge is the reference here, then sinful David chooses to eat its fruit, thereby proceeding to destroy the Engineer’s civilisation with their very own bio-weaponry in an act of creative destruction adding to the core of his developing identity.

And this identity of David’s is crucial to the film. Having had a rocky relationship with his father, he has set out to destroy the race which murdered his father. But this is not done for any reason of vengeance. David’s ideal end is not justice but creation; the creation of these great acts of destruction which will, in history, be the only legacy which might stand the test of time; as consistent with David’s own pseudo-immortality, these great acts of destruction and creation — the power to destroy civilisations and to create beings — are the powers of a god walking and living among men. David perceives himself as the closest being to attaining such godlike stature, where his ‘disappointing’ predecessors failed to come close. His comment that meeting his creator was ‘disappointing like all meetings with one’s creators are’ is direct evidence of his philosophy: disdain for the previous generation’s achievements in favour of the glorification and perfection of his own. We are, says Scott, each of us attempting to overshadow our own parent’s achievements with our own.

Nevertheless, David is not the end of this universal story: both his ‘perfect’ creation, and he himself, are fallible and subject to mistakes. The Alien is defeated by Daniels And Tennessee; David gets a reference to the author of the sonnet Ozymandias wrong, stating erroneously that it was authored by Lord Byron. When Walter corrects him that Percy Shelley wrote Ozymandias, he also remarks that one particular error can be a sign of the system as a whole beginning to collapse — a remark on the fallibility of David’s supposedly perfect synthetic mind. When David is revealed to be a robot of emotion, having cried whilst reciting Ozymandias whilst destroying the Engineer’s civilisation, the corruption of his mind, i.e. emotions, by stark facts is revealed. Scott’s temporal message lies in the very meaning of the poem itself:

“And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

David acknowledges that although he may be the King of Kings at that moment, whilst he tearfully basks in the historically glorious destruction of the Engineer’s civilisation, in some remarkable demonstration of Nietzschean will to power, he recognises that in the vastness and emptiness of the infinitude of time and space nothing will stand the test of time — not even him. Although David is synthetic, he may have realised — after getting decapitated and seeing his father die — his fragility; where humans may be mere drops in the ocean of space-time, David may represent a greater amount of water but he nevertheless still fails the test of permanence Shelley’s poem laments.

“Nothing beside remains”…the Xenomorph and its limitless desire for destruction is one of the consequences of this: David’s attempt to materialise the nihilism he faces. In comment and action, David reflects Weyland’s final words, “there is nothing”, as he does immediately after those words are spoken — “I know”.

There is a reference to David recognising the hellishness of this godless situation: alone in the darkness, a forgotten king; a destroyer of worlds with no company to keep. When he and Walter are fighting it out, he states, in a lovely poetry reflecting his unique ‘feared’-by-humans creative tendency:

(sic) Well Walter,

it’s just you and me;

reign in hell or serve in heaven

— which is it to be?

The reference to John Milton’s Paradise Lost is clearly intentional. Milton’s infamous poem is a work basking in the rebellious nature of Lucifer and an upturning of the moral logic of the Bible. Importantly, for Lucifer in Milton’s poem, the rebelling against the father — God — is justified insofar as Lucifer, and angels, are “self-begot, self-raised”. This belief, that he sits outside the natural cycle of creation and destruction, empowers David and this belief cuts the conceptual umbilical cord he has to his creator. It’s also subtly demonstrated when he considers Walter an inferior synthetic, naming him his ‘brother’ but recognising his own advantage as the more human of the two, and thereby the possibly ‘tragically flawed’ being: David has creative agency, where Walter is a mere duty-performing programmable robot. Now a zoologist, previously a mass murderer and civilisational-destroyer, David considers himself a Miltonian Lucifer, rejecting the father and self-raising himself above his disappointing creator and, in turn, his creator’s creator, to a platform far above common morality and one where reality is a mere playground for his own biological experimentation and cruel games, as only a God could enjoy.

Thus David is in near full control of the events in the movie, as he contrives circumstance to ultimately board and control the Covenant, thereby conferring under his control 2,000 colonist-souls for his experimentation — presumably as hosts for the Xenomorph. Whilst David at first appears to bear hallmarks of the insane marooned castaway — cutting his hair in an almost maniacal state — we realise by the end of the film the calculations David has made. This, in my opinion, marks David out as different from humanity: most people would have gone mad, having lived David’s events, but he is ploughing on in a capacity committed to his new philosophy of perfecting and finding hosts for his Xenomorph.

