Evolving the Alien: Prometheus and Covenant


In this article I want to address the evolution of the Alien from the black substance through to the protomorph/xenomorph. I started thinking about this when it was picked up that the wall mural in Prometheus seemed to contradict Covenant’s suggestion that it was David who had engineered the alien. I’m concentrating on Ridley Scott’s aliens only, particularly in Prometheus and Covenant and my theory on how it may all make absolute sense. I’m not a biologist, zoologist, botanist or scientist of any kind so I’m speculating purely with the logic applied to writing fiction.

The obvious place to start is with the ‘black goo’ and what that is. In Prometheus we see the crew enter a room which appears to be a chapel, in this room there are a number of what look like pewter vases placed with precision in front of a large, stone, ‘engineer’ head. When exposed to the light or heat generated by the crew entering the room, the vases start to leak a black substance which intrigues David, he removes one of the vases and sneaks it back to the ship. In this scene we also see a mural on the wall which clearly depicts a likeness of an alien, the mural in itself is quite intriguing: the alien is posed in the cruciform position, which obviously echoes Christ’s crucifixion and confirms that this room fulfilled the role of a chapel or prayer room for the engineers. If you look just below its feet there’s a small figure which is the likeness of an egg, either side of this are humanoid figures with face-huggers attached to/in the process of attaching themselves to the humanoids’ faces. The centre of the mural also appears to depict the underside/organ of the face-hugger and therefore becomes a vaginal or ‘yonic’ symbol, so is indicative of birth. The alien emerges from the centre of this and the swirls which radiate around it resemble the ‘black goo.’ If you look closely you will also see humanoid legs just above the face-huggers, though the rest of the body has disappeared into the swirling forms around them. It’s also possible to see vague references to the face-huggers within the swirls. As to which alien this depicts I think it’s worth noting its hands, it’s not definitive in any of the pictures I’ve found but the mural’s alien appears to have five fingers, the xenomorph has six. A highly stylised mural like this would never be a true depiction of the thing it represents but, it also seems too thin, too elegant and too ‘human’ to be the xenomorph, to me, it more closely resembles the deacon. (Clearer view of the mural here.)

What we can establish from the mural is that the black substance, egg, face-hugger and alien are all interlinked, what this doesn’t appear to directly acknowledge is the chest-burster part of the ‘birthing’ process. That’s not to say it’s not part of it and, in a mural placed in a chapel it would be unlikely to portray the most violent and deadly part of the creation. There’s a simple comparison for this, if you walk into a church you’re very unlikely to find a realistic portrayal of the stations of the cross. Most paintings and sculptures tend to depict Christ as calm and serene rather than tortured, broken, bloody and in agony. It’s much easier to worship that which seems beautiful, immortal or otherworldly than the reality of suffering – we are told Christ suffered for us but rarely do we ever see it.

The prologue to Prometheus shows us the engineers leaving a sole engineer on earth to drink the black substance, this essentially forces him to become the genetic awakening of humankind. We know that the substance he drinks is the same as that in the vases because the original promotional material shows the same type of cup on the chapel room altar, not the green crystal seen in the final cut. What we never see is how the engineer’s sacrifice actually kick starts the evolution of the human race, though we know it does because Shaw confirms that we share the same DNA.

The chapel room is really important, what it tells us is that the engineers worship the alien, you simply don’t build an altar and put the image of something you deplore at the head of it if you have no regard for it. It also tells us that the engineers are an integral part of the birth of the alien as it clearly depicts them being ‘impregnated’ by the face-huggers. Whilst I have no doubt whatsoever that LV-233 is essentially a military installation used to store apocalyptic amounts of a bio-weapon, I do doubt that its sole function is that of a weapon. In Paradise Lost there is a material known as the ’empyreal substance,’ this is a fiery, flexible substance from which the angels are made, that is essentially what I believe the ‘black goo’ to be. Given how closely Prometheus and Covenant reference Paradise Lost, I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to assume the black and the empyreal share something in common, they are both the genesis of a race of beings: empyreal = angels and demons, black = man and alien, one is always inevitably born from the other. If the black substance is controlled then it’s capable of creating life, in the wrong hands it brings death, so what’s the mural really telling us?

Let’s come back to that and deal with the aliens first.

The Birth cycle of the aliens:

LV-233 (Prometheus)

  1. Ingestion – David gives Holloway a tiny amount of the black.
  2. Insemination – Holloway impregnates Shaw.
  3. Birth (caesarian) – Shaw removes the alien foetus (egg), the foetus grows into a version of the face-hugger (the trilobite).
  4. Impregnation – the face-hugger impregnates the engineer.
  5. Birth – the deacon rips its way out of the engineer.

Planet 4 (Covenant) – there are two cycles in this:

  • 1.1 Spores – two members of the Covenant crew infected by spores
  • 1.2 Birth – the neomorph rips its way out of their bodies.
  • 2.1 Hatch – the face-hugger hatches from the egg.
  • 2.2 Impregnate – the face-hugger impregnates Oram.
  • 2.3 Birth – the protomorph bursts from Oram’s chest.

