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The Religious Symbolism of the ALIEN Series

The Religious Symbolism of the ALIEN Series

Alien: Covenant marks the sixth entry in the Alien series (or the eight, if you count the Alien vs. Predator films, which many do not), and the third to be helmed by Ridley Scott. Scott is a director who seems to operate best when he deals directly with the franchise he helped create back in 1979 (and yes, I am one of the few people who rather loved Prometheus; come at me if you must), so it’s no wonder that he should be so keen to return.

What’s most interesting about Scott’s Alien movies is that he seems to be using this particular sci-fi world to explore a topic that may not be so obviously associated with Xenomorphs: religious faith. More specifically, Christianity. Indeed, when looked at in the right light, the Alien movies are perhaps the most Christian films the genre has yet produced.

Let’s go film by film and unlock the religious symbols therein:

Alien

Alien

While there are no overt scenes of religion or of prayer in Alien, there is most certainly something demonic about the central creature (which had not yet been called “Xenomorph” in 1979). The only thing we know about the monster is that a vague corporate entity wishes to collect it and use it as a weapon. It’s explained that the Xenomorph is the galaxy’s perfect killing machine. It eats, grows, kills, and has no other interests. It’s not intelligent, it’s not rational, it’s not controllable, and it cannot be understood. It’s a living weapon. This is a notion that hangs over the rest of the Alien series.

Metaphorically, then, the Xenomorph stands for the destruction of life. It stands counter to hope and progress. It is an adversary. Those who know their Bible may recognize the word “adversary” as the English translation of the Hebrew word שָּׂטָן‎‎, or “Satan.” Scott was creating a creature that stood as a Satanic force.

Aliens

Aliens

James Cameron made a shoot-’em-up sequel to Alien in 1986, jettisoning all horror, dread, and ambiguity. Since Aliens, at the end of the day, functions as an action spectacular more than anything (the oft-discussed theories of motherhood notwithstanding), its religious symbolism is difficult to see. There is this, though: The planet on which the action takes place is called LV-426.

The Bible savvy among us may remember the passage from Leviticus 4:26: “And he shall burn all his fat upon the altar, as the fat of the sacrifice of peace offerings: and the priest shall make an atonement for him as concerning his sin, and it shall be forgiven him.”

What do you think–is LV-426 a place of sacrifice?

Alien³

Alien3

David Fincher’s dour tragedy kills off the heroes from Aliens, and sets the action of the series in an isolated prison where the inmates have more or less become monks. Most of the characters in Alien³ are devoted to a new life of pacifism, and they live lives of extreme poverty, requiring, at least symbolically, manna from Heaven in order to survive. The characters are flawed (and, to be honest, not 100% well-written), but they do represent a level of redeemed Christian purity. Of course, when a creature of violence meets a sect of peace, the sect of peace is nearly wiped out. Fincher seems to be deeply cynical about the power of pacifism and redemption.

And, in the most obvious religious allusion, the film’s protagonist, Ellen Ripley, sacrifices herself to save herself and others (she throws herself into a pit of molten metal when she learns a new creature will be borne of her abdomen). In a symbolic way, Ripley adopts the mantle of Christ figure, sacrificing herself to destroy the damage of sin.

Additionally, there’s definitely an Eden narrative in Alien³. If the prison is a place without sin, and the denizens are all innocents, what else is the Xenomorph but the serpent in the garden?

Alien: Resurrection

Alien Resurrection

The word “resurrection” is right there in the title, and Ripley, previously dead, is now brought back, cementing her place as a Christ figure. If Christ is God (as many believe) and the Xenomorph is Satan (as I posit), then the eventual hybrid creature seen in the climax of Alien: Resurrection is perhaps… man? A blend of the dark and the light. But ugly. Ungainly. Unworthy. A creature capable of compassion and of destruction. Pity that Ripley had to destroy it. The theological implications of that destruction are certainly unsettling.

The Alien vs. Predator movies

Pyramids

It’s explained in these ho-hum “are-they-or-aren’t-they-canon?” flicks that the creatures from Predator were worshiped by an ancient civilization as gods. Ancient gods fighting modern adversaries?

Prometheus

Prometheus

Scott’s prequel film, only marginally connected to Alien, is the most theologically rich film of the series, and many have noticed the way the chronology plays out. In the future, a cabal of humans finds a presumed-extinct race of white-skinned giants–called Enginners–on a distant planet who were, they eventually learn, planning to launch an attack on Earth using near-unkillable creatures as their weapons. Given the distance between Earth and this planet (called LV-223), the last thing the godlike aliens likely witnessed from Earth was the death of a famous religious figure about 2000 years ago.

Leviticus 2:23 reads, “Say unto them, Whosoever he be of all your seed among your generations, that goeth unto the holy things, which the children of Israel hallow unto the LORD, having his uncleanness upon him, that soul shall be cut off from my presence: I am the LORD.”

Clearly the Engineers (who, in an opening scene, created all life on Earth via bodily sacrifice) are peeved that humanity broke their covenant with them, and now they are preparing to wipe us out. On Christmas, no less.

Oh yes, and the Xenomorph-like critter seen in the film’s epilogue was nicknamed “the deacon” in the script.

Covenant 2

Scott is exploring the very notion of Christian covenant, and the breaking of it, with these movies. He is, perhaps, arguing that humanity has run afoul of God and broken the old Covenant–perhaps by crucifying Christ–and that a Satanic force has been released to take us out. Scott clearly sees evil in the world, perhaps from a Christian eye, and has created a science-fictional divine instrument of cleansing.

This is a series, it seems, all about Old Testament vengeance, and how humanity has failed to live up to its spiritual potential. We refused to be humble in the face of the infinite cosmos, failing to grasp our own humility. Hence, divine-ish beings from beyond are looking to settle the score.

Given that his next film is subtitled “Covenant,” this interpretation is looking more and more likely.

Images: 20th Century Fox

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