In Alien the biological origin of the creature is a question left unanswered – nobody in the film feels the need to discuss the exact nature of the monster, where it’s from, why it exists, or how it propagates itself. They are too busy trying to survive. James Cameron took the opportunity to fill this void in his sequel, and the Alien Queen has sat quite neatly at the top of the Alien hierarchy since. Of course, the original film had established, but never incorporated, its very own complex mode of reproduction that Cameron consciously ignored – the transfiguration of human bodies into Alien eggs, a process referred to by fans as ‘egg-morphing’.
To paint a simple picture, Alien’s version of the reproductive cycle came in two distinct phases: the first can only be understood through Dan O’Bannon’s original script. It was there that Dan outlined the Alien’s intricate life-cycle and how it related to the creature’s culture and religion. The second is the version that was prepared and even shot for the film, but ultimately discarded, and it is the most commonly known deleted element of the movie, namely, the scene where Ripley discovers the Alien’s nest and the remains of Brett and Dallas. While the script aimed to provide an entire social system for the Alien, the movie pared this back to give us only the horror of the ‘procreative’ process.
Dan’s Alien, as originally conceived (no pun…) was a member of a religiously-minded race who were implied to have a long history, a well-developed culture, pictorial language, and, we can presume, complex social behaviours. In his script the Alien’s reproductive system necessitated three sexual partners—two consensual (a ‘parent’ Alien and the facehugger), and one sacrificial body (the embryo’s host). Within their (now-extinct) society the reproductive process was undertaken within pyramid structures. Conceptual artist Ron Cobb explained that within these temples the Alien eggs were tended to “by the third stage adults and housed in a lower chamber of the breeding temple. When ready to hatch, the egg is placed in the middle of a sacrificial stone and a lower animal, the equivalent of an alien cow, is then led on to the stone. Sensing the warmth, the facehugger springs out, attaches itself to the animal and deposits a foetus into the stomach.”
So essentially: an adult Alien produces an egg; from this egg emerges the facehugger, which infects a third party with spore. This spore erupts from the body of its host, and a fully-fledged Alien is born. But how does the ‘parent’ Alien produce an egg in the first place? From the body of yet another creature, according to the script, in a process referred to by fans as ‘egg-morphing’. The entire process seems long, difficult, and intricate, and also quite wasteful in terms of bodies, since we have two corpses but only one newborn Alien. It’s easy to see why Cameron opted to use the Alien Queen, which would have exploited every incubator that it could, in less time, and with less variables endangering the cycle.
Despite O’Bannon’s effort in trying to depict an entire alien culture, time and budget concerns saw them cut from the film. The pyramid was merged with the derelict spaceship, which obviously changed the whole nature of the Alien. It was no longer indigenous to the planetoid, and no longer had a culture of its own. Instead it is implied to be the cargo of another alien race. Despite this major change, the cocooning and egg-morphing was still in. For now.
Dan’s Alien culture: In O’Bannon’s original conception of the Alien, newborn Aliens are overcome with blood-lust, but this eventually subsides and the creature becomes rational and civilised, heralding its maturation and growth into a third-stage adult. Of the Alien in his script and its savagery, O’Bannon explained that “It’s never been subject to its own culture, it’s never been subject to anything except a few hours in the hold of the ship. Quite literally, it doesn’t have an education. The Alien is not only savage, it is also ignorant.” Once its blood-lust has subsided, “the Alien becomes a mild, intelligent creature, capable of art and architecture, which lives a full, scholarly life of 200 years.”
“What gave us the cocoon concept was that insects utilise others’ bodies to be the hosts of their eggs,” Ridley said in 1984. “That’s how the Alien would use Dallas and each of the crew members it kills. This explains why the Alien doesn’t kill everybody at once, but rather kills them off one by one: it wants to use each person as a separate host each time it has new eggs.”
One idea about how ‘egg-morphing’ works is that the human host serves as yolk for a growing larvae, rather than becoming the larvae itself, as is usually assumed. This isn’t explicitly explained in the script, but it can be inferred from the multitude of quotes from Scott and co. Still, yoke or otherwise, the process requires a ‘middleman’ that isn’t present in the Queen concept of the life-cycle.
Peter Voysey took over sculpting the cocoon while Giger was overrun with other details of the film. On September 11th 1978 he presented his work to Giger, who, ever the attentive artist and perfectionist, wrote in his diary: “It’s a bit of an overkill. The egg that is supposed to lend its shape to the figure [of Brett] disappeared underneath the bubbles and lost its shape. The two figures of the cocoon should be cast in wax and will be garnished with the latex scraps of Alien III [the third-stage adult]. Like the way a spider wraps its victim and sticks it to the wall.”
