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Alien: Romulus – Making the Perfect Organism

How Fede Álvarez fused two movies to create his ideal xenomorph story, Alien: Romulus
Alien: Romulus

Which is the better film, James Cameron’s Aliens or Ridley Scott’s original? It’s an impossible debate to resolve and, according to Alien: Romulus writer/director Fede Álvarez, one that should never be had in the first place. “To ask an Alien fan to choose between them is a perverse question,” he insists. “So I thought, ‘How do I do both?’”

The answer is a film that takes place in the 57-year expanse between those first iconic movies, and one Álvarez has deliberately constructed to be a hybrid of the two — not just by blending the monster-in-the-house scares of the original with the frenetic action of its sequel, but by combining the settings and distinct aesthetics of both. Renaissance Station, where most of the film is set, is a bastardised construction made up of an older section, Remus, which has the spartan, sanitised decor of Alien, and a more recent module, Romulus, built with the gloomier, more technologically advanced feel of Cameron’s successor.

“There’s a moment where the characters are walking around areas familiar from the Nostromo,” says Álvarez. “Then they cross through that building and on the other side: boom! You’re in a hallway that looks like Hadley’s Hope [the colony from Aliens].”

The cross-pollination is reinforced by the feel of the film, with the first hour adopting the more deliberate, dread-laden atmosphere of Alien, before the action shifts from Remus to the titular Romulus and starts to lean closer to Aliens in both style and tempo. “Your subconscious is like, ‘Why am I feeling I’m in Aliens again?’ The [mood] is telling you that shit is about to get more actiony and intense.”

That the station’s modules are named after the famous twins from Roman mythology is no accident. Sibling relationships are the core of Álvarez’s story, most notably that of Cailee Spaeny’s Rain and her foster brother Andy (David Jonsson), one of the franchise’s lifelike (and periodically homicidal) synthetics. “When her father was dying, he left Andy to be a kind of caretaker. But Andy is a bit damaged and he’s an old model. So more than a surrogate father, he becomes a younger brother to her. And that was always the heart of the story: this relationship between the two… and how that relationship unfolds once shit hits the fan.”

The inspiration for these characters lies with Cameron’s film, specifically a scene that appears only in the Special Edition of Aliens, where we catch a brief glimpse of colony life on LV-426. Like the original Alien, Álvarez wanted Romulus to be a blue-collar story of relatable, working-class characters, and something about that scene struck a chord with the filmmaker, who grew up in Uruguay with a hunger for something more.

“They’re living in this shitty mining colony,” he says of Rain and Andy. “They’re in their early twenties and realising there’s no life for them there. And they find an opportunity to get out, but that means going deeper into the Weyland-Yutani corners of the colony that they probably shouldn’t be nosing around in.”

The latest cut of the film has received seals of approval from both Scott (a producer) and Cameron. And, with Álvarez’s track record for stripped-back nastiness — Don’t Breathe, 2013’s Evil Dead — it looks set to be a gnarly, gore-spattered return to form for the series, doing for the Alien what Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey did for the Predator. By combining elements of its most successful forbears, Alien: Romulus might just inherit the best aspects of both. Its structural perfection matched only by its hostility.

James Dyer

Alien: Romulus is in cinemas from August 16

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