Alien: Covenant Decenters its Female Protagonist in Favor of a Man
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Alien: Covenant, as well as discussions of rape analogies.
Is the Alien franchise a feminist one? It depends on who you ask. If, and how, and why a film is feminist has always been up for debate in film criticism circles. Feminist films are often helmed by women who work to subvert the camera’s “male gaze.” In that sense the Alien films fail, as not a single woman has directed or written any of the four main films or two prequels, although Aliens, in my opinion the strongest film of the franchise, was produced by Gale Anne Hurd.
Despite the lack of gender parity behind the camera though, the films are notable in that they all feature a female protagonist who fights against the patriarchal Weyland corporation and who gains control of her own narrative in markedly feminist ways. Lt. Ellen Ripley is considered one of the original bad-ass scifi heroines, and film theorist Laura Mulvey dubbed her the first true “final girl” in horror, a woman who actively overcomes her oppressors, rather than simply being the last victim left alive. All the films pass the Bechdel Test -although some just barely–and the main series explores themes of gender politics, economic exploitation, motherhood, and the male fear of sexual violence.
When director Ridley Scott announced he would be creating several prequel films with female leads, I was excited to meet Ripley’s predecessors, as well as see the ways in which the series had progressed in portraying gender. (Would the films still have New Ripley running around bra-less in a tank top? Would we see female synths, maybe?) But Prometheus ended up being a critical disappointment, and with Alien: Covenant, it’s revealed that the prequels are less concerned with any one “final girl” and more with the man who terrorizes them.
Alien: Covenant begins with a prologue scene of Peter Weyland and Michael Fassbender’s David, a synthetic who immediately questions his existence and asks Weyland why he should serve humans when they are mortal and frail compared to him. We learn this is the same David of Prometheus, whose disgust of humans and obsession with becoming a creator himself led him to experiment with combining human and Engineer (our creators in the Alien universe) DNA, an act that caused Prometheus protagonist Elizabeth Shaw to become pregnant with a facehugger prototype that she then had to cut out. With the amount of screen-time, lines, character development, and promotional short film focus David gets, Covenant confirms that beyond the Weyland Corporation, the true antagonist of the series is David himself.
David ends up taking up the bulk of Covenant, but there is, of course, a Ripley analogue there in the form of Katherine Waterson’s Daniels. Like Ripley in Alien, Daniels is third-in-command aboard a ship, this time the Covenant, a colonizing vessel bound for a habitable planet called Origae-6. In Alien, Ripley is the only one logical enough to follow protocol and deny ship entry to a facehugger-attached crewmate. Similarly, in Covenant, Daniels is shown to be the most level-headed of her crew, being the only one to vocally object when her male captain decides to suddenly abandon the trek to Origae-6 and land on a completely unknown planet. And like Ripley, Daniels is overridden by the men and hinted at being too emotional to make proper decisions. This, at least, feels like the original Alien series: a competent, smart woman objects to what is clearly a dangerous and unreasonable situation, and men, being men, shoot down her suggestions by claiming she’s not seeing clearly.
The introduction of Daniels leaves the lingering question of where Shaw is, who is seen perfectly alive and determined to confront the Engineers at the end of Prometheus, David’s functional but severed head in tow. In several interviews Scott said that he wants to explore what Shaw decides to do, and that keeping Shaw alive is “essential” to where the series is headed. With actress Noomi Rapace confirming Shaw was indeed going to be in Covenant, I thought that we were going to see a team-up of Daniels and Shaw: two women, embattled and underestimated, confronting David and the corporation, much like Ripley did.
Except that’s not what happens. After Shaw is absent for the first half of the film, we learn, via the repaired David, that Shaw is dead. Even later we learn that it was David who killed and then dissected her in his pursuit of refining his xenomorph creations, even though the only reason he was repaired was because Shaw put him back together after Prometheus. Rapace speaks only in a flashback, and we later see Shaw’s mutilated body on a table. “I loved her,” David tells us. “I’ve never experienced such compassion.” Despite being presented in Prometheus as the new Ripley of the prequels, Shaw is killed in Covenant, essentially, to further David’s story, a tired cliche that Ripley herself subverted, but which Scott has reintroduced nearly thirty-eight years after her debut. (In light of this, it’s unsurprising that Scott himself originally intended to kill Ripley off in Alien, and it was only the studio heads that forbid him from doing so.)
