I want to take a moment on Strange Shapes to say goodbye to one of the site’s greatest friends and supporters, Mr. Leslie Barany.
A proud New Yorker hailing from Hungary, Les straddled America and Europe throughout his life, investing himself in the art world and eventually becoming H.R. Giger’s business agent (and quite often his pitbull). Giger, Les told me, was very reserved, and disliked demanding fees and payment. Modest and unassuming, he would often undervalue the worth of his art, and so it was Les’ job to do such fighting for him. Giger described Barany as “the kind of agent one dreams about.”
Leslie is my friend, agent, English editor, curator, art director, troubleshooter, legal advisor, photographer, and one of my collectors, all in one. He is one of the most precise and correct people I know, and he is also painfully honest. As my dedicated advocate, he defends me so zealously that I almost have to apologize. He does it all with heart.
Giger and Barany were parted by the former’s death in 2014, but Les continued to preserve and promote Giger’s memory until his own passing in June 2021.
In 2010, shortly after launching Strange Shapes at Blogger, Les got in touch to inform me (a 22 year old literature student on the other side of the world) that an article I’d written on Giger was very good work. He was glad that Giger was centered, his perspective channeled and understood. I was thrilled, and felt encouraged to write more. Articles piled up, more correspondence followed, and our friendship grew. If there was ever an error or oversight regarding Giger on Strange Shapes, he would point it out, make suggestions (but never dictate) and provide insight. Sometimes he simply provided commentary, letting me know he enjoyed one particular article, or how the behind-the-scenes antics in another made him laugh or clench his fist. I honestly think Strange Shapes would have been lesser without him.
Les’ friendship did not mean he pulled his punches. His temperament could be pointed and sharp, but not mean or malicious. His nickname ‘Uncle Evil’ truly was avuncular. He was a man you could disagree endlessly with, but whose generosity often had to be fought off–more than once I reminded him that he’d already sent me a book, or already offered a gift. More than once he would e-mail and offer a spare iPad or other piece of technology he had lying around and thought I might make use of. Whether forwarding some titillating behind-the-scenes correspondence (a fond memory is tearing through an early Prometheus script over Skype months before the film released) or sharing some scuttlebutt, he always found time to inquire about my wife and daughter’s wellbeing.
In his last years, Les tirelessly spearheaded a memorialisation effort for Bolaji Badejo, having learned his gravesite in Nigeria was meager and dilapidated. Les never knew Bolaji personally, but still considered him part of the Alien/Giger family. Wanting to pay tribute to the man who brought the Alien so strikingly to life, he kickstarted an initiative to honour Bolaji with an elaborate sarcophagus– he had the gravesite scouted and measured, effigies designed and sculpted, anything he could do to preserve another man’s memory.
Les, I wish I could pull out some fitting tribute to honour you. I’ve found the outpouring of love from your friends around the world, the stories and remembrances, to be the greatest solace. I’ve found myself learning so much more about you. You seemed to have known people from every corner of the world. Even the ones you bickered with seemed to love and respect you. The people I have met and corresponded with through you will remain a precious parting gift. You will be missed, but not forgotten.
A great many things have happened in the two years since our last update. We needn’t remind you of them all, but the most pertinent has been the passing of several Alien alumni from both in front and behind the camera. Charles Lippincott, an advertising and publicity consultant for Star Wars and Alien, died in Spring 2020. The illustrious Ian Holm left us later that summer, producer/writer David Giler followed in December, and just yesterday Yaphet Kotto, the Nostromo’s loudest, brashest and perhaps bravest crew member, also departed.
Just last year I had the pleasure of talking to Yaphet on the phone for several hours. Although he had bitten his tongue, he was in great spirits and divulged a good deal about his background, his method, his acting heroes and, of course, how he crafted the character of Parker (inspired, he told me, by the works of Eugene O’Neill). There were also interesting tales about his time on the Alien set in 1978 – shooting pool, battling producers and putting newcomer Sigourney Weaver on the ropes.
Lippincott, Giler, Holm and Kotto join other departed cast members Bolaji Badejo, John Hurt and Harry Dean Stanton. I would like to express my condolences to their family and friends, and to thank the film’s cast and crew for their contributions not only to cinema but also in enriching my own life. Alien may have been the first time I saw many of these actors perform, but it certainly was not the last and it’s been a pleasure following their work in the decades since that landmark movie.
As for Strange Shapes, although the blog is quiet (probably too quiet for my liking) work continues behind the scenes. Although personal (and global) circumstances have gotten in the way lately, I’m a good 365 pages (or 170,000 words) deep into writing Strange Shapes: The Making of Alien, and I hope to have it finished… soon. When completed, that book will in all likelihood make the blog redundant. Much of the research I have done, and the interviews I have conducted, give new insight into old topics that I previously thought settled. The wonderful thing about being an Alien fan is that there’s always something new to discover. I’ve sat on a great deal these last few years. Hopefully, I can bring some of what I found to you soon.
More importantly, I hope regular and irregular readers of this site have found the articles to be useful, even entertaining. With rumbles of an Alien TV series making the rounds, the franchise looks to be going strong some 42 years after its inception. We certainly hope to still be here, too.
To celebrate Alien Day 2019 the venerable Studio Yutani spoke to a stable of fans and creatives involved in the Alien series, and they put together some cool stuff for the celebration.
There is an interview with Matt Savage, the Costume Concept Artist for Prometheus, another interview with Dave Gogel of Perfect Organism, and a podcast featuring J.W. Rinzler of the upcoming The Making of Alien! There is also music from Alien: Cold Forge novelist Alex White and a brief interview with yours truly which you can read here at Yutani Blog.
I never appear on podcasts due to a number of factors, so there isn’t a lot of ‘me’ out there in community, so this little interview might be enjoyable or illuminating (maybe even annoying) for some of Strange Shapes‘ readers and lurkers. Many thanks to Studio Yutani for reaching out!
One rather pervasive story concerning Aliens is how writer/director James Cameron convinced Brandywine Productions to green light the sequel. One version that has become popular lately is better known as ‘Alien$’, and the story—allegedly related by series producer Gordon Carroll—often goes this way:
“Cameron was young. He had just directed Terminator. Cameron had called a meeting to discuss his “next project.” Everyone knew Cameron had written a treatment for Alien 2 that nobody would touch because Alienwas not a massive financial success. Alien 2was not on the table. We expected a professional pitch from Cameron, an outline and a treatment of what he had in mind with a cursory budget; perhaps a couple assistants to run a slide show.
Instead Cameron walked in the room without so much as a piece of paper. He went to the chalk board in the room and simply wrote the word ALIEN. Then he added an ‘S’ to make ALIENS. Dramatically, he drew two vertical lines through the ‘S’, ALIEN$. He turned around and grinned. We greenlit the project that day for $18 million.”
I originally heard the story back in 2009, with the release of Rebecca Keegan’s biography of Cameron, ‘The Futurist’. However, Keegan is not the source of the anecdote, with its earliest example appearing online in 2008, a year before ‘The Futurist’ was published. The earliest source that I can find: a series of movie trivia sites specialising in scandalous and titillating Hollywood scuttlebutt.
First, let’s go through the story and see where it trips up.
First of all is the apparent storyteller, Gordon Carroll. At the time of Aliens’ writing and pre-production, Carroll was no longer associated with Brandywine, having left the company after the release of the original Alien to joinRastar Productions (where he helped produce Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby’s Blue Thunder). Carroll was credited for the rest of the Alien sequels, but was largely uninvolved with their production (similarly, Walter Hill and David Giler are credited on Alien: Resurrection, AvP, Prometheus and Covenant, despite having minimal to no involvment with their production.)
This in mind, it doesn’t make sense for me that Carroll was present at Cameron’s pitch with Brandywine when he was no longer involved with Hill and Giler. Carroll is not mentioned by Cameron, Giler or Hill in any of their recollections of the pitch. According to O’Bannon and The Los Angeles Times, the relationship between Carroll and his former company became rather fraught in the battle for royalties and fees following Alien‘s release.
When the ‘Alien$’ story first appeared online in 2008, Carroll, unlike Giler and Hill, was not around to refute it. He passed away in 2005.
