'Alien: Covenant': How the Xenomorph Continues to Horrify Audiences Decades Later

Alien: Convenant Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
The film's art director, creature design supervisor and a zoologist from the San Diego Zoo describe just what it is about the Oscar-winning franchise's titular monster that has played on audiences' fears.

"In space no one can hear you scream."

Those ominous words of warning served as the tagline for Ridley Scott's original foray into deep-space horror in 1979's Alien. The promotional phrase is among the most recognizable in movie history, offering would-be theatergoers a tantalizing preview of what lay in wait in the glowing green egg that adorned the film's poster.

Nearly 40 years later, Scott's alien is no mystery to viewers. The Xenomorph (the unofficial pseudonym commonly used to refer to the franchise's alien) design, based in large part on Swiss artist H.R. Giger's sketch Necronom IV (Giger himself was credited with the design of the film's creature), has become perhaps the most familiar alien design in pop culture. Now, with the second film in a proposed four-film series of prequels from Scott, Alien: Covenant picks up where 2012's Prometheus left off, promising to scare the pants off a new generation and sporting the monosyllabic (yet just as unnerving) tagline "Run."

"My goal was to take the audience to the edge of stress," Scott said of the '79 original.

Viewers have come to expect "stress" as a staple of the franchise, even as the Xenomorph has become a well-recognized design. But Alien: Covenant's design team still had their work cut out for them when it came time to reintroduce the film's eponymous antagonist to new audiences, as well as debut a whole new creature design in the "neomorph."

"Ridley certainly had a preference of doing everything possible practically and getting it in-camera," Damien Drew, art director for Alien: Covenant, tells Heat Vision. "So, while visual effects are a huge part of this film, Ridley wanted to build as much as possible of these physical environments. He's very much about that and the same with the special effects."

When it came to the alien designs, the monumental task fell to Oscar nominee Conor O'Sullivan, who served as the creature design supervisor on the film.

"It was quite interesting because at first we were drawing from the past films," O'Sullivan says. "It was still very biomechanical, still very Giger. Very much the design from the original, really."

Drew also notes the importance of Giger's work as setting precedent but also not being something the design team should be locked down to. "As a prequel to Alien, we obviously have to be mindful of those previous designs and the very significant design precedents of H.R. Giger and his early development on the [film]," he explains. "We had to be very careful how we integrate that design history into our work."

"Nobody ever said it, but Ridley definitely didn't want any mechanical aspect to the aliens or any of the creatures in this film that we made," O'Sullivan says. "They were all completely organic."

Rick Schwartz, who is the ambassador for the San Diego Zoo and has studied biology and zoology for more than two decades, believes those "organic" details are part of what makes the alien creatures particularly disturbing to audiences. "When we look at actual predators who exist on our planet today and how they interact with prey, it's usually with a specific desire to kill and eat," Schwartz explains. "I think when we look at what they've done with Alien, they've mixed a couple of really interesting behaviors we see in predators with human behaviors. The alien showcases curiosity for its prey, in an attempt to add the element of fear, not just surprise, so I think that's sort of an everlasting thing that plays into our fears as an audience."

O'Sullivan stresses the importance of the more realistic, naturalistic approach to this slightly varied Xenomorph design in Covenant. "This is what Ridley always wanted, I think," he says. "If you think about it, the biomechanical stuff from Giger looks beautiful in Giger's paintings, but their relation to reality would have had to have been made by some creatures. The storyline of [Alien: Covenant] is that these [creatures] are naturally occurring — well, almost naturally occurring — through the basic fundamental physics of the body and their DNA."

For inspiration, Scott provided O'Sullivan with anatomical studies and references to wax-work models on display at the Specola Museum in Florence, Italy. "They got all these anatomical, medical models which have been stripped of their skin to expose their musculature," O'Sullivan recalls. "[Scott] was referring to those as the basic format for what he wanted."

That meant a lot of trial and error for O'Sullivan. "Between myself and Ridley, we used the process of building different versions," he says. "We had one that was nine feet tall and another that was six and a half, seven feet tall. So we made different versions that we could always have one on set."

Scott, famous for his use of practical effects in his films, was still open to the idea of using computer effects when necessary. "The way that Ridley wanted it, it would have been impossible to put a human form in there. You couldn't," O'Sullivan explains. "At the end of the day, it's a man dressed in a suit, and these days you really know that. It's not 20 years ago, where we would've accepted it."

Even still, the humanoid aspects of the Xenomorph creature are still evident, and Schwartz believes that is one of the key factors to the alien's nightmarish appeal.

"You look at the shape, and it's definitely humanoid to a certain degree, so I think for our mind when we look at it as something that might prey upon us, there's some familiarity to it, so we'd expect familiar or similar behavior that we would recognize," he says. "However, in the film, they utilize behavior that is something else."

But for O'Sullivan, creating a creature that stalks our deepest fears is as easy as following a recipe book: "When you combine fat, sugar and salt together, it becomes an irresistible combination that if you ate them on their own, you'd be sick. With the alien creature, it'll be erotic. You'll [see it] as erotic-looking. It's quite beautiful, but it's also horrifying and disgusting and terrifying. So it's almost like the fat, sugar and salt situation. Individually they're all horrible on their own, but when they're combined in the right quantities, then it's almost irresistible. That's what I wanted to achieve."

Alien: Covenant opens Friday.