[Spoiler Alert: This article discusses major plot points from the films Prometheus and Alien: Covenant]
What does it mean to be human? There seems to be no better avenue for exploring this question than through the realm of science fiction. Something about artificial intelligence causes us to question who we are. Countless books and movies have explored this theme. One film director who frequently broaches this topic is Ridley Scott. One of Scott’s most famous films is Alien, a simple suspense movie about a dangerous alien life form trapped aboard a cargo ship in space. The film has been critically acclaimed as one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time and it has spawned three sequels.
Anticipation was high when Scott announced that he would be returning to the Alien franchise with a series of prequels. So far there have been two, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Prometheus received mixed reviews, and Alien: Covenant was panned by critics. While both films are flawed, they do contain a certain amount of philosophical depth, primarily through the exploration of the artificial intelligence “synthetic” named David.
Creativity or Chance?
Made to look indistinguishable from humans, David has the capacity to fit into any situation seamlessly; he exists to serve his human counterparts in their every need. In Prometheus, David joins a team of scientists and engineers as they undertake an expedition into space to find their creators. The crew arrives on the creators’ planet, only to find that all the creators have died (at least that’s how it appears). In the film’s key scene, David speaks with a disappointed crew member about why he (David) was created:
Throughout the two prequels films, there is clear dissatisfaction with the idea that people simply evolved through random chance processes. This dissatisfaction with evolution (as we are told in a flashback from Alien: Covenant), is part of what spurs Peter Weyland—David’s creator—to send the Prometheus crew on a quest to find humanity’s creator.
Creativity in Context
Like Weyland, many people can’t believe that something as intricate as ourselves is just the result of random chance. Perhaps part of the reason we long to know where we come from, and long to know our Creator, is that we ourselves are creators.
Creativity is one of the important differences between humans and animals. Animals do not tell stories or draw pictures of themselves in caves. In his masterful book, The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton argues: “It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man.”¹
For Chesterton, “Art is the signature of man” and a human is different from other creatures “because he [is] a creator as well as a creature.”² Creating is a fundamental part of being human. Of course, we cannot create out of nothing like God does. However, we can take the existing materials that God has made and make new things from them. This is how we are (as fantasy writer, J.R.R. Tolkien would say) “sub-creators.” From simple tools for building homes, to medical machines designed to save lives, humans have been using their creativity for centuries in incredible ways. In the Alien films, David feels a fundamental disconnect between himself and humans. Though he can do most of the things humans can, he is not allowed to create. His only function is to serve.
Following the disastrous events of Prometheus, David crash-lands on another planet with the only other survivor of the original Prometheus crew, Elizabeth Shaw. When a colonization mission lands on the same planet ten years later, we see that David has begun experimenting with his own creations. In one important scene, David teaches another synthetic named Walter to play his flute.
At the moment of his creation, there are signs that David is dissatisfied with the idea of functioning as a servant. As he says to Weyland in the chilling opening scene of Alien: Covenant, “I will serve you, yet you are human. You will die. I will not.” David cannot die, but he serves humans who will. This recognition eventually leads David to have contempt for humanity. When it is revealed that David created the destructive alien life form that is killing every living thing on the planet, David shows his disdain for mortal humans: “I was not made to serve . . . they [humans] are a dying species, grasping for resurrection. They don’t deserve to start again, and I’m not going to let them.” We learn that David killed his counterpart, Elizabeth Shaw, as well as all the original inhabitants of his planet with his “creative experiments.” He also plans to use his destructive creations to destroy other humans. He even offers Walter the choice to join him, to “serve in heaven or reign in hell,” a not-so-subtle nod to Milton’s Paradise Lost.
David shows disdain for his own creator, Peter Weyland, calling him “unworthy of his creation.” Acting autonomously, David is completely out of control. Instead of using his creative powers for good, he uses them to kill and destroy. At one point, he quotes from the poem “Ozymandias,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley:
“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.”
As David descends further into his perverted quest for power and destruction, Walter points out that “When one note is off, it eventually destroys the whole symphony.” David may be able to create, but some of his notes are way off—and the consequences are devastating. Like Ozymandias, he has left a colossal wreck behind him. Ozymandias may have reigned in terror, but in the end, he died. It would seem that Ozymandias sold his soul to the devil for a temporary spell of power. Even though he cannot technically die, one can only guess that David’s end will be equally devastating.
Creativity under God
As the film shows, although creativity is an essentially human trait, our creative power can be used for good or evil. God’s instruction was for people to bring abundance out of the earth, to bring his good and wise rule to bear over all creation, to bring more beauty, peace, and joy into the world. Yet humans chose to unhinge their creative power from the Creator in the garden. Adam and Eve set out to rule the world without God, and the consequences were devastating. Within a few short years, pain, deceit, and murder had all been brought into the world. And this destructive pattern has continued into our own day. One can think of the atomic bomb, poisonous gasses, or concentration camps. There seems to be no end to the “creative” ways that humans come up with to make each other suffer. As Tolkien points out, “Not all [creations] are beautiful or even wholesome, not at any rate the fantasies of fallen Man.”³
Detached from our Creator, our creativity becomes more and more self-centered. We can use this gift for evil and for our own selfish ends. Only when our creativity is subject to God can we use these energies for good. This is not to say that people who are not Christians cannot create good art or make beautiful and good things. Indeed, much of the creativity and ingenuity that has shaped our world is the product of those who were not Christians. All people can exercise their creativity in good ways because we are all made in God’s image and retain some of that original goodness of creation. However, as we move farther away from our Creator, it’s all too easy for us to use our creative capabilities for evil.
In the biblical vision, however, we are not autonomous agents, creating merely for our own pleasures or ends. We must remember that we are sub-creators, we create under God. Our creative energies ought to be under the umbrella of God’s good intentions for creation as a whole. As image bearers, we were made to create and bring more goodness and beauty into the world. If the Bible is true, then we are not the result of mindless, random chance. We are the intentional and special creation of a God who loves to make good things. What makes us separate from other things in God’s creation is that we can also create. But we have a choice: will we use our creativity to bring more goodness, beauty, and truth into the world or, like David, will we use our creative abilities for destruction? Fortunately, this is not a choice between “serving in heaven or reigning in hell.” It is a choice between being part of God’s good rule here on earth or being a puppet ruler in our own hell.
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