By this point in my “30 Days of Alien,” I’ve written eight articles about the film, and not one of them has paid any significant attention to the film’s title character. I’m referring, of course, to the alien creature itself.
That all changes today.
If you’ve seen the film, I think you’ll agree that the design of the fully grown alien is unmistakable: a sleek, tubular black head; reptilian, almost armored arms; and a curious second jaw that instantaneously juts out from inside its mouth to incapacitate its prey.
It is, to use a technical cinema studies term, the coolest fucking creature design I’ve ever seen.
Since Alien’s release in 1979, literally dozens of films and TV series have emulated the design of the alien creature to some extent. Who, though, could possible have come up with it in the first place?
Before that questioned is answered, a brief explanatory digression. In my last article, I chronicled the story of Dan O’Bannon, the screenwriter who initially came up with the concept for Alien. Before he began work on Alien, however, he worked diligently for a period of time on a script for another notable science-fiction property: Dune. Before David Lynch got his hands on Dune, cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky – best known for his 1970 surrealist western El Topo – was attached to the project, and he flew O’Bannon to Paris to work on the script. It was in the process of working on Dune that O’Bannon first met one of the other people who had been recruited by Jodorowsky to work on the film: an eccentric Swiss artist by the name of H.R. Giger.
Giger is an original. While he can nominally be included alongside the likes of the recently departed Jean “Moebius” Giraud as modern-day European surrealists, Giger’s work is arguably even more distinct and dark, with a heavy emphasis on mechanical, technological, and sexual themes. (You can see how this would fit in with Alien). On a personal level, Giger is unconventional to say the least: he only wears black clothing (which was a far more unusual thing to do in the 1970s than it is today), refuses to travel by airplane if it can be avoided, and once ended an angry letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (the people who hand out the Oscars) by signing it with a pentagram.
After Jodorowsky’s version of Dune fell through, the people working on the film went their separate ways, and Dan O’Bannon began to concentrate more fully on Alien. He had become a fan of Giger’s work during their time working on Dune, however, and thought that he would be the perfect man to design the realistic alien that his script called for. One of Giger’s pieces in particular stood out to O’Bannon, a 1976 lithograph called Necronom IV:
Once Alien had been picked up by Brandywine Productions, O’Bannon brought Giger to their attention, and they agreed that he was the man for the job. Ridley Scott also concurred once he was brought on-board, and the group of them strongly pressured 20th Century Fox to allow Giger to work on the film in spite of their concerns that his work would be too dark and depressing for a film that Fox was hoping to market to Star Wars fans. Giger ultimately got the job, and the rest is history.
Once the time came to actually get to work on the art design for the film, Ridley Scott made an unusual and borderline brilliant decision: he assigned Giger to work on all of the alien designs in the film, including the planet, the “Space Jockey” and his derelict ship, and the three stages of the alien creature itself, while another team of artists led by Ron Cobb would work on the Nostromo and its technology. The result is two completely different design aesthetics that serve to heighten the contrast between the human characters and the alien.
Since Alien, Giger’s history with the franchise has been a complicated one. He was shunned by James Cameron for Aliens (largely because Cameron, himself an art director by trade, wanted to take a hands-on role with the film’s designs), and while he worked on Alien 3, many of his designs were discarded and he wound up in a dispute with the film’s producers over his credit for the film. (In the original theatrical version of Alien 3 he was credited only for his original designs for Alien and not the new designs he had submitted.)
All is not lost, however. As Ridley Scott was preparing to shoot this summer’s forthcoming Alien quasi-prequel Prometheus (about which more in a later article), he brought Giger on board to do “a little bit of work” on the film. And if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know that Giger’s “Space Jockey” is back, too.
So it’s a happy ending for Giger and the Alien franchise, at least for now. His designs revolutionized the world of movie monsters, contributed to the growth of pop surrealism, and helped bring a beloved film franchise to the big screen.
And even after thirty years, the alien still looks fucking cool.
Here’s a link to an article about Giger’s involvement in Prometheus, complete with comments from Ridley Scott.
And to see the other articles I’ve written so far in the 30 Days of Alien series, visit the link below: