Alien: Covenant and the Elizabeth Shaw Problem

Alien: Covenant is a sequel to Prometheus, but what it does to Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw underscores huge fundamental problems.

We’ve been here before. Following the ending of a popular (or at least widely viewed) entry in the universe of facehuggers and chestbursters, major decisions were made behind the scenes by the studio and filmmakers. As a consequence, the next movie was different, darker, and devoid of one or more of the central characters who just survived the last picture. The fact that I could be describing Alien 3 or Alien: Covenant is a testament to how uninhibited by fan expectation this franchise continues to be.

Indeed, Alien: Covenant opened with a snarl on its face and a change in its heart. Convinced now that making a movie about a scientist out to find the origin of our creation in the stars was the cause for Prometheus’ controversy—as opposed to, say, some questionable writing decisions in regard to other characters—Covenant arrives with hat in hand. If Ridley Scott does put that lovably vile xenomorph in this time, and forgets all about Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw, will you please let him make his biblical passion play about robots and creation myths?

It’s an open question, but to get there, the movie ultimately repeated what many fans consider to be the franchise’s worst sin: killing off a major character between films. And while Covenant arguably does it with a little more grace than Alien 3, it remains a curious predicament to see a major franchise attempt this in the age of sequels.

When Alien 3 opened in 1992, fans of James Cameron’s previous 1986 action classic were stunned to learn that two of his greatest additions—the colonial marine Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn) and wee lass Newt (Carrie Henn)—were written out of the movie off-screen. Unceremoniously killed in a coldly callous opening wherein their spaceship from the previous film crashes and burns on entry. We get to see Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley mourn their deaths—ever so briefly—but really you could feel the machinations of producers and new director David Fincher wanting to do their own nihilistic thing. Hence the unthinking slaughter of Ripley’s surrogate family.

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In general, it’s a fascinating bit of franchising studio-think because it would obviously never happen today, right? In an era of endless sequels and shared universes, killing off any major characters, particularly fan favorites, with all the pomp and circumstance of brushing your teeth before bed is a comically short-sighted move that risks aggravating a fanbase.

It remains to be seen if Alien: Covenant defying this conventional wisdom will have any similar negative blowback, particularly since Prometheus is no Aliens. After a flawed movie that has as many detractors as it does devotees, there is a reason Scott and company felt compelled to rewrite their franchise’s Bible and make it about David and the xenomorph. Still, in the context of just the quality of Covenant, it makes for unsatisfying storytelling and, I would argue, robs Scott of making the best possible movie.

To Alien: Covenant’s credit, it treats this course correction with more solemnity than Alien 3. In the 2017 movie, the missing and deceased Elizabeth Shaw is a lingering presence over all of the actions taken by Michael Fassbender’s David. Even for a duplicitous robot with a God Complex, the synthetic is definitely aware that he did something truly cruel. Remembering his dead human companion with the reverence of a child grieving a parent, it takes a while for him to admit that there is no body beneath the grave and flowers he designated for her. More like Oedipus than the Prometheian Greek tragedy of his ship’s namesake, he slaughtered his mother so he could be his own man (and god).

On the flipside, however, it also opens the movie for a rather regressive cultural reading, which is odd since Scott’s heroines are often presented with such feminist strength, including Shaw. In the end, the woman he depicted as having enough of a survival instinct to perform an abortion on herself, lest she be forced to carry a monster to birth by David, becomes nothing but an alien-baby farm for the male and misogynistic robot. One he drugs up and uses to help give birth to his apparently numerous experiments, ever violating her compliant body.

This has profoundly problematic implications. This movie’s new female lead, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), is aghast to discover that David killed her and worse. And as the prequel series noticeably strains in its shift of focus from one heroine to another, it unintentionally admits the human (and female) characters matter not at all. This is really David’s series now. Whoever he’s tucking in (likely with bed bugs) is incidental. Fodder for his fantasies.

That is a grim prospect, and the flaws in its execution are inescapable when most of its payoff is what now amounts to extraneous marketing material.

