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Space is scary: “Life” and Walker Percy’s angels and beasts

The Catholic novelist’s account of modern man’s Cartesian divide is remarkably applicable to contemporary sci-fi movies.

Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal star in a scene from the movie "Life." (CNS photo/Columbia)

Two new entries in the “space is scary” genre are arriving in theaters this spring. One is a big franchise title: Alien: Covenant, out in a couple months. The other is the recently released Life, an ironically titled film that has been undergoing obvious comparisons to Covenant’s originator: 1979’s Alien. Alien centered on a small crew of space workers being horrifically killed off one by one by a menacing alien creature. Life centers on a small crew of space workers being horrifically killed off one by one by a menacing alien creature. Can you guess what Covenant’s premise will be? But lay off, this is a genre—or, perhaps, a genre inside a genre—and there are conventions, adherence to which should not distract from the fact that at least Life is not a franchise film, which is vexingly becoming the very last barometer we have for originality.

Life also occupies the category of the “one-word title,” a category increasingly overpopulated by science-fiction films; recent examples include Arrival, Gravity, and Interstellar, but the trend goes back to the 90s with Contact and, ultimately, back to Alien. Is there a marketing rationale to the one-word title? Is it easier to remember one-word titles when they don’t have franchise name-recognition?  Or maybe it’s just simpler to translate for foreign markets.

So, how is Life? First, I want to etch out a theory of contemporary science-fiction films, a theory that is, really, just an application of novelist Walker Percy’s theory of modern Americans. Per the novelist, the average modern American is a Cartesian who hasn’t read Descartes. As Dr. Tom More, protagonist of Percy’s novel Love in the Ruins, observes:

For the world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man…. Some day a man will walk into my office as a ghost or beast or ghost-beast and walk out as a man, which is to say sovereign wanderer, lordly exile, worker and waiter and watcher.

Tom More is a psychiatrist whose recently invented “lapsometer” can diagnose the soul. He (like Percy) believes that modern people, particularly Americans, have been split into two tendencies that exist at either end of a spectrum: angelism and the beastialism. The basis for this split is Descartes’ doctrine of mind/body dualism. On the one hand, the modern secular world states that human beings are simply organisms, beasts like any other, with a set of biological needs that must be met and an ability to modify their environment to suit those needs. But the more a human moves through his or her environment, naming this thing and that thing, modifying it, and understanding it, the less he or she feels a part of that environment. This is where angelism comes in to play. As the only animals capable of understanding the world, human beings also become estranged from it, estranged from their own bodies. Man becomes, as Tom More puts it, a “ghost that haunts its own house.”

Percy, a convert to Catholicism, juxtaposed the Cartesian error and modern angelism/beastialism with the Christian conception of man found in the Thomistic/Aristotelean tradition. Man is not an angel—a disembodied consciousness haunting its own body—nor is he a mere beast, just a material body. Man is man, comprised of body and soul, not as a clunky composite of two distinct substances, but a seamless whole. Both are indispensable properties of his ontology. For Percy, man is a pilgrim, a lost wanderer in search of God, his fellow man, God through his fellow man, and his fellow man through God. Man is alienated, which makes him the most screwed-up creature in the cosmos.

Science fiction is particularly suited to brining our underlying conceptions of ourselves as humans to the fore, in part because it often requires us to conceive of beings other than us existing alongside of us. How they are similar and how they are different is often a reflection of how we view ourselves. So, if Percy’s bifurcated modern American Cartesian exists, he should show up in the science-fiction movies he watches. The genre should be as split-down-the-middle as the moviegoers.

I think it is.

(Spoilers ahead.)

The latent angelism in one subset of science-fiction films is most evident in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. The opening sequence features a beast-filled landscape of primordial earth, to which a monolith has descended from the heavens to bestow on the brute a higher awakening. The beast becomes set apart from nature; he is now able to use tools against his fellow beasts. In the iconic sequence, the ape-man hurls the bone (his tool to kill prey or defend his tribe’s watering hole) into the air toward the sky. A quick transition moves us farther upward on an angelic ascent, thousands of years later, to a space station drifting in orbit, where transitioning beast-angels now reside.

Is the artificially intelligent HAL 9000 computer, the film’s main antagonist, really a person? Of course he is! Flesh and bones aren’t needed; a ghost can possess a space ship just as easily as it can a physical body.

The film’s final shot seals it. Having reached the highest stage in his celestial climb, Dave, our hero, sheds his aging physical body, an unnecessary and archaic piece of equipment, to transform into a bright, glowing new creature who drifts effortlessly through the heavens and hovers high above the Earth.

In the 1997 movie Contact, a signal from space is picked up by SETI. The message contains designs for a device that allows a person to travel through wormholes. In the film’s climactic moment, Dr. Ellie Arroway, played by Jodi Foster, is transported light years away to make first contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence. Her memories of her father are “downloaded” from her mind to make the experience of the alien encounter more familiar. Arroway is shocked to learn upon her return that the pod carrying her body never appeared to leave Earth. She’s looked at with skeptical eyes during the film’s final congressional hearing, but the audience knows that it doesn’t matter that her body remained on our planet. It was her consciousness, her mind, her true, immaterial self, that was spirited away to the alien world.