“He had just directed Terminator. Cameron had called a meeting to discuss his ‘next project’. Everyone knew Cameron had written a treatment for Alien 2 that nobody would touch ”
Cameron first met Brandywine Productions in 1983. At the time, he had been planning to shoot The Terminator in Canada throughout ’83, but Arnold Schwarzenegger was scooped up by Dino de Laurentiis for Conan the Destroyer. Cameron, with a year to burn, took on several writing assignments to fill the gap. After a meeting with David Giler and Walter Hill that went nowehere, Cameron was about to walk out the door when Giler pipped up, “Well, we do have this other thing.”
“Oh, what’s that?” Cameron replied. “And he said, ‘Alien II.'”
Cameron wrote Alien II for Giler and Hill throughout the remainder of ’83, and continued to write throughout production and post-production for The Terminator.
You can read the whole account of how Cameron met Brandywine and wrote Aliens here, at Writing Aliens.
Alienwas not a massive financial success.
Twentieth Century Fox released fourteen films in 1979. The most lucrative, boasted that year’s internal annual report, was Alien. On a production budget of around $9 million dollars and an advertising budget of $6 million, the movie made over $100 million at the box office.
Here are a few headlines from the summer and autumn of ’79 and extending into 1980:
Other headlines include ‘Alien becomes big hit at the box office’, ‘Alien snaps records in first week of road’, ‘Invasion of a box office smash’, and ‘Sci-fi film sends profits into outer space.’
At the time of the film’s release, Fox had also cashed in on its hype and success by selling TV airing rights to ABC (four airings of Alien at $14 million dollars) with a 10% downpayment. To quote executive producer Ron Shusett: “If this isn’t a successful film, what is?”
Curiously enough, Fox did try to argue in 1979 that Alien made very little in profit; an assertion that saw them litigated by the producers, director and other partners.
We greenlit the project that day for $18 million.
This is one of the more confusing and frankly ludicrous parts of the tale: nobody wanted to touch Alien 2… until they saw a graphical pun?
Finally, in some of the earliest and latest reproductions of this story, the source is often given as Lynda Obst’s 1996 book Hello, He Lied: Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches. Reckoning that many of the sites promulgating the story and citing Obst as their source were probably unable to read it for themselves, I tracked down and bought a copy:
However, there is no account of the story in Obst’s book. Gordon Carroll is never mentioned, and neither is James Cameron (nor even Aliens.) I took a picture of the index for clarity:
The situation brings to mind an old joke from the Alien Experience boards, where one member concocted a humorous story from the POV of James Remar witnessing Cameron, in a London nightclub in 1985, declaring that he was ‘King of the World’ as he displayed his disco moves. While clearly a piss take, some people, perhaps tempted by its visual hilarity, thought it quite credible.
Similarly, I’m chalking this one up to playful imaginations and the myth-making processes so often rooted in fandoms.
May 1978, and production, with all its attendant problems, was well underway at Shepperton Studios.
Though sets were being mapped out and constructed, some were being hotly debated; the Alien had been committed to canvas, if not rubber (Giger had not, for now, been tasked with the actual construction of his monster); the script was in a constant state of flux, and tensions between the producers and the film’s writers were beginning to break out with Ridley, trying to compromise between the O’Bannon script and the Giler/Hill rewrites, being stuck in the middle of a writers feud that had opened, and would probably close, the film’s inception and completion.
There was another, arguably more pertinent problem: in a month the cameras would finally roll, but the part of Ripley had yet to be cast. Auditions for the part had seemingly wrung Los Angeles and New York dry. British-American actress Veronica Cartwright had read for the role twice, and Ridley reckoned that he wanted her for the film, but her ability to convey catatonia and fear—a talent that Scott and casting director Mary Goldberg especially admired— wasn’t a fit for Ripley. “Laddie was going crazy,” Ridley remembered, “saying, ‘You’ve gotta make your mind up.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you know, I can’t find it yet.’”
Several other actresses had been prospected. Twentieth Century Fox had initially pushed for an established actress to give the film heft: Katherine Ross or Genevieve Bujold, but stars of that calibre were not keen to be involved with a grubby science fiction movie. The success of Star Wars however convinced Fox that unknown actors could carry a successful film if buttressed by an established face or two, as Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing had done for Lucas’ unfamiliar cast.
One better known star who read for Alien was English actress Helen Mirren, who admired the refreshing ambiguity of the characters’ sexes. “I read the original script for that,” she said, “and when you read it, you had no idea which character was male and which was female. They were just people engaging with each other in this situation. They all had these sort of asexual names, so when Ripley said or did things, you had no idea whether Ripley was a man or a woman. You could have interchanged all the characters —they could have been all male or all female— any one of them could have been anything.”
“There was no, ‘a lean 32 year old woman who doesn’t realise how attractive she is’ – there was absolutely none of that!” Mirren continued. “You had no idea who was a man and who was a woman. That was the revelation.”
It wasn’t until the USA casting department put forth two choices for the role that the production started encircling potential Ripleys. The first suggestion was Meryl Streep, an up-and-coming theatre actress who briefly appeared in Julia (1977) and had recently wrapped on Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) with her partner John Cazale. Unfortunately, Cazale, in the end stages of lung cancer throughout The Deer Hunter’s shoot, died March 12, 1978, and Gordon Carroll did not think it appropriate to ask Streep to consider the role.
“The other woman,” Carroll remembered, “was of course, Sigourney Weaver.”
Susan ‘Sigourney’ Weaver was, of a sort, American aristocracy. Her grandfather Sylvester Laflin Weaver left St. Louis for Los Angeles in 1893 and placed an ad in the Times to find work, with salary “no object”. For years he eked his way as a janitor, book-keeper, shipping clerk and salesman. “I finally became sales manager,” he explained, “making stops at San Luis Obispo, El Paso and the City of Mexico, during which I accumulated a wife, four children and a fair modicum of this world’s goods.” In 1905 he was chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, overseeing the development of Los Angeles Harbour, and in 1910 founded his own roofing company, Weaver Roofing; it was said that most, if not all, of L.A.’s emerging suburbs at the time had been roofed by Weaver.
His ambitions did not end there: he was president of the Los Angeles Rotary Club and then, in 1917, was elected a director of the L.A. Chamber of Commerce. In 1919, Weaver, now a beloved and influential figure, ran for Mayor. His candidacy was received with enthusiasm: he was the centrepiece of a parade that rolled down Broadway “while bands played, horns blared, guns popped, red-fire flared and flashlights streamed their beams.” But his mayoral candidature was not to be; he came in third place.
Yet this disappointment, coupled with the 1921 destruction of his roofing plant by fire, dampened neither his fortunes nor popularity. The family’s frequent partying and holidaying was a regular subject of the local papers and gossip circles. His wife wrote operas, books and was a patroness for charitable events. His four children —two sons, two daughters— lived accordingly. “My father was one of the young men about town,” remembered Sigourney. “He used to go out with Loretta Young and her sisters, and he went to high school with Carole Lombard, whose name was Jane Peters then. He used to date all the stars.”
Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver Jnr, like his father, was never still. Starting out as a writer for KHJ radio, he quickly became program manager, switched to managerial positions in advertising, served in WWII, and then joined NBC in ’49. By ’53, he had been vice president of television and radio, then vice chairman of the board, and finally president of NBC. In ’43 he married English actress Elizabeth Inglis, who had appeared in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) and opposite Bette Davis in The Letter (1940), with their children Trajan and Susan Weaver coming along after the war.
By the time Susan Weaver was born in 1949, the Weaver family was still firmly on the ascendancy. Her uncle Winstead ‘Doodles’ Weaver was a celebrated television and film comedian, “Manhattan’s favourite clown” according to the press; her aunt a noted New York Times fashion critic, and her father the president of NBC, where he heralded both Today and The Tonight Show. “I was brought up in a show business environment,” she said. “Actors and famous people were there when I was a kid. The unusual was usual for me.” She remembered stars like Art Linkletter visiting her father at their home on Long Island, and being “miserable because I was quarantined with the chicken pox.”
Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver with his daughter Susan Weaver. June 1955.