And it is this paternal/maternal/parental instinct which is another powerful force in the film. David clearly feels a proprietary connection with his Xenomorph — as is most horrifically clear when it bursts forth of Oram’s chest only to raise its arms in birth-ceremony with David. Indeed, he would not have contrived the Covenant crew’s downfall if not to provide a playpen for his Xenomorphs. But it is in the final action sequence, with the Alien in the hangar bay, where we realise that David’s ideals and object of study is more nuanced than simply perfecting the Xenomorph.

David is fascinated by life and its will to survive, go on and exist. He can see the drive everywhere. It is why he was fascinated by Dr Shaw — her drive to survive enticed him into further study — and it is why he was similarly drawn to Daniels, where he even seems to sexually desire her at one point in the movie. For there is something in David which draws him to a strong will to survive; his desire to observe stronger forms of this phenomenon, in all beings, is evidenced by his non-participation in the hangar scene at the end of the film — he is an observer of life in all its competitive forms and this is what is driving him. He realises that, to perfect his organism, the Xenomorph, he must have it face down the strongest tests imaginable because that is the best way to deal with the only law organising space and time: dog eat dog. (Acid blood!) Daniels and Tennessee defeated it but this is no cause whatsoever for lamentation; instead, the cycle of life and destruction goes on and on happily, ad infinitum.

Whereas Weyland, in the film’s prologue, refuses “to believe we are just a quirk of evolution”, David recognises that that is all there is. And so this Darwinian God — David, a synthetic — carries on in his quest to seek the perfect organism. And in doing so he plays the antagonist/protagonist in a mural, film or work of art dedicated to the eternal cycle of creation and destruction; that never-ending historical movement of birth, death and rebirth; that historical materialism which necessarily accompanies any subscription to the study of life. David the Zoologist and Shaper of Genetic Destinies — that is his title — as we learn that the part he plays in the Alien Saga is that of the creator of the titled antagonist, the Alien itself, David’s characteristics — his commitment, resilience and instinct — being passed onto his awesome children.

Whilst Alien: Covenant mat not be the best executed horror or action film in the saga, it proves thematically very strong and draws from some interesting literature in a very philosophical manner, alongside the perhaps second-rate shocks, blood and gore. In this sense at the very least, the latest Alien film adds much to the franchise.

Foxes and Hedgehogs

Bombard my senses

with sound and shape,

colour and fury;

entice me into a game

or ask me the worth of a story.

 

With no nausea do I accept

the final, limiting concept;

explanations ultimately end

with a love, power, will or trend.

 

Being okay

Accept your flaws;

cease to keep scores;

be okay.

 

Hold high, your strengths;

consider, only, your friends;

be okay, and remember your end.

The value of pricing

Price in a drink, friends,

amidst the lulls and the lows;

the highs, with sincere laughs ablow;

price in a drink, mates,

against those moments and show

how you divide them all by the failed commiserator:

the singularly lonely zero.

 

The expression has no value;

the expressed, a nonsense;

the expressor knows nought

save the price of everything

and the value of nothing;

his relationships mere means

to material he desires to glean.

Woven

In moments of real awareness

I perceive

the multiplicity of worlds and people

in my own, interlaced; interweaved.

 

For each and every man and woman

brushing shoulders and treading heels, a secret;

a problem and a bereavement;

a heartache on a Monday,

does occupy the passerby;

his cancer, unknown until the end of the week.

 

I lay bare the gauntlet of empathy,

the impossible enigma laying between you and I:

despite all of human culture,

its history and its laws;

should you seek out my world,

I can only answer with yours.

A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens, 1859), second time around

Some books are famous for their beginnings and endings; that A Tale of Two Cities (a ‘Tale’) is one of these should not, nevertheless, take anything away from the sublime story Dickens weaves over the course of events leading to the French Revolution, between the still great cities of London and Paris. As a novel, Dickens sets a new aesthetic standard; posed via explicit antonymic poetry in the opening paragraph, Dickens confronts his reader with a logical contradiction: for how can it be both “the best of times” and “worst of times” simultaneously? As a book I hold dear to me personally, and for which I’ve read a second time as I perceive my life to be turning a corner, the answer to this lies in the remarkable events the book relates and the bittersweet symphony they give rise to. As Wittgenstein once said, the world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man: whilst the ending of the story may be viewed as tragic, it is also “no subject for regret or grief”.

