The box Alien

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Heavy Metal’s Alien: The Illustrated Story.

In Alien’s closing moments Ripley dashes through the Nostromo’s klaxxon-blaring corridors and almost barrels right into the monster’s path. We catch a glimpse of it before Ripley pulls back, denying us (and herself) a closer look. In Heavy Metal’s illustrated comic adaptation the scene plays out differently: Ripley turns the corner to find the Alien in a contorted sessile state. This ‘box’ gracefully unfolds and the creature leers after her.

“[Alien] came out in May of 1979,” said Walter Simonson, the comic’s artist, “and Heavy Metal, who were publishing it, wanted to get the comic, the graphic novel out with the movie … We were flown over to England, we were put up 2 or 3 nights … On Thursday, we saw a rough cut of the film that was about 2 and a half hours long.”

Simonson revealed that not only was the film considerably longer but that some scenes in the preview differed from the final release. Brett’s death scene was different, and there was an extra small scene involving the Alien near the end: “There’s a scene towards the end of the book when Ripley is the last survivor, and she has the cat and is running towards the life boats, she runs around the corner of a corridor, and there’s a box sitting in the center of the corridor, and it’s clearly out of place, and she freezes and comes to a dead halt, looking at it, and after a moment, the box begins to shrug and move, and that great, spectacular Alien head comes up and it’s the Alien all folded up into this kind of organic box, and it’s between her and the lifeboat.”

“At least one of the guys I was with, who was watching this movie with us, thought it looked really cheesy,” he added. “I thought it looked really cool.”

Simonson saw the preview during December 1978 and started illustrating the comic in March the following year. Despite the three month gap, he had a firm picture of the film’s scenes in his head: “I was working on it at March at that point, and I’d seen the movie movie about 3 months earlier. Now, I don’t have a photographic memory, but I remembered a lot, I’d seen a lot of stuff, but I got to that point and I knew the scene.”

He also revealed the Twentieth Century Fox “was not concerned with what we did in the sense of getting us to include stuff or not include stuff … Going over the three script versions and the stuff I’d seen in the rough cuts, we just really tried to put out the best version of that story in the comic.”

At the time he was drawing the comic panels, Simonson was assured that the Alien box scene would be in the final release: “They were still editing the film at that point, so when I got to the point in the graphic novel where I had to put that page in or not put it in, because it would affect the placement of the left and right pages of the story, I asked and they said, ‘Right now, it’s in.’ I added it back in, pasted everything around it and then, lo and behold, the movie comes out and the scene isn’t there. Go figure.”

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Picture proof: This shot of the Alien is believed by some to be proof of the box Alien’s existence; they extrapolate from it that the production had perhaps filmed a prop in conjunction with Bolaji to achieve the desired effect. It’s not an entirely convincing argument, considering that the creature’s hunched and unfurling pose here was a running theme throughout many of Alien’s production and publicity photos (here and here.)

So was the scene filmed? No production photographs of it have emerged since the film’s release, it’s not featured in any of the scripts, Giger fails to mention it throughout his diary, it hasn’t appeared on the laserdisc, DVD or blu-ray extra features, there is no conceptual work, no storyboards, and an Alien box prop -if created- hasn’t been mentioned by anyone involved in the film. But – Dan O’Bannon has been quoted in Famous Monsters of Film Land magazine as saying, “Some scenes were shot of the Alien closeup, of it folded like a weird-looking box, but it was decided this would give us too graphic a look at the beastie, so snip! snip! snip!”

However this is not entirely conclusive – there is no mention of a specific prop or scene mirroring the comic book’s being described here; the Alien sitting folded like a box may simply be an imaginative interpretation of Bolaji’s performance (for example, this and this.) Bolaji may even have simply been sitting or crouching during the scene.

Some have also said that the box Alien was intended to foreshadow the creature hiding within the walls of the Narcissus, but this latter shot was improvised when the shuttle scenes were filmed at the very end of production:

“Originally, we thought the Alien would be hiding in the closet in the lifeboat [for the surprise ending]. But then Ridley said, ‘Can’t we beat that? Can’t it be somewhere she and the audience can’t see it, and it just emerges?’ So at the end of shooting every day, we changed the set around the monster. He’d lay in there and we’d rebuild the set over and over.”
~ Ron Shusett.

