After 38 years, Sir Ridley Scott’s Alien remains the definitive science-fiction horror film. Its legacy looms large over every space-based thriller that’s followed, and it spawned its own long-running franchise, to which filmmakers from James Cameron to David Fincher have contributed entries. But when he decided to fashion a prequel to his 1979 masterpiece, even Scott himself couldn’t escape the weight of his legacy. Upon its release, 2012’s Prometheus won praise for its visuals and actor Michael Fassbender’s turn as inquisitive android David. But some Alien fans felt the film was burdened by a disjointed script that offered too few genuine scares.
Many veteran filmmakers would shrug and ignore such complaints. But not Scott. At 79 years old, he’s listened to those who’ve longed for more of the pure terror of his original film. The result? Alien: Covenant–the first of three new Alien prequel films Scott is planning.
Set 10 years after the events of Prometheus, Covenant follows the crew of another ship in deep space, the titular vessel Covenant, inhabited by couples set out on a terraforming mission. It’s a mission that’s suddenly interrupted by a rogue signal from a planet that looks very much like Earth. What they find there: the two survivors of the Prometheus mission, Elizabeth Shaw (played once more by Noomi Rapace) and David (Fassbender), as well as some all-too-familiar-looking extraterrestrial killing machines.
We meet Scott on the set of Covenant at Fox Studios in Sydney, Australia, on day 60 of principal photography. Fifteen days remain as the filmmaker and his team begin preparing one of the sound stages on which the Covenant crew will face their destiny—the “Hall of Heads.” Though he’s surrounded by crew members awaiting his every word and decision, Scott takes a moment to chat with us about his thoughts on the universe Alien established, and that Covenant will revisit.
“I never think of it as a horror film,” Scott says, still surprised by Alien’s reputation. “It just scared the shit out of people. I think it had too much class to be classified as a horror film. Nothing wrong with horror, but I think horror is what is real tension, what is real fear. It’s very hard to scare people. In the bloody films you see, which ironically are not even frightening, they’re just like, ‘Yikes!’ So I thought I’d try to come back and do one.”
Fresh off the Best Picture Oscar nomination garnered by The Martian, Scott acknowledges that not everything that worked in 1979 will work today. “I think Alien way back when ran its course,” he says. “Then I thought, with that special kind of creature, it shouldn’t have really run its course. It shouldn’t have really ended. So we’ve come back with a very simple idea, which is who made them?… So we’ve reinvented the idea of Alien, I think. Covenant gets us a step closer to who and why was this thing designed.”
To help explore that question, Covenant introduces a new model of android, Walter, a member of the ship’s crew. Also played by Michael Fassbender, he’s less human in his mannerisms than his predecessor David, and more devoted to his crewmates.
“Walter is very much a synthetic minus any of the human traits,” Fassbender tells us during a break in shooting. “When the David 8s came out, there was a resistance from people to that model. Because it freaked them out a little bit. Because he was demonstrating a lot of human qualities, and his programming was veering towards human characteristics, like ego and vanity and pride… So they designed the following models with fewer of those human traits. Well, none of them really. Walter is just a very straightforward, logical synthetic, really. He’s more like a Leonard Nimoy/Mr. Spock type character.”
Lest fans suspect Walter could be harboring a secret agenda, much like Ash in the original Alien, Fassbender points out, “He’s like a very efficient butler/bodyguard/technician. He’s just solely there for the purpose of the ship and the crew. So there’s no complications in his programming, not like anything we’ve seen in the previous Alien films. I suppose he’s more like Bishop in Aliens. But with even less of those human traits. But he would be more along that line than Ian Holm’s character, for sure.”
Covenant offers Fassbender the rare opportunity to play two roles in a major motion picture—both David and Walter. The actor explains that David’s programming has evolved since we last saw him at the end of Prometheus.
“So those human qualities have sort of gathered momentum a little bit,” Fassbender says. “They’re as much a part of him now as his synthetic qualities.”
Regarding why Walter looks exactly like David, the actor laughs, “Because it’s cheaper.”
While David is still partnered with Shaw, Walter has found an ally of his own in Daniels. Played by Katherine Waterston, she’s the ship’s terraforming expert, and is married to its captain, Branson (played by James Franco). “Like Ripley in the first Alien,” says Waterston of her character, “she’s technically third in ranking, and that changes as the film progresses.”
Clad in fatigues when we meet her, the six-foot-tall Waterston is more than aware of the comparisons fans are drawing between Daniels and Sigourney Weaver’s immortal Alien heroine, Ripley. Though she claims she’s not taking any specific cues from the character for her role, she knows the influence is unavoidable. Ripley, she says, “has influenced women in strong roles ever since.”
“What Ridley did with that character and what [Sigourney Weaver] did playing the part, was really ahead of [its] time but on the money as to what women are like,” she continues. “They’re just like men—they’re scared shitless sometimes, they’re courageous sometimes… I’ve probably been taking cues from her performance on and off screen my whole life.”
One thing the two women definitely have in common is the misfortune to be chased down dark, narrow corridors by the ultimate movie monster. Waterston confirms that most of the creatures in Covenant are indeed played by “lots of different fellas in suits.”
“I’ve worked with lots of different alien things,” she says. “One really scary thing was, I was being chased by one and it was in a really cumbersome outfit, and it wasn’t easy, the area I was running through. It really felt like I wasn’t going to get away fast enough… It’s just always better when it feels real. I hustled that day, for sure.”
Producer Mark Huffam, who collaborated with Scott on both Prometheus and The Martian, emphasizes Scott’s commitment to going old school whenever possible to generate scares, in keeping with the visual aesthetic of the original Alien.
“We’re ordering the blood in the 40-gallon drums rather than the five-gallon drums,” Huffam says with a laugh. “Yes, he just loves to try and do as much as possible in camera… The audience has been listened to and hopefully what they might have wanted more of will be delivered… It is going to be more of a horror movie than Prometheus was. We’re definitely taking the monster side of things another stage further, and so you will see some old friends in that world and you’ll find some new friends in that world.”
That opinion is shared by the very man responsible for all of the film’s blood, special visual effects supervisor Neil Corbould.
Chatting with us in his workshop, Corbould compares Alien with Covenant by saying the original “was the old haunted house and this is the new haunted house. It’s very much a modern day version of that. It’s definitely going to be scary. I think it’s going to be a lot gorier. After Prometheus, everyone said they wanted more aliens, they wanted more horror. [Ridley]’s certainly taken that on board and I think you’re going to get that… Our brief was to look at Alien, the first Alien, and that’s what he wants: to bring a modern twist to it.”
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Images: 20th Century Fox
Ridley Scott talks Alien‘s Ripley and female heroes in sci-fi movies