Sir Ridley Scott admits his third film in the franchise he built, Alien: Covenant, deliberately “corrects” what some felt his 2012 prequel Prometheus lacked. You wanted more of the xenomorph, the H.R. Giger-designed monster of his 1979 sci-fi/body horror masterpiece Alien? You got it—along with a host of spiky new mutations bursting from human backs, mouths and, of course, chests. You wanted more blood? Behold, gallons, cascading from mangled innards and severed heads. (“We’re going to make a hard R-rated film, and we’re going to need a lot of claret [fake blood],’” producer Mark Huffam recalls as Scott’s “first line” to the crew.) And, fine, you wanted a heroine free to turn left and right while running for her life? Meet Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a terraformer, fourth-in-command aboard the colonization ship Covenant and successor to sci-fi cinema’s greatest survivor: Ellen Ripley.
Covenant purposefully invokes beats familiar from Alien: the ship’s crew members, identified only by last name, awaken from hypersleep prematurely after a mysterious disturbance. A distant signal is picked up from an unknown source, luring the crew’s leader to alter their course. That captain, the hyper-religious Oram (Billy Crudup), possesses judgment as sound as the Nostromo’s Captain Dallas—which is to say, dude makes every wrong decision. On the new planet, unfathomable terrors wreak havoc on the crew. And amidst the chaos is a woman whose early, unheeded warnings echo louder with each grisly death. In Alien, that was Ripley, who refused to allow the infected Kane aboard in compliance with quarantine procedures, captain’s direct orders be damned. In Covenant, it’s Daniels, brusquely put in her place for insisting to Oram that changing course is a bad idea.
But Covenant is no cut-and-dry copy of its flawless predecessor, nor is Daniels a Ripley clone. (We’ve already had one of those.) While Ripley was introduced unassumingly in the background of an ensemble scene, smiling quietly—you’re not supposed to know she’s the protagonist at first—Daniels becomes our focus almost immediately. Her tragedy unfolds before anyone else’s: she’s widowed instantly, her husband (James Franco) burnt alive inside his pod after a solar flare rocks the ship. We meet her as her face is contorted in agony, as she screams and bangs uselessly on the glass of his pod. Waterston imbues her character with a touching vulnerability from this point on, even after she begins blasting aliens with assault rifles. But beginning Daniels’s arc in unspeakable loss, Waterston says, doesn’t make her easy bait—it unexpectedly, and quite effectively, strengthens her will to survive.
“It serves such a particular kind of tragedy to find yourself partner-less on a mission made up of couples with no expectation of returning to Earth,” Waterston tells The Daily Beast while roaming around New York. “It sort of heightened the sensation people have when they lose a partner anyway: you feel alone. So I thought her courage initially when things start to go wrong might actually stem from her lack of will to live herself. She can throw herself into action because she has nothing to try and protect anymore. But it seemed to me that through that journey and through these experiences of being hunted, she actually kind of finds her desire to live again.”
Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking helped Waterston channel Daniels’s grief, she says—one resonant phrase for her: “a single person is missing for you and the whole world is empty”—as did Walker Percy’s The Second Coming, which helped her understand why Daniels fights so desperately to survive. The suicidal protagonist of Percy’s story has a gun to his head when a poacher’s stray bullet suddenly hits the floor next to him. In that moment, like the besieged Daniels, he suddenly feels alive again—and ready to defend himself. “I thought about that story a lot while making this film,” Waterston says. “Even in these moments when you’re totally lost and have nothing to live for, there’s a human instinct to survive that overpowers human emotion in every way.”
What Waterston strove not to keep in mind, she says, is the towering influence of her Alien predecessor, Weaver’s Ripley. “I understand it’s natural people will just kind of impulsively compare anything,” she says, resigned. Naturally she’d rather “give the audience something new” than try and replicate an already-iconic performance. “They’ve already seen what Sigourney did, and she did it so well. For me, I thought, how interesting to see a different woman in a different set of circumstances, who’s dealing with a very intense emotional experience outside of this alien attack.”
Scott himself never compared the films while directing his actors, she points out. “I think he was very proud of his first film and the foundation he laid for this whole franchise,” she says. “I thought more about the cast [of Alien] in general than I did Sigourney’s performance. That whole cast set the bar high for us because that film’s horror is successful because the characters feel real and grounded.”
Not that Waterston, 37, doesn’t “totally admire” the early sci-fi action heroine, and the power her image still holds in audiences’ imaginations. “It was revolutionary,” she says of her first time watching Alien. “To see a woman in that role, I think it probably on some level influenced every young woman that saw the film. I don’t even really know how to quantify how it affected me now, but I think it’s something that our mother’s generation didn’t grow up with.” She recalls talking about Ripley with female friends growing up, marveling that the role had been written gender-neutral then cast as a woman: “Women responding quickly and assertively and clearly in the face of crisis, taking charge and exhibiting superhuman strength—I think it somehow simultaneously blew my mind and seemed totally correct. Totally obvious and appropriate,” she says.
Like Ripley and Prometheus’s Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), Daniels starts out an ordinary crew member who discovers her own preternatural heroism and ability to survive as horrors unfold around her. Daniels’s previous life as a terraformer (a space gardener, essentially, tasked with making the Covenant crew’s new home on Origae-6 habitable for humans) is why she never looks quite at home with her rifle. “I wanted to not begin the film with the bulging biceps and looking like I could definitely take on some kind of horrible alien creature,” Waterston says. A military training boot camp actors attended was supposed to teach each of them how to handle guns professionally. Waterston never fully caught on—that was the point. “These ex-military guys were saying, ‘You’re holding that incorrectly,’” she recalls, “and I thought, ‘That’s fine. I don’t want to do it correctly. I want to do it desperately and on instinct.’”
It’s why Daniels grabs a pickaxe, of all things, as she’s about to face a deadly-powerful xenomorph atop a landing ship mid-flight. The ship weaves and bobs above the surface of the planet where the android David (Michael Fassbender) has been marooned for 10 years, flinging Daniels around like a rag doll. With that pickaxe, she clings on, stabbing into the ship’s metal surface and swinging herself back on her feet. “I wanted to incorporate the sort of skills and physicality she may already have,” explains Waterston. “It’s established early on that she’s outdoorsy, so I asked Ridley if I could use the pickaxe, as if I was trying to break my fall on ice. It was fun for all the actors to figure out ways to express details about their characters even within those heightened moments of pure action.”
After Prometheus, Covenant may be Ridley Scott’s most damning statement on the subject of blind faith over reason—or as Waterston phrases it, the perhaps “egotistical outlook that humans are God’s children.” Oram looks to David’s seemingly-hospitable planet as a divine godsend, a near-Biblical paradise for his crew of humanity’s ambassadors. He’s quickly proven wrong, of course. Daniels doesn’t seem to share Oram’s religious beliefs, and warned him against turning off-course from the start, but she doesn’t rub it in. “I don’t think the film is saying it’s moronic to have faith,” Waterston says, “but I felt that was the crux of the argument between Daniels and Oram: it’s dangerous to believe that we’re the only ones out there.”
David, meanwhile, plays mad scientist with alien DNA, creating life even as he rejects his own creator, the elderly Peter Weyland. To him, Weyland’s frailty is evidence of humanity’s weakness as a whole; we disgust him, even as he continues to evolve and become more idiosyncratically human himself. The contrast is at its starkest when David meets Walter (also played by Fassbender), a newer-model synthetic who looks like him but lacks his ability to create or feel complicated emotion—except, strangely, loyalty to Daniels. David explains to Walter that what he feels for her is love; Walter counters that protecting her is simply his “duty.” It’s a fascinating exchange, emblematic of the ideas at the heart of Covenant’s pleasurably nihilistic worldview.
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It’s also, of course, a bit unsettling: “The day’s not too far away where two robots say, ‘Let’s go speak in private, we’re a lot smarter than these people who created us,’” Waterston says with a nervous laugh. The rise of artificial intelligence in real-world technology gives her pause. “If we don’t want to become the family pet, we have to put some serious regulations in place. That’s as scary as the idea of an alien, you know?”