Ridley Scott’s latest Alien movie, Alien: Covenant, is officially hitting American theaters tomorrow. And it has religion on its mind.
Don’t take my word for it. Well, do take my word, actually: I’ve seen the film, and I’ll be talking more about its many faith themes next week. But promotional materials for Alien: Covenant already make the movie’s spiritual leanings quite clear. Take a look at the poster.
Creepy, right? Alien beasties (protomorphs, we’re told, not full-fledged, vaguely mechanized xenomorphs) are enveloping human-like beings and seemingly straining toward the light. Some have suggested that the poster telegraphs the tragic, terrifying fate of the Engineers we met in the Alien prequel Prometheus.
My first thought when I first saw this thing: Kind of reminds me of Bosch.
Hieronymus Bosch was a Dutch painter who lived during the Renaissance (and died in 1516). But while many of his contemporaries were into realism and painting bowls of fruit, Bosch’s works were often psychedelic, fever-dream depictions of heaven and hell. They’re so detailed and so disturbed that even today they have the power to shock.
But maybe in some respects, Bosch wasn’t that unusual. Pieter Bruegel, another Dutch painter born just a few years after Bosch died, gave us his own dizzying depiction of hell and hellish landscapes.
Plenty of others, before and after, added their own vision of what hell (either down under or here on earth) might look like. But many of their paintings shared a certain thematic semblance to each other: They were riots of visual cacophony, where demons and humans writhed together—the former tormenting, killing and sometimes eating the latter.The poster for Alien: Covenant is meant to feel like a literal hell. It feels like very much an intentional echo to those disturbing, deeply religious Medieval and Renaissance paintings. And with the protomorphs crawling toward the light, it fosters that same queasy feeling that Bruegel was after when he painted his Triumph of Death: Something very much like hell is not so very far away.
We hear that spiritual note again in an Alien: Covenant trailer, which explicitly tells us that, “The path to paradise begins in hell.”
Pretty interesting verbage, and it seems to gesture to another centuries-old reference point: Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The Divine Comedy is made up of three parts: Inferno, Purgatori and Paradiso, or hell, purgatory and heaven. Dante travels through all three spiritual planes, but before he can get to paradise, he too must start in hell.
Dante’s hell, as you probably know, is separated into nine circles, each representing a meta-sin. The ninth and lowest circle is populated by traitors, frozen in a gigantic lake. And at the very center of that circle—the farthest point away from God—sits Satan, also frozen, eternally chewing other traitors. Makes sense: Satan is Creation’s most notorious traitor, rebelling against God.
Satan turned traitor because of his outsized pride, the worst of the Medieval world’s Seven Deadly Sins. “Pride is the first peer and president of hell,” Daniel Defoe once said, and it’s easy to see why. While many sins are reflections of our weaknesses, pride is one where we imagine we’re stronger, smarter and better than who we are.
Pride is indeed the central sin in Alien: Covenant. And that pride leads not to just some pretty traitorous activity, but right to the pit of hell.