Warning: contains minor spoilers for the first five minutes of Alien: Covenant.
There's an abundance of things to be shocked about in Alien: Covenant, the latest instalment of Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise. Feral creatures burst out of backs. Seething creatures emerge out of chests. Michael Fassbender plays two robots that bond over humanity’s disappointingly emotional ways.
Despite the vast quantity of stomach-churning scenes, what most shocked me was a cameo that comes within the first five minutes of the film. I don't know what that says about me.
The film opens on a group of colonists aboard the Covenant in the year 2104, snoozing as their ship steers them to an Earth-like planet in deep space. But after the Covenant comes in contact with an unexpected solar flare, the colonists wake up to a shaking, quaking, dire situation. Most of the colonists can exit their pods, save one: The ship’s captain, Branson, played by none other than James Franco.
Once his pod catches on fire, Franco’s character is gone in a pyrotechnic flash. Franco gets a few more seconds of airtime when Branson's wife (Katherine Waterston), also aboard the Covenant, grieves her husband's memory. For the most part, though, this is a very minor role.
So how did James Franco, of all people, come to play the first casualty in a bloody sci-fi horror film?
To answer that, first we’ll have to take a look at one of the key players aboard the Covenant. Danny McBride of Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals plays Tennessee, one of the ship’s navigators. Typically a comedic actor, McBride himself was surprised that Ridley Scott approached him for a role in this humourless sci-fi film.
As it turns out, Scott’s a big fan of the quintessential stoner film, Pineapple Express, which starred Franco and McBride. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, McBride revealed, “Seth Rogen told me that after the movie came out, that he had heard through the grapevine that Ridley was a fan. I always thought it was really funny.”
Much to McBride’s amusement, Scott took advantage of Alien: Covenant to stage a Pineapple Express reunion.
“Here I am on this film where I’m still trying to figure out, do I belong here? and I’m finally getting my sea legs and getting confident about what I’m doing and then here’s James Franco showing up,” McBride recalled in the interview.
This brief Pineapple Express reunion is the sole moment of levity in the entirety of Alien: Covenant. Maybe that’s why I found James Franco’s appearance to be the most shocking moment in the film. This cameo was the only playful wink to the audience in an otherwise grim two hours.