by Corey Koepper
This essay contains *mild* spoilers about Alien: Covenant and Colossal.
True human horror often manifests itself in unexpected ways. A cool sentence to kick off an essay perhaps, but meaningless unless the term “human horror” is explained. This could mean a lot of different things to different people, but in this context, we’ll go with one basic, subjective definition.
To me, this phrase reflects fears and anxieties common to the human experience, which are executed in film, TV, etc. through (often symbolic) genre elements. Jordan Peele’s Get Out, released this year, is a terrific example. It examines an institutionalized social issue, racism, in a movie that uses supernatural elements (e.g. hypnotism) to craft a social critique. Citing Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives as influences, we can certainly thank Peele for following in the tradition of great social thrillers and reviving mainstream interest in horror movies about, well… people.
As the quantitative body of cinema continues to grow, and influences are accrued and reassembled with new packaging, subgenres like “body horror” and “psychological horror” are often not as clear-cut and defined. While some might say that mainstream horror movies often mindlessly focus on the threat of physical violence, and that indie horror is based more in psychological and thematic concepts, the line between them is frequently blurred now more than ever, often without conscious recognition.
Alien: Covenant and Colossal, also released this year, are two idea-based films that execute their respective visions through horrors of both body and mind. The collective result is an appreciation for human horror that, while not quite fitting into the subgenre that Get Out owns so well, is a reminder that modern genre movies can be outlandish, fun, and thrilling while still striking a human chord.
So what is the “unexpected” way in which human horror manifests itself in these films? If you’ve seen the posters, trailers, or even if you only know what the titles are, their front-and-center use of monsters/creatures might not seem too surprising. But more unexpected than the monsters themselves, as is the case with most great horror and sci-fi, are the ideas behind them.
In 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien spawned a franchise that saw the once optimistic American attitudes behind space exploration met with blood, terror, death, and in response to the screams, silence on the part of the leadership that sent our characters to their demise. Alien: Covenant is a once-missing piece of the puzzle, chronologically before Alien but after Scott’s 2012 quasi-prequel Prometheus, that works because it provides not only a riveting cinematic experience with top-notch, splattery creature violence, but because it allows greater understanding of the existential dread that connects the whole series.
Colossal is a different monster entirely. Directed by Nacho Vigalondo, known for his low-budget, 2007 sci-fi breakout film Timecrimes, it’s a movie about internal and external human conflicts magnified to the size of skyscrapers. Gloria, an unemployed writer with a growing alcohol issue, played by Anne Hathaway in role requiring straight-faced commitment to the script’s crescendoing insanity, moves back to her hometown after a messy falling out with her New York City boyfriend, played by Dan Stevens.
A giant kaiju-like monster soon appears in Seoul, South Korea. It generates again, and yet again… every time Gloria gets blackout drunk and happens to cross her childhood playground at 8:05 A.M. Woah.
Gloria’s budding relationship with childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) leads her to work at his bar in an attempt to get back on her feet, resulting in emotional conflicts that ultimately play themselves out in… monster violence? It’s a zany idea that’s executed remarkably well. The problems that Gloria and Oscar come to recognize within themselves and between each other, and those that they eventually decide to either resolve or succumb to, drive the human action within the story, but are symbolically represented by whatever the hell is happening in Seoul.
The inexplicable relationship between Gloria and her monster counterpart is eventually explained in an abstract sort of way, but its absurdity, particularly in the way the giant “thing” mirrors her exact physical movements in the playground, lends itself to most of the comic energy in the film. Its use of a familiar genre concept (a large monster attacking an Asian city) to explain how innate, psychological monsters can feed on mental and emotional turmoil, is pretty ingenius.
Vigalondo’s optimism lies in the hope that perhaps we can truly “see” and address our problems if they are blown up to a monster-sized scale. Of course, the inverse is seeing the monstrosity of your issues and giving into them, or letting them negatively influence other things. There are many situations in life where such a magnification occurs before our eyes, in ways that aren’t necessarily related to your jaw hitting the floor when seeing a Seoul-based TV news broadcast. It’s all somehow very effective symbolism, using a giant monster to tell a relatable human story, and one that could perhaps not that be told without its comedic, sci-fi exterior.
But if the manifestation of the creature itself is psychological, alcohol is the physical catalyst that awakens the characters’ mental monsters. If this is the case, along with some sort of unexplainable “transformation” into a giant monster, could we loosely classify Colossal as body horror? Probably not, but nor could we strictly categorize it as anything else. This only makes Vigalondo’s human/monster drama more compelling, and is one of many examples why the future looks bright for complex, visionary genre filmmaking.
That being said, returning focus to Alien: Covenant requires a broader look at human horror. Instead of intimate human problems, Covenant address *the* human problem, coming from a platform that is more traditionally considered body horror. Yes, the iconic creature bursts through chests and spines, splattering blood across futuristic white surfaces, but the philosophy behind the scenario provides meaning to chaos.
