Even in the light he’s scary. Hanging from a stand in the center of a busy workshop, with silicone, foam and facehuggers haphazardly strewn on work desks, stands a Xenomorph. Like a skeleton in some biology class from hell, caked in the blood of his last victim, it lurks, impassive. Those spidery hands may be resting at its side but there’s still no ignoring a glinting set of gnashers that conceal another, smaller set. Appreciating our reaction, Creatures Supervisor Conor O'Sullivan assures us there’s no real danger. Not yet, anyway.
Backtrack a few hours, following a flight so long I wish cryo-sleep were real. It's the end of July 2016. Movie Pilot has sent me to Australia to visit the set of Alien: Covenant, director Ridley Scott’s third return trip to the Xenomorph’s domain. I’ve touched down on day 60 of 75 for the production.
"So we’ve reinvented the idea of Alien I think," muses Scott, the man who set this decades-long chain of events in motion with Alien in 1979. "Covenant gets a step closer as to the who and why these things were created,” advises Scott before nodding to a set of massive stone Engineer noggins staring back at us and adding, “if you think it’s them, you’re dead wrong.”
Set 10 years after Prometheus, the new film introduces us to the crew of the Covenant, a terraforming ship searching for a planet to colonize. The ship picks up a rogue signal from another craft, which anyone familiar with this series should suspect is a bad sign.
“That signal is definitely of human form,” explains producer Mark Huffam. “They decide to divert their course because it actually looks a lot better than the one they were going to; they decide they’ll go and have a look, follow the distress signal on what appears to be a very beautiful, un-spoiled paradise of a planet. From there on it all goes downhill for them.”
“Things go downhill” is, in fact, what anyone who buys an Alien: Covenant ticket is hoping to see. Besides bad-ass Xenomorph exterminator Ellen Ripley, no human has crossed paths with an alien life form in this universe and made it out alive. So where does that leave us with Covenant?
“It’s going to be full of surprises,” says Huffam. “It’s also going to be full of scares, probably more so than Prometheus. We’re definitely taking the monster side of things another stage further. You will see some old friends in that world and find some new friends in that world.”
The term "friend" should, of course, be used as loosely as possible.
That’s not a spoiler. There’s an alien in this picture, as indicated by the title. Following on from Prometheus, a film said to be built on “the DNA of Alien,” this film looks to be veering back into the direction of Ridley’s original 1979 masterpiece. It looks and sounds similar in all the right ways.
“Ridley wanted kind of a more naturalistic, realistic sort of approach,” explains Conor O’Sullivan, the Oscar-nominated monster maker who worked on Prometheus prior to this follow-up frightfest.
The creature creator went on to explain more about the main Xenomorph design in Alien: Covenant.
“A bit less than the mechanical sort of elements that were in the original one. We’ve got our sort of beast here, our main alien, it’s much more naturalistic. Still based on the Geiger original designs, as Ridley still wanted that flavor. That art-nouveau, the sort of erotic designs that Geiger had done. So we managed to capture all that. He had one particular piece in mind to make the beast. We’ve got a mechanical beast, a puppet version and a man in a suit and wherever Ridley wants to put him.”
Ridley Scott reflects on the original movie. “Alien was kind of a posh horror film. I never really thought of it as a horror film," says the true Captain of the Covenant, "just a thing that scared the shit out of people."
“I think it had too much class to be classified as a horror film. There’s nothing wrong with horror (I better not get into that too much) but I think it's ‘what is real tension?’ or ‘what is real fear?’ It’s very hard to scare people, I think there’s a kind of focus in the bloody films that you see that are kind of ironic, they’re not even frightening — they’re just like, 'yikes.'"
"I don’t want to see that," says Scott, dismissively. "So I thought I’d try and come back and do it, particularly because Alien, way back when, ran its course. I thought, with that special kind of creature, it shouldn’t have really ended. So we’ve come back from a very simple idea, which is: 'Who made [the Xenomorph] and why?’ I’ve never asked that question. [Alien] was just about, ‘there it is, it exists and this is what it is.’ Seven guys and gals in a steel hull. It was thankfully a very old idea of the Old Dark House, and who’s going to die next?"
"It’s kind of funny," Scott notes, "because the fundamental basis of the first Alien was a B-minus movie but I think with a cast that brought it out as a pretty A+ movie."
Elsewhere, not too far behind the primary hung up horror icon, is another member of the Xenomorph lineage.
This is one we’ve not seen before. Standing a little shorter than its more evolved relation, is what looks like a halfway point between the creature we saw burst from the Engineer at the end of Prometheus and the original Alien from ’79. It’s a nasty-looking thing that has disturbing dental features almost as bad as those on the original Xeno. O’Sullivan’s description of this new breed is brilliantly accurate.
“[Here] we’ve got the one that’s loosely based on the Deacon from Prometheus,” says the Engineers' engineer.
“Little bit more of a natural infection. Sort of deformed, distorted, sort of fucked up human/alien/hybrid. Sorry for swearing but if you’ve worked with Ridley for any length of time — very colorful language, but he’s good fun. If he didn’t work as a director he’d be in here. He wants to go through a sort of museum side of it, which is also in the film. The baby, the births bursting out the various parts of guys' anatomy. We’ve used more blood on this than I used on Saving Private Ryan.”
It’s clear that the levels of creation and horrific originality are reaching new heights with Covenant, displayed most recently in the latest trailer. This alone would suggest that the founding father of the Xenomorph is willing to mix things up a bit. Not necessarily rewriting the Alien rulebook but instead, expanding upon it — and why the hell not? He wrote the first page, after all.
Alien: Covenant is in theaters on May 19.
What other elements from the original Alien franchise are you hoping to see reprised in Alien: Covenant?