Several days later he wrote “[After the weekend] they want to film the burning of the cocoon. There’s two cocoons glued to the bottom of the aircraft. One is supposed to be a few days old, and the other is the partially eaten corpse of Alien III’s first victim. The corpse has acquired the shape of an egg and is supposed to look slimy and bloated. The colour should be the same as the egg’s. The second victim is also wrapped in slime and still alive and, according to the story, begs to be killed out of mercy by the flame thrower. So we have to replace the actor with a latex doll, in four copies, because they will play the scene four times, and one doll has to be burned each time. This promises to be an interesting Monday.”
Unfortunately, when the crew turned up that Monday morning “R. Scott turned up at the leg room and cursed. He doesn’t like the nest with the two cocoons at all. I don’t particularly like it either. It would have been better if I had taken a look at it on Sunday. A lot could have been changed.”
Giger spent the next week tweaking and repainting the cocoons. “The cocoon still looks shitty despite the fact that we worked on it all week. I should do more work on it, but I don’t feel like it.” The general dissatisfaction with the cocoons ended up pushing the shooting schedule back, and the production eventually elected to shoot the burning cocoon sequence later, at Bray Studio.
When the first cut of Alien clocked in at almost three hours, one of the cuts made was the egregiously long (almost eleven minutes) Alien nest scene. Everyone involved in the production has stated unanimously that the scene was cut due to pacing issues. Producer Gordon Carroll told Fantastic Films magazine in 1979: “We were under a lot of budget pressure and schedule pressure at the time, we had to postpone [filming] it. So when we got to it we never did get it right. So we dropped it. Although we liked the idea of that scene because it tells you just one more thing about the Alien – about it’s cycle and what it uses people for.” David Giler chipped in, ”But I think we were right in dropping it. Although I’ve always loved that scene.” That same year Giler told Cinefantastique, “It was removed because it simply didn’t work. It interfered with the pacing of the film. It looked terrible, awful. So instead of redoing it, we decided to write it off as a bad idea.”
Ron Shusett said of the scene and its excision: “We filmed it, and it was spectacular and cost a lot – we demolished the set with a flamethrower. When we ran it for ourselves, we found the climax wasn’t working because Sigourney couldn’t automatically know where Tom Skerritt was, so it took nine extra minutes to justifiably believe she could find him. That totally undid the rest of the ending. The audience would say, ‘Come on – get off the ship!’”
Shusett explained that when the scene was cut it did not harm the film’s narrative nor muddle the Alien’s life-cycle in any way: “When we took out that scene, the whole thing worked great, and nobody missed it … We could have made a terrible mistake: ‘Oh, look at that great idea we had, where he says, Kill me! and he’s growing into the egg!’ It’s like cutting off a little finger: no matter how good some scene or scenes are, if it hurts the overall movie, you have to have the willpower to take it out. The biggest dangers as filmmakers is we tend to get indulgent, and it’s hard to be objective.”
Giger himself was pleased with its excision, since he disliked the entire sequence. “It didn’t really fit with the rest of the film,” he told Total Film in 2003. “It used a strange yellow light that was a different colour to the rest of the film. I didn’t feel that the sequence was as horrifying as many people believe.”
One key element from O’Bannon’s egg-morphing scene that was filmed, cut, but survived into the sequels was the Alien cocooning its victims. James Cameron decided to include the feature in the sequel, but this time with no egg-morphing involved. Instead the Aliens would paralyse and abduct their victims, take them to a hive, embed them in the walls, and place an egg, produced by the Alien Queen, within reach.
In 1996 Cameron spoke to Starburst about his problems with the egg-morphing scene and concept. ”If you follow Dan’s original concept, the closure of the original cycle was the human host turning back into a cocoon … The Alien grabbed Harry Dean Stanton and presumably put him into a cocoon. It’s certainly no great logical detour to assume that it might have used him as another host, but I think it would be a bit odd that he turned into an egg. That’s something that would have been hard for the audience to swallow because it involved the transformation of the human host and although one can assume the Alien can metamorphose, to have its biological properties take up residence in a human being and change it, [egg-morphing] was going beyond the ground rules they set themselves.”
Cameron however was impressed by the idea that the Alien’s life-cycle was inspired directly by the horrors of the natural world. “One of Alien‘s great attributes was that it set up a very weird biological process but it has a basis in science fact all the way through,” he said, “like the [life]cycle of a digger wasp, which paralyses its prey and injects an egg into the living body to mature.” He stuck with the idea of a life-cycle inspired by the brutal insect world, but egg-morphing was out. “I dispensed with it because we never saw that in the film anyway. Had it appeared in the film I wouldn’t have violated any logic turbulence.”