Alien: Romulus director Fede Alvarez breaks down the new trailer for his stripped-back, "standalone" survival horror

Following a mysterious gestation period, the long-awaited teaser trailer for Alien: Romulus has burst online, promising a back-to-basics return to the sheer terror of Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic Alien. Technically an interquel that takes place between Alien and Aliens, during Ripley’s 57 years in hypersleep, the film stars a white-hot cast of up-and-comers, including Priscilla’s Cailee Spaeny, David Jonsson, Isabela Merced, Archie Renaux, Spike Fearn and Alieen Wu.

Speaking to Total Film days before the Alien: Romulus trailer finally emerged from the shadows, director and co-writer Fede Alvarez is in high spirits. "I couldn’t be more excited," the Evil Dead and Don’t Breathe filmmaker says. "This is officially the first interview since making this movie. I haven’t told anybody anything about it yet…" But like a pharyngeal jaw puncturing a skull, TF is armed with probing questions to ensure the secrets spill forth.

Not seen the tantalising, terrifying teaser yet? Go and watch it, then come back to learn about the Nostromo-inspired design choices, how the title’s mythological underpinnings connect to the film, the extensive use of practical creature effects, what’s going on behind that "Romulus Lab" door, and how the filmmakers gave Cailee Spaney’s new hero an entrance worthy of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley.

The first thing anyone watching the new trailer will be struck by is how your film’s retro-futuristic production design recalls the Nostromo. Is it your hope that Romulus will feel of a piece with Ridley Scott’s Alien? 

It was the era I was most interested in when we were thinking about making this movie and were suddenly faced with so many choices. Where do you start? That’s what I wanted it to be – that era of science-fiction – and particularly that physical space of the first movie. So it starts there, honestly.

And there were narrative reasons why. It takes place 20 years after the first film. Technology in the world of Alien can change vastly, but I think it’s not dependent on time. It’s dependent on place. Where you are.

So the characters of this movie and the world are very blue-collar. The technology is still very low-tech and analog. And, look, I’m a kid from the ‘80s. Any monitor with some VHS tracking issues puts a lot of joy in my heart.

Is the meaning behind the name Romulus explored in the film?

It is, absolutely. It’s based on the Romulus and Remus myth. If people aren’t familiar, it’s the creation myth of Rome. Romulus killed Remus. It’s not a siblinghood that went down the right path. [Alien: Romulus] is a film about siblinghood. A lot of the character stories are related to siblinghood. 

As you may know, Weyland-Yutani, which is the big company in the Alien movies, has this obsession with Rome and Imperialist iconography. You really have to go deep into the canon, but a lot of the planets, and a lot of names come out of the early Roman Empire, either from rivers or cities.

And there’s a station where most of the story takes place. It’s called the Renaissance Station, and it’s made of two big models that are connected. One is Remus, the other one is Romulus. And that’s as much as I can tell you…

There’s a voice that we hear halfway through the trailer saying "Run". Is that David Jonsson’s character, and is he an android? I felt I could detect a tell-tale android inflection in his delivery…

That is correct. That is David Jonsson, yes. If he’s an android or not, you should watch the movie. Can you tell that from the current trailer? I don’t know. But, yeah, he’s very assertive and cold in his delivery…

Alien Romulus

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

One of the first shots we see after establishing the Renaissance is a swarm of Facehuggers bursting through a door. How much are you utilizing CGI versus practical creature effects?

Just like anybody else, I’ve been appalled by bad CG in movies that have ruined my experience of it. But I’m not against it. I think you have to do whatever’s best for the shot, and whatever technique does it better, you should do it.

We went to crazy extents in this movie to do things practically. We had Weta Workshop doing a lot of the Facehuggers. And not only that, we brought back the guys that worked on Aliens. Shane Mahan, who [sculpted] the Queen’s head himself, was the one in charge of building all the Xenomorphs for our movie.

And when I say "build", we built them. We did full animatronics for all the creatures in the movie. It was one of the best experiences in my career, just to see these guys that I admire so much, back [working together].

There were moments when we’d need nine puppeteers to make a creature work, and you had all those guys, now in their 60s, under the table. And I’m there with them because there’s not enough hands. I got to be under the table, puppeteering these things, with the guys that worked on the original Aliens. So that’s been the best part.

And then CG just comes when you really go, "Oh, if we do something here, we could do something really cool that the puppets never could." And you go there. But we really tried… and we really succeeded. 

Did that commitment extend to the sets as well?

We went out of our way to build our sets. There are no set extensions. Today, usually, you build the minimum amount, and you extend in CG. For me, it’s really about me traveling there physically, and being there. I was in that station which you saw in the trailer. I spent the best part of last year in that place.

You want to show up in the morning, and go, "Wow," and look down the hallways, and it goes as far as you can see in both directions. You can get lost walking inside those sets, which is the way Ridley described the set of the Nostromo. You can walk around the whole thing, and get lost in there, trying to find your way out.

That definitely happened here. We built everything until the last corner. In that respect, it was all old techniques. A lot of the approaches to effects, they were all based on way more old-school approaches to moviemaking.

Alien Romulus

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

The trailer features a brief shot of a door that has the words "Romulus Lab", a Weyland-Yutani logo, and a wolf on the front. Is that a further connection to the Romulus myth, and a hint that some kind of experimentation has been taking place aboard the Renaissance?

Yes, that’s the Romulus and Remus creation myth, where the she-wolf gave them their special strength to build Rome. Weyland-Yutani, the company, they’re obsessed with [xenomorphs]. It’s one of my favorite parts of the movie, the mystery of 'What’s beyond being chased by a creature?'

It is a research station. That’s what the Renaissance Station is, or used to be. If you want a spoiler, you won’t see [the Renaissance operating] in its prime. But, yes, there’s some experimentation going on in the station.

Really, the movie is a survival horror, just like the first one. At the core of it, that’s what the movie is. It’s my favorite kind of horror when all you have to do is survive it.

But there are many kinds of Alien fans out there, and I love a lot of the aspects of these movies. I love the mystery of what the company is trying to do, things that have to do with the creature, things that go beyond just running around, and trying to not die. So for people who like that, like me, they will definitely find a good story.

Cailee Spaeny’s character gets a hero’s entrance in the trailer. Is that a pulse rifle she’s carrying, and is the shot a conscious homage to Ripley stepping out of the cargo elevator on her way to the Queen’s nest in Aliens?

Yes and yes. It is a Pulse Rifle. You have to think that our movie is decades before Aliens. So the Pulse Rifle, as people know it from Aliens, has not been invented yet. We can go really deep into the canon rabbit hole, but the Pulse Rifle was invented a few years before Aliens by this general. 

This is a precursor. But it’s technically Pulse technology, what she’s holding. And, yes, of course, the story called for a moment when she was coming out of an elevator. And obviously, you don’t just walk out of an elevator casually in an Alien movie. So when we were about to do it we all knew, "If you walk out of the elevator, it better be an incredible shot." So we took a lot of care, making sure that she stepped out of the elevator in the coolest possible way.

What is her name?

They call her Rain, but her real name, you’ll see in the movie. It’s "Raines" with an "E" and an "S".

Alien: Romulus

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Do you see Raines in the lineage of Ripley – the resourceful, capable everywoman overcoming the odds?

Everything is related and different at the same time. As fans, the thing you always want with these movies is, the same thing again but different. That’s usually how you want to approach these characters.

She’s a younger character. All the characters are very young. That was inspired by the beginning of the extended cut Aliens. There’s a shot that really inspired the whole story, where you can see all the kids running around the corridor on Hadley’s Hope. I always thought, "Wow, what would it be like for those kids to grow up in a terraforming colony that still needs another 50 years to be habitable? You’re probably going to take the same job as your parents. What’s the hope?"

I thought: "Wouldn’t it be great to catch up with those characters?" Not exactly those characters, but that type of young kid, growing up in a Weyland-Yutani shake-and-bake colony, and see how their life would be when they reach their early 20s. What do they want out of life? Do they want to stay there, and do what their parents did – work the mines, work the farms – and that’s it? Or do they want more out of life?

That was what kickstarted the whole journey of this character. It was something I was always fascinated with. Maybe it’s because I’m from Uruguay and the idea of growing up in a place where you know how far you can get, and the things that happen there, and the things that will never happen there. So at the time, I always connected with those characters.

Ridley Scott is a producer on the film and had high praise when you screened it for him. Does Romulus pick up any plot threads from his Alien prequels? 

This is the way this movie works: if you haven’t seen any Alien movie ever, you’ll have a great time. You won’t feel like you’re missing out on anything. But if you’ve seen one or more – oh, boy, you’ll have a blast. At least, I hope you will! The reality is that it is a standalone story, but it’s filled with references to every movie. It is truly a love letter to all the other movies. I have my favorites, but I love them all. Every time I went to the theatre to watch an Alien movie, I had an experience that would stay with me all my life.

Even the ones where I’m like, "I’m not sure that’s what I wanted" – they still stayed with me. So the movie has connections with absolutely all of them, in their own way. The experts will be able to tell, "Oh, that’s from this. This is from over there." Maybe it’s a piece of gear. Maybe it’s a reference to a story that is connected. Maybe it’s a character that is actually connected to another character from those movies. It’s truly filled with it.

I did this with Evil Dead back in the day. When we made that movie, it was really about making sure that it didn’t matter [if you’d seen previous Evil Dead movies] – but if you knew, you’d feel it was tailor-made for you. So, again, if you haven’t seen any of the Alien movies, you’ll have a great time.

Alien: Romulus is released on August 16, 2024. For more upcoming movies, here's our list of 2024 movie release dates.

Jordan Farley
Deputy Editor, Total Film

I'm the Deputy Editor at Total Film magazine, overseeing the features section of every issue where you can read exclusive, in-depth interviews and see first-look images from the biggest films. I was previously the News Editor at sci-fi, fantasy and horror movie bible SFX. You'll find my name on news, reviews, and features covering every type of movie, from the latest French arthouse release to the biggest Hollywood blockbuster. My work has also featured in Official PlayStation Magazine and Edge.