By Zhange Ni


The Montréal Review, May 2024

Ridley Scott’s films Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017) explain the origin of the extraterrestrial monster alien or xenomorph that made its debut in the 1979 film Alien by invoking the myth of Prometheus creating humans and stealing fire for them. At the beginning of Prometheus, the first Alien prequel, while a spacecraft is leaving a planet of rising mountains and running torrents, a huge, masculine, and white-skinned humanoid is left standing at the edge of a cliff. He opens an urn to drink the black liquid contained therein. What follows is the literal disintegration of his body, which falls into the watery abyss. Then the camera shows the breaking of DNA chains—the destruction of an existing life form—and then the division of cells, a fundamental process from which life emerges. Meanwhile, the title of the film, Prometheus, slowly appears against the background of this creation scene. What is created by the self-sacrificed humanoid, later revealed as one of the Engineers, a technologically advanced alien species, turns out to be life on Earth, including humankind.

The 2012 film explicitly links the primordial Engineer to Prometheus the creator at the outset. In her book Gods and Robots, Adrienne Mayor studies how Etruscan art from the fourth to the second centuries BC portrayed the creation of humans by Prometheus as an assembling process starting with a torso or skeleton.1 What is reflected in these images is ancient knowledge of human anatomy. Prometheus is indeed an ancient engineer; humans are his robots, who are not naturally given or magically enlivened but artificially made; creation is not a miracle, not creation ex nihilo by some transcendent deity, but a carefully designed and executed process. What is new in the 2012 film is that images of mechanical creation are replaced by transformations at the molecular level known to us thanks to current genetic science and bioengineering.

DNA chains breaking

cell division

Humans, creatures created by the Engineers, are eager to play Prometheus. In the fictional world of the Alien films, Peter Wayland, the founder and CEO of the Weyland Corporation, gives a TED talk on February 28, 2023 about humans becoming gods with the help of technological advances. In this talk, the full version of which is available as a bonus clip in the DVD version of Prometheus, Weyland begins with reminding the audience of a scene from Lawrence of Arabia (1962), one in which the protagonist, T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935), pulls out a match, plays with the flame, and utters the famous line “the trick…is not minding it hurts.” Next, Wayland brings up the myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and links the fire to technology. The examples he gives range from stone tools all the way to automobile, television, nuclear weapons, and spacecrafts in the twentieth century and biotech, nanotech, fusion and fission, and M-theory in the early years of the twenty-first century. After this litany of human achievements, he proudly concludes that “we are the gods now.”

Wayland giving his TED Talk

Humans, or white male elites represented by Wayland the business magnate, build a spacecraft named Prometheus and send an intergalactic expedition team to explore the origin of life and the secret of immortality. This team is most intriguingly headed by two archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, whose discoveries point in the direction of the star LV-233, which they believe to be the home world of the Engineers. Although the list of human technologies enumerated by Weyland stretches from the past into the future, the more advanced alien technology of the Engineers is located long before human civilization and troubles the notion of singular, linear progress. Moreover, creation is not a moment frozen in the past but an unfolding process, as the humans, having been created by the engineers, have created the androids.

The spacecraft carrying the expedition team is piloted and maintained by David, a robot made by Wayland, like a son to a father, or a human in relation to Prometheus in Greek mythology. It turns out David is obsessed with usurping the creative power from his creators and the creators of those creators and can be considered the third-generation Promethean figure. Alien: Covenant, the second Alien prequel, opens with a conversation between Wayland and David right after the latter is activated, during which David names himself upon seeing the famous statue of Michelangelo’s. Just like the biblical David is seen as a threat by King Saul, whom the former did replace eventually, and known as a hero defeating Goliath the heavily armed giant, David in the two Alien prequels is a usurper rising against and above his “father” and a conqueror killing all the Engineers stationed at an outpost, planet Origae-6.

David resembles his filmic predecessors such as HAL 9000, an Artificial Intelligence in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, who monitors a spacecraft and decides to murder the human crew while seeking to put itself to the fullest possible use. During the initial “father-son” conversation, David points out to Weyland, the man with a god complex, that he is merely a human. Later, when Weyland is discovered as hiding in the spacecraft “Prometheus” to quest for immortality, David has him killed by a revived Engineer, a member of the primordial creators. To the “grandfathers” David shows no reverence either. After escaping to Origae-6 from the crashed “Prometheus,” David kills the Engineers on the planet, traps the humans who arrive there on the second spacecraft “Covenant,” and uses the genetic materials from both species to create the alien, the titular monster of the entire franchise.

The first Alien film was followed by the same director’s Blade Runner (1982), a story about androids named replicants who want to be recognized as humans and refuse to be “retired,” meaning terminated. David is such a replicant as well. He is portrayed as fond of watching Lawrence of Arabia and repeating the line quoted by Weyland in his TED talk— “the trick…is not minding it hurts.” While Lawrence, both the historical figure and his filmic representation, is celebrated for his efforts to merge into another race, David the robot similarly works hard to pass for a human. However, he is rejected by Wayland when the latter declares that he has no soul. Offended, David pursues for himself the fullest possible use in the act of creation. After the first expedition team discovers the black liquid on LV-233, David applies it to his human “superiors” to create the neomorphs, proto-aliens. In the second prequal, on Origae-6, David continues his experiment on both the Engineers and humans until the first xenomorph is born.

