Sometimes knowing isn’t for the best. Having the ability to reasonably doubt something is powerful. Given enough room, that space for doubt allows us to believe things like Santa, that our dog ran away, or that our four drink into the night rendition of Mr. Brightside is great, really, it is.
Ultimately, “knowing” is what makes Ridley Scott’s forays into the annals of the Alien mythos with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant so painful for me. Xenomorphs never needed a backstory and to quote a friend “created by a crazy android with a god complex is not a good one.” But even with a “good one” what would be the value of exploring this particular part of Alien history?
Nothing, there would be no value. The beauty of Alien and Aliens isn’t the large themes that it’s grappling with. It’s terror. Something that’s not well understood, is stalking and killing people in a small, confined area. It didn’t even have a name, it was just a monster hunting folks down. Knowing how it was made doesn’t add to the terror inflicted by the xenomorph. Seeing new people react differently and in new situations adds to the terror.
This isn’t to say that sci-fi horror should stay away from big ideas. I think it’s brilliant that a science fiction movie is engaging with the ideas and concepts such as the ones that the Alien prequels attempt to.
Like the babel fish, are humans too convenient and thus must have an intelligent creator? How would a creation of our own act when our own inescapable humanity is revealed? Like a child catching their parent dressed as Santa? With revulsion and shock? Or as an adult realizing that we’re all flawed beings, being flawed together?
Instead, Alien: Covenant delves too deeply into the backstory, laying it bare and uninteresting. Scott’s explorations into the origins of the xenomorphs puts us, the viewer, in the unenviable position of David the android. Like Peter Weyland, as Scott explores the universe for an origin point his flaws are increasingly obvious. Perhaps it would be beautifully meta if it was intentional and, ultimately, this journey ends in the creation of a monster.
This over explanation is a part of same problem that plagues the Star Wars prequels. The Force began as a total mystery. It was an immeasurable fact of the universe that was never really explained. It was magical. Until it wasn’t. The Force was now determined by midichlorians and suddenly quantifiable. It ceased to be mystical or mysterious. Now it was science.
Knowledge is dangerous and it should be, especially in narrative. Alien: Covenant and Prometheus should stand as clear warnings that over explaining doesn’t make a universe rich, it makes it boring. If Ridley Scott wanted to make a sci-fi series that explores big themes about creation he should do that, but it shouldn’t be related to the Alien films.
Part of the terror that powers the xenomorphs is their mystery. When we first find the eggs, we don’t know what they are. Then we meet the face huggers and they’re mysterious too.. It confounds the crew until its spawn begins to slaughter them. It didn’t matter where they came from or that an android angry at his dad made them.
And it still doesn’t.