That trick alone caused considerable headaches for the crew: “Every time, it looked like Mad magazine,” said Shusett, “You could see [the Alien] was two feet away from her! The guy who played the monster would lay there for hours and hours and we’d shoot it and look at it the next day and say, ‘This is stupid; we’ll never disguise it.’”

If the production possessed and shot a compact prop of the Alien, then why not use it here? It certainly would have saved Bolaji Badejo (and the costume department) plenty of trouble: “Bursting out of that compartment wasn’t easy,” Bolaji told Cinefantastique. “I must’ve ripped the suit two or three times coming out, and each time I’d climb down, the tail would rip off! … Finally, I said, ‘No more!’ There was a lot of smoke, it was hard to breathe, and it was terribly hot.”

Alien Explorations host wmmvrrvrrmm asked Simonson about the box scene at the comic’s official Facebook page. Simonson replied: “Just to be clear, I have no idea how the scene was actually done. All I can say is that I thought the scene looked pretty neat, whereas a couple of media savvy folks I saw the rough cut with thought it was kind of cheesy. Or at least, that’s how I remember our reactions. I don’t remember thinking I was looking at some sort of inflatable. And given how some folks can fold themselves up in remarkable ways, I would lean towards the idea that either somebody was unfolding himself from within the box, or possibly, it was a mix of person and animatronic operation.”

With the information at hand (which may certainly be expanded on in future) it becomes fairly evident that an Alien box prop didn’t exist. If people recalled seeing it in an unreleased version of the film, we can only chalk it up to creative interpretation of Bolaji’s performance, which they had only seen on a singular occasion months before the memory was revisited. It could be a simple case of unintentional creative license. In fact, a stronger case can be made for there being a scene featuring an Alien cocoon aboard the Narcissus before the credits roll – not only did Giger mention such a scene, there is a storyboard for it as well (see Filming the Fourth Act.) However it’s extremely unlikely that the box and aforementioned cocoon footage exists given the lack of tangible evidence.

One last thing: it is interesting to note that Prometheus features the same sort of unfolding box trick with the mutant Fifield… a callback to an old excised scene from Alien, or coincidence?…

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AVPGalaxy forum discussion on the box Alien.

Alien Explorations article on the box.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “The box Alien

  1. Antarctica Traffic Control

    How interesting! However, I’d agree with you, Valaquen. I think the box Alien is something that has entered lore, and the evidence for it is circumstantial. The ‘pseudo action pose’ was popular with appointed set photographers in the 70s, and I think the images above form part of that aesthetic – they just happen to support the legend.

    I wonder if the comic book guys *did* see something extra in that corridor scene – perhaps a longer trim of something / an ‘unfurling’ that was excised and time has ret-conned their interpretation of that, or perhaps it planted the seed of the ‘box’ idea right there and then (a cool one however it came to be)

    Something else that rules it out for me is that no production photos of the box prop seem to exist – yet others survive of the excised cocoon sequence. That just doesn’t sit right with me – why wouldn’t they photograph this when so much of the prosthetics construction *was* photographed?

    Whatever you think, it’s certainly an interesting concept.

  2. Another great post.

    I was just about to cite the Prometheus/Fifield moment…

    I also remember a strange scene from a documentary on Alien (it may have been Legacy?) which shows the alien in a weird, belly up shape, tail pointed towards Lambert (this is right before she and Parker get done in, as it were). I haven’t seen the footage anywhere else since, but might that have also contributed to this box image?

    I miss these efforts at reconstruction in newer films, where everything we could ever want to know and a thousand times more is made known and available to us. Gone seem the days when fans could burn up their passion for a film sifting through troves of material scrounging for clues (I’m reminded of the lost Spider Pit sequence from the original King Kong as well). Being a diehard fan of films like these seems such a more rewarding experience than for modern films.

    • I also remember a strange scene from a documentary on Alien (it may have been Legacy?) which shows the alien in a weird, belly up shape, tail pointed towards Lambert (this is right before she and Parker get done in, as it were). I haven’t seen the footage anywhere else since, but might that have also contributed to this box image?