If you haven’t bothered to watch the “Alien: Covenant prologue” yet, it showcases what is more likely a deleted scene from David’s remembrances of first arriving on the Engineers’ Paradise before going the full Old Testament Yahweh on them. In the sequence, we see Shaw’s kindness that David both marvels at and dismisses as a weakness among the human species. Elizabeth reattaches David’s head to his robo-body, and then trusts the android who tried to force her to keep an alien squid baby to gently watch over her as she sleeps in cryo. Other than the mangled transmission of Shaw singing “Country Roads,” it is apparently the only sequence with Rapace intended for the film. But the perfunctory nature underscores the entire structural failure of Alien: Covenant.

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By electing to circle back and remake the kind of intense sci-fi horror he made 40 years ago, Scott was forced to abandon the bigger questions he raised in Prometheus, and by still wishing to marry that movie to his next one reveals the hollowness of their union.

The reason for keeping David is obvious: he was the best part of Prometheus and is wonderfully played by Michael Fassbender. His malevolent turn here, which Den of Geek UK’s Ryan Lambie accurately describes as Vincent Price-esque, is also the best thing in Covenant too, because David’s scenes comprise the movie that Scott really wants to make. One with biblical overtones and secular machinations that combines Lovecraftian ideas about angry gods with a slick sci-fi future. But since he is tasked to place that inside of a traditional Alien movie—and perhaps the most rote one ever in terms of story structure—this becomes an interlude, a narrative parenthesis, inside of a traditional beat-for-beat redo of the 1979 picture.

In order to get there, he even must jettison Rapace’s compelling protagonist who was the other highlight of Prometheus in favor of a more standard Ripley-light knockoff in Waterston’s Daniels. To be clear, Waterston is a great actress and she does well as Daniels, but whereas Scott and Rapace strove to make a unique creation that was striking in her differences from Ripley in Prometheus, Daniels is defined by her similarities to Weaver’s creation. Tough, by the book, no-nonsense, and undeterred at fearlessly leading a xenomorph to its dark death inside an airlock. She even repeats Ripley’s line in Alien—“I got you, you son of a bitch”—in a moment of premature victory.

Dr. Elizabeth Shaw was a refreshing new protagonist because she wasn’t cut from the action heroine mold defined by Ripley. Informed primarily by her urbane education as an archeological scholar as well as her Christian faith, she is torn by paradoxes that are tested by the mere concept of the Engineers. She also is wholly unprepared for making snap judgement decisions like performing a C-section on herself.

This original creation from the Swedish actress and Scott showed an inclination to go to different corners of this universe, and her removal underscores that the franchise is now running in place. David is the true protagonist that Scott remains interested in, meaning audience investment in Daniels or, for that matter, Danny McBride’s Tennessee is irrelevant. The Alien movie they are in is simply a commercial necessity for Scott to make his David film. And cutting Shaw out of that likewise robs this central subplot of its value, as the investment building to it from Prometheus was as quickly dumped as that black goo was on the Engineers.

The irony of this is that the real movie Scott wanted to make, and that fans might embrace, could still have had its genesis story in a more satisfying way. The “prologue” that Scott deleted from his movie should have been the movie. One about David and Shaw on the Engineers’ home world, and the disappointment they feel in these creators being the impetus for David to create his own masterpiece—a xenomorph to wipe them out.

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If Scott really wanted to change the emphasis from Shaw to David, then an actual movie about that transition in which Shaw is killed off, by the robot or the Engineers she so desperately sought, could have led to a transcendent climax where David wipes out the Engineers with his new xenomorph masterwork. It might’ve been drastically new territory for Scott as a filmmaker, not to mention the Alien franchise. And it still could have ended in a symphony of chestbursts and facehugging carnage with David as his own solitary anti-hero, a God among ants that’ve been consumed by his wonders.

Instead, the movie Scott wanted to make is a flashback and cutting room fodder. And the protagonist who drove it was insultingly given the “Newt” treatment. It’s a missed opportunity, much like Alien: Covenant as a whole.