In 2104, Covenant is a colonization spaceship. Its mission is to reach the planet Origae-6 with two thousand colonists and a thousand embryos, to start (in theory) a new life. Obviously things go horribly wrong, as the situation we tend to expect from the Alien series replays itself (i.e. the creature on Origae-6 embeds itself in the colonists’ bodies and then attacks them) but to greater effect than it has for decades. That’s because Ridley Scott’s latest has a stronger backbone of vision than any of his recent work.
In full command of the genre, Scott is of course capable of creating an atmospheric, suspenseful, visually stunning sci-fi/horror hybrid. But more surprising is his use of pessimistic philosophy to steer his colonists, Katherine Waterston and Danny McBride being the most fun to watch, to the inevitable doom we’ve come to be entertained by. The questions raised by humanity’s obsession with its origins, which were the foundation of Prometheus, are more fleshed out here, lending greater context to the series and its overarching ideas.
Covenant‘s colonists feel entitled to life. They feel entitled to being happy, making babies and starting families, sewing the human seed across seemingly infinite space. The grandiosity of sci-fi as a genre is essential for Scott challenging this human assumption, because fear of the unknown, whatever is out there in space, begs the question – what if we’re a lot smaller than we truly believe?
Given the stupidly vast nature of the universe, it might seem laughable to not answer “yeah, of course we are” to this question. But when leveraging the intimacy of the human issues addressed in Colossal with the “grander” human issue(s) in Covenant, both of which are played out on a massive science-fiction scale, smallness and largeness seem more relative. Body and mind seem more one-in-the-same.
Although it is laced with scenes where flesh is torn, bodily fluids are liberally spilled, and alien mouths within mouths feast at will, Covenant still contains psychological elements, similar to those in Colossal, that make it more interesting than your typical “alien attacks human in dark spaces” fare. Instead of making the problems of a few people BIG, the latest in the Alien series takes the problems of EVERYONE and grounds them in a specific, limited-space situation, one that mostly involves trying not to be heinously killed by an alien species.
Scott effectively implements the fear of basic human biology, the ability to live and reproduce as any species does, being revoked, being turned upside down and manipulated. As a species with unique consciousness, of course we feel entitled to keep on keeping on. If we need to colonize another planet to keep the human race trucking along, then heck, we’ll do it. But this thought process is inherently dangerous. If we had the ability to travel at the speed of light, in a universe so incomprehensibly large, how could whatever we find out there not change this opinion? At the end of the day, how could being human matter anymore? That is, unless we found nothing.
But the crew of Covenant does find something, an alien that cross-breeds with humans and then destroys them. It’s nothingness that responds back to them. What they also find is that they themselves are the inadvertent pilots of their fate, that they have aided in engineering their destruction, and that any negative human outlook from here on out can only really be placed on the collective decisions already made.
Back in our own reality, as high profile decisions are made regarding topics of such crucial importance to the human race as climate change, the ideas in Covenant only seem more relevant. Decisions are made over time that can either save or damn all of us, and if we’re to survive as a species, it might help to recognize just how small we really are, when confronted with the physical realities of a planet and universe that are, in many ways, unfathomable. Sure, we could all use some help with the monster-sized problems inside all of us, reflected by Colossal, and these issues that afflict us daily are important to address. But equally important are the issues effecting all of us, explored by Covenant, that involve something similarly nasty growing within ourselves.
A pivotal, collective decision made in the film, one traced back to Prometheus, is the invention of androids with human-like consciousness. This fateful choice brings android David, once again fascinatingly played by Michael Fassbender, into the new picture. Additionally, there’s the Covenant’s new Michael Fassbender model, named Walter. You can only imagine the wildness that ensues.
David is the result of what happens when people channel their incessant desire for truth and obsession through creation; which would be great, if the creation itself didn’t have the same mental affliction as you. We often believe that we are the ultimate masters of our fate, that we could control our reality even in the far reachers of space. The characters in Alien: Covenant find quite the opposite to be true in their own situation, courtesy of a beast that has scared the hell out of audiences for decades, but has rarely reached the level of big-idea filmmaking as it has now.
The character-writing in Covenant rarely rises above B-movie level; as in Prometheus, characters make laughably dumb decisions. But I’d prefer to think that Scott sets the film in sort of hellish, quasi-reality in the outer-reachers of space, where magnified fear and anxiety are more pertinent to one’s behavior than logic. Where a place like Alien: Covenant is possible, humans might not react as you’d expect. The innate horror of the sensational situation allows things to be more subjective, as they are in Colossal.
Genre filmmaking allows this sort of creative freedom, where the characters, along with the audience, are forced to confront monsters of body and mind. The inverse of alcohol being the “body” element in Colossal is no doubt the invention of David in the Alien series, being that this collective, “mental” attitude driving humanity to create an ultra-smart robot is a catalyst for Covenant‘s own human trainwreck.
The answers to issue-based questions in film, as always, are in the hands of the viewer. It’s hard to recognize yourself in monsters, especially those produced by things we have to train ourselves to recognize, like addiction, entitlement, or racism.
When you finally see them, do you run, scream, or hide? Do you fight them? Maybe, at your worst, you even become them? But most importantly, who’s to say but you?