Director Ridley Scott launched what has become a seminal - and long-running - sci-fi horror franchise with Alien in 1979. The beloved original film was set in a distant future and followed the crew of the Nostromo spaceship as they were attacked by a monstrous alien called a Xenomorph. Sigourney Weaver starred as Ellen Ripley, the sole survivor of the Xenomorph's attack - save for the ship cat, Jones - and the character has since become a favorite for many fans as one of the first great female action heroes. In fact, the role of Ripley was written for a man before Scott decided to flip the idea of the typical male action hero on its head.
Although Scott left the Alien franchise for many years after the 1979 film, the series continued to position female action heroes at the forefront as Weaver continued to reprise the role of Ripley - whether as the original character or a cloned version of her. When Scott returned for an Alien prequel series that kicked off in 2012's Prometheus, Ripley's legacy was upheld by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), and again thanks to Daniels (Katherine Waterston) in the upcoming followup, Alien: Covenant. Now, Waterston discusses the franchise's history in highlighting female characters in action roles.
In an interview with Screen Rant on the set of Alien: Covenant, Waterston revealed she's been a fan of the Alien franchise since she was young and Weaver's performance as Ripley has had an impact on her own career. Plus, Waterston discussed how Alien set the stage for Hollywood's leading action heroines:
I’d always been a fan and seen these films not knowing I’d be a part of it. On some level - this might sound like a little bit of stretch - [Alien] has influenced women in strong roles ever since. What Ridley did with that character and what she did playing the part was really, I think, ahead of the time but on the money as to what my perception of what women are like. They’re just like men - they’re scared shitless sometimes, they’re courageous sometimes. This idea that gets banded [around] about strong women - as opposed to what other women? You have to make a distinction? I don’t understand this.
And also that it has to always be strong, as opposed to the non-strong character who sometimes has other experiences or emotions. But when I saw Alien, I thought that it was doing that and a lot of other people are doing that now and it really influenced the industry in a big way. I’ve probably been taking cues from her performance on and off screen my whole life, it’s just to me a very relatable, excellent depiction of a woman.
Certainly, Weaver's portrayal of Ripley has lived on as an iconic female action hero - truly one of the first of its kind - paving the way for the likes of Tomb Raider's Lara Croft, Underworld's Selene, The Avengers' Black Widow, The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen, Kill Bill's The Bride, and many others. However, Waterston continued on to praise not just Weaver, but her fellow Alien franchise star, Rapace, and discussed how each actress has put their own spin on their characters:
At the same time, I loved what Noomi did. It was very different to what Sigourney did, I don’t think she felt any responsibility to be like Sigourney, and I don’t feel any responsibility to be like that. Some of the traits all these characters share but then there are some differences. We’re all different characters, all different people and bring something different to it.
The biggest criticisms of the "strong female character" trope are that these female characters tend to take on more masculine characteristics - which implies female characteristics are "weak" rather than "strong" - or that they're one-dimensional, trading a fully developed storyline for the sake of action beats. For the most part, though, the Alien franchise has managed to rise above these criticisms, with its female heroes earning praise for being well developed in addition to nailing the action beats. Although it remains to be seen whether Waterston's Daniels will continue this tradition in Alien: Covenant, fans can rest assured the film and the character are in good hands.
- Alien: Covenant (2017) release date: May 19, 2017