We’re standing in an empty reservoir in the Potts Hill section of Sydney, Australia. Before us lies a sea of charred humans, frozen in anguished poses a la the victims of Pompeii. Later we’re inside a giant warehouse, gawking in majesty at the so-called “hall of heads” — a semi-circle of stone faces (polystyrene, actually), standing some 20 meters high. We saw one of these heads briefly in “Prometheus,” but it looks like they're a more prominent fixture of its new sequel, “Alien: Covenant.”
Then there’s the “creature shop,” where we get to see the designers’ newest, freakiest invention: the “Neomorph,” an albino menace that pops out of its poor prey’s backs, not their chests. It's similar-but-different from the Xenomorph — the classic, OG alien, with its slimy, jet black body. It arrives in a sac, then quickly grows. It, too, has a mouth that allows another mouth to shoot out for a quick kill.
“You can touch it,” says the Creature Effects supervisor Adam Johansen.
We don’t want to.
Apart from the beastie, it’s not clear how any of this will fit into the storyline of “Alien: Covenant.” When asked about these and other details, cast, crew and producers alike give a well-rehearsed shrug, usually adding something like, “Well, you’ll just have to wait and see the movie.”
This much we can tell you: “Alien: Covenant,” in theaters May 19, will connect 2012’s “Prometheus” — the quasi-prequel to the original 1979 classic — with the more familiar parts of the “Alien”-verse. (Six more sequels have since been threatened.) It’s set 10 years after “Prometheus,” and the potential alien chow this time is the crew of the eponymous ship, which is transporting some 2,000 colonists to a new, Earth-like planet. After a distress call, they take a detour to a very different planet from the inhospitable one in “Prometheus” — a verdant paradise of scenic hills and forests. (These scenes were shot in Milford Sound, New Zealand, though the bulk of the shoot was done in Sydney.) Unfortunately for them (and luckily for us), there be aliens.
Our set visit is held towards the end of a four-month shoot in late June of 2016. When we arrive to stomp about the muddy grounds, we see the boring grind of making a thrilling horror movie. They’re on day four of a scene towards the climax — one you see glimpses of in the first official trailer. The film’s main hero, played by Katherine Waterston, has to battle a monster while perched on a small ship that’s about to take off.
In reality, the acclaimed actress (of “Inherent Vice” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”) is standing on a moving platform that jostles her about. Again and again the platform turns diagonal, sending her sliding down. Waterston has to save herself by sticking her pick-axe in a small hole.
Estimated to run four minutes of screentime, this sequence will take eight days to film.
“Alien: Covenant” may sound in many ways similar to the first and second “Alien”s: killer beast(s), crew picked off one-by-one, heroic female character. But it’s very, very different from “Prometheus.” The minds behind “Covenant” know the previous film, while financially successful, enraged fans, who wanted more than just a literal last-second glimpse of an alien.
“What was clear was the hardcore ‘Alien’ audience wanted a bit more action,” says Mark Huffam, a producer on both “Prometheus” and “Covenant.”
Delivering the goods is a common theme among the cast and crew. Adds returning co-star Michael Fassbender: “Once it gets going, it doesn’t let up much."
When last we saw Fassbender in “Prometheus,” his android, named David, was nothing but a severed head. He plays a different bot this time, named Walter. He’s also a brunette — a marked contrast with David’s blonde ’do. But that’s not all that’s different. David had human characteristics, which caused him to defy his human masters and light out on his own. Walter was programmed with zero human traits.
“There’s no vanity to him, no pride,” Fassbender says of Walter. “He doesn’t have feelings of inferiority, or that ambiguity that was very much present in David. He’s more like a Leonard Nimoy as Spock. He operates by logic and whatever’s necessary to keep the crew and the ship safe. He’s a super-butler.”
As it happens, David is back, too, though the Oscar-nominee won’t divulge how or why. Still, Fassbender wound up doing double duty, with David sharing scenes with Walter a la Hayley Mills in “The Parent Trap.”
Waterston arguably had the tougher task. She plays Daniels, a terraforming expert who finds herself leading the charge against the alien menace. In other words, she’s a lot like Ellen Ripley, Sigourney Weaver’s surprise sole survivor from the 1979 “Alien.” They’re big shoes to fill, but Waterston admits the only time she worries about that is when journalists ask her if she’s worried.
“You can’t think about those things when you’re working,” Waterston explains. “I have way too much on my plate. There’s no room for it — thank god, because if there was room for it I’d probably be freaked out. That’ll happen once we wrap.”
Danny McBride’s also here, playing the ship’s pilot. You’d expect him to be the comic relief, both because it’s McBride and because he’s wearing a cowboy hat in a nod to Slim Pickens in “Dr. Strangelove.” But the actor says he’s not going to be very funny.
“There’s not a lot of comedy in this,” McBride says. “It starts out in dire situations, and it just gets worse from there. There’s a lot of doom in this.”
One new thing to ratchet up extra tension: The characters are all couples. McBride’s character is married to a fellow crew member played by Amy Seimetz.
“It means the characters not only have to look out for themselves; there’s someone else they’re connected to,” McBride says. “If something happens to the person they’re connected to, that throws them off.”
How this will all come together remains a mystery. “Covenant” has the unenviable task of both deepening a franchise’s dense mythology and delivering the violent goods. We’re promised gallons of blood — fifty gallon tubs, to be exact, as opposed to the normal five. When we speak to the actors, they invariably come bearing fake blood and beautifully rendered scars tattooed on their faces. (Oscar-nominee Demian Bichir, who plays the head of the no-nonsense military platoon, has a pair of nasty fake burns etched onto his cheeks.)
If “Covenant” sounds familiar, its director is confident it will seem new. Ridley Scott helmed the first “Alien,” then returned to the series with “Prometheus.” He’s back again for “Covenant,” and as we stand in the mud, circled around him between takes, he says it’s the heady and philosophical ideas that will make “Covenant” more than a slasher film on a gargantuan budget.
“There’s a strong understory,” Scott says, which will carry over into however many sequels follow in “Covenant”’s wake. “How this one ends will definitely take you onto the next one. It leaves a lot of big questions.”
Besides, he always makes sure his films are different. “That’s my plan every time,” he adds. “I try not to repeat anything.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge