The Definitive Story Behind the Film
by Ian Nathan
176 pages, Voyageur Press
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
I was ten years old when I first saw Ridley Scott's seminal science fiction film, “Alien”. After my father let slip that he'd seen it at the cinema when it was first released, I had badgered him for weeks to let me watch it with him. He'd told me that it was the scariest film he'd ever seen and that people had run out of the cinema when it got too much for them. The details of the hideous facehugger and the grotesque “birth” of the alien from John Hurt's chest haunted my imagination. I didn't just want to see this film... I had to see it.
So, after a great deal of begging and pleading, my father relented. We rented the film one Friday night and I sat on the sofa by my dad's side and had my mind well and truly blown.
I remember how slow it all was. In my mind's eye I had pictured an action-packed adventure movie - kind of like “Star Wars” but with bad language and blood and guts flying around. So little happened for the first forty minutes of the film, but I was gripped from the start. When the infamous chestburster scene happened, my dad asked me if I was okay. According to him, all the colour had drained out of my face. Sure, I'd known what was coming but nothing I'd been told had prepared me for how utterly horrific the scene actually was. By the time the alien was fully grown and had eaten Harry Dean Stanton's face, I was no longer watching the film. I was so involved in what was happening on our little television screen that I was there on the Nostromo and sharing the terrors with the rest of the crew.
When the credits rolled at the end, I was numb. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before. It had defied and utterly exceeded all my expectations. My love of horror films was born that night and twenty-one years later, “Alien” remains one of my favourite movies.
When I heard that Ian Nathan (a regular writer for Empire magazine) was bringing out a book about “Alien” I didn't hesitate to pre-order a copy. I could barely contain my excitement the day it arrived. An attractive hardback with glossy, full-colour pages and a protective slipcase emblazoned with the iconic glowing egg – this one is guaranteed to put a smile on a fanboy's face. Me? I read the book cover to cover in one sitting.
“Alien Vault” is an absolute joy. Detailing the making of the film from the early storyline developed by Dan O'Bannon, the claustrophobic set and stunning creature designs to Ridley Scott's understated direction and the impact the film has had on popular culture since its release. Think of it like an “Everything You Wanted to Know About Alien (But Were Afraid to Ask)” and you won't be far wrong. This book is the essential guide to the movie and provides a fascinating insight into the collaborative process that helped to shape one of cinema's most memorable films.
The book is divided into five main sections. The first chapter, “Birth”, deals with the initial screenplays and highlights the numerous revisions that the script went through. We learn that the original screenwriters envisaged a more comic-book feel to the film but subsequent revisions darkened the tone and gave it a more realistic feel. It is very likely that the production would never have been greenlit had “Star Wars” not proven to be such a colossal hit. Surfing on this wave of popularity, Twentieth Century Fox wanted another science fiction property and they wanted it fast. From reading Nathan's description of the negotiations that went on, you get the impression that the studio executives were expecting something very different to the film that ended up being made. Bleak, pessimistic and unbearably tense, it could be said that “Alien” is the anti-Star Wars.
The second and third chapters of the book look closely at the design of the film. Unlike many other movies, the look of the film was not the work of one artist, but many. The spaceships and interiors were designed by Ron Cobb and Chris Foss. The Nostromo was designed to look futuristic yet lived in. This “retrofitted” look was perfected by Art Director Roger Christian who had already won an Academy Award for his work on “Star Wars”. The future no longer looked shiny and sterile but was dark and dirty. It's hard to think of a science fiction film in the past twenty years that hasn't been influenced in some way by this retrofitted look. It is fascinating to learn that the set of the Nostromo's living quarters were constructed in their entirety. This closed set meant that both the cast and crew had to travel through other parts of the labyrinthine “ship” in order to get to the shooting location. This contributed to both the actor's familiarity with their surroundings but also the sense of claustrophobia that pervades the film.
Of course, one can't look at the design of “Alien” without mentioning H.R. Giger's elegant but nightmarish creature designs. It is revealed that Giger had worked closely with Dan O'Bannon earlier in the 1970s on Jodorowsky's abortive attempt to bring Frank Herbert's “Dune” to the big screen. When Ridley Scott saw Giger's “Necronomicon” collection, he knew that the Swiss artist had to be involved. Nathan's book goes into a huge amount of detail about how the now-iconic creature took shape. I can't imagine what the film would have been like without Giger's involvement but the early sketches of possible aliens by other artists suggest it would have been far less terrifying. Of course, a different design for the monster might have avoided the numerous psycho-sexual interpretations that the film has been subjected to.
The fourth part of the book examines the character of Ripley and how Sigourney Weaver came to be cast in the role that would make her a star. The decision to make the script's lead character, Ripley, a woman came relatively late in the proceedings. The fact that her dialogue did not require substantial revisions after her sex-change highlights the concerted effort the moviemakers took to defy the viewers' expectations. Indeed, much about Ripley and Weaver went against the conventions of cinema at the time. Few would expect a sexy female character to survive to the final reel when other, more traditionally heroic men (such as Tom Skerrit's Captain Dallas) have been unexpectedly killed off. Though undoubtedly beautiful, Weaver does not rely on her looks to define the character of Ripley. Rather, it is her professionalism and determination that impresses us the most. These traditionally “male” qualities made her an unlikely heroine and paved the way for other strong female characters in modern cinema.
It is this unpredictability that makes “Alien” so great. It does nothing we expect it to. It is slow-paced and thoughtful as opposed to frantic and action-packed. The characters are believable humans, not science fiction caricatures. The fake ending in the escape vessel lures the audience into a false sense of security then before subjecting them to an unbearably tense final confrontation.
The last chapter of the book examines the film's legacy. What had initially been pitched as a science fiction B-movie became something far greater and has been heralded by many as the definitive monster movie. Dan O'Bannon summed up the film's monumental success when he said “It sandbagged every subsequent effort to make a monster movie. It fulfilled a genre and thereby put a cap on it.”
Although the sequels have enjoyed substantial success (even the dire “Alien Versus Predator” films performed well at the box office) none of them have been subjected to such critical, academic scrutiny as the original. Interestingly, Nathan's book does not dwell too long on the numerous Freudian readings of the film. We do learn that Sigourney Weaver has a vast collection of such articles (mostly from Europe) and takes great pleasure in seeing how many different ways her performance can be interpreted. Still more fascinating is Ridley Scott's assertion that the film “has absolutely no message. It works on a very visceral level and its only point is terror, and more terror.”
“Alien Vault” is a wonderful book. Ian Nathan's labour of love is meticulously well researched and, as one would expect from someone who worked for Empire, extremely well written. Conversational recollections from both cast and crew members provide an insight into the movie-making process and the book is packed with behind-the-scenes photographs, storyboards and sketches. Most impressive of all are the enclosures, vellum envelopes containing high-quality prints of Giger's creature designs, promotional materials and even detailed blueprints of the Nostromo. At ￡30, it doesn't come cheap but hardcore fans will find hours of pleasure from the content and learn more than they could possibly imagine about the creation of the groundbreaking movie.
I don't know if my father realises what a profound effect the movie had on me. All these years later, I've got an alien figurine perched on my writing desk and I can't look at it without thinking of that night when he hit play on the VCR and changed my world forever. Thanks, Dad.
Hereward L.M. Proops