All of the black/grey versions of the alien: the deacon, protomorph and Alien’s xenomorph come from eggs, the only one that’s white is the neomorph which starts life as a spore. The black substance on its own only serves to mutate or destroy, that way it can create life or take it away. Life is created on earth using a tiny amount of black, however, it devastates life on Planet 4 when David releases all of it. What the black does is clearly dependent upon the amount used: a tiny bit in Holloway’s champagne doesn’t have any effect until the following day when he starts to feel ill, then finally he begins to change. Fifield’s transformation is quicker and more drastic because he ingests more of the black. The engineers on Planet 4 either briefly mutate then die or die immediately. It would suggest that the black alone is a transmutational substance which alters the physiology of its host.

In Covenant David states that the black only effects the biological, yet the spores come from a plant so logically that doesn’t seem to fit. What if this is simply a quirk of that particular plant and the way it filters nutrients from the ground? Think about it, David released tons of the black substance, it doesn’t damage plant life but it would certainly have saturated the plants, ground and water supplies within a certain radius of detonation, its not just going to disappear. If that plant sucks it up in water through its root system then it’s going to get released amongst its spores. Once the spores are released they then infect a host and the parasite version of the black latches onto the hosts DNA and produces the neomorph. We never get to see what grows from the infection in Holloway, but perhaps that too would have been a version of the neomorph.

The consistent path to the black/grey alien starts with the egg, but why are they different and is David really the creator of the alien? I believe the version of the alien that comes into being is dependent upon what happens to the black to begin with and what the host is. The consistent path to this type of alien however, remains the same: egg – face-hugger – birth/alien. One of the most notable things about David is that he’s a perfectionist, he’s not creating the alien he’s perfecting it. The true form of the alien is the deacon, at least it is when the black is mixed with human DNA (human and engineer DNA is the same), and that’s why it resembles the one in the mural. David’s alien, the protomorph is an experimental transgenic life form, so, taking whatever genetic material he has (Shaw, the engineers, indigenous wildlife), he experiments with it within the parameters of the alien’s own birth cycle.

David didn’t create the alien but that’s not to say he didn’t create the xenomorph, it’s akin to Weyland perfecting the android as opposed to inventing it from scratch. If LV-233 is a military installation then it’s reasonable to assume that it’s not the engineers only outpost, it’s also reasonable to assume that Planet 4 is one of those outposts. When David arrives the engineers of that planet gather to greet the ship, they’re pleased to see its return yet that ship is around 2000 years old. They’re probably a very changed race by this point but, they would still have had the technological knowledge to have ships, yet David ends up marooned there when it crashes. This suggests there are no other ships on that planet, or at least none that are within reaching distance for David. It seems very unlikely that a race that can travel the stars, create life, colonise planets and build military installations for multiple ships would also originate from a planet that contains not a single spacecraft. The simple answer to this is that it’s not their home planet, it’s an outpost and given the way they’re dressed it would seem to be the home of some kind of religious order – which brings us back to the mural.

The mural depicts the birth cycle of the alien, which, in this instance is a figure of worship so puts the alien above the engineer as it is them adoring it. What it therefore shows is that the engineers are sacrifices to the alien, that they are prepared to allow themselves to be killed for the sake of the alien’s survival. The engineers are the ones on Planet 4, the ones on the ship are nothing more than sacrificial pawns sent out to populate the universe with their god. If the mural echoes the crucifixion then what it also hints at is the virgin birth, meaning that the alien has no discernible point of origin, in other words, neither the alien nor the egg came first but they did exist before the engineers. The ‘black goo’ of the mural can therefore be read two ways:

  1. That it’s where the alien itself originates from and, if that’s the case then it would also share a genetic link to engineers and humans. That means that we all have the same point of origin, so indirectly the mural tells us that there is no true god only false ones. If that were the case this would mean that a series of events which starts with mankind seeking their maker, ends with their creation (David) perfecting mankind’s ‘god’.
  2. That if the ‘black goo’ is a version of Paradise Lost’s empyreal substance, then these are the fallen angels condemned to chaos and David truly has become the king of Pandemonium.

So what of LV-426?

  1. David has nothing whatsoever to do with it: if his alien is the protomorph and only the protomorph then he’s happily on his way to Origae 6 to kill the colonists and populate the planet with protomorphs. That being the case then the alien that Ripley et al discover is one of the ones the engineers themselves were transporting. My main issue with this theory is that if any of the above holds up then the alien on LV-426 should have been a deacon, not a xenomorph.
  2. David doesn’t take the colonists to Origae 6, he re-routes the ship to one of the other engineer outposts and starts the whole process again, only this time with more knowledge, two face-huggers and nearly 2000 subjects to experiment on. This would allow him to perfect and evolve the protomorph into the xenomorph. If he finds another military installation then he also has access to the black and more ships, one of which will ultimately end up on LV-426.

See also: Foreshadowing and Religion in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.


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