Why “Alien: Romulus” pits the Xenomorph against a younger crew

Why “Alien: Romulus” pits the Xenomorph against a younger crew

Director Fede Alvarez and star Cailee Spaeny tease the new film's twist on familiar franchise concepts.

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The advantage of creating movie monsters through puppetry and animatronics, rather than relying solely on CGI, is that a practically created creature feels more real to viewers. The downside is that it can also feel a little too real to the actors on set, as Alien: Romulus star Cailee Spaeny recently discovered.

“I remember we did one specific take of a scene where I'm with the Xenomorph and [director Fede Álvarez] kept it rolling for about…oh God, it felt like half an hour, but it was probably only 10 minutes,” Spaeny tells Entertainment Weekly over Zoom for our Summer Movie Preview. “It was just pure terror for 10 minutes straight, with the Xenomorph right there. Fede was great at throwing in little surprises like that and catching us actors off-guard.”

<p>20th Century Studios</p> Xenomorph in 'Alien: Romulus'

20th Century Studios

Xenomorph in 'Alien: Romulus'

Every Alien movie has pitted the Xenomorph(s) against a group of unsuspecting humans, but the background and relationship dynamics among those non-alien characters change with every installment. In Ridley Scott’s original 1979 film, the Nostromo crew were famously “truckers in space,” working-class characters who just wanted to collect their paycheck for hauling corporate cargo across the cosmos. But James Cameron’s 1986 sequel Aliens embedded Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley among a corps of space marines, while David Fincher’s directorial debut Alien 3 transplanted her to a prison colony filled with hardened criminals. When Scott returned to the franchise with the 2012 prequel Prometheus, he made the protagonists intellectual scientists on a well-funded mission of discovery.

Those change-ups make each take on Alien feel unique. So when Alvarez embarked on the latest chapter of the storied sci-fi horror franchise, he knew he needed his own take on the cast — and found inspiration in a deleted scene from Aliens that shows a bunch of kids running around a space station.

“My first instinct, just to try something different that hasn't been seen before, was to approach it from the angle of characters who are not professionals or scientists; they're not even adults,” Alvarez says. “I liked this concept of putting people in the front seat of the story who are closer to what the audience is — not that the audience is young, more that the audience is completely virgin to the realities of space. When the characters are professionals, they know more than you do. But when they’re still in their early 20s, they don’t know how to operate the f---ing airlock.”

Therefore, the dynamic between these young characters is not that of co-workers, comrades, or cellmates so much as… well, siblings. Alvarez hints that that relationship is what the new film’s title refers to, with its invocation of the two mythical brothers who supposedly founded Rome.

“All their parents probably worked on the same ship when they were kids, and that’s how they got to know each other,” Alvarez says. “There’s a lot of history between them because they're the only family they have. They truly act more like surrogate siblings; some of them even lived under the same roof. A lot of the big themes of the movie are about siblinghood and what does that mean? The Romulus of it all, and the bigger plot with Weyland-Yutani, is actually connected to that as well.”

The youthful sibling dynamic does promise to shed a different light on some of the Alien franchise’s core concepts. Androids, or “synthetics” as they’re called in this universe, have often played an antagonistic role in previous films. Whether Ian Holm’s devious Ash or Michael Fassbender’s questing David, the synthetics of Alien movies are also usually more aligned with the corporate interests of Weyland-Yutani than the humans standing alongside them. But in Alien: Romulus, the synthetic is part of the family.

“In this one, Rain's brother is a synthetic,” says Spaeny, referring to her character. “She loves him like her brother, but there are difficulties growing up with a synthetic, and some of the challenges that she faces during the film are related. That relationship dynamic is really interesting to flip on its head; it was really fun to explore having a synthetic as a family member and the questions it poses. David Jonsson, who plays that character, was so brilliant and really nailed that performance.”

<p>20th Century Studios</p> (L-R): Archie Renaux as Tyler and Cailee Spaeny as Rain Carradine in 'Alien: Romulus.'

20th Century Studios

(L-R): Archie Renaux as Tyler and Cailee Spaeny as Rain Carradine in 'Alien: Romulus.'

Alien: Romulus is set between the events of Alien and Aliens, and Alvarez was a stickler for communicating that through specific details. The gun that Spaeny is wielding in the photo above, for instance, is meant to be halfway between the flamethrower Ripley wielded against the original Xenomorph and the pulse rifle used in Aliens.

The same scrutiny was applied to the Xenomorph’s design, which Alvarez promises is closer to H.R. Giger’s original creation than any other iteration. As the director previously told EW, he recruited many of the original effects workers from Stan Winston’s team on Aliens to handle the new Xenomorph in all its different forms (such as the face-hugger he recently teased in a behind-the-scenes clip). The wisdom and experience of these crew members was a nice balance with the aforementioned youth of the Alien: Romulus cast.

“We definitely had moments where all of us kids would be in the tent getting ready to go on set, and the practical effects guys would come in like, ‘Do you want to hear a story from the old days? Gather ‘round, kids,’” Spaeny says. “They would tell us about crazy on-set experiences working in this world. They were like campfire stories for us. Those were our favorite things to hear.”

Alien: Romulus hits theaters on Aug. 16.

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