Ridley Scott’s Alien has received praise since its release in 1979 for its progressive feminist message. The original film starred Sigourney Weaver as Alice Ripley, a fierce heroine that was treated as an equal by her male peers, who didn’t need a love interest, and displayed physical and mental prowess in the battle against space aliens. Alice Ripley’s character is, no doubt, a significant reason why Alien and its sequels have made a lasting impression in popular culture. With Alien: Covenant now in theaters, has Ridley Scott remained true to the franchise’s feminist legacy? The answer is more complicated than either a resounding yes or a frustrated no.
Alien: Covenant opens on a spaceship full of colonists from Earth on their way to a new planet. The ship’s crew is in a medically induced sleep when mechanical failure wakes them, killing the ship’s captain in the process. The crew chooses Oram, played by Billy Crudup, to be the new captain. As the crew repairs the ship, they discover a planet much closer that could serve the needs of the new colony. Oram encourages the crew to deviate from their course and pursue the new planet. Daniels, the wife of the now-deceased former captain (played by Katherine Waterston), disagrees and encourages the crew to stick to the plan. The movie spends a surprising amount of time establishing the disagreement between Oram and Daniels.
This disagreement is significant because it establishes Oram and Daniels as ideological opponents. Before Oram makes his final decision, he consults with Daniels personally, without any of the other crew present. They disagree, but both take the time to listen to the other’s opinion. The film is making a statement here that gender does not matter when it comes to decisions made onboard the ship. To put it simply, the movie makes Oram and Daniels equals by giving their opinions equal weight in the eyes of the audience. This is an integral component to the feminism in the Alien franchise; women are equal to men because their gender is inconsequential to the horrors that try to kill them.
Or is it? There’s a notable trend in Alien: Covenant regarding how the crewmembers are killed. The members of the crew die in a variety of violent ways, but only the men are attacked by the “facehuggers.” The attacks by the facehuggers are the most brutal in the Alien franchise; the creature latches onto the victim’s head, deposits an embryo through the human’s mouth, and only minutes later, it hatches through the victim’s chest, killing them. It is notable that none of the women in Covenant die this way – a death that so clearly parallels childbirth. This choice is even more significant considering that in Prometheus, (the installment in the Alien franchise released in 2012), a woman is attacked by a facehugger, but she is able to cut the embryo out of her body before it kills her. There is clear symbolism here in the strengths women possess that men do not; the franchise positions women as the superior physical being.
Despite these various elements of feminism and female empowerment on display in Alien: Covenant, the movie lacks progressive the holistic feminist theme that made the original film so refreshing. In fact, the feminism in Covenant feels rather hollow. Ridley Scott appears to be interested in the feminist elements of the franchise insofar as he can use them as storytelling tropes to advance the story. Daniels is a strong female character, but her emotional arc in the film is defined by her relationship to her deceased husband and former captain. Moreover, she is the only woman in the movie whose identity is given discernable characterization. However, the largest issue is that despite Daniels’ great physical and intellectual strength, she exists to do little else than to serve the story of David.
David made his first appearance in Prometheus and he turns up again in Covenant. It is clear that David is the primary focus of the Alien franchise moving forward. David is a “synthetic” built by a man, resembling a man, constructed to be both human and machine. Through the character of David, the movie opens up a much larger discussion about evolution and the future of humankind, all of which is seen through a hyper-masculine lens. If there was any doubt that the entire film is meant to be framed around David and his pursuit for power, the audience need only look to Covenant’s opening scene; it’s a flashback to a conversation between David and his creator where they discuss David’s creation, his abilities, and his limits. Alien: Covenant turns its focus to David’s obsession with exceeding the limits his own creator foresaw in him. As a result, the women in this story become secondary. In Covenant, Daniels is used as a pawn for furthering David’s plan for destroying humankind and creating his own species. Elizabeth Shaw, the heroine of Prometheus, who many fans expected to return in Covenant, is given an off-screen death and is reduced to a prop for David’s emotional arc.
Unlike the 1979 Alien, a movie that found value in its feminist elements, Alien: Covenant uses these elements as little more than empty tropes. Whereas Alice Ripley operated under her own volition, the women in Alien: Covenant are relegated to props that further the story of men. Covenant may treat men and women equally in regards to violence, but the equality does not extended to more meaningful elements in the story. Ridley Scott has failed, perhaps out of pure disinterest, to allow the feminist themes of the Alien franchise to evolve since 1979. David’s character represents the way films today, particularly blockbusters, still default to telling stories centered on men and their creations. This is particularly disappointing in a film like Covenant that is a part of a franchise with a history of progressive depictions of women. We should add this movie to the long list of examples for why greater diversity behind the camera is essential to improving the stories on screen.