AUSTIN, TX: When the organizers of the South by Southwest Film Festival announced an opening night revival screening of Ridley Scott’s original 1979 sci-fi/horror classic Alien, festivalgoers immediately went into wishful thinking mode. After all, back in 2009, Austinites went to an Alamo Drafthouse revival screening of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan – and ended up seeing J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot (then still weeks from release). Were they going to see another last-minute switcheroo, giving this audience a first look at Scott’s forthcoming sequel Alien: Covenant? The announced appearances of not only director Scott but Covenant stars Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, and Michael Fassbender certainly made it seem like a possibility, right up until Scott announced, in his brief introduction, that he’d like to show us “some clips from my latest project, Alien: Covenant.” It wasn’t a head-fake. But the clips were cool.
Scott unspooled three excerpts from Covenant, totaling about fifteen minutes. The first was a touch underwhelming, a rough launch-and-land sequence on the planet the crew of the USS Covenant is exploring, though it showcased some good effects and spotlights the crew camaraderie – a key element, it should be remembered, in the original Alien, a rare working-class sci-fi movie (you forget, until you watch it again, how much of the beginning is spent discussing contracts, work requirements, and “the bonus situation”).
The second scene of our little clip reel was clearly an integral set piece, in which the crew, staggering back to their ship after exploring the planet in question, discovers that one of their own is feeling very sick (uh oh), to the point of spurting blood from his skin (uh huh), and it’s because (you guessed it) he’s playing host to an alien being who reveals himself in the expected tense, scary, and gross manner. Sure, doing a scene like this, and showing it to an audience there to see the original Alien, will inevitably draw comparisons to the earlier film’s most iconic sequence. But surprisingly enough, the new scene stands up to the scrutiny. There’s a good geographic twist – to keep the rest of the ship safe, Daniels (Katherine Waterston) has to lock the sick man in an exam room with a crewmate (Selma’s Carmen Ejogo). When the situation, erm, shifts, she makes a not unreasonable request: “GET ME THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!” It’s a relentless, scary sequence, with a specific touch that will thrill my fellow Halloween II fans.
Finally, we saw an initially (and deceptively) quiet scene between Michael Fassbender – returning from Scott’s previous film in the franchise, Prometheus – and new cast member Billy Crudup. Fassbender’s David, who is clearly going to some dark places this time around, lays out the evolution of the aliens (and provides some connective tissue for the scattershot canon) before revealing a group of pods to his crewmate. “What are they waiting for, David?” asks Crudup, which is an excellent question. David encourages him to take a peek. “Perfectly safe, I assure you.” YEAH, RIGHT.
And with the clip package complete, Scott returned to the stage with his cast members, and everyone played along and did a good Q&A, as if we’d just seen an actual movie, rather than a highlight reel. The SXSW moderator mentioned that this was another Scott film with a “very strong female lead,” to which Waterston quipped, “Played by Danny McBride.” Asked about casting Waterston as his very strong female lead, Scott replied, “She’s a very strong female. She gave me a hard time every day, but I got used to it. All her questions were all for the right reasons, so I learned a lot from her, from Matthew, from all of them. Had a very, very good cast, actually. It’s always a learning curve, whatever I do. Whenever you think you know everything, you know shit, okay? So I cast as best as I can, I’ve become good at it, and if you’re sensible, it’s a partnership. And in that partnership, there’s a lot of give and take and exchange. I learn, hopefully they learn a bit, and that’s how you get this.”
Waterston described prepping for her action hero turn, with some outside encouragement. “There was this other director I worked with who would send me emails all the time, saying, y’know, Daisy Ridley’s a really good runner,” she said, drawing up an image of a cackling Paul Thomas Anderson or Alex Ross Perry sitting behind a laptop. “Saying these things about other actresses that looked really tough in movies, just to fuck with me. So I got really obsessed with my run, and I still think I kinda look like a Fraggle. But I tried. I fuckin’ tried.”
McBride, more familiar from broad comedies of the Pineapple Express and East Bound and Down vintage, described the immediate effect of a mainstream franchise turn. “It’s the first movie I’ve done that my parents actually think is a real movie,” he explained. “So it’s good to have finally won their admiration… I grew up on these films, loved them, and when I heard that Ridley wanted to meet, I didn’t even know what it was for – and I was afraid to ask, because I was afraid that he had asked to meet the wrong person. And as he started to show me illustrations of the spaceship, I started putting it together – like, holy shit, this is for Alien.” Fassbender, meanwhile, put his handheld microphone to his throat and made alien heartbeat noises. “I’m half drunk,” he explained later.
And then they left the stage again, for more clips – this time, pure promo stuff, showed a stand-alone fake informercial about Fassbender’s robot that seemed like one of those self-proclaimed “viral videos” studios put out now, followed by a new red-band trailer. Then again, everything we saw was pure promo, from the clips to the press tour dress rehearsal questions to a photo stunt with T-shirts handed out to the crowd beforehand. (I was handed a large. It was adorable.)
The promotion clearly worked; the way the clips were received, and the entire event was reported, they sort of didn’t have to show us the whole movie; they prevented the risk, and got the same outcome. And the same enthusiasm – your correspondent generally feels the Alien franchise is past its expiration date and Prometheus was a goddamn mess, but what I saw last night accomplished the near-impossible feat of getting me excited about Alien: Covenant. (And, yes, I tweeted about it.)
But I felt a little dirty afterwards. The playbook isn’t new – studios promote big movies this way at fan conventions all the time, feeding fans scraps and letting them go scream about how awesome they are on social media. It just felt gross to do it at an actual film festival rather than one of those marketing orgies. Then again, the line between the two is getting thinner by the day.
Photo credits: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire