3:55pm PT by Graeme McMillan
'Alien: Covenant' — Has the Series Lost Touch With Its Central Conceit?
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Alien: Covenant]
Despite a winning performance by Katherine Waterston, Alien: Covenant's focus on Michael Fassbender's dual characters cements what might not be the most obvious — but may perhaps be the most important — difference between the Alien franchise-as-was and the prequel series that began with 2012's Prometheus: The series has gone from being one about female power to being all about men … or, at least, male-presenting robots.
It might not be the case that the Alien franchise launched with a feminist agenda — Sigourney Weaver is on record as suggesting that Ripley was the focus of the first movie in 1979 more for reasons of a contrarian nature than any attempt to even out the gender imbalance in genre storytelling. She told the New York Daily News in 2010, "I think it was more of a story decision … that no one would ever anticipate that this young woman would end up being the hero of the piece."
But by the end of James Cameron's Aliens (1986), it was unmistakable that the series had become a commentary about female agency. That was, after all, a movie that centered around two warring takes on motherhood, with the ultra-masculine marines falling to the side as Ripley and the Alien Queen neared their final confrontation, which wasn't just over the stand-in child for both characters, but began with a notably gendered insult:
That Cameron was responsible shouldn't be a surprise; consider not only his Terminator movies, especially the second, which focus on Sarah Connor's journey, but also the central figures of The Abyss and Avatar. More often than not, Cameron opts for stories about women finding strength and power in worlds set against them. But the film series continued to be about women's power in 1992's Alien 3, in which Ripley is the only woman on a planet full of men, simultaneously a figure of derision and lust fighting for the right to have an abortion.
(The less said about 1997's Alien: Resurrection the better, although there's an argument to be made that the treatment the cloned Ripley receives is a metaphor for the "other"-ing of powerful women; that might be too much of a stretch, though.)
In both Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant, however, the central character (and the primary mover in terms of plot) is Fassbender's David, who is on a journey borne of his relationship with his father (well, creator). True, there are prominent roles for female leads — Prometheus's Noomi Rapace and Covenant's Waterston — but, as Covenant makes clear, they have no power to save themselves from David, and ultimately fall at his hands.
This isn't a criticism of Fassbender, or even of David as a character; the actor does amazing work, and the notion of watching the robot play mad scientist is an interesting one. It's been obvious from the earliest appearances of the character that David is a fascinating, compelling and chilling presence — it's just that watching him take over the film series changes the franchise in ways that it's possible weren't even considered by those responsible.
David's rise to narrative dominance marks a strange, and depressing, shift in focus for the franchise — one that does away with one of the defining qualities of the series and replaces it with something distinctly unoriginal. When it comes to science-fiction stories, both "evil robots" and "scientists with god complexes" are sadly still far more common than stories that empower women and place them firmly at the center of events. Alien: Covenant pushes the franchise away from what made it almost unique in favor of a more generic direction — at least until the next installment hopefully attempts to right the ship.