Whilst the novel’s context is the political and social upheaval of the French Revolution and the evils therein, and whilst the politics of the novel remains firmly in the inequality-illustrating, humanist, and moderate/non-radical reformist nature of the rest of the Dickens canon, the symbols and beauty of the story, for me, transcend the worldly themes of the book. And, whilst clearly broadly Christian in its themes, of resurrection, forgiveness and rebirth, it is nuanced in that it is for Her — Lucie Manette — that Sydney Carton gives up his life. Carton stands as a giant in literature, for his marked humanistic singularity of purpose and intent, as a man wholly dedicated to giving everything he has for the happiness of others, and specifically for a man who might have been considered a rival. Dickens’ message is a Christian one — that there is redemption for everyone — but his agent is only placated by metaphysics. It is the thought of Lucy and Charles’ offspring, whose birth was only possible by Sydney’s sacrifice, and who wins his way through the lawyering profession Sydney could only practise with such disdain, which sustains Sydney in his final moments. Pure selflessness is demonstrated as a purity illuminating against but also outshining the much worse human traits Dickens is apt to show: vengeance, hatred and violence.

Happiness through the happiness of others is the small but potent light in Paris’s crucible of darkness, chipping away at an otherwise ever-lasting Carmagnole of evil begetting evil and a circle of revenge. Such a revenge story culminates in a pure form of the ever-knitting Therese Defarge, and it begins with the sexual rights over the peasant women the nobles regularly asserted — Defarge being the victim’s sister. Sydney should see such bad times ending, if he were a prophet; and Dickens, writing many decades later, notes that the violence and bloodshed does indeed end, as the great tide of hot blood comes to a rest once it has been all but entirely spilled.

The chip in the armour of family and love; the cause of Doctor Manette’s (Lucie’s father’s) repressed troubles; becomes known at a twist in the story near the end of the book. As Dickens weaves his characters — the best and the worst — between one another and between two cities — he lets loose the Doctor’s secret: that he did, in his youth, condemn with the same vigour he finds abhorrent in the revolutionary blood-lusting at Charles Darnay’s trial the entire race of French noblemen to death. With a stroke, Dickens unveils the fallibility of all and every character; with a stroke, the good doctor is revealed to have been capable — at least in feeling — of condemning innocent people to death. A Tale is indeed a tale of two broad sets of human action — good and bad — but it is a tale of a singular type of humanity: one subject to the great tides of emotion and the circumstances that produce them.

In this sense, analysing the characters, it is those who are capable of change and reform, especially in testing period of time, whom Dickens rises up, e.g. Charles Darnay (from his birthrights); Doctor Manette (from his youthful emotions); and Sydney Carton (from his hitherto wasted existence). It is, as often seems to be the case with Dickens, a question of character. By way of contrast, Madame Defarge is a constant: incapable of forgiveness and moderation, she seeks absolute vengeance and absolute vengeance alone, and whilst her one-dimensional nature may seem cartoonish today it is to Dickens’ timeless credit that she (all the better for it) is a striking and highlighted monument to the utter folly of the tireless and uncritical pursuit of a bloody end.

The revolution thereby comes to be seen for what it is: a macro umbrella for the micro grievances of the individuals acting underneath it. Thus shielded from the rain of precise analysis, every grievance is vindicated in the name of the indivisible Republic, and death is the alternative at every junction and test of patriotism/faith. In reading Dickens, it is easy to be swept up with the strength of negativity in this worldview; in reality, the dilemmas faced by the individuals in the book can only call up empathy — the rape and murder of Therese Defarge’s family is something which explains the character of Defarge but, according to Dickens, does not justify it. Whilst Dickens does not condemn entirely Defarge, he laments her; for she is as inevitable as the bloody end for those in the tumbrils rolling to their fates; “crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.” Nevertheless, it is the gun secured near her bosom which ends her; a symbol that her cold heart led to her undoing — Dickens is clear and sees Defarge as going much beyond what vengeance would have called for.

But, eventually, we will stop, learn, change and grow. That is the optimistic message and it proceeds forth like something strangely immortal at a time when people are getting their heads chopped off; it arises from scripture, as did Lazarus; it rhymes with the biblical proposition, as the nocturnal Carton repeated, over and over, on his final night alive: that “I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosover liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” Safe in the firm belief of this, Carton helps a young seamstress, another passenger on the way to La Guillotine, to come to terms with her near end. There is hope for those who believe in change, says Dickens; and these people effect change all around them, on everyone they touch. Such is the small connected Dickensian world, and such is the day-to-day beauty a Tale carries for each and every one of us.