Across the two prequels, we end up spending an inordinate amount of time with David and then with Walter, a newer model of David that was created because the Davids were criticized as being “too human.” And in many ways David is too human, too male, in all the worst ways. David is greedy, deceptive, and arrogant, and his desires to become more powerful than those around him causes suffering, particularly for Shaw and Daniels. Like the synth Ash attempting to shove a rolled up magazine down Ripley’s throat while breathing heavily in Alien, David attacks the women in sexually violent ways, impregnating the unwilling Shaw in Prometheus, and climbing atop Daniels and attempting to choke her to death in Covenant. His love of Shaw is monstrous, and later he threatens Daniels that he’ll do “the same to her that he did to Shaw.” If the xenomorphs, with their forced births, phallic-shaped heads, and mouth-violating facehuggers are meant to be an analogy for men’s fear of rape, David is women’s fear of men embodied.
There are no subversions to be had here with David. Whereas Ripley manages to overcome Ash, the xenomorphs, and the corporation, Shaw and Daniels end up being wholly outwitted by David. Ripley begins as a mostly quiet, passive character in Alien, but she continually wrests control away from the male characters until the camera is almost entirely on her, and where she’s literally screaming over the men, demanding they respect her authority. Alien and Aliens ends with Ripley speaking the last lines, and the camera lingers on her peaceful, sleeping face. Even in Aliens 3, Ripley’s death is her own decision and done by her own hand. In Covenant, the last lines and scenes are entirely taken up by David, meaning that David literally bookends the film. And the last we see of Daniels is of her sobbing in terror as David smiles down at her. With both Shaw and Daniels, the choice of what happens to their bodies, their lives, are completely taken away from them.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that as prequels, we know that no matter what these women do, they’re likely doomed to fail. What would Ripley have to fight if Shaw and Daniels were successful in stopping David? Furthermore, by seeing the monstrous, patriarchal origins of the xenomorphs, doesn’t it make it all the sweeter when we watch Ripley burn them alive? Perhaps. I can appreciate that textually, focusing on David continues the narrative of male destructiveness, and how, by David being the creator of the male rape analogous xenomorphs, the films can stand as a commentary on how the patriarchy hurts men as well. But also, it’s 2017. When we have protagonists like Wonder Woman, Rey, and Furiosa, I can’t help but wonder how creative or necessary it is to center David, and why it was necessary to kill Shaw off-screen. It does not feel progressive, or interesting, to me to have an origin story that ends up refocusing a franchise traditionally thought of as feminist on another angry, white male protagonist, when we still only have 29% of all films featuring a female lead.
And it’s not just frustrating that David has supplanted Daniels and Shaw as the lead of the prequels. It’s also that Fassbender himself is first-billed before even Waterson, despite the fact that Daniels was advertised as the protagonist and despite Fassbender delivering what feels like a lukewarm performance. There is a major twist in the film where you’re supposed to be unsure if the synth you’re seeing is David or Walter, but Fassbender’s acting gives it away entirely. (This may be a commentary on how David is so human that he’s unable to act convincingly synthetic; regardless, the characters believe it, so the presentation makes for a laughably awkward viewing experience.) When compared to the quietly unnerving performances of Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton in Westworld, Gemma Chan in AMC’s Humans, and Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina, I wonder why Fassbender has been so resoundingly praised for his portrayal, when there have been quite a few others who’ve recently played too-human AIs more much adeptly in comparison.
And speaking of female AIs, in Prometheus, Charlize Theron plays Peter Weyland’s daughter Meredith Vickers, and it’s implied that David is based on Meredith. But why then is “David” not “Meredith”? How necessary was it to actually have David be a male synthetic, especially if we already have Peter Weyland there as the ultimate, patriarchal villain for Ripley to confront? Had we been given a female synthetic, a “Meredith,” would not the overall message of the series still stand with Weyland, while also giving us more female representation overall? I can see this may be a commentary on Weyland wishing he had a son rather than a daughter, but were we really robbed of a series of films with Theron playing the main antagonist rather than Fassbender?
There’s also the fact that Fassbender himself has been accused in the past of domestic abuse. While the charges were dropped and you could argue one must separate art from the artist, David still feels like an example of fiction being a few shades too close to reality. Hiring an accused abuser to play an abusive character who ends up taking focus and agency away from the women feels like an unfortunate decision for a franchise known for its feminist underpinnings.
Suffice to say, it feels like the prequels have moved us backwards, in more ways than one. “Ripley advanced the movie heroine pretty far and pretty fast,” says David McIntee, author of the Aliens study book, Beautiful Monsters. “I think the entertainment industry would be very different without her.” At the time, Ripley represented a tremendous shift for the horror genre and for the kinds of roles women were allowed to inhabit. And with their determination to unsettle a specifically male audience, the films proved to be subversive in more ways than one. But with the prequels, we return to the idea that women are victims, assaulted, violated, and even killed by a terrifying man.
If the original series was meant to make the male audience squirm, the prequels feel like they’re aimed at making the female audience uncomfortable. I can’t think of anything that contradicts Ripley’s legacy more.