To sum up, there are altogether three generations of Prometheuses in the Alien prequels, the Engineers, the humans, and David the android, while what is ultimate brought into being is the xenomorphs, literally strange forms. This is why I read these films as a new creation myth of our times. Although Weyland presents the fire as a symbol of technology, this revised Promethean myth gives the central place to the black liquid rather than a burning flame and invites us to rethink the alien, one of the most fascinating monsters in the sci-fi tradition. British philosopher Stephen Mulhall interpreted the alien as “Nature incarnate or sublimed, a nightmare embodiment of the natural realm understood as utterly subordinate to, utterly exhausted by, the twinned Darwinian drives to survive and reproduce.”2 More specifically, he considered the monster as “the incarnation of masculinity, understood as penetrative sexual violence,” and the human race as threatened “with the apparently monstrous fate of feminization…to occupy the sexual role (that of being violated, of playing host to a parasite and of facing death in giving birth) that women are imagined to occupy in relation to men.”3 In light of the two preque ls in the 2010s, I argue that the alien is both Nature incarnate and a creature of technoscience and that the black liquid—the creative force that makes life of various forms  possible—stands for the enchantment rather than enlightenment of technoscience.

The alien may not be a creature of Nature at all if we see it as created by David the unruly robot created by the arrogant humans created by the Engineers. In an alternative interpretation, the aliens may have been designed by the Engineers to wipe out the humans for some unknown reason. The Engineers’ unfinished creation is later completed by David who merely executes what has been pre-planned. Furthermore, as murals depicting the aliens are found on LV-233, the possibility that the aliens are a pre-existing species reverse engineered by the Engineers as a biological weapon is also open. We circle back to Mulhall’s reading that the alien is an embodiment of Nature. The undecidable origin of the alien destabilizes the rigid divide between the natural and the artificial.

Another pair of binary opposites that gets dissolved is enchantment and enlightenment. Often associated with religion and art, enchantment has been defined as a type of nonrational work undertaken toward making coping mechanisms in a universe that is not necessarily friendly or hospitable. Enchantment is a creative process leading toward an artificial space in which we try to reconfigure our sense of being-in-the-world, if not to make the world, “a process of converting what is given into what is chosen and transforming what was not one’s own making into an assemblage over which one asserts mastery.”4 Most interestingly, technoscience works toward the same goal, although it is supposedly rational work and believed to result in real transformations in the world.

The black liquid in the Alien prequels is creativity per se and technoscience beyond the model of post-Enlightenment rationality. I highlight that liquid is a transitional stage between the solid and the gaseous, while the color black apparently signifies the obscure or even the occult. The working of the black liquid which is indeterminate and uncontrollable is the running thread of the films and the theme of enchantment enacted. The Engineers, the humans, and David all pursue an illusory sense of mastery, using the black liquid to bring about destruction and regeneration, to create forms normal and strange. However, what seems to be chosen is what is given; what one assembles is not one’s own making. What exactly is the black liquid? No answer is given in these films of utter ambiguity and glaring loose ends and loopholes. 

What is creativity? The films have much to say. The vision of creation in these films stands in sharp contrast to the Christian understanding of creation as performed by God transcending the created world or the Romantic view celebrating the power of some genius to bring something radically new into existence. In the creation of the aliens, creators and the created constantly switch sides; the old and the new are indistinguishable; while the manufactured is doomed to go out of control, the wild is shot through with an originary technicity at heart. In a similar light, William Connolly envisioned the creative force as arising out of the unplanned and unexpected encounters and connections between heterogenous entities and taking the form of “micro-teleo-searching processes that ensue when interacting organisms are disrupted.” 5 These creative processes are irreducible to “[n]either strong agency [of the Engineers or humans], nor the simple realization of implicit tendencies [in the hands of David], nor reductive determination [of what Mulhall called Nature] but processes that fall into a zone of current indeterminacy between these alternatives.”6 The creative processes captured in the Alien films, supposedly horror films, are in accord with Connolly’s reconceptualization that sought to disconnect creativity from divine agency, human autonomy, and capitalist episteme. Can we read the Alien films as a political satire against these dominant notions?

Last but not the least, the gender of the monster is worth discussing. It is true that the alien penetrating the human body to lay eggs is an act of masculine violence. Comments on cloning and other bio-digital technologies, feminist theorist Luciana Parisi worried about the realization of a male model of pleasure that channels all flow of energies toward a final climax where the self satisfies himself.7 It is no coincidence that the three generations of Prometheuses are all male, while the alien, the ultimate creature, adopts a masculine position in its self-reproduction. However, the 1986 film Aliens directed by James Cameron introduces the figure of the Alien Queen and the aliens as an ant-like species with a hive mind. So, may I suggest what is expanding through colonizing the other bodies may also be interpreted as a monstrous femininity? Similarly, Parisi pointed out that the triumph of a masculine technoscience is only one side of the story, the other side being the loss of human control facing the unpredictable and uncontrollable mutations of body, nature, and matter. The ontological force that drives these mutations is what she calls feminine desire, which somehow is comparable with the black liquid, something all these Promethean figures try to manipulate but cannot fully harness. Is the alien then a creation of feminine desire that can frustrate the masculine will to power?

Zhange Ni is an associate professor in the Department of Religion and Culture.

1 See Adrienne Mayor, Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018), pp. 114-121.

2 Stephen Mulhall, On Film (London and New York: Routledge, 2015), p. 12.

3 Ibid., 13.

4 Michael Jackson, The Work of Art: Rethinking the Elementary Forms of Religious Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), p. 32. For a similar definition, see David Morgan. Images at Work: the Material Culture of Enchantment (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 168-169.

5 William Connolly, Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), p. 46.

6 Ibid., 47.

7 See Luciana Parisi, Abstract Sex: Philosophy, Bio-Technology and the Mutations of Desire (London and New York: Continuum, 2004).



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