It’s been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and in 2008 it was ranked by the American Film Institute as the seventh-best film in the science fiction genre, but don’t let those fancy accolades deceive you, Alien (1979) is still the intense, suspenseful and panic-inducing horror film that you know and love. And this year the film turns 40!
As with many films, it’s a combination of various elements that meld together to make an iconic film that stands the test of time and embeds itself into the cultural zeitgeist. With Alien (1979) however, there is arguably one unique attribute that stands out above all others. The groundbreaking and breathtaking design work from the one-and-only H.R. Giger.
Giger was born and raised in Chur, Switerland in 1940 and the unrest, with the real-life terror of Nazi Germany ever-present, penetrated his subconscious and would shape his art in the years to come. Suffering from extensive nightmares no doubt brought on by the era’s of WWII and the preceding Cold War, Giger turned to the sketchbook to express himself and externalize his fears. What was born of that led eventually to the publishing of Necronomicon, a compendium of Giger’s art, and would find its way to a desk in the offices of 20th Century Fox.
Just after signing on to direct Alien (1979) director Ridley Scott (Alien: Covenant) was shown the Necronomicon by writer Dan O’Bannon and was immediately mesmerized. In an interview with Starlog Magazine in 1979, Scott said, “I took one look at it and I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life. I was convinced I’d have to have him on the film”.
It was specifically the painting Necronom IV that would lead to the final design of the star of the film; the Xenomorph. O’Bannon had been sold on Giger’s art years earlier after working on the unfortunately failed attempt by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s to bring Dune to life and was a prime inspiration for the script before Scott had even been brought onboard. He practically wrote it with that specific iteration in mind. A horror and a beauty about it, as with the rest of his art, Ridley agreed thankfully and what audiences got was a horror aesthetic like they had never seen before.
The success of the film in large part is due to the artwork and design work that Giger put into it, and this is echoed by Ridley Scott himself. In an interview with Yahoo, Scott put it succinctly, saying “It wouldn’t have been the same movie. Whilst the cast was wonderful, with Sigourney and Harry and those people, but without that eighth passenger it wouldn’t have been the same film”.
Depicting A Nightmare
Coining the term “biomechanical” to describe his brand of surreal and nightmarish art, it intertwines mechanical structures over, beneath and through an organic, human canvas. The results beautiful and haunting all at the same time.
The infamous Necronom IV that the Xenomorph was pulled from shows almost exactly what is seen on-screen. Not much was needed and the creature was pulled right off the canvas. Giger’s design had no visible eyes which is highly unsettling, and the proboscis, its second set of teeth, is par for the course for his aesthetic. Much of his artwork is highly sexual, or at least evocative of the male and female anatomy if not hitting you over the head with it. And that’s just the Xenomorph.
The first stage of the alien’s evolution, the Facehugger, was also designed by Giger. His original vision was a much larger creature, and a slightly different look. It had eyes and a coiled tail that would enable it to spring onto its victims. Director Scott and O’Bannon offered some advice and Giger was able to modify it into something that worked far better for the film and better complemented the look and feel of everything around it. Complete with another opportunity to violate its future host. Skeletal fingers instead of tentacles matched and hinted at the beast it would soon turn into.
The Chestburster evolved from another of Giger’s designs, one that he called a “degenerate plucked turkey”. In Giger fashion it is truly disturbing and invasive. In an interview he likened the life cycle invading its host like worms under the skin. The thought of which creeped even Giger out. That is what makes the artwork that much more visceral which in turn bleeds onto the screen.
Legacy Of Terror
Aside from the creature itself, Giger’s influence appears in droves throughout the rest of the film. While famed art director Roger Christian worked on the human side of things for the spaceship Nostromo, more of Giger was to be found on the desolate moon LV-426. The crashed alien ship had an interior that looked similar to a ribcage with its bone-like structure that led into a chamber that actress Veronica Cartwright described as a “womb”. At the center was the pilot of the craft, dubbed “Space Jockey” that embodied the dark soul of Giger’s art; human and machine enmeshed as one. With no way to tell where either starts or ends.
He also thought out a lot of the mythology of the Pilot and and the alien in the form of hieroglyphs that would’ve been seen in the derelict ship if it wasn’t for budgetary constraints. These would years later be resurrected in future films, most notably Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017).
“Giger was and remains a true visionary icon and has left his mark on this franchise and the genres of Science-Fiction and Horror indefinitely”
The monochromatic genius of his paintings gave the moon with its barren hellscape, the organic/mechanical ship in stark contrast to its environment the foreboding that something truly awful lay within. Without this, as Ridley Scott said himself, Alien (1979) would not be the same film at all. Giger was and remains a true visionary icon and has left his mark on this franchise and the genres of Science-Fiction and Horror indefinitely. And we are all better for it.
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