As we steel ourselves for the premiere of Alien: Covenant, it's easy to forget that this newest film will be an addition to a franchise nearly four decades in the making. Since the release of Alien in 1979, fans the world over have followed the journey of Lieutenant Ellen Ripley and her frequent clashes with a formidable extraterrestrial species. The 40-year-old franchise may be waning for some long-time fans, but the Alien films, including Covenant, could not be more relevant to today's most contentious social issues.
When original Alien director Ridley Scott returned to the universe for 2012's Prometheus, his decision to make the movie a prequel may have been a disappointment to those who were hoping for more adventures with Ripley, but it was the only way forward. One of the most haunting aspects of the titular aliens (xenomorphs) is the mystery that surrounds their origin. Until Prometheus, their genesis had been unexplained. By going back to the beginning, Prometheus expanded upon the already-rich Alien universe even though the end was already in sight.
That's where Alien: Covenant comes in. There's a ten-year buffer between the events of Prometheus and the upcoming sixth movie, enough time for humanity to put together a colony ship in the hopes of terraforming a remote planet across the galaxy, somehow disregarding those who went before and never made it back home. The assumption is that, by this point, the Prometheus expedition has been officially listed as MIA. Judging by the "Last Supper" prologue teaser, those on-board the Covenant still retain some sense of hope that their efforts will be the ones that succeed this time around.
It's well-tread ground for the franchise, but while their beats may be unremarkable, these stories remain important because of how uncomfortably similar they are to what is scaring us outside the movie theater right now.
At its core, the Alien franchise has always been about the issue of body autonomy, specifically the ways in which its characters have their bodies invaded. There's not much subtlety in the metaphor of the Alien facehugger forcibly implanting an embryo in a human, essentially impregnating them until the time when the offspring suddenly and violently bursts from their chest. Yet the connection to the politics of the female body is pointed: pro-life/pro-choice, access to contraception, invasive body searches. It's critical commentary especially considering that many issues of body autonomy are outside of women's control. In our world it's religion and government; in Alien it's Weyland-Yutani.
As much as the Alien movies are about the horror of violation, their undercurrent of corruption is equally ominous. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation is a behind-the-scenes villain that orchestrates the atrocities our characters suffer. In Prometheus, android David (Michael Fassbender) may be the primary agent in carrying out the callous experiments on Shaw and her partner Holloway, but it's later revealed that those actions are part of an ultimate search for answers by Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) himself. These twisted fascinations don't disappear after Weyland's death, as the corporation continues to use deceptive methods in an attempt to procure a viable Alien specimen, including sending Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo to an abandoned planet. (Who could forget the directive from the first Alien movie that chillingly concluded, "Crew expendable"?) Trust in governments and corporations has been an issue since either existed, but the Alien universe's unyielding portrayal of blatant corruption draws more parallels to current events than we'd want. Even after 40 years, the Alien films ask us to consider exactly how far the reach of the government extends, and how far corporations will go to ensure success.
Watching all of the Alien movies in quick succession, the uplifting premise that links them is simple -- the films speak most profoundly about humanity's determination and resilience. One of the reasons that characters like Ellen Ripley still resonate with audiences is her iconic tenacity; Alien: Covenant will continue that legacy with its own leading female protagonist, Daniels (Katherine Waterston). Given the franchise's strong female leads, there's also something powerful in witnessing their continued defiance of the established system, not to mention the male androids who frequently attempt to suppress them at every turn.
With Alien: Covenant on the horizon, the question becomes why another Alien movie is even necessary. There are definitely narrative similarities to the previous films: a group of unassuming people finds themselves facing off against a terrifying new species. To reduce the movie to that simple description, however, would be overlooking how the franchise finds ways to portray palpable fears that audiences likely have: the fear of the unknown, the corrupt, the violator. We've seen characters who make it through the gauntlet, like Ripley or Shaw, and although we don't know if Daniels will survive, we are crossing our fingers for her. After all, in the face of overwhelming odds, our first instinct is to root for our heroes, even in the dark of space where no one can hear their screams.
Images: 20th Century Fox.