Alien: Covenant – Rediscovering Fear

We spent some time on the set of Alien: Covenant last year and learned about the horrors to come.

Walking into the breezy and sunlit entryway for Alien: Covenant’s Creatures Department, I step slightly to my right. Below, my foot ever so gently has just avoided tripping over an array of charred, synthetic legs and mangled flesh. Mounted above the blackened limbs is an amber molding of a fledgling Xenomorph, jellyfish-shaped and gelatinous. Clearly, I really have landed on another planet, one made in Ridley Scott’s unique science fiction image.

Creature Supervisors Conor O’Sullivan and Adam Johansen cite jellyfish and the ocean as general inspirations for their alien designs, yet this creature is also akin in size and vulva evocations to painter Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers. At times the amber hue of the plastic encasing merges into a deeper red like congealed blood. And blood abounds in Ridley Scott’s follow-up to 2012’s Prometheus and prequel to Alien. When asked if this is going to be the goriest Alien film we’ve seen thus far, Neil Corbould, the special visual effects supervisor, smiles cheekily and nods, “Yes, I think so.”

From the special effects crew to producers to cast members, the general consensus arises that Alien: Covenant promises to be darker in tone, mood, and narrative than Prometheus. Whereas Prometheus meditated on philosophical questions involving life, death, and the eternal question of “where do we come from?” Alien: Covenant also promises to address issues of religion and faith, but with more scares than its (mostly) unfavorably reviewed predecessor.

The film is set 10 years post-Prometheus as the crew of colony ship Covenant picks up a signal indicating human lifeforms on a planet. The captain thus diverts course to follow the distress signal to a beautiful planet Paradise where Michael Fassbender’s David android now resides. Paradise’s inspiration board showcases fecund forests and manicured lawns with sculpted trees. However, like the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis, these trees may look “good to eat from, beautiful to look at, and desirable for the understanding it would give,” but there is an ominous undertone lurking within their luscious boughs. The crew of Covenant, comprised entirely of couples (including, finally, the first openly gay couple in the Alien franchise), is soon terrorized, though crew and cast members remain mum on what exactly these horrors will be.

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Sitting in a windowless room adorned in photos and models on 20th Century Fox’s studio in Sydney, Australia, it is evident even in the art and sets that horror seemingly surrounds us at all times. One poster board labeled “Tree Deformities” showcases cancerous looking swells on trunks and another board labeled “Engineer’s World” has pictures of petrified bodies from Pompeii. Evidently the pile of legs I (and 13 other journalists) sidestepped moments ago are inspired by both the natural and historical world. Yet production designer Chris Seagers notes, “As Ridley [Scott] does, you take something and then twist it… nothing with Ridley is straightforward.”

Perhaps the desire to transform the everyday into something wicked and weird comes from Scott’s penchant for detail and design. “Ridley loves getting his hands dirty [with practical effects],” producer Mark Huffam adds. And though the film spans seven sound stages and exterior footage from New Zealand, the Art Department further removed still echoes Huffam’s comments: “Ridley is very hands on as a director.”

There are a myriad of ways to get your hands dirty on the Alien: Covenant set. Maybe it’s in the cornstarch and red food coloring of the homemade blood. Or in the K-Y jelly used to create Xenomorph saliva. Or perhaps it’s on the smoky, dimly lit cavernous set with the Juggernaut ship. The sides of the ship rise like a ravenous black jaw into the shadowed ethers of the ceiling. Over 300 people in both the art and the construction department have worked to make this ship and, when clambering over the gravel walkway to enter it, some crew are still hard at work, bent over with flashlights as they dust metal edgings with a mossy green. It’s the perfect welding of organic biology with technology, a recipe H.R. Giger perfected (and eroticized) in Alien.

And it is not just an aesthetic return to Alien in Alien: Covenant, but in the narrative as well. “[This film is] more of a horror film than Prometheus,” Huffam states.

At times, Ridley Scott has cited Alien as a type of haunted house horror film, or to clarify even further, “More than a horror film, it is a film about terror.” As writer Roger Luckhurst riffs in his BFI Film Classic Alien, it is “an interstellar slasher.”

Lead actress Katherine Waterston plays Daniels in the upcoming film, the Chief Terra-formist on board the Covenant (a colonist ship meant to populate a new planet and, thus, a kind of intergalactic Noah’s Ark) that seemingly lands in paradise. Yet, as all horror aficionados know, paradise is often thinly veiled to conceal purgatory. Nathaniel Dean, who plays crew member Hallet (and married to Sergeant Lope played by The Hateful Eight’s Demián Bichir), laughingly declares that this film is “a terrifying blood bath.” It is no coincidence that among the beautiful landscape paintings that adorn the “Artist” poster board is Edward Munch’s “The Scream.” Munch’s iconic face is undoubtedly to be recreated by the actors throughout much of Scott’s film.

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Sprawled in her chair in a knit blue hat and slouchy pullover, Waterston’s own mouth breaks in a wide grin when asked about working with dear Sir Ridley. “What I really love about Ridley is his excitement is palpable,” she says. Citing the freedom that he gives actors to try new things, and sometimes fail, she’s found the whole experience liberating. She also adds, “When it’s liberating you tend to feel happier with the work because you’re free in it, which is the whole fucking point.” As she fiddles with the drawstring around her jacket, Waterston is contemplative and conscientious in her answers and comfortable in her blue collar, utilitarian chic.

