Spoiler warning! Reading after this point without having seen Alien Covenant yet is like taking your helmet off on a new planet — you should not do it, and if you do anyway, what happens to you after that is your own fault. Don’t go any further if you don’t want to get spoiled. You have been warned.
In 1979 when Alien was first released, it was revolutionary for the subversive way that it depicted gender and sexuality. The script, famously, didn’t delineate the pronouns of any of its seven characters; once Ripley was cast as a woman, her competent demeanor in the face of adversity made her into a feminist icon. And then there’s the deeply psychosexual aesthetic of the aliens, who literally penetrate someone and force him to give birth, turning an experience already anticipated by most childbearing women into a total nightmare for men.
Watching Alien: Covenant over the weekend, I was expecting something similar in theme. After all, this is the first ship in the franchise to be exclusively staffed by couples with the explicit purpose of populating a new homeworld. All these characters exist to settle down and make babies! It has the highest number of female crew members in any Alien movie! (the Nostramo and the Betty both had two women; the Prometheus had three; not counting Newt, the Sulaco had four; Covenant has five) And yet, it was not what I expected, and not because the movie didn’t do anything with gender — but because what it did do was subtle and, frankly, a bit stereotypical. And maybe that was the point.
Most strikingly, even though the female crew members are all demonstrated to be capable at their jobs and devoted to their husbands, there’s an odd strain of male possessiveness that simmers on the surface of the entire film. The crewman joke with one another about their wives’ “tits” and about not leaving one another alone with them, even while their wives are there listening. Tennessee spends the entire movie referring to his wife by their shared last name, Faris, and gets so upset about her safety that he talks over her during a rough landing (leaving her to object that she knows what she’s doing, thank you) and endangers an entire ship full of colonists to rescue her. Even when he’s maintaining the ruse that Elizabeth Shaw died under unforeseen circumstances, David refers to her as “My” Elizabeth; once that ruse is discovered, his particular brand of ownership becomes even more insidious. The one notable exception to this phenomenon is Daniels Branson (nope, surprisingly Daniels is not her last name), whose husband dies at the beginning of the movie and who therefore has no one to claim her — not even Walter, although David certainly eggs him on to do so.
This would give you the impression that the film is not interested in its female characters (save, again, for Daniels), but that’s not entirely the case either when you look at the various ways all the crew members are dispatched throughout the film. The women’s deaths are tense and drawn out, clearly meant to provoke strong emotional reactions either in their grieving husbands or in the audience — think back to the dramatic close-ups of Rosenthal’s severed head, bobbing in the water like a painting of drowned Ophelia. But the men die completely unceremoniously; mostly they’re used as incubators for Xenomorphs and cast aside. In one case, a Xenomorph plunges itself through Jussee Smollet’s character to get to his screaming, naked wife; the male character who brought that Xenomorph aboard in the first place doesn’t get a death scene at all.
There are a few possible explanations for this, the most practical one being that watching Xenomorphs explode out of dudes is pretty old hat at this point and doesn’t pack quite the same punch as it did in 1979. Another is that our culture is simply more accustomed to female suffering in art; as Edgar Allen Poe once said, “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” In fact, you could argue that the Final Girl trope only exists in the first place because audiences are more comfortable seeing a woman emotionally — and often sexually — terrorized by a monster. I mean, just look at how people rag on Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge for trying the same formula with a male ingenue instead.
Taken another way, however, you could make the argument that this is all intentional on Ridley Scott’s part. The men of Alien: Covenant do very stupid things, like traveling to unknown planets because it feels less scary than following a plan, or leaning right into mysterious alien plantlife for a faceful of spores (or, extrapolated more broadly, they create sociopathic androids and don’t think anything’s wrong when those androids bleach their hair blond and get really into Wagner). The women, in contrast, make cautious choices and follow contamination protocol even in the direst of circumstances, and still suffer directly as a result of the men’s poor decisions.
To be fair, this plot structure has always served as the narrative underpinning for every single Alien film; none of the men in charge ever listen to Ripley until it’s too late, and it always falls to her to burn the whole thing down one way or another. But because the new Prometheus series is singularly focused on David, the triumphant moment where the Final Girl kills the monster doesn’t actually happen. Sure, Daniels throws a Xenomorph out the airlock, but she realizes too late that the victory is ultimately David’s, not hers. To put it in more basic terms, the heroine isn’t our protagonist anymore — the monster is.
Personally, I’ve always equated Alien movies with female empowerment, and even though I enjoyed the film for what it was, it still felt very strange. David might be endlessly compelling, but it’s taken decades for the rest of the media landscape to get on board with women-led genre movies (and it still isn’t, not really); so it’s odd that the one franchise known for a female lead has chosen to shy away from them. But maybe this is what Alienneeds in order to innovate beyond what it’s always been about. It’s just doing things in the reverse order that every recently rebooted franchise has — with the cool female heroine appearing first, rather than being the fresh new face.
Besides, if you view the movies in order of in-universe chronology rather than by release date, the trajectory of the series still remains fairly subversive by typical gender normative standards. A male character, David, produces horrors out of an obsession with creation; and a female character, Ripley, becomes an agent of destruction to end those horrors. Or, to put it another way: Man creates Android, Android creates Xenomorphs, Xenomorphs eat Man, Woman inherits the Earth. At least, what’s left of it once she’s done.