It was at the Ethel Walker School for girls in Connecticut where Susan adopted the name ‘Sigourney’, lifting it from a one-off character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The name, she thought, would stop her classmates from calling her ‘Weaver’, and she was from a family of odd names anyway. Her father once suggested naming her Flavia —his interests, obviously, firmly Roman— but her mother relented, choosing instead to name their daughter after family friend Susan Pretzlik. “A very interesting woman,” said Sigourney. “She was quite an explorer. And if I had met Susan before I switched over to Sigourney when I was 13, I probably would have kept it.” But, for the adolescent Weaver at the time, “To be named Susan in a family like that seemed inappropriate.”
Her family took to Sigourney easily enough. “They called me ‘S’ for a while in case I changed it to something else. And then actually they wanted me to keep the Roman part of my name, which was Alexandra—Susan Alexandra Weaver—so my father and I tried to think of a way of calling me Alexandra.”
But her father quickly abandoned this when his daughter’s headmistress pulled them up about the change in name. “Do you permit your daughter to use that ridiculous name?” Weaver remembered her headmistresses asking her parents.
“And my father said, ‘Are you talking about our daughter, Sigourney?’ I thought that was wonderful of him.”
At school she played a greaser in an update of Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘The Highwayman’, and found she had a taste for performance. “I flipped my hair back and wore a big leather jacket and some girls chased me out. I guess I did a good job as an Elvis Presley type.” Tall for her age, gangly and a little awkward, Sigourney discovered that acting could be liberating. “I figured it was like being an explorer. There were so many interesting things to be —a lawyer, a doctor, a biophysicist— and only one life. Acting was a way to get around it.”
Sigourney Weaver at 13.
Her budding acting career was off to a bad start when, while rehearsing for a play at the Red Barn Playhouse, she was quickly replaced when the producer realised her romantic interest was only half her height. She had been a lanky 5’10 at 13, and even now many of her peers had yet to catch up. She stuck out. She looked odd. “I called my parents and described this situation to my mother and she said, ‘Well, welcome to the business.’ She said, ‘Your heart will be broken a hundred times.’”
She found some acting work in weekend productions and summer stock, and even toured San Francisco with a comedy troupe, but these, she felt, were relegations: she wanted to do more, could do more, but no one else was willing to look beyond her height. “I was very much a loner,” she said, “and a self-conscious loner at that.”
It was after gaining her English degree and while preparing for a PhD at Stanford that she decided to tackle acting head on, despite any misgivings about her physicality. Academia, she decided, wasn’t for her. “The course started getting really boring. Finally, I went to my adviser and said, ‘This is a desert, this part of it, right here in the middle. I hope it’s not going to be like this for three years.’ He said, ‘It’s going to be quite like this.’ I said, ‘I don’t think I can stand it.’ I was studying criticism of criticism. It was all this twice-removed stuff—deadly dry. So I just applied to Yale Drama School and got in.”
Her family, who had so often occupied show business echelons, always warned her that the business was unfair, rarely a meritocracy, and even cruel—but she did not expect the disillusion to set in before she had even graduated from drama school. “My acceptance to Yale was addressed to Mr. Sigourney Weaver, so I really wasn’t sure when I got there what they thought they’d taken. My second day there I got violently ill from food poisoning and had to go to the hospital. I’d eaten liver at the Elm City Diner—I was trying to be healthy by eating liver. I remember sitting next to this window on Chapel Street that had a big bullet hole in it. I should have known then….”
At Yale she was rarely cast. Her tutors asserted that she had no future as an actress. The best roles, she remembered, went to classmate Meryl Streep. “I still think they probably had this Platonic ideal of a leading lady that I have never been able to live up to,” Sigourney reflected. “And would never want to.”
If she reckoned that, after graduation, her father’s show business contacts would give her a lift she was to find that she had to rely solely on herself. “When I got out of Yale Drama School I called up a friend of my father to see if he could find me some stage work. He said: ‘Look kid, why don’t you get a job at Bloomingdales?’ Ever since then I’ve been on my own.”
She teamed up with Yale friend Chris Durang, a budding playwright who had been one of the few at Yale to cast her in his productions. “I sensed that the audience had a special rapport with Sigourney,” Durang recalled. “Actors need skill and intelligence—which Sigourney has in abundance—but stars need charisma, which hard work can’t give you.” Sigourney, he knew, had charisma in spades; she just needed exposure. He remembered how, after graduating, casting agents tended to complain about her height and “kept trying to type her as a patrician girlfriend who poured cocktails and nodded politely while the leading man talked.” Stepping in, Durang teamed up with Weaver, casting her in his off-Broadway plays ‘Titanic’, ‘Beyond Therapy’, and ‘Das Lusitania Songspiel’.
Weaver and Durang on a poster for Das Lusitania Songspiel’s 1980 revival.
For Weaver, her adventures off-Broadway with Durang were more than affirming favours from a good friend: they were a life line. “After I left Yale,” said Sigourney, “we were all doing these mad plays off-off Broadway. And I got back to that feeling I had from college, of everyone making up in front of one cracked mirror, which is what I loved—the scrappy theatre idea. I think off-off Broadway healed me, made me an actor again, and I was in so many different crazy shows. I played a woman who kept a hedgehog in her vagina in one play; I was schizophrenic in another. It was just so much fun.”
It was at this time that her name had started to circle around, and she came to the attention of the desperate Alien production. “She came recommended the long way around,” said Ridley, “where somebody had said to somebody, ‘There’s this girl who’s doing theatre on Broadway who’s very interesting, is a giant, I think she’s 6’1 in her stockinged feet. She’s very interesting. Smart performer, very physical.”
To get an idea of how she came across on film, Walter Hill screened Madman (1978), an independent Israeli film that featured Weaver opposite Michael Beck. Liking both actors, he tapped Weaver for Alien, and Beck for his forthcoming film The Warriors (1979). Sigourney was sent the Alien script and invited to audition in New York before Ridley Scott, David Giler and Gordon Carroll.
She did not, at the time, prioritise film roles, having turned down the part of Dorrie in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) when her commitments to Chris Durang’s ‘Das Lusitania Songspiel’ clashed with the filming schedule – Christine Jones took the Dorrie role, though Weaver was afforded a non-speaking cameo in the closing moments of the film as Allen’s date as recompense. It had been the theatre that reinvigorated her, and that was where her loyalties lay; there, she had rediscovered a joy in performing that she thought had been irreparably lost at acting school. When the Alien script came through she was busying herself with the play The Conquering Event as well as various acting and charitable seminars, and didn’t see herself as a science-fiction actor, let alone lead.
“I was doing a seminar called the Hunger Project,” she said, “which was simply about making a difference in the world. Within the context of that seminar a movie part was so unimportant. I went up for Alien and didn’t want to be bothered, because I thought I had not suffered through the Yale School of Drama to do a science-fiction movie. I read the script and didn’t really care that much for it.”
Though she was averse to science-fiction and couldn’t imagine the Alien looking anything other than silly, she still admired how “They had broken the rule and written two of the parts, originally designed for men, for women to play.” One of those parts intrigued her in particular. “Actually, the part I wanted was Lambert. In the first script I read, she just cracked jokes the whole time. What was wonderful about it was that here was a woman who was wise-assing, telling stupid jokes just when everyone was getting hysterical. And she didn’t crack up until the end. That’s a character I could identify with because that’s how I assume I would act. If the elevator gets stuck that’s what I do.”
The audition, held at the Loews Regency hotel on Park Avenue, was almost botched from the start, with Weaver turning up to the wrong hotel. She called her agent and suggested blowing it off, but he recommended that she go ahead anyway. Without much else to do, she rushed for the Regency. Ridley, Giler, Carroll and casting director Mary Goldberg waited, and waited, until finally, thirty moments after she had been due, Weaver turned up. “And then we hear,” said Carroll, “l can’t say running feet in the corridor, but we hear fast-paced feet coming toward the door, and then slowing down, composing itself… The bell rings, Mary opens the door, and Ripley was standing there.”
Weaver was quite the sight – standing over six feet tall in long boots, the panel found themselves looking up at what Carroll called “This extraordinary-looking woman; tall, commanding presence.”
They talked about the script, beginning by asking Weaver what she thought of it.
“It’s a very bleak picture where people don’t relate to each other at all,” she answered.
Mary Goldberg signalled that Weaver was sabotaging her own audition, but Weaver was undeterred from speaking her mind. “I happen to have worked on many new plays with new playwrights,” she said, “so I have been encouraged to speak up — I didn’t know if people in movies were used to that.”
To her surprise (and relief), her interviewers acknowledged the shallowness of the characters, explaining that they were relying on interesting actors to bring them to life. “I thought it was best to put all my cards on the table,” said Sigourney, “because if they really wanted a ‘Charlie’s Angel’ I knew it wouldn’t be right for me. But they were the first to admit that it was going to take a lot of development and close working together.”
Then Ridley, remembering how effective Giger’s Necronomicon had been on himself, propped up a display of images by Giger and Rambaldi. Weaver was suddenly piqued. This would be the monster. She had never seen anything like it. They broke for lunch, with Scott and the producers taking Weaver for Japanese food on Fifty Fifth Street, where they met Walter Hill, before returning to the Regency to read through the script.
She did not know it yet, but Carroll, Scott and Giler all felt that she was perfect for Ripley the moment they laid eyes on her. “Somehow,” said Ridley, “I knew this was her.” Hill was similarly enthused, but Weaver herself did not feel like a shoo-in. In fact, she was somewhat mystified by the attention. “I didn’t really know what was expected of me as I’d only made one film,” she said, “and an eight-part television series about aristocratic women called The Best of Families.”
But it was her naivety and inexperience that the producers and Ridley knew would be perfect for Ripley. The character was thinly-sketched in the script, the only real characterful moments being her adamancy that quarantine rules be stringently obeyed, and her swift assumption of command after the death of Dallas. Looking at Weaver— her intelligence, twinkling humour and soft-spoken assertiveness as obvious as her strong jaw, high cheekbones and broad shoulders— they could see the blanks being filled already.
Scott had been enamoured the moment she stepped through the door, and continued to marvel at her throughout the day. “Jesus Christ, I was always looking up at her!” he remembered. “I walked into a restaurant with her and she held my hand. I felt like, ‘Mummy, Daddy!’”
“She clearly has the authority that she needs to have,” he continued, “and can give any guy as good as he can give back.” Gordon saw how Weaver could project composure, and yet, “You knew that just an eighth of an inch behind that composure was a very nervous actress, a very tense actress, and that was exactly right.” Giler noted her “American aristocratic” bearing, how she embodied perfectly the officer class.
With the producers and director keen, Weaver was flown out to Hollywood to meet Alan Ladd Jr., and Gareth Wiggin. “I lost my bags on the plane and went in my rotten clothes,” Sigourney recalled. “We had a typical chatty Hollywood meeting where you’re all supposed to pretend you’re there for social reasons and no one mentions the film.”
Ladd, ever cautious, agreed to hire Weaver provided that she complete a screen test first. Scott protested that he was mere weeks from filming, but acquiesced: Fox placed a lot of trust in him due to his self-made success with RSA, but there were still plenty of executives, like Peter Beale, who still viewed him as untested. It irritated Scott, who had left a promising career at the BBC in favour of his independence, to suddenly have his creative decisions become the purview of a committee… but he trusted and respected Ladd, who had allowed head scratchers like Star Wars and Alien to be made at all.
“So,” said Sigourney, “the next week I flew to London. I hadn’t yet been hired but I was the only actress they were screentesting. They hoped I would do well. And we did a run-through of the entire script.”
Weaver filmed her screentest on May 12th. She was apprehensive, imagining that she would have to duck and weave in an empty space or react to a potted plant, but when she arrived she found that Ridley had constructed a piece of set especially for her test. “This test corridor we built was the first look at the interior of the corridors of the Nostromo,” revealed art director Roger Christian. “It established the look of Alien for the very first time.” In effect, not only was Sigourney being tested, but Ridley’s vision for the film was about to be captured—and scrutinised—for the first time.
Ladd watched the test in silence and, once done, picked up a nearby phone. He asked that some of the women upstairs come down to view the rushes with him. “So we ran the test again,” said Ridley, “and Laddy simply then said, ‘What did you think?’ and there were, I don’t know, maybe eight, twelve women who immediately jumped in. One said, ‘I think she’s like Jane Fonda.’”
“Alan Ladd watched the screen test,” explained David Giler, “and had all the secretaries in the building come down and watch it. And they got into a big argument that she looked more like Jane Fonda or Faye Dunaway, and he just said, ‘You can have her. She’s in.’”
Weaver, already on her way home to New York, was not entirely confident. She reckoned she had played her scenes wrong, that she had been too stereotypically tough. “If I hadn’t been in an unambitious place philosophically, I think I would have tried harder,” she said. “In fact, it wasn’t until the day before the screen test that I sat down and thought, well, Sigourney, you’d really better make up your mind if you want to do this or not. They’ve already flown you out here. If you don’t, you’d better think about ending it. I finally decided I really liked the character of Ripley as well as the designs and Ridley Scott. Besides, I didn’t want anyone else to do it.”
Luckily, she was to find that, barely home after her long plane flight, that she had gotten the part. “I had sort of written it off every step of the way.”
But there was a snag when the actors convened for wardrobe fitting. Veronica Cartwright, who was eventually cast in the film after auditioning for Ripley three times, had assumed, naturally, that that was the role she was to play in the film. “I get a call,” she remembered, “and they said, ‘Okay, you need to come in for your wardrobe for Lambert’. I said, ‘Oh no, I’m not playing Lambert, I’m playing Ripley.’ ‘No no… you’re Lambert.’”
“I called my agent back in LA and said, ‘Aren’t I doing Ripley?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I think so.’ I mean, that’s what he thought too. I even auditioned again when I was in England, and the part that I read for was Ripley. They didn’t bother to tell me. And I’d never even looked at the script from the point of view of Lambert. So I had to re-read the script.”
“I heard [about] that,” remarked David Giler. “Ridley had met Veronica on his own somehow and he really wanted her and we said fine, you know. Very good actress. So she was certainly fine with us.”
For her part, Cartwright suspected that internal politics played a part in the confusion. “There was a lot of politics going on during the making of that movie,” she remembered. “It was Sigourney’s first job. But her dad was a bigwig. There were a lot of favours going on. It just got a bit bigger than anybody had planned. And studio pressure and egos and everything got involved.”
There might be some basis for Cartwright’s suggestion, with Alien 3 actor Ralph Brown detailing a 1991 meeting between himself and Walter Hill to discuss rewrites concerning Brown’s character Aaron ‘85’: “I am now paranoid about being cut from the film” he said, “like Veronica Cartwright was from Alien as Walter gently reminded me earlier – ‘I don’t want to alarm you Ralph but, well, yes, actually I DO want to alarm you. Don’t end up like Veronica Cartwright.’”
However, it’s also likely Hill may be referring to the abundance of deleted scenes, many of which, Cartwright had complained after the film’s release, overwhelmingly featured her character Lambert.
Sigourney on the Nostromo bridge with her father Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver and mother Elizabeth Weaver.
Sigourney understood that her background would prejudice some against her, especially in an industry that was rife with competitive and suspicious attitudes. “When you are the lead in a film that costs a few million dollars,” she said, “you do get the best hair and make-up people, and you don’t have to worry about things in rehearsal you might not get if you were making an independent film or if you had a supporting role.”
“On Alien,” she continues, “there was some resentment towards me because I came from New York and got such a good part, the one character alive at the end. That was very difficult for me to deal with.”
 Ridley Scott, Q&A with Geoff Boucher, Hero Complex Festival (2010).
 Helen Mirren, ‘Helen Mirren on The Tempest and Stealing All Her Best Roles From Men’ by Kyle Buchanan, vulture.com (13th December 2010).
As we pointed out in the snippets provided throughout Bad Alien Reviews and the letters from Fan Reaction to Alien, 1979, the critical reception that Alien received upon release in 1979 was somewhat mixed: though some prophesied, somewhat understatingly, that the film could perhaps become a cult favourite in time, many reviewers were simply unimpressed with the film’s unapologetic B-movie roots and its sheer single-mindedness. A few others wrung their hands, fretting that the film was indicative of the sickness of both society and its creators (you know, the old “the cinema is our modern-day Coliseum/Grand Guignol” sort of tracts).