Two other recent films, 2014’s Interstellar and last year’s Arrival, also feature angelism as a driving narrative force. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar begins with a young girl who believes her rural family house is haunted by a ghost. Later, the ghost is revealed to be the disembodied consciousness of her father, played by Matthew McConaughey, communicating with his daughter from a transcendent dimension where non-corporeal beings reside.

In Arrival, Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist recruited to decipher the language of the alien visitors who have suddenly appeared on earth. At a key moment, Dr. Banks has an out-of-body experience facilitated by the “tool” the aliens have bestowed on Earth’s lowly inhabitants—the alien language itself, which allows users to transcend the physical limitations of experiencing time linearly.

In all these films, our true “selves” are distinct from our limited, physical bodies. Wondrous space and its unearthly inhabitants represent the possibility of transcending constrained physicality; they manifest our own angelic futures.

At the other end of the sci-fi angelism/beastialism spectrum, you find movies like Alien and its sequels. Tellingly, Star Beast was the working title for the script that would eventually become the 1979 film Alien. In beastial science-fiction movies, space is far from wondrous. Building off the “used future” visual design popularized with Star Wars, Ridley Scott’s film shows outer-space as grungy, dank, and populated by sweaty animals: humans.

Technological progress does not equate to moral progress in these movies, as it often does in “space is wondrous” films. Capitalism, with its “consume, consume, consume” impulse, is often depicted as a trait of our backward, biological selves in the techno-optimistic view of angelistic sci-fi; our ascent to the heavens will mark the retrograde, competitive economic system’s inevitable collapse. In Alien, however, capitalism has followed mankind out into the cosmos, as the seven-man crew of the Nostromo haul freight across space for “The Company.”

After responding to a distress signal, the crew of the Nostromo experience humanity’s “first contact” event. The encounter signals nothing, however, but the coming conflict; in fact, our discovery that we’re not alone in the universe is ushered in by an act of interspecies rape. Kane, played by John Hurt, becomes host to a growing organism after being impregnated by an alien that has latched itself to his face, as part of the alien’s grotesque life-cycle. The now-famous scene in which the alien menace bursts out of Kane shows the powerlessness of human beings in the face of the indifferent biological processes that rule in the vacuum of space. There is nothing “out there” but more jungle.

Alien has its own version of the HAL 9000: the duplicitous artificial lifeform named Ash, played by Ian Holm, a full member of the crew. As the alien organism viciously kills each crewmember one by one, Ash confesses to Ellen Ripley, the heroine of the film, that he admires the creature for its lack of conscience, remorse, and “delusions of morality”—in other words, the very things we think of as separating humans from beasts. In beastialism sci-fi, the only evolution possible is in an organism’s ability to survive. Space is scary; in space, no one can hear you scream.

Which brings us to Life, a compelling enough film that earnestly doesn’t try to innovate much on its genre. On the angelism/beastialism spectrum, it falls squarely on the beastial side, though it does tease the angelism of the modern, secular scientific worldview a bit, in the beginning.

The film opens with the crew of the International Space Station retrieving a Mars probe on its return to Earth. The team is excited to discover the probe has come back with a soil sample containing cellular life. This is where the film feels angelistic; the scientists are a completely cooperative, multi-ethnic group with little to no interpersonal conflict, because in heaven (orbiting the Earth), there are no national divisions. Drifting high above, the group have just made the most groundbreaking discovery in human history: life can and does exist elsewhere. The existential cure for the strange, serially lonely angel-beast creature known as man has just come from the heavens.

Naturally, the eyes of the world turn skyward as the shocking revelation is publicized around the globe. There’s even a contest for school children—reminiscent of something from the playbook of space enthusiasts and popularizers like Carl Sagan—to come up with a name for the alien organism. The children name it Calvin, after their school, in a broadcasted ceremony.

But Calvin, as it turns out, isn’t the kind of turning-point for humanity that the scientists take it to be. While trying to resuscitate the lifeform during a period of hibernation in the station’s lab, one of the scientists becomes Calvin’s first victim. From here on out the movie follows in Alien’s footsteps, as the creature grows larger and larger while brutally picking off the scientists one at a time.

Scientific wonderment quickly evaporates as the scientists’ survival instincts kick in. At one juncture, one of the scientists states that, despite the emotion being unscientific, she “hates” Calvin. This is what our people of science—angel-aspirants—have been reduced to by the crisis at hand; their inner beasts are brought to the surface.

There is a strange kind of catharsis to this. If you’re just an animal, space isn’t wondrous, it’s scary.

Life is quite watchable, albeit conventional. The film is never dull. It does, however, perpetuate the notion that the strangest creatures are the ones from outer-space, and not the ones filling the theater.

About Andrew Svenning 23 Articles

Andrew Svenning is a freelance writer in Southern California.

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