The Look Of 'Alien: Covenant': Sets, Spacesuits, And The Space Jockey

The soundstage smells like a walkthrough haunted house you'd find in a strip mall in October. The scent of fog machines and fresh lumber and various chemicals fill the nostrils as you step into the darkness and stare at the giant web of wood and cables emerging from the shadows. Everyone around you is in one of two modes: either they're scrambling through the darkness to beat the clock, or they're lounging around and waiting until it's their turn to scramble through the darkness to beat the clock.

Body parts that look suspiciously like Michael Fassbender sit in the corner, waiting for their moment in the spotlight. It only adds to the haunted house vibe.

But if you let your eyes adjust to the darkness and walk through the fog and maneuver around to the front of the giant set located in the Australian soundstage where Alien: Covenant is being filmed, you'll be greeted with a familiar sight: it looks like the large chair of the Space Jockey, the mysterious being found long dead in the original 1979 Alien. Actually, it's the large chair of the Engineer, the mysterious being introduced in 2012's Prometheus. Literally. It's supposed same chair.

It was one of several sets we visited that day...and one of several puzzle pieces in deciphering what this movie is all about.

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The War Room

When we're not walking sets, visiting departments, or conducting interviews, the bloggers and journalists attending the Alien: Covenant set sit tight in the "war room." As the name implies, this is where director Ridley Scott and his team of artists, craftsmen, technicians, and everyone else you need to make a major motion picture hold their meetings. And the walls are covered with art.

One piece immediately grabs the eye: a couple is having an intimate moment in the shower on board the Covenant, the colony ship full of doomed space explorers who pick the wrong planet to explore. A familiar shape lurks in the darkness. It's the alien. The Xenomorph. The Neomorph. Pick your name. You know what it is.

It does not end well. Another art piece of showcases the gory aftermath of the scene.

space jockey

We wander the foggy, haunted house-smelling set of the Engineer's ship. We're told that this vessel is called the "Dreadnaught" by the production and that the room with the big chair and that weird telescope device is simply known as "the control room." Even though this is technically a recreation of the ship seen in Prometheus and not the more famous "space jockey" room from Alien, it's still a surreal experience to see this location in the flesh. It's all the more surreal to experience the mammoth size of the set. This is a spaceship built for creatures much larger than puny human beings.

It's so detailed and so convincing that it's disconcerting to turn around and see that a giant chunk of the room is missing – the cameras have to go somewhere. The ceilings, while massive, end at a point. Computers will fill in the gaps after the fact.

While the control room and its weird captain's chair are familiar, something has happened since we last saw this ship. Or rather, nothing has happened. This ship hasn't been active for some time. The ground is filthy, covered with dirt and debris. The walls have become overgrown with a layer of moss. It's been a long time since someone visited this ship. Since Alien: Covenant takes place ten years after the events of Prometheus, it's easy to guess how long.

A dark corridor connected to the control room leads us past a series of massive spacesuits, instantly recognizable as the suits seen on the original 1979 "Space Jockey" alien and last seen worn by an Engineer in the third act of Prometheus. These are untouched. Abandoned.

Beyond this corridor is a long, winding tunnel. It's dark and filthy, the ground muddy and wet. Although the tunnel is fairly simple to navigate, it's easy to imagine it becoming a confusing labyrinth in-camera. Once again, anyone who remembers Prometheus will remember these tunnels, but they've seen better days.

There is one more area in this sprawling set: a small room that has been transformed into some kind of living space. We will later hear this room described as the place "where Shaw was hiding out." This is clearly a reference to Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the sole human survivor of Prometheus. But where did she go? And where is the android David (Michael Fassbender), who was last seen accompanying her on board this ship?

A Mysterious Lab, a Mysterious City

The most maddening thing about the art in the war room is that it says so much while saying absolutely nothing. The titles are vague enough to ignite the imagination without actually spoiling a thing. One section of art on a moveable wall has been turned around and put in the corner. That must be where the real spoilers lie, the stuff that no one on set wants us to know anything about.

So we can only look over these titles and ponder what they could mean. A creepy science fiction laboratory titled "David's Lab" certainly implies that Michael Fassbender's android character from Prometheus is alive and well and working on something. Concept art depicting abandoned alien cities and crumbling temples suggests that we're looking at the home planet of the Engineers. But where did everyone go? And why is the ship that David and Shaw borrowed seemingly hovering over the city, looking worse for wear?

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Costumes in Three Acts

Alien: Covenant is costume designer Janty Yates' eleventh film with Ridley Scott and it's clear that she has a system.