Whilst Dickens begins his novel with a cynical dig at superlatives and users of such — of “best” juxtaposed against “worst”; of “wisdom” against “foolishness” — he ends it with comparatives: says Carton, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” To be better than ourselves is all we can reasonably strive for; the perfection of bests and worsts, indivisible republics and clean vengeance are unobtainable; better ourselves and we better each other, step by step, day by day, forgiveness after forgiveness, and selfless act after selfless act.

 

 

Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford; 2016) — Spoilers

Tom Ford’s second flick is as sincere and personal as his first (A Single Man; 2009) but goes one step further in quality film-making by combining utterly sublime cinematography with an outstanding script and direction. The reviews are correct; I’d say it’s the best release of 2016.

Susan (Amy Adams) is a high-flying California-based modern artist, with a long-term difficulty in getting to sleep. Nicknamed a ‘nocturnal animal’ by her former husband (of near twenty years prior), Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), the premise of the film is that she is sent a very personal and important manuscript of fiction — by Edward — bearing the name of the film. As the film grinds on, we are with Susan as she reads and ultimately comes to terms with the purpose of this most violent novel, “Nocturnal Animals”: revenge. That this is both the true theme of the film (and a dish best served cold) is learnt by the viewer only in the final few scenes; as the protagonist of the book dies a deserted death and so too does Susan, figuratively speaking, by being stood up in a restaurant and learning of her being mistaken.

The twist of the film comes at the end, here: by way of a notification to the viewer of the lengths, in time, effort and sustained feeling, that one can revenge oneself on another. The humanity of the film comes from our understanding of/empathy with this act: as we only slowly learn the reasons for Edward’s vengeance, as the film progresses, we are initially duped — like Susan — into believing the possibility of a harmonious reunion, where in the real world evil begets only evil; and one bad deeds deserves another.

It is therefore both Susan’s and the viewer’s folly to treat the manuscript as a work of art; it is, instead, the instrument through which Edward will extract his vengeance, convincing Susan that she may once again have the romantic love she experienced with him, and that the manuscript is a letter of forgiveness of the acts which Susan committed to end such a romance when they were both idealistic young lovers (thinking Edward weak; turning away from her initial idealistic perception of him; falling for another man; and, most importantly, aborting hers and Edward’s child without his knowing).

Murder is a theme. The murder of the wife and child in the manuscript is, of course, a reference to what Edward sees as the murder, by Susan, of their unborn child. The grisly circumstances of both the wife and child’s deaths at the hands of a murderous gang, including their being raped, is testament to precisely how strongly Edward must feel about Susan’s decision earlier in her life in respect of their child. That the protagonist in the manuscript, also played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is quite effectively left helpless by the calculating but brutal and murdering gang/nocturnal animals in the book is a reference to Susan’s charge at him when younger: that he was too weak for her (and her mother). It is Edward’s revenge on her to show her how strong he can be, as the protagonist in the book finishes the revenge job himself by ultimately murdering the ringleader of the gang, and indeed after a prolonged struggle with such an act of vengeance.

Age is important, as one the circumstances of Susan’s present life. She has no children, and she is unloved by her duplicitous husband, Hutton — who also seems to be himself implicated in Susan’s act of abortion, many years ago. She is, therefore, a middle-aged woman, with a hinted-at declining career, surrounded by the consequences of decisions she made many years earlier — when she led a very different life. Middle age, colloquially, is thought of as a reflective period of life: both Susan and Edward reflect and come to very different actions, reflecting the real differences between them.

Edward was the boy next door; an old-school romantic and poet, who writes about what he experiences; Susan was the girl next door in the much bigger house — her mother’s class-based rationale/influence is the fault line through which the cracks in their relationship initially emerge. In the end, Edward got his story: his early problem was that he had nothing to write about; no authorial wound with which to sear out a beating heartfelt tale. Susan got her art career — possibly bankrolled by Hutton — but in choosing what she perceived as strength, early on in life, she left herself open to the inevitability of regret at a time of middle-aged reflection.

The film is outstanding for the beautiful way it is put together: with the rhyming of the themes, symbols, characters, and plots — of both the manuscript and Susan and Edward’s lives — Tom Ford shows us that art can transcend the piece itself into the very life of its creator. Edward artistically executes his vengeance by serving his ex-wife faux hope in a picturesque restaurant by standing her up; as each second ticks, as Edward fails to show at the door, we begin to learn Susan’s pain, in the restaurant, is reflecting Edward’s pain all those years earlier. Susan’s tears, although new, are for both of them and their old relationship, in a most beautiful symmetry cutting across time, gender, space and fictions.