Friday night at SXSW, Austin’s biggest theater was bustling with fans reverberating with excitement for the revival screening of Alien, the sci-fi horror epic that taught the world that “in space, no one can hear you scream.” Ahead of this hot ticket, the classic’s director Ridley Scott joined the stars of his upcoming Alien: Covenant to look back on the fearsome franchise that spawned four tough-as-nails heroines, a string of beloved and terrifying sequels, and countless imitators.
With a crown of grey hair, Scott sat – press crowded around him like a very nerdy recreation of The Last Supper – pontificating on science, art, alien life and God. Reporters fumbled over their own awe as the first questions were sputtered amid ardent praise of Scott’s massively impressive filmography. Speaking of the latest film in the Alien franchise, which plays as sequel to Prometheus, he declared. “I think this is – dare I say – so clever and violent, everything you kind of want. I think it’s a cut above what’s happened before, and therefore will leave all kinds of things things open for the next one. And then you just see how you’ve got. Of course, I’d like to (do more).” Then he sent a shockwave of geek out exhilaration through the room as the visionary sci-fi helmer added, “I enjoy doing them so much, honestly, I would like it to go on forever.”
Scott spoke about how the Alien films have maintained relevance because of their Artificial Intelligence and extraterrestrials, both elements that fascinate humans but could also destroy them. He pontificated how AI might be able to write a book, or compose a sonnet, but noted the results would be “derivative” and not original. That’s when the sharp and witty Katherine Waterston cut in with a chilling observation.
“What’s so scary about AIs is: A human being can’t replace an ant, but it can kill it,” She said. “And that’s what’s so f–king scary about it. They might not be able to write a poem as beautifully as Robert Lowell, but it can kill you.” The same might be said for aliens.
Over the decades, Scott has spoken with astrophysicists and astro-mathematicians and “all that sh-t” about the possibility of life on other planets. He reflected on how our understanding of the possibilities of extraterrestrials has evolved since Alien debuted in 1979. “NASA says of course there is [alien life]. I did a film called Alien, and had a preview in Pasadena Conservatory. And there was Carl Sagan…and he said to me afterwards, ‘You know Ridley, there’ll be no aliens [discovered] in either your lifetime or mine. And I said, ‘Lighten up, Carl, it’s only a movie.’ And now thirty years on, NASA’s said, ‘Are you f–king kidding me? There’s trillions of evolutions in space.”
Scott talked of the inevitability of discovering extraterrestrial biology similar to what we have on Earth, and the terrifying and wondrous possibility of something “supreme” and even “god-like” hiding among the stars. He spoke with the poise of a professor and the passion of a priest, and it became very clear why he can see himself making Alien movies “forever.” “Are there beings out there? I’d put money on it right now: Yes. Will they be like us? I have no idea. Superior? Almost certainly.”
With the Alien revival screening making him reminiscent, Scott recounted the horror movies he looked to for inspiration when crafting the first film in this fearsome franchise. He revisited The Exorcist, which he described as “a perfect engine” and a “fantastic film,” declaring, “It feels logical. It feels possible. And when it’s possible and logical it feels scarier. Built around terrific characters, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, and a great actress [Ellen Burstyn].” He also cited the original Omen with Gregory Peck, which he called “clever and scary,” and most brutal of all, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which he labeled, “hardcore,” recalling, “I sat there thinking, ‘He’s not going to do that is he?’ And then he does. And that’s hard to do…it’s a brilliant movie….It ends on a girl running down a road, covered in blood and demented. End of movie. It’s not a happy ending, but a great movie.”
Turning to talk of his new movie, Scott was more demure, clearly looking to steer clear of spoilers. But Waterston was quick to jump in, sharing what it’s like to work with Scott. “When I first met Ridley, he was like,” she said, “‘I hire people who I think are good at acting. And I let them do their thing and figure it out. And if they’re doing something really idiotic I’ll tell them, but I mostly like to leave them alone. I know what the f–k I’m doing, you should know what the f–k you’re doing. You show it to me and then we go have dinner.’ It’s not rocket science.”
“That’s why I take a long time, and a great care casting,” Ridley concurred, explaining he expects the actors to bring to the table something he hadn’t considered, “and I go, ‘F–k me, I’d never thought of that. Okay, cut.'”
For his part, Danny McBride shared that he and Scott conspired on his costume, topping his pilot with a cowboy hat as a nod to Doctor Strangelove’s Slim Pickens. But neither commented on if this allusion might mean a riding-the-bomb end for McBride’s character. But the actor best known for quirk comedies did share that his casting in Alien: Covenant had a great personal resonance, revealing, “My parents think I’m finally making real movies now.”
Aside from shooting down the Ripley rumor (“Who started that shit?” Waterston quipped), she and Scott talked about how her heroine, Daniels, will add to the Alien legacy of badass heroines. Speaking to female representation, the fast-rising actress declared, “All it takes for any change to happen is a few people who have a lot of power to have the guts to show something in a new way.” She extended her hand to gesture to Ridley, “That was just a few people in a room who were putting together the first Alien. There was a script. Ripley’s a dude, and they say ‘Why not put a woman in the part?’ and they said, ‘Why not,’ not ‘I don’t know! Will this work? Can a woman do it?’ And all this bullshit that happens in a lot of rooms all over Hollywood, and then ended in them not going for it. People who did not have the courage. When somebody has the courage it changes the shape of the business. And obviously because it sells tickets. These things have to succeed for it to continue. But I think with Alien obviously you changed the look of science-fiction.”
Scott admitted he’d tired of seeing women in roles as “just the girlfriend, just the wife” or “the damsel in distress.” But when asked why he continued to put women at the center of the Alien franchise, he didn’t get political, just practical: “Well, The first one did so well, why change it?”