Once she read the screenplay for the film, she immediately split the film into three acts, with each third defined by specific costumes. The first act, she says, is all about the "sleep suits" that the crew of the Covenant wear when they're in stasis for their long voyage. She teamed up with English fashion designer Craig Green and the results were "a bit like a racing driver."  While showing us the sleek "sleep suit" (which does, indeed, look very slick), she notes her strong desire to avoid going too "Star Trek-y":

We didn't want to do too angular. It dates so quickly. Ridley's very keen on clothing that will pass the test of time, and not be too shocking or in-your-face. So that's on-board wear and sleep wear.

Yates' "second act" involves the crew of the Covenant leaving their ship behind to investigate the paradise planet they have discovered. Citing the late French artist Moebius as a key influence (his art is all over a wall of her department), she walks us over to the more rugged outfits the crew wears on the ground. They're stylish but practical – Yates' description of them being "very French Foreign Legion" is accurate. Still, it's easy to distinguish which outfits are intended for the Covenant's science team and which are intended for the security team:

Yeah, they're armed a lot heavier. They have specific boots – the security team – and they have tactical vests. So they are poised to protect at the drop of a hat.

And for the third act, Yates took us to the most impressive costumes in the room: a giant spacesuit dubbed "Big Yellow" and a smaller, sleeker, silver spacesuit. Big Yellow looks like NASA redesigned Iron Man and it was inspired by a large red spacesuit seen in Prometheus. However, that spacesuit was just a prop, a piece of cool set design – this one is practical. Yates says we'll get to see Danny McBride's Tennessee, the chief engineer of the ship, wear it in a key sequence.

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A Model of a Dream

The concept art of the Covenant itself in the war room depicts a ship very much in line with the Nostromo from the original 1979 Alien. It's very large and not especially streamlined. It looks ruthlessly practical. Nearby paper 3D models depict other locations: a giant domed cathedral that doesn't look human in origin, some kind of all-terrain vehicle, and a human base of some kind, maybe even a temporary colony outpost.

One model catches my eye: a futuristic apartment setting titled "Daniels' Dream." Daniels is the lead character of Alien: Covenant and she's played by Katherine Waterston. I file this away.

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One of the 3D models on display is that of a gimbal, built to simulate the rocking of a spaceship. Special visual effects supervisor Neil Corbould is happy to talk about it:

That's sort of the top half of the gimbal, on this little spaceship. We made the bottom half of it, then twisted it and turned it. It was the size of a tennis court, that was the platform Ridley had to basically create this fight sequence on top. All the time this spaceship is on an Earth-type environment. And that weighed 27 tons that we were flying around and people were hanging off of it, which he loved, you know? It gave [Ridley] the opportunity to get a lot of these wide angles of the spaceship, and it's real, you know? And then CG will then put all the rest of the engines on.

You can actually catch glimpses of this scene in the new Alien: Covenant trailer that was just released: Daniels clings to the side of an out-of-control spacecraft while an alien menaces her and Tennessee. The mix of the practical and the digital is fascinating.

While many of Alien: Covenant's key locations were built on soundstages, the crew did film for two weeks in New Zealand, making use of the country's beautiful scenery to create an untouched paradise planet (that just so happens to be home to an alien menace, of course). For one sequence, they shot in Milford Sound, on terrain that "Peter Jackson thought was too hard." And then they staged a massive explosion in the area, because that's apparently how Ridley Scott productions roll.

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The Hall of Heads

The stairs were built for creatures with much longer legs than humans. Each step requires concerted effort – you don't walk up the steps as much as you literally climb them. It may be a movie set, but it's huge. This place wasn't built for us. We don't belong here.

And yet, the beings it was built for aren't around, either. The giant stairs lead us to a desolate corridor and two winding tunnels. At the end of the corridor is a giant door, and behind that door is a series of charred corpses that look like they've been dead for quite some time.

These steps and these rooms aren't the main attraction of this particular set, though. That would be the "hall of heads," a giant room where the walls are (you guessed it) covered with stone heads the size of automobiles. The heads are humanoid, almost surely created by the Engineers. They stare down at us. Sort of. Only a portion of these heads are actually here in person. The rest will be finished in post-production.

Still, it's an impressive set and the detail is astonishing. It's not clear what went on in this temple, but the intricate designs on the floor and the nearby altars suggest some kind of rituals were held in this space. Again: we don't belong here.

As for the identity of the heads, Ridley Scott plays coy when asked: "If you ask me, they were a people who were superior. These were probably the ten apostles, the wise men."

Perhaps it's appropriate that this set visit ends with more questions than answers.


Alien: Covenant opens on May 19, 2017.