Science fiction has always been a bit nebulously defined as literary subgenres go – at one point exclusively referring to a then-new style of writing where the narrative chiefly existed to speculate on the use (or misuse) of some new hypothetical technological concept, but soon expanded to include just about any flight of fancy where the fancy in question was ostensibly grounded more in “science” than explicit mysticism. Over time, a common (but by no means definitive) definition emerged that held at least “quality” sci-fi to be framed as a story that uses a speculative scientific conceit (or series of the same) to explore a theme either symbolically or through tendering of the “logical extreme.”
For example: the original Star Trek is “about” the politics and geopolitical machinations of the world in which it was created, rendered in an imaginary possible future and set among hypothetical new planets. Planet of The Apes was about debates over who controls the “truth” of historical record. The original Godzilla was an attempt to “process” the aftermath of Fat Man and Little Boy in the form of a monster story. H.G. Wells’ War of The Worlds was about showing contemporary British readers what it might feel like to be on the receiving end of colonialism (and how tenuous an extended “empire” could be.)
Most science fiction, in other words, is about something other than the literal premise of its plot; which means that often two otherwise wildly different works linked on by the sheer broadness of the genre itself can actually be covering effectively the same material (example: Jurassic Park and Ex Machina – think about it.) And sometimes they land in such proximity so as to compare them against one another.
To wit: Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2, a sci-fi comedy starring a foul-mouthed space raccoon tangentially linked to a series of colorful superhero movies, and Alien: Convenant, a dark and studiously self-serious film starring Academy Award darling Michael Fassbender directly linked to one of the most respected franchises in the history of the genre; are both currently playing in theaters worldwide and are both covering surprisingly similar topics in terms of symbolism and metaphor. But which one actually does so in a more compelling and resonant way is just a bit surprising – and it’s fascinating to consider just how that happened.
DADDY WASN’T THERE
Let’s get right to the meat of it: Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2 and Alien: Covenant are both “bad dad” movies, where abusive/absentee fatherhood and the instinct to view fatherhood as an extension of the self are at the core of the villains motivation and backstory.
Interestingly, they both do so in the context of “following” stories that are were mainly about mothers: The Alien franchise is infamously preoccupied with pregnancy symbolism (even Prometheus’ signature moment is the abortion of a monstrous “fetus”), while the original Guardians was all about Peter “Star-Lord” Quill growing up beyond mourning his lost mother – hence why Gamora isn’t interested in “dancing” (as Drax the Destroyer would say: “Metaphor!”) until he finally opens what turns out to be “Awesome Mix Vol. 2” – symbolically accepting that she is dead and that he can live on from that.
It while both films are very, very cross with their respective disappointing patriarchs; they get there in very different contexts and with decidedly divergent (in terms of intent and success) results:
In Covenant, we have several Bad Dads mulling around the plot – first and foremost, the “Father with a capital-F” himself, God, whose influence in the form of fate and cosmic “justice” is alternately questioned, doubted and mourned by the terminally unlucky crew of The Covenant and invoked via the leftover plot threads from Prometheus; where the eponymous crew came to learn that The Father’s “actual” identity might have been one of the Engineers – a race of musclebound albino space-biologists who went around conducting genetic experiments on young planets.
God is also the “Bad Dad” in turn invoked by The Covenant’s interim Captain (Billy Crudup), a devout Christian (implied to be a persecuted minority in this future, one of many ideas the film raises and then does absolutely nothing with); himself a “Bad Dad” to his crew whose decision to let Jesus take the wheel when it comes to exploring a suspiciously-habitable planet spells doom for everyone involved.
Our ultimate Bad Dad, however, is David (Michael Fassbender), the android antagonist from Prometheus who is himself the product of two other Bad Dads: His creator Mr. Weyland (Guy Pearce) and – once again – God Himself, whose identity Weyland was obsessed with sussing out and whose (literal) world-building machinations David aspires to.
David, we learn, has been busy since Prometheus: Carrying out a genocide of the Engineer planet (and butchering Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth) in the name of conducting animal-husbandry experiments that have resulted in the cultivation of what we recognize as the traditional “Xenomorph” Alien. No, really: The minblowing reveal that was worth scuttling the mystery of the Alien franchise for turns out to be “a malfunctioning robot made them because he was programmed to be curious but not to not murder everything – oops!”
But what does giving the Xenomorphs a “father” after all this time associating them only with their Queens actually add to the proceedings? It’s not entirely clear. The whole point of David as a villain is that he doesn’t really have a “psyche” – just bad programming – and for all the high-minded name-drops to the Judeo-Christian mythos and various artworks and poems related to the same Convenant seems so unconcerned about it’s own deeper implications that its one explicitly religious-adherent character never even finds out about The Engineers. What seems to be pointing to a Big Statement about the nature of Man & God ultimately wraps up as just another Alien movie… but where the Alien itself has been stripped of its vital unknowableness.
“SMALL G, SON”
By contrast, Guardians’ central “Bad Dad” is a lot less mysterious upfront: Kurt Russell’s Ego: The Living Planet is a brain-shaped cosmic supervising called a “Celestial” who has formed an entire world and ecosystem around himself as a moon-sized protective shell and set out among the stars via a humanoid avatar in order to encounter and understand other forms of life – a journey that included meeting Meredith Quill on Earth and fathering the half-Celestial Star-Lord.
In its way, that’s not much “more” pulpy and high concept than Covenant’s mass-murdering broken robot – it’s just less layered in stone-faced self-seriousness: When one of your main characters is a talking space racoon, you’ve got the wiggle-room to make your villain a giant talking planet named for the singular emotional concept he embodies – call it refuge in audacity.
But Ego isn’t “only” ego, he’s representative of the specifically masculine (“macho,” if you like) permutation of the idea: We soon learn that he was quickly let down to discover that not all life in the universe was as “perfectly” self-realized as himself (one could probably write an entire encyclopedia on the subject of prideful male obliviousness based on Ego’s insistence of himself as “self made” but also unaware/unconcerned with his actual origin) and decided that he would instead seek to consume and replace all known worlds with extensions of himself – to which end he went about fathering thousands of would-be demigods (like Peter Quill).
Oh, and should anyone in the back of the theater manage to “miss” that the Guardians are now up against the embodiment of toxic-fatherhood (toxic masculinity period, really), it turns out that the moment he felt close to questioning his conqueror-instinct thanks to the pesky feminine emotion of “love,” he snuffed it out by infecting Star-Lord’s mother with the cancer that killed her – a fact that he’s exactly arrogant enough to reveal and turn Peter fully back against him. Why, oh why, can’t he just understand that she was potentially in the way of his desperate need to make himself matter by leaving his mark everywhere?