The following are selections from a range of American newspapers that reviewed Alien in the summer of ’79…
Great Galaxy! Won’t these space explorers ever learn?
~ by Dick Shippy The Akron Beacon Journal
Thursday June 28th 1979.
Ancient mariners could have told ‘em: You don’t mess around with another guy’s spooky space, even if it looks deserted, because you might find what you don’t want to find, and… phht!… there you are, stuck with an albatross, or the plague, or some other scourge of mankind.
But the future voyagers of Ridley Scott’s Alien exist solely for the purpose of locating the horrifying unknown in the deserted mansion of outer space. It means they’re a lot less smarter than ancient mariners, and a lot more commercial.
For if Alien is punctuated by blood-curdling shrieks and screams, there’s at least one other noise it engenders: The clanging of a cash register. Every time The Alien gobbles up one of God’s living creatures, another $8 to $10 million changes hands.
This is not creative filmmaking, but you might make a case for Alien representing a slick mixing of movie metaphors through movie technology.
What is Alien, after all, but a primeval terror (Jaws) expressed in gory special effects, surrounded by the mock-technological gadgetry of outer space hokum (Star Wars) and aimed at reducing, under fearful circumstances, the population of a floating, zero-gravity charnel house (which is only a substitute for any movie house of horrors you could care to mention!)
Maybe director Scott and his colleagues, including scenarist Dan O’Bannon and the special effects folks with their marvellous techniques with flesh and spewing blood (Linda Blair’s vomit in Exorcist being almost tame by comparison), have created the definitive scare-0the-pants-off-‘em, science-fiction monster to date.
But as The Alien had its antecedents —The Thing, the Blob, and let’s never forget the popular Whatchamacallit Which Made Mincemeat of Walla-Walla— so will it have progeny even more petrifying. Isn’t that the true test of American technology!
Before then, though, we’ll have to settle for the hideous business aboard SS Nostromo, sailing from Out There to Back Here. It is a space tug towing an oil refinery through galactic seas — which at least gives us hope they’ll have found a substitute for Iranian oil 200 years hence.
There are seven crewmen aboard SS Nostromo, including the black gang which works the engine room and complains about long hours and low pay (one of them literally black, Yaphet Kotto having integrated space.)
The ship’s captain (Tom Skerritt) and the scientific guru of SS Nostromo insist on poking into a mysterious signal emanating from a seemingly deserted planetoid. If only they would listen to the ship’s resourceful, no-nonsense executive officer (the winsome Sigourney Weaver) who thinks they should not mess around with the unknown. She heeds ancient mariners!
What is found on that planetoid is the wreck of a space vehicle from another galaxy, and what is found in the eerie interior of the wreckage is an egg-like substance (it’s as ominous as Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack can manage) and —PHHT!— the fat is in the fire. The Alien has struck some poor sap!
Now, what form does The Alien take? Let’s say that, initially, it looks like a big chicken liver with tentacles, and the poor sap is wearing this thing like a helmet.
So, back to SS Nostromo where the chicken liver can be lugged inside, in violation of quarantine. It is learned the whateveritis does not bleed; it emits an acid substance. One tough turkey!
Suddenly, The Alien is gone; just as suddenly, it is back again — this time bursting through a crewman’s chest in a bloody froth. And this time it looks like either a small dinosaur or small snake, and it had a voice like Johnny Ray and it’s definitely a challenge for an up-and-coming mongoose.
Well, there’s a cat aboard, but no Rikki Tikki Tavi!
Thereafter, The Alien continues to change shapes, looming larger and larger in the blackness and eventually getting to a size which makes it eligible for the National Basketball Association draft.
And thereafter, amid screams and howls attendant to butchery, Alien plays down-you-go with its cast of seven.
It is gross foolishness and grievous horror-mongering, the grisly nonsense done expertly, maybe, but will the last man out please turn off the projector? We’ve had enough.
If gore is your cup of tea, see Alien
~ by Randy Hall The Anniston Star Sun
June 24th 1979.
Well, summer is here, and it’s silly season at the movies.
Last summer it was Grease and Jaws II. This summer, it’s Alien, hands-down the monster movie with the most revolting monster you ever saw in your life.
Even though it borrows spiffy special effects technology from Star Wars and Close Encounters, the film is put together with all the wit and taste and subtlety of an ax murderer. Still, if it’s screams you want, Alien has got ‘em.
The film is set aboard the Nostromo (name for the Joseph Conrad novel), an outer-space freighter about the size of Manhattan returning to Earth with 20 million tons of mineral ore. The ship is a bit clunky and used-looking, borrowing the ‘used future’ concept from Star Wars.
Awaking from deep sleep is a grousing, non-heroic crew (Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm and Sigourney Weaver) who are more concerned about their shares in the voyage than investigating a radio signal from what appears to be the surface of Saturn.
But investigate they must, and in one of the film’s more spectacular visual sequences, borrowing from the fantasies of Frank Frazetta’s outer space landscapes, discover an abandoned space ship. There they find the Horror which they bring back aboard the Nostromo, nuch against the intelligent objections of warrant officer Sigourney Weaver.
Alien is the kind of film that can’t be described without giving away too much of the plot. Suffice it that when the monster actually does appear, it sends the audience into gales of laughter — the monster is just so gruesomely, disgustingly AWFUL, especially when it shrieks and goes running off. The rest of the film is spent watching the monster munch down members of the crew like Pop Tarts while they try to kill it.
Is it worth pointing out the improbabilities?
Alien is the kind of film in which people go wandering off alone into dark rooms, disobey rather elementary rules of quarantine, and stop and worry about the safety of pussycats while the monster is chasing them.
Fully conscious of how the filmmaker is manipulating the viewer, one sits in the dark theatre thinking, ‘Oh, get up and run, dummy!’ but glued to the long, slow panning shots of the camera. You never know what is going to turn up at the end of one of them.
Director Ridley Scott, previously known for his art film, The Duellists, has learned his lessons in suspense-making from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, but hasn’t bothered taking notes on Spielberg’s carefully constructed storyline.
But who cares? It’s summer silly season at the movies.
Faint praise: Alien succeeds in the scare department.
~ by Gene Siskel The Chicago Tribune
Friday 25th May 1979.
A veteran filmgoer friend has been slightly amused at all of the hoopla surrounding the new outer space horror movie Alien. He had head the reports of an usher fainting during a sneak preview in Dallas. He had heard about women at the same screening running up the aisles and out of the theatre in order to throw up in the john.
“I’m amazed,” he said, “that people can get that worked up about a movie, especially when they know it’s supposed to be scary.” That remark may explain it all. Knowing that a film is supposed to be scary may put people in such a frenzied state of mind that if you showed them Bambi they still might blow lunch. That was certainly the case with the hyped-up crowds waiting to see The Exorcist a few years ago. People were hyperventilating in line, all in an attempt to stay cool.
Which is not to say that Alien —or The Exorcist, for that matter— is some kind of cheap, vulgar movie that is trying to out-gross every other film ever made. On the contrary, Alien in its many quiet moments is an extremely cool, even droll, commentary on the banality of space travel. The point of the picture: Just as there is random evil on Earth, so will there be random, indifferent evil in space.
The story is set a decade from now. Seven Americans (five men, two women) are travelling through space on a commercial tug, hauling a huge refinery being them. Their mission is to find intergalactic sources of fuel, and they go about their business in a lacklustre, routine office staff manner. In fact, as the picture opens, a couple of the guys are complaining about their wages (this is refreshing to see. Frankly, I’ve always been peeved at science-fiction movies that suggest the future will be radically different from today. My guess is that life in the next hundred years will be disturbingly similar to life today.)
Anyway, all is routine aboard the ship until its computer, a micro chip off the old HAL, suddenly receives a signal that eventually turns out to be a warning. The computer is receiving a signal from somewhere other than Earth, and it is a primary mission of the crew to investigate all such extraterrestrial transmissions.
What follows is that the crew touches down on a planetoid in order to investigate the transmission and winds up encountering a space monster.
