‘Alien: Covenant’ Nails the Stupid Terror of Bio-Weapons
Unless you wanna scorch some earth, biological weapons are always a dumb idea
This article contains spoilers for Alien: Covenant
Never trust an arms dealer who wants to sell you a super soldier instead of a gun. From the Resident Evil film franchise to Jurassic World, Hollywood action flicks are lousy with profit-hungry war mongers who want to turn living creatures into deadly weapons. It’s always, always, always a bad idea that ends with the merchant of death murdered by his own superweapon.
That’s because biological and living weapons are a stupid, no-good, very bad idea. The history of warfare is rife with examples of living weapons causing horrifying unforeseen consequences.
It’s possible that the Mongol weaponization of bubonic plague led to the mass depopulation of Europe. Japan’s infamous Unit 731 left a legacy of devastation across the South Pacific that’s still felt today.
During World War II and after, armies all over the world experimented with animal-deployed munitions. Dogs, pigeons, bats and even dolphins went into battle strapped with explosives. It was never consistent enough to work and sometimes the animals comes back to kill the master.
But in the minds of screenwriters across America, the dream of super-soldiers persists and nearly every other action flick involves the military attempting to weaponize some sort of ghoul they should kill instead.
Alien: Covenant is a mediocre movie, but it understands the dumb terror of biological weapons.
Alien: Covenant is the sixth film in a franchise that should have stopped at number two. Ridley Scott’s Alien explored the horror of space and pitted the crew of the Nostromo against a single alien. The message was clear—space is hostile, humans shouldn’t be there and the dangers it contains are unfathomable.
James Cameron’s brilliant 1986 sequel Aliens upped the stakes and introduced the idea of the xenomorphs as bio-weapons. It was a classic deployment of the trope. Paul Reiser played Burke, a slimy suit who wanted to bring the deadly species back to earth for use in Weyland-Yutani’s bio-weapons division. It was, as it always is, a stupid idea and Burke died at the hands of the creature he wanted to weaponize.
In 2012’s Prometheus, Scott ended the mystery of the xenomorphs and revealed that they had always been a bio-weapon and an ingenious one. The xenomorph is a biological weapon created by an ancient alien race. The ur-form of the xenomorph is a simple biological slurry that merges with the DNA of foreign animal species and creates a predator that destroys the invader. The effects are as varied as the individual organism.
This is the biological equivalent of a nuclear weapon. Because of the speed at which the virus spreads and reproduces, one drop of the tainted goop on the surface of any planet renders that planet uninhabitable to alien life. It’s a stupid weapon, unless the user plans to never return to the area where it’s used.
It’s a similar strategy to Cold War Britain’s plan to plant nuclear landmines in strategic areas of Germany. The Brits reasoned that, should the communists ever invade, they’d detonate the landmines and create a barren and irradiated no-man’s land between Western Europe and the Soviets. No use fighting over territory that no one can inhabit.
It was a bad idea. Just like dropping a uncontrollable biological agent on a planet capable of sustaining life. Both are great defense weapons, the ultimate moat if you will, but these are turrets of last defense. If they’re ever used, then everyone loses.
Of course, nuclear weapons don’t have a will of their own and that’s the big difference. Biological weapons are impractical because they’re the ultimate smart weapon—they follow their own path. Militaries throughout time have learned this to their horror.
In the 14th century, the bubonic plague swept through the medieval world’s trade routes between Europe and Asia. But the Mongol hordes invading from the east helped it along by using plague cadavers as a weapon of war.
Accounts from the time describe how the Khan’s army would hurl plague-infected corpses over the walls of besieged cities as a method of quickly sickening the city residents. Using a weapon you don’t understand is a terrible idea and, lacking knowledge of the germ theory of disease, the Mongols helped depopulate both its own military as well as the people they hoped to conquer and subjugate.
During World War II, the Japanese military’s infamous Unit 731 dropped plague-carrying fleas on mainland China. It didn’t end there, the Axis power also spread anthrax, typhoid, dysentery, cholera and a host of other nasty biological horrors. These actions killed tens of thousands, and left the land and its inhabitants infected. Even with a thinned population, it’s hard to conquer territory when its people carry the risk of turning your military into coughing invalids.
The horrors don’t discriminate and are just as interested as infecting the person who uses them as they are the intended target. The same goes for animals. The Soviets experimented with dog bombs as tank destroyers. To this day, various world powers are still trying to weaponize dolphins. But the strangest were America’s World War II-era bat bombs.
The idea was that a military plane would drop a bomb containing bats and those bats would spread to the eaves of important buildings and roost there, as bats are wont to do. Once properly roosted, a signal would go out and detonate a napalm-style accelerant strapped to each of the bats. The U.S. military planned to deploy the weapon in the wooden cities of Japan. Makes sense … until you realize that bats don’t follow orders.
During early testing of the bat bombs, stray furry fliers roosted under a fuel tank near New Mexico’s Army Airfield Auxiliary Air Base. In a series of unfortunate accidents, the bats got loose of their bombs and the napalm got loose of their casings. Up in smoke goes the Auxiliary Air Base. Never trust a weapon with a will all its own.
Someone should have told the ancient engineer race of Alien: Covenant.
In the new film, no military wants to use the xenomorphs to conquer the galaxy. No war-mongering company stands to profit from the sale of weaponized space horrors. No, the villain in this flick is a crazy robot sitting in a cave and trying to design the perfect predator. He wants creativity through destruction. Which is about all the xenomorphs are good for.
About midway through the film, the audience learns that David—the quirky and deadly synthetic from Prometheus—survived the events of the previous movie intact and found the alien engineers who designed the deadly bio-weapon that almost killed him and the crew from the previous movie. He arrives on their planet and immediately deploys his own weapon onto a central city. Within minutes, he’s wiped out all animal life on the globe.
His motivations are weird but his deployment is pure. Unlike the Mongols, the Japanese or the Americans, he’s not attempting to use a living weapon to soften up the population for invasion or cleanse the land for colonial expansion. No, David is committing genocide. Ultimately, that’s the only thing biological weapons are good for—genocide and scorched earth.
By deploying the xenomorph “virus,” David not only ends all life on the planet but creates an effective barrier against life ever returning. The crew of Covenant barely lasts a few days against the xenomorph virus that now litters the planet and prevents all animal life but its own. If your military goal is to deny an enemy the territory, then biological weapons such as the one David co-opted are perfect. But that military can never return to the earth it scorched.
Alien: Covenant is better than its predecessor, but that’s not saying much. It does, however, nail the consequences of biological warfare in a way most science fiction films don’t. There are things worse than nuclear weapons, they have a will of their own and militaries across the world continue to experiment with them in hidden labs.
No matter who uses them next, we all lose.