      Do you mean this footage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eR5jYeIMBKk

      • Perfect! Thanks, I’ve wanted to check it out again but wasn’t looking forward to scouring all my various discs to find it. Anyways, yes, that bit at the very beginning is the closest I can imagine that thing resembling anything like a box, and I have a very hard time believing Ridley or anyone thought it would be a good idea to have the alien actually shape-shifting. Besides which, you pointed out there’s no evidence. They have documents of even little doodles Geiger made about nothing, they have every permutation of every other life stage in the alien, but they don’t have that? I wonder then, if some version of the script that Heavy Metal received had some note in there at that point that the alien was around the corner, “folded up like a box”, and then the artists put two and two together and dropped the simile. Human memory is the worst record of anything to do with what actually happened.

  3. BillTed

    “…a callback to an old excised scene from Alien, or coincidence?…”

    Coincidentally ripped off from merchandise and material related to the same movie that it only has strands of DNA in common with. Just like everything else in prometheus.

    And just like every other thing in prometheus that they ripped off and squandered, even though the unfolding Fifield scene is still probably one of the best 2-3 scenes in the movie (before botching the rest of the attack with blender editing),
    they trashed half the impact it could have had by simply getting a contortionist to perform the unfold. (The average Breakdancer has been doing that move since Alien, its called the crabwalk.)
    Instead of sticking phoney legs over an already buried under prosthetic’s and unrecognizable Sean Harris,
    and then just jump cutting it.

    I’m thinking Simonson got a few different images mixed up in his memory (I do that sometimes). The Sessile box very much resembles the folded up stowaway Ridleygram, which simonson was almost assuredly allowed to access to. And then combine that with the scene were Ripley rounds the corner and the Bolaji stands up from the cat box, presumably from a crouch in a longer take and you’ve got a few things that could vaguely add up to it.

    But a vague confused memory is as legitimate a source for creativity as anything else,
    it was a neat idea.

    (So they ripped it off.)

    • BillTed

      Also I wonder if O’Bannon was actually remembering the comic.
      We know he got chased off from the production halfway through, did he really get invited to any rough cuts after that?
      We also know that he was a big comic reader, and arguably given to emotionally colored memories of things.

  4. DaveDePrave

    I’ve thought long and hard about the “box alien” article, and unless pictures actually appear for it we’ll never know for sure 100% if it existed or not. I’m still coming across pictures from alien, (and on the muliple DVD releases), that I’ve never seen before. And thats after 35 years.

  5. Adrian

    Great article, Valaquen. It’s one of my favourite cameos from the Illustrated Story. The comic book is so close in feel to the film it’s quite remarkable.

    Of course, once it’s a picture on a page, the reader may linger on any frame as long as he/she wishes. Having read the comic before seeing the movie, this was the biggest shock of all (apart from the voices- everybody was American when I read the comic…). I was no longer in control of the pace of the story! Scott and Rawlings had me on a leash and dragged me around the ship at whatever speed they liked.

    Which brings me to my point: once it was decided that the creature would only be glimpsed in the film for maximum impact, the patient unfolding origami of the box alien didn’t have a chance to make the final cut. Scott says in The Book of Alien, “The most important thing in a film of this type is not what you see, but the effect of what you think you saw.”

    Whether the scene was filmed or not (and you’ve made a really good effort to nail down the facts of that matter), the creature is a behaving a little bit weirdly as Ripley turns that corner- hunkered down in a strange reverie before the interruption, then a rapid feline swivel to face her. With just a few more frames of the contemplative pose the quiet, eerie effect may have been achieved but Rawlings trimmed that down into a fright for the audience.

    A Strange Shapes missive never fails to get the reader thinking from a fresh perspective.

  6. Russ

    I really believe this scene was filmed. If you have the expended soundtrack released a few years ago it includes unused musical cues cut due to scenes being shortened or cut from the film. There is an unused cue called “Sleepy Alien” that runs 1:04. In the liner notes it mentions that it was from that scene were Ripley watches the Alien as it appears crouched down and eventually stands up. I doubt Goldsmith would have scored a scene that didn’t exist.

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