The monster cannot be reasoned with. It’s not Darth Vader from Star Wars. It’s not Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon. It’s not even HAL the Computer from 2001. This monster, the alien of the film’s title, is an organic mass that grows and grows. It cannot be talked to, charmed, persuaded, or even hit over the head. It can only be destroyed. In a way, I suppose, this monster is like a number of space monsters from sci-fi films of the ‘50s. It’s a Blob of sorts, only the people who made Alien are much more accomplished filmmakers.
Ultimately it is film technology, as much as anything, that makes Alien something more than a routine shock show. Its monster is first a horrifying blob, then a vicious snakelike critter with teeth, and ultimately… oh, why spoil it? But regardless of what shape the monster takes, Alien basically is a standard thriller about a bunch of people trapped in a haunted house (in this case a haunted spaceship) with a monster on the loose. You will spend much of the film guessing where the Alien is hiding, when it will strike, and who in the crew it will kill first — and last. There are some surprises.
There are some disappointments, too. For me, the final shape of the Alien was the least scary of its forms. I also wanted to learn more about the organisation, known as The Company, that apparently is running the world back home away from the spaceship. And on a technical level, I was disappointed that the film didn’t convey the enormous size of its spacecraft very well. Once we’re inside the tug, everything seems cramped.
But Alien is mostly in the business of thrillers, and on that score it did provide more than a few. I looked away from the screen during its most gory scenes. Even more enjoyable, though, was watching the film debut of an actress who should become a major star, Sigourney Weaver (she probably changed her name from Alice) makes an auspicious debut as one of the sturdiest crew members. A number of people who had seen Alien claim that Weaver, in looks and voice, is a dead ringer for Jane Fonda. I don’t share that opinion but clearly, her appeal is that of a strong but seductive woman, and that, I suppose, is Fonda-like.
In sum, Alien is not worth getting oneself into a vomiting dither about, but it is an accomplished piece of scary entertainment.
Heart-pounding terror: Alien
~ by Pete Lewis The Des Moines Register Sun
June 3rd 1979.
Ridley Scott’s science fiction film Alien was released by 20th Century Fox two years to the day after the same studio release the phenomenally successful sci-fi epic Star Wars. The two films share a few production workers, but otherwise are galaxies apart.
Where Star Wars was a light-hearted romp of space fantasy that had its roots in the swashbuckling adventures of yore, Alien is a gory thriller that recalls Jaws, House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and nameless dozens of 1950s space monster movies.
Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent soundtrack sets the eerie tone as the movie opens, and if there’s any doubt as to the intent of the film, it is dispelled by the first view of the space tug ‘Nostromo’ (shades of Joseph Conrad) as it tows 200 million tons of ore back to Earth. In the gloom of deep space, the ore refineries resemble the ominous, gothic mansions that have been home to countless terrestrial horror stories. The interior views of the Nostromo lend to the mounting apprehension as the camera snakes though its vast, yet claustrophobic corridors.
The ship’s computer, ‘Mother’, intercepts a patterned broadcast signal that indicates intelligent life, reroutes the Nostromo and awakens the crew that has been in deep space hibernation.
It is our first view of the Nostromo crew: Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt); warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver); science officer Ash (Ian Holm); executive officer Kane (John Hurt); navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright); Engineer Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and his monosyllabic assistant, Brett (Harry Dean Stanton). And of course, the ubiquitous mascot, Jones the Cat.
It is a refreshing blend of fine actors in brief parts, with especially noteworthy performances from Cartwright and Kotto. Weaver, who brings to mind the young Jane Fonda, is in fine form for her screen debut. Jones the Cat brings to mind the young Morris.
Even Shakespearean veteran Ian Holm manages well despite being shackled with an incredibly asinine character. Why screenwriter Dan O’Bannon included Holm’s character in a script already riddled with holes (black holes?) is one of the mysteries of the universe.
Anyway, whether it’s because their own conversation is so boring, or because they’ve been ordered to do so by a vaguely sinister organisation called ‘The Company’, the crew members are compelled to seek out intelligent life forms. They arrive on a bleak, howling, frozen planetoid and discover two things: the remains of a giant space ship, and director Scott’s obsession with sexual images.
In the womb of the ship they discover the fossilised remains of a giant alien (not the title character, however.) The giant, it soon becomes apparent, is but the first of many victims of the real alien (the title role.)
The message intercepted by Mother, it turns out, was not an S.O.S. but rather a warning sent by the dying giant.
Thus begins Alien. What follows is a terrifying film filled with psychological and jack-in-the-box horrors that will curdle your blood and dialogue and plot twists that will curdle your brain.
Take these examples (please):
“Let’s get out of here,” says Lambert to Dallas. As things get really spooky, she offers, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Parker concurs: “This place gives me the creeps,” he mutters.
Dallas catches on: “I just wanna get the hell outa here, awright?” he tells Ridley. Later, he announces, “I want to get the hell out of here.”
Their eagerness to get out of there is attributed to the alien, which assumes many equally repugnant forms, and is, in the words of science office Ash, “one tough [expletive deleted].”
Ash elaborates: “… A perfect organism; its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility… It’s a survivor — no conscience, no remorse, no delusions of morality.”
So, the crackerjack crew that in minutes can whip up sophisticated electronic tracking devices —“It works on micro-changes in air density”—sets out to slay the monster with torches, much as did the 18th century townsfolk in Frankenstein.
Ah well. Despite director Scott’s penchant for ramming the camera lens up under the actors’ noses, the film is beautifully photographed. The suspense is maintained (except for a temporary breakdown when the Ash character short-circuits into absurdity) and is ushered along quite nicely right up to the denouement. And the special effects are very special and very effective.
Weaver does unload one good line (in frustration at the computer ‘Mother’) but otherwise the dialogue is unrelentingly tepid, and in the case of closing lines, downright corny.
But short of screaming ‘BOO!’ probably no dialogue could do anything to enhance the heart-pounding terrors of Alien. The movie is advertised with the slogan, ‘In space no one can hear you scream.’ In the theatre you can hear everybody scream.
Alien is rated R, restricted. It contains considerable violence and gore, and some profanity. Definitely not suited for children.
Alien is frightening; killing gets boring.
By Paul Koval The Decatur Daily Review
Tuesday June 26th 1979.
Alien starts out superbly. Director Ridley Scott manoeuvres his camera through the empty corridors of the commercial spaceship ‘Nostromo’. The camera’s movement is restless as it searches the spaceship for signs of life. We in the audience are vaguely tense, waiting for something to happen.
Right away it is obvious that we are being manipulated by a talented director. Scott knows how to pull the strings of his audience’s emotions. Seemingly at will he can jolt us into shock or keep us breathless in suspense. Oddly enough, this mastery of the audience by Scott turns out to be both the primary strength and crucial weakness of Alien.
The film’s story line is fairly simple. The space vessel ‘Nostromo’ encounters signs of intelligent life. The crew members of the ship are then sent off to investigate.
Through a frightening turn of events, the alien life form they discover manages to get himself aboard ship. Once there, the alien methodically begins killing the crew members.
Exactly why the alien finds it necessary to kill every moving thing in sight is never made clear. The audience simply has to accept this side of his personality without question.
This lack of motivation for the alien’s rampage is symbolic of the manipulative tendencies of the entire movie. Scott wants the people on board to be hunted down, so he invents an outer being to do the dirty work. The monster just as easily could have been the shark from Jaws or the 15-foot mutant in Prophecy.
All Scott is interested in is frightening us. No attempts at thematic development are made. For that matter, there are not even any attempts made to develop the characters beyond cardboard depth.
Probably every member of the cast, excluding screen newcomer Sigourney Weaver, will be recognisable to you by face if not by name. Yet none of these talented actors (including Yaphet Kotto, Tom Sherrit [sic], and Veronica Cartwright) are ever given a chance to do anything. They are all used merely as pawns to be killed off at the director and Alien’s whim.
For the record, Alien did succeed in frequently frightening me. Unfortunately, as time passed the scares decreased with the repetitive violence of the movie. By film’s end I had been subjected to the pointless aggression of the alien for so long I was bored.
And I was also irritated with Ridley Scott for setting his sights for mere thrills when a director of his obvious talent is certainly capable of much more.
Alien attempts to wed genres of science fiction and terror
~ by Joseph Gelmis The Clarion Ledger Sun
Sunday June 17th 1979.
Alien entertains by punishing. Alien looks to be the season’s biggest hit. The implications are disturbing.
There is a mass audience for sick entertainment, and Alien is the slickest of them all and therefore, the most realistically repulsive movie to be offered by a major U.S. company in the thrall of this latest trend.
Set aboard a spaceship a hundred years from now, Alien offers several gruesome episodes. The first —and most harrowing— graphically depicts a man’s stomach exploding. Gore splatters on his fellow crew members. Out pops the alien, on his way through a series of shape changes, getting bigger and uglier and more powerful each time.
Alien is merely an atmospheric monster movie featuring the savage demolition of human and humanoid bodies. It is a movie about five men and two women trapped aboard an interplanetary ship with a remorseless killer—who just happens to have, in his service, a $9 million dollar budget and an army of makeup and special effects workers to make him ferocious.
What distinguishes Alien from another movie in the atrocity trend, Dawn of the Dead, is the money and skill lavished upon it. Dawn of the Dead is lower budget, lower grade shock “entertainment”. (That film highlighted cannibal zombies having their brains blown away by bullets in scores of close-ups.)
The only meaningful difference between the two movies is production values. Each film had its share of outraged and offended viewers who walked out of preview screenings. Each film is, ultimately, an oppressive, calculated nightmare violation of the human body. Each film is, in a word, obscene. But Alien is technically effective moviemaking while Dawn of the Dead is crude on nearly every level.
Money isn’t the only criterion for making a realistically terrifying horror movie. Cut-rate crudity has proved to be a virtue in such shoe-string budget, it’s-so-bad-it-looks-real movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead. Thus, money isn’t the only criterion for making a realistic slaughterhouse thriller. The significant thing about Alien is that 20th Century Fox spent about as much on it as on Star Wars and that Alien is not an independent exploitation film but a corporately-funded freak show. Fox is counting heavily on Alien to be its summer blockbuster.
Alien has some value, aside from the purely esthetic use of sounds and images, as a sign of our times. A predominantly young mass audience eagerly endures the most terrible and excruciatingly painful assaults on the human body that the mind of any shockmeister can invent. The era of the simple ‘disaster’ movie has passed. Each advance in screen realism automatically leads to the next. Jaws did not end a cycle. It began one. It is ironic that, unable or unwilling to top themselves in straight terror, the producers of the two Jaws movies plan to collaborate with the National Lampoon people to emphasize sick humour when next the man-eating shark eats.
What makes morbid and sick subjects and treatment so fascinating in our time? Future historians will have to sort out the causes. What we can observe right now is the vicious cycle that produces the films we see. Alien is an attempt to wed the two most successful genres —sci-fi (Star Wars) and terror (Jaws)— of the 70’s. The major companies are caught in a jackpot fever to keep up the conglomerate-mandated annual growth rate. They will exploit a nerve that shows, go as far as the public will allow.
Ridley Scott, the British director of Alien, obviously wanted his film to do one thing: Shake up the audience. Scott had gotten good notices for his first film, The Duellists, based on a Joseph Conrad story, but the movie didn’t do well at the box office. Scott claimed recently that he was not paid for his work on that film, since he deferred his salary and The Duellists didn’t earn a profit.
Scott spent eight years “knocking at the door” to get a film made, supporting himself by shooting TV commercials. “Then I analysed my problem with The Duellists and I realised that I had not entertained,” he said. “When I was offered the script for Alien,” said Scott,” it never occurred to me to question the morality or value of the material. I saw it as a chance to scare an audience.”
Fear is game amoral Alien plays — but it wins.
~ by Jacqi Tully The Arizona Daily Star Sunday June 24th 1979.
Science fiction and horror join hands in Alien to produce a chilling, calculated, effective and infinitely repulsive cinematic adventure.
It’s a movie without a soul, replete with glittering hardware, several monsters and director Ridley Scott’s supreme indifference toward humankind.
Scott’s given us a new breed of movie, one that combines two highly successful genres with a vast sum of money. That money —$10 million— gives the horror movie unique status. The 1950s spook shows exuded a tackiness that let us achieve distance from the screen image.
But the supreme polish of Alien serves to heighten the fright factor. All Scott wants is to scare the hell out of his audiences. He succeeds. But he also gives new thought to the notion of amorality.
No doubt it’s an innovative, spectacular achievement in the field of special effects and clean, precise execution of visual disgust. But it’s also a predictable plot that begins beautifully and quickly succumbs to a perfunctory series of “who’s gonna be next” killings.
The story is simple: Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay tells of seven astronauts, five men and two women, working on a rather rusty commercial spacecraft deep in the womb of outer space. They encounter a strange, octopus-like creature. It cements itself to the face of one of the astronauts and finally disappears, only to explode through his chest. As the monster grows, so too does the horror.
The rest of the crew desperately tries to confront and kill the creature, which continually changes shape and colour. But this mysterious force only strengthens with battle, systematically terminating the humans.
A curious and rather appealing quality surfaces at the film’s beginning, with the fellow space travellers wear and light hearted. Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto want to get home. They’re rumpled and dishevelled and cynically put off when they’re ordered to investigate the strange object.
The eerie, haunting quality that so often gives horror movies an odd sense of grace and style gives Alien an initial lift.
But Scott isn’t interested in building suspense. He wants terror to chart the course of each second of the film. So there’s not a moment of rest, reflection or pause. It’s all exploding guts, severed heads, drooling saliva, slimy innards and cold violence.
As the crew members scream to their deaths, panic intensifies, and in the midst of this domino death game, an odd scene occurs. The scientist on board (Holm) wants to keep the creature alive. But the commander, Ripley, played marvellously by Weaver, is now in charge. Her boss has been killed. She tells Holm they will not save the creature but rather will try to save themselves. He beats her to a pulp, and then we discover that he’s a robot. His head is severed and insides exposed.
It’s a shocking moment to watch because Scott chooses to have his audience watch a woman, and the hero of the film, bloodied unmercifully. And it’s precisely that sort of manipulation and coldness that gives Alien its empty, heartless and amoral tone.
Scott is talented. So, too, are the actors, though they never have a chance to exhibit their deftness. They exist only as objects of elimination. Production designer Michael Seymour and all the special-effects people have produced a superb design for the ship and the monster’s various evolutions.
Alien is supremely sophisticated, then, but it’s a freak show with each gesture calculated to evoke both fear and loathing. So it is meaningless, finally, because once the shock wears off, nothing is left.
Alien will make an enormous sum of money; it has already broken Star Wars’ box-office records for the first two weeks. It will be seen because it is different and because many moviegoers thrill to the chills of monsters and madness.
But it’s an empty film proceeding on repulsion. It glitters with expertise and gloss. Alien isn’t fun, though. Nor is it funny. And it isn’t concerned with substance. Fear’s the game, and Alien will break box-office records on that single, and in this case, shallow emotion.
Among the many British crew members working on Alien 3 was a highly experienced special effects technician from London. Understandably wishing to remain anonymous, here he gives an exclusive behind-the-scenes report on the complex, challenging and at times entirely rudderless production that was Alien 3…
Alien 3 was a very silly movie to work on. It had already been going for four months by the time I started, and they hadn’t even begun thinking about making the Alien. The script wasn’t even finished by that point, and I don’t think there was a director either. All there was was a bunch of models of the characters that were going to die – the Alien didn’t get made until five or six months later. In fact, the Alien was the last thing to be considered out of all the effects.
On my first day, they weren’t even sure what the Alien was going to look like – there were all kinds of different drafts of the script, and at one point it was a glass planet so they were talking about having a glass Alien, and then it was going to be all wood and they were talking about having a wooden Alien because it was supposed to adapt to its surroundings.
They had done the facehugger which you see at the beginning of the film, because that was the thing they were least worried about. There was another super-facehugger, a clear one, that took us about three months to make, on and off; that was kicked out just after we’d finished it. We also built a huge ox that the Alien burst out of, but David Fincher didn’t like that. Eventually they went back to America and reshot it anyway; now it’s a dog. It was a colossal waste of money.
The original Alien had these kind of pipes sticking out the back that took it away from just being a man in a rubber suit, but creature designers Alec (Gillis) and Tom (Woodruff) hated them, so we left them off. The very first day we took our Alien on set, Fincher said, ‘Where are the stove pipe things on the back?’ so he had us make some foam ones and glue them on. We made them overnight and they were strapped on with string –this is on a multi-million dollar movie– and when we got on set with them he just said, ‘Take them off’. It was extraordinary.
We were a bit worried about him, to be honest, because nobody knew who he was. We knew he’d directed Madonna videos but none of us were particularly impressed by that, funnily enough. He was just allowed to film and film and film, no one was ever there to tell him to stop, but surely once you’ve done 20 takes, you must have something? I guess maybe Sigourney Weaver had something to do with it because she also wanted everything to be perfect.
The way it worked was that we’d start making something for the film and it would be written out, so we’d stop making it. Then it would be back in again, so we’d start making it again – the same thing happened with the sets. (Special effects supervisor) George Gibbs reportedly built this huge set for the ending of the film on the 007 stage at Pinewood, and they changed one aspect of the script so he had to tear it down and start again.
We also spent a huge amount of time and money making an Alien suit and some other guys did the same, making an alien puppet, and the two things just don’t match up, they don’t look like the same Alien. Again, that was because it got to the stage where it just had to be done, so consequently they don’t look like each other in the final movie.
The return of Bishop (the android played by Lance Henriksen) –or Bosh-up as he was called on the set– was a disaster. The one in the final film was redone later in America, but we produced one for our very first day on set with Fincher. He’d already got a reputation for being very short-tempered, and we’d stayed up for two nights trying to get this thing to work. We knew it wasn’t going to, we knew it was a temporary thing, and we went on set in front of Sigourney Weaver and did six takes – with each take it did less, with each take something else would break.
Sigourney thought it was great because she thought it was meant to be malfunctioning anyway, but Fincher went through the roof. We knew that was going to be the first effect shot and we knew it was a pile of shit and Fincher was very, very worried that everything else wasn’t going to work either. He balled us out quite often; when we took something on set for the first time, he’d say, ‘What the hell is this? It looks like a joke.’
I suppose you can’t really blame him, you’ve got to blame the people who want to make a film without having a script to start with. You’ve got to blame Sigourney Weaver to a certain extent, too, for having too many fingers in the pie. From what I was told she had a lot to do with the script; she was the one who didn’t want there to be any guns in the film, she was the one who decided to have the love scene. There was no reason for it other than she decided Ripley had to get into bed with someone.
At the end of the film, there were still lots of shots that hadn’t been done, with all the things that had been left out being vitally important to the story. In fact, from where I was standing, at one point it looked as though they were seriously thinking about writing the whole thing off.
Perhaps that would have been for the best…
For another peek behind Alien 3’s curtain, I highly suggest reading Ralph Brown’s account of his time filming the role of Aaron ’85’ at his blog here.
In sharp contrast to the reviews and retrospectives of today, the critical reaction towards Alien upon its release in 1979 was somewhat mixed. “Alien is a very annoying film,” is how Starburst writer John Brosnan began his review in issue #14. “On one level it is a masterpiece and on another it’s a botched job.”
Brosnan’s points of contention were the plot’s similarity to manifold B-movies of the 50’s and 60’s; the complete overshadowing of the cast by the sets and effects; and its lack of scientific rigour. The difference between this and It! The Terror from Beyond Space was, in his estimation, merely “ten million dollars.” Despite the sheen, it was simply “a 1950’s B film” with “all the faults of that specific genre.”
“You could put the world’s worst actors in Alien and the result would be much the same.”
Brosnan, who had read an early version of the script that described the Alien as a bioweapon manufactured by the Company, was left confused by the changes and omissions the plot had undergone throughout production. All in all, this left the impression of a plot “so full of holes it completely collapses once you start thinking about it.” The deletion of the cocoon scene and the obfuscation of the Company and Alien’s purposes left him confused. The lack of scientific accuracy also irked him, leaving him to comment, “It seems that all the pioneering work done by Stanley Kubrick in making a space film, 2001, that was scientifically accurate, has been forgotten by today’s new filmmakers.” It was, to him, “the equivalent of someone making a Western, set in 1850, which shows all the cowboys driving around on motor bikes.”
He had praise, of course, but strictly for the film’s visual design, Alien creature, and horror elements – suspense, scares, etc. Still, sci-fi fans responded in droves – Starburst issue #17’s letter pages were full of readers’ thoughts, repudiations, corrections, concerns, and even in some cases, agreement.
So, here are the transcribed reckonings of some British viewers on Alien shortly after its release in 1979:
“Having just returned from seeing Alien I read your review in Starburst #14 and I would like to make a few comments myself.
The impression I got was that the Alien was a natural, rather than a company-created, creature. I believe the crashed alien ship was a victim of the Alien. The skeleton in this ship had a hole in the chest, suggesting it died in the same way as Kane. The distress call was later decoded by Mother, Nostromo’s computer, and found to be a warning, presumably left by the dead creature. How the Company knew of these events and what they wanted The Alien for is beyond me.
I agree with your comments about the omission of the scene where Ripley destroys the cocooned Brett and Dallas. Indeed I am grateful to learn, through your review, what The Alien was doing with the bodies.
In regard to the scientific inaccuracies mentioned, there has to be some sort of sound when space action is taking place, to hold the audience’s attention. It might as well be the sound of a rocket engine as Thus Spake Zarathustra in 2001. The presence of gravity, like the presence of sound is a piece of necessary artistic license. By the way there was a reference to the ship’s artificial gravity being switched on just after the Nostromo has left the planet’s surface.”
Gordon Steele, Slyne, Lancs.
“While I broadly agree with John Brosnan’s remarks on Alien, and am grateful for the information about the original concept of the Alien as a genetic experiment by the company (a good sf premise), I must take issue on a couple of points.
Firstly, he remarks about sounds being heard, and shock waves being felt, in space. Yes, I know sound and explosions are silent and wave-less in the vacuum of space, but consider the cinematic effect of a silent soundtrack as the ‘Nostromo’ flies over your head. Much of the impact of the ship’s size as it thunders above you derives from the loud Dolby soundtrack which almost literally shakes you in your seat (Some of this impact is going to be lost in smaller theatres, I know.)
All the sounds you hear, ship’s engines firing, Kane’s body being ejected, etc come under the (valid) excuse of cinematic licence. It’s all very well for sf buffs (and I count myself in that category) to point out such scientific accuracies, but science fiction has got to make some compromises for cinematic success, at least in the popular cinema. (Face facts again, 20th Century Fox wouldn’t have put up the vast amounts of money for the film if they didn’t think it was going to be a popular success, would they? And without that money, we wouldn’t have had effects that are largely successful, highly atmospheric sets, good acting, excellent directing, etc…)
Secondly, and this is a minor point, Mr Brosnan remarks that there is no mention of artificial gravity to account for the ‘normalcy’ of life aboard the ship in space… well there is! If he cares to cast his mind back to the point where the ‘Nostromo’ re-enters orbit after taking off from the planet, one of the crew (I think it’s Ripley, but I could be wrong) mentions something to the effect that ‘artificial gravity has been engaged’.
By and large, I agree with Mr Brosnan’s points that the missing ‘cocoon’ scene is a major plot flaw, and I think that any advantage that is gained in pacing the film is lost in the gap in the reasoning. Similarly, a lot of the scientific detail that Alan Dean Foster has provided in his novelisation would have slowed the film, but would have been welcome in terms of giving the film a more scientific credibility and ‘feel’.
However, unlike the novelisation, I think the editing style improves the story. The film has gaps, (like that in which Kane is hauled back out of the egg chamber and back to the ‘Nostromo’) which improves the effect on the audience. The scene in the film where Brett is captured by the adult form, is played out to greater effect than in the novel — even knowing myself what was to come, I found myself becoming increasingly nervous as this scene elapsed in the movie, and shocked (as well as fascinated) by the creature’s first appearance.
Another incident which voices the film as an improvement on the novel, is the Alien’s capture of Dallas in the ventilation system, which is one of the most brilliant moments of suspenseful cinema I have ever seