Sharks have been basically unchanged for millions of years. Essentially a torpedo with teeth, the shark is a creature incredibly honed to its particular ecological niche of eating stuff while swimming fast. Though, according to the theory of evolution, it was created through a confluence of random events–millions of generations of slight variations and mutations slowly selecting for the best combination of elements–it was fine-tuned through that process to create something incredibly powerful and deadly. No adjustments have been needed since dinosaurs roamed the earth.
There are parasites that invade and take over the brains of ants, or eat and replace the tongues of fish. There are predators whose hides mimic the way sunlight dapples a forest floor to make it more difficult to pick them out among the foliage as they sneak up on you. There are insects that have grown for millennia to the specific purpose of using the flesh of another creature to house and feed their young, often while that creature is still alive and aware of what is happening to it.
Evolution is scary.
It’s part of the reason why I’ve always found Prometheus, director Ridley Scott’s prequel to his 1979 sci-fi horror classic Alien, to be a letdown. I’ve been an Alien fan my whole life, from an age when someone probably should have stopped me from watching that original movie. Alien leaves the origins of its incredibly deadly creature mysterious to some degree, but Prometheus spells them out. The xenomorph organism was created, more or less, as a bioweapon by the Engineers, a race of ancient aliens of the Ancient Aliens variety that went around seeding planets with life, including Earth. The exact xenomorph fans have come to know and fear was created in Alien: Covenant by David (Michael Fassbender), the first artificially intelligent android, who hates his creators and is completely homicidal.
I’ve always found the idea that the alien was created by a guy (synthetic or otherwise) inherently weakens what makes it frightening. Landing definitively on the idea that the alien was a bioweapon makes it easier to quantify and understand. There are now reasons that the alien has two sets of jaws or acid for blood–the reason is, a guy put those things there. It makes the alien more like a gun or a nuclear bomb; under the guidelines of Prometheus and Covenant, the alien is just a tool utilized to reach a goal.
That’s why my interest in Noah Hawley’s upcoming Alien TV series on FX has just risen considerably. In a recent interview, Hawley, the creator of the Fargo and Legion TV series, said that he doesn’t intend to adhere to Prometheus’s backstory of the creature.
“Ridley and I have talked about this–and many, many elements of the show,” Hawley said. “For me, and for a lot of people, this ‘perfect life form’–as it was described in the first film–is the product of millions of years of evolution that created this creature that may have existed for a million years out there in space. The idea that, on some level, it was a bioweapon created half an hour ago, that’s just inherently less useful to me.”
Hawley’s interpretation of the Alien story and the creature’s origins are some that a lot of authors have shared over the years. While there’s always been possible that the creature was created or was being used by the race previously called the Space Jockeys by fans–the ones that flew the ship where the Nostromo’s crew found all those eggs in the first Alien–it was only ever one interpretation of the organism’s possible origins.
Over the years, writers have run with the idea of an “alien homeworld” in a few different contexts, with comics and novels imagining it as a pretty horrific place. Alien stories always concern terrible people trying to use the alien for evil and getting their comeuppance, and heading to the alien homeworld links directly to Earth being infested by the xenos in at least one novel in the Alien expanded universe.
The interpretation of the aliens as animals has provided opportunities to imagine other elements of how the creatures work, as well. Some stories (and video games and toy lines, as it happens) have run with the idea that the alien inherits traits of its host organisms, creating whole different subspecies. None of it makes a ton of sense necessarily, especially taken all together, because the Alien franchise has never been particularly good about consistent or cogent “rules” when it comes to its creature. But the point is, Hawley is hardly the only person to have thought about the aliens along evolutionary lines.
Ultimately, though, the idea of the alien as a bioweapon is the inferior, less-scary take, at least in terms of stories that focus on the creature itself and not on the AI that birthed them. There’s something cosmically horrifying about the alien as a product of evolution because of all that implies. One character in the original film calls it a “perfect organism,” and just think about that for a second. Like a shark or a parasitic wasp, this thing has been honed to a perfection that makes it incredibly good at killing, and not just killing but spreading, and not just killing and spreading but killing us and using us to spread.
I’ve always found the alien to be terrifying because it implies a terrifying universe. If this creature was not made but evolved to be what it is–incredibly tough to kill and bent on using you as both food source and surrogate womb–through entirely natural means and processes, what does that say about the universe we live in? Hawley has it right, because it’s not just about imagining that the alien is out there, but that it has been out there for millions of years, waiting for us, like a shark hidden in the depths.
To me, there’s nothing more horrifying about the alien than the idea that nobody had to make it, that something this terrible and powerful could also arise from the same processes that created us. And maybe the scariest thing about thinking of the alien as a natural creation is that it forces us to imagine what else could be out there. Prometheus takes away some of that ever-present dread about a cold, indifferent, and possibly even hostile universe, and I’m glad Hawley wants to put some of it back.