She’s donning the Terra-former’s oilrig aesthetic, aesthetic garb of the earlier franchise films. Since Alien: Covenant has “much more scares than Prometheus,” according to Huffan, Waterston spends a lot of the shoot battling terror. “I find with playing fear I really have to conserve my energy,” she notes. “It takes a lot of energy to amp yourself up that way.” And while Waterston observes that Daniels “has really good instincts just like Ripley did,” she adds that “what keeps me awake at night [is] what kind of person are you in a crisis?”

Waterston’s exuberance for both Scott and the Alien franchise is infectious. Her speech is peppered with words like “amazing” or “wild,” and she acknowledges that she’s always been a fan of Alien. But when asked whether she took a cue from Sigourney Weaver in crafting her own performance, Waterston sobers momentarily. “I mean on some level,” she begins, “I think Sigourney’s performance… influenced women in strong roles ever since. I think [the performance is] really ahead of its time, but really on the money just regarding my perception of what women are like. Which is they are everything, just like men. They are scared shitless sometimes, they are courageous sometimes. And this idea gets bandied about so much about ‘strong women’ – as opposed to what other type of woman?”

“You have to make a distinction? I don’t understand this. But when I saw Alien, the first Alien, I thought that… it really influenced the industry in a big way. So I’ve probably been taking cues from her performance in a way my whole life on and off-screen. It’s just to me a very relatable, excellent depiction of a woman.”

Though Waterston may not be consciously channeling Sigourney, her poise, articulateness, and passion embody the type of woman, strong or otherwise, that she’s heretofore described. From the psychological mind games that she plays alongside Elisabeth Moss in the indie-feature Queens of the Earth (2015) to the cool hippie vibe in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014), it seems Waterston is steadily building a career in portraying multi-dimensional women who do not solely check a single box in terms of personality.

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Actor Billy Crudup plays Christopher Orman, the first mate and chief science officer onboard the Covenant, who has a contentious relationship with Daniels. “Orman is a complicated person,” Crudup admits, after laughingly referring to Daniels as a jerk. “He’s a very serious person,” Crudup continues, “He doesn’t have the best sense of humor. And I think Katherine and her husband are secularists and they’re adventurous…these people are pioneers. Some [explore] with a religious fervor, some do it for the joy of exploring, some people do it out of curiosity to discover more about themselves and the universe.”

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Throughout the film, Orman struggles with his ideas of faith in lieu of the mission he has been tasked to complete. “This is not a lark for him. This is an act of providence for Orman,” Crudup states. Crudup’s observations echo philosophical themes from Prometheus that centered on mythology and the age-old question: where did we come from?

Crudup has clearly done his research on Orman’s character. He speaks with ease of the Pentecostal faith, of how Orman’s faith has shaped his views about the world and his role within it. He reflects, too, on his current penchant for playing complicated characters that are decidedly not protagonists, nor antagonists. He cites his character in the Academy Award winning Spotlight (2015) as a prime example of someone akin to Orman who is flawed and imperfect, yet very much human.

However, the character perhaps most (surprisingly) curious of those philosophical questions that Orman raises, and their at times terrifying answers, is the ‘synthetic’ David, played by Michael Fassbender. Fassbender is often noted for his physicality as an actor. He’s brutally tortured in Eden Lake (2008), he lost a tremendous amount of weight for Hunger (2008), and in countless interviews for Prometheus, he cited Olympic diver Greg Louganis as his inspiration for how David carries himself. Yet, David’s voice is as distinctive as his countenance.

“I watched a lot of Lawrence of Arabia, like David does,” Fassbender says when asked about David’s particular lilt. “I also listened to Hal [in 2001: A Space Odyssey]. I wanted to be sure there was a vocal distinction between him and the humans.”

In Alien: Covenant, Fassbender has the added challenge of playing two androids. In addition to reprising David’s role, Fassbender also plays Walter, a synthetic with even less expression or mannerisms than David. Daniels considers Walter a friend, but as Fassbender points out, Walter wouldn’t consider Daniels a friend because he doesn’t even know what that means and, further, has no concept of Daniels at all since “he’s just there to serve her.” But when asked what drawbacks Walter has, especially as the franchise will eventually circle back to the treacherous and duplicitous synthetic Ian Holmes, Fassbender admits, “I don’t really think [Walter] has any [drawbacks] to be honest. I think he’s a very efficient butler/bodyguard/technician.”

When asked what the experience is like of acting alongside someone playing a robot, Waterston conversely observes, “human beings either engage by paralleling or by contrasting, and somehow neither are happening with [Fassbender] so it’s just surreal. And it makes my job really easy because I cannot forget that he’s a robot. I never feel like it’s Michael.”

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Standing on a set at twilight with gigantic heads made of stone and water misting the cavernous ceilings, not only do I more fully understand Waterston’s observation about Fassbender’s acting, but also about the world Scott has evoked so completely. Despite the technicians and crew, we’re clearly not in Kansas anymore. The atmosphere is all encompassing. There’s something primordial and mythic about the circle of heads, the steep, stone staircase, and susurrus of water pooling in puddles. Amidst the hustle and bustle of prep, Ridley Scott ambles up to our group as we gape at the high ceilings. He reminds us that, “The Egyptians were obsessed with afterlife, so they built their whole culture around afterlife. I think it’s very interesting… are we one of many? Of course we are. We’re one of many, many variations. And that’s something now they’re saying is entirely feasible. So I like to open up that door.”

As he finishes his thought, he’s whisked away to shoot another scene and we’re ushered through the exit. And as the studio door shuts, the cliché when one door closes another one opens rings clear and true: Scott’s back in business and we’re ready to (re)discover what lurks in the dark – indelible, indestructible, an Alien with an endless appetite.