"Hiring LGBTQ talent into major creative roles can spur more interesting storytelling."
Title: Alien: Covenant (2017)
Director: Ridley Scott 👨🏼🇬🇧
Writers: Story by Jack Paglen 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Michael Green 👨🏼🇺🇸, screenplay by John Logan 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈 and Dante Harper 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
In 1979, Ridley Scott directed Alien, a sci-fi horror film that would spawn four sequels and an uncontested spot within the cinematic lexicon. While other directors have steered this flagship through varying genres, including roided-out action, philosophical drama, or even dark comedy, Scott returns to the Alien series with Covenant and takes his franchise back to basics.
Like so many sequels, Covenant isn’t trying to do anything new. But it taps into what made the original so timeless and I was happy to go along for the ride. I laughed with every twisted new way of having aliens burst out of crew members’ bodies; I listened attentively to the deep ponderings of twin Michael Fassbenders as his “good” cyborg, Walter, battled wits with his “bad” cyborg, David; and I yelled at the television screen each time another curious astronaut stuck his head inside a larva pod.
I even enjoyed the core premise: a Blade Runner-esque exploration of artificial intelligence and humanity. True, Covenant takes itself a bit too seriously in this respect, but overall the ridiculous amounts of gore ensure an entertaining time all around.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES, but barely
The Alien franchise is famous for several reasons, one of which is the iconization of Sigourney Weaver in her feminist role as Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley. At first, Covenant looks as if it will follow in its storied steps as the character of Daniels (Katherine Waterston) parallels Ripley as a strong, female lead.
Daniels sees a significant amount of screen time, though it’s second to Michael Fassbender in his combined roles of Walter and David. In a positive decision, the ship’s starting crew is roughly 50% female. But somehow, despite several coed scenes, two women only manage to exchange words just once throughout the film—when a crew member is forced to lock the other into quarantine with a newly-hatched alien, guaranteeing her grisly death.
Keep in mind, the male version of this low bar for same-sex scripting is literally passed within the first two lines of dialogue, as Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) asks his creation, “How do you feel?” David responds, “Alive.”
This lack of realized female relationships perhaps underpins their utter disposability, as the film decimates its crew until the only surviving members are Daniels and two men.
Still, I don’t want to undersell Covenant’s writing of Daniels as a complex female. For example, in a major gender role reversal early in the film, Daniels’ husband is ignominiously killed off for the sake of her character development. And while I may normally side-eye such simplistic fridging, the fact of the ex-husband being played by James Franco—who has collected multiple allegations of sexual harassment—made me more relieved than anything that I wouldn’t have to watch him traipse around onscreen for two hours.
Covenant is thin on racial diversity. Among its starting 15 crew members, just 3 are visibly non-white: Karine, Ricks, and Cole are played by actors of mixed-race black or Polynesian descent. However, the inclusion of Hispanics do add 2 individuals to the diversity ranks, even if their characters pass as white: Carl and Upworth are played by actors of Hispanic descent.
Moreover, their visibility is either fleeting, as with Cole (Uli Latukefu), or simply too minor to be considered anything more than alien feed. Karine, played by Carmen Ejogo, is picked off early on while Ricks, played by Jussie Smollet, feels sorely underused. He stays alive for a decent amount of time, but seems to only appear in group scenes, usually relegated to the background. When he finally gets a little more camera time, during a shower sex scene, he still has no lines and is quickly destroyed via an alien tentacle punched through the back of his head and through his mouth. Yikes.
Bonus for LGBTQ: +0.25
Covenant hits a few points that nudge this into the realm of positive, if subtle LGBTQ representation.
Ricks’ actor, Jussie Smollett, is publicly gay although he plays a straight character. On its own, this would not be enough to garner a bonus in this category.
But one of the screenwriters, John Logan, is also publicly gay. This hiring of LGBTQ talent in a major creative role is the kind of decision that can spur more interesting storytelling.
For example, whether or not Logan has anything to do with this particular scene, the film’s other screenwriter, Dante Harper, describes a memorable moment between the two cyborgs as the "David seduces Walter" scene. It’s aptly named, too; the tone is sexually charged, even culminating in a cold, eerie kiss that David bestows first to Walter, then much later, to Daniels as well.
Mediaversity Grade: C 3.25/5
Covenant takes its cues from Scott’s 1979 original, including the casting of a strong female lead. However, considering that nearly 40 years have passed since Sigourney Weaver first stormed onscreen wearing a grungy tank top and wielding a giant gun, the mimicry of having Katherine Waterston do the same simply isn’t enough.
For a film to actually feel modern, gender, racial, and LGBTQ inclusion needs to evolve narratively, not just through the ticking of boxes. It’s time we move past decades-old successes and continue to push for the kinds of representation that reflects today’s audiences, not those of the 1970s.