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Warning: spoilers ahead for Alien: Covenant! Read ahead at your own risk!
The Alien franchise has a long history of strong female protagonists, but all of them have been strikingly different from one another in terms of sheer ability. They all have different strengths and weaknesses, and Katherine Waterston's Daniels represents the latest badass woman in that long history. I recently spoke to Waterston about her big fight scene with the Xenomorph at an Alien: Covenant press day, and she admitted that Ridley Scott allowed her to improvise and create a number of Daniels' coolest traits -- such as her skill with a pickaxe. Waterston said:
You figure out a lot of it as you go, and create a lot of it as you go. So like, when I was sliding off the side of the ship and I had this sort of pickaxe in my hand and sparks are sort of flying about in that moment, but that was something I asked Ridley if I could do because, you know, at the beginning it's sort of established that Daniels and her husband rock climb and stuff so I thought it's a skill she might naturally have. We tried to incorporate things she would really know how to do because she's not a natural born. She's not a marine, she's not a trained soldier so her skills would be more grabbing at whatever things she already knew how to do, and it was really fun to incorporate.
Those of you who have seen Alien: Covenant know the exact sequence Katherine Waterston is referring to in this quote. After a relatively slow burn of a second act, Covenant kicks into high gear when the real Xenomorph finally shows up. This scene sends Daniels flying through the air on a cable -- only to be saved by her quick-thinking with a pickaxe to keep her on the Covenant's dropship. Although most of us likely wouldn't have the skill or talent necessary to use the pickaxe in such a skillful way, Waterston was able to draw from previous scenes in the film showing her reflecting on her late husband (James Franco) for that talent to make sense.
Although this may seem like a no-brainer from a filmmaking point of view, it's something that many horror films often fail to get right. Horror protagonists are often meant to be the most relatable of any genre, and their skills and abilities need to be rationalized and understandable for a given audience. Daniels' passion for rock climbing (and her skills with a pickaxe) may seem relatively innocuous at the beginning of Alien: Covenant, but by the end of the film it all ties together in a way that makes sense. She doesn't suddenly turn into John Rambo; she draws from what she knows and uses it in a desperate fight for survival.
Check out the video clip below for a closer look at my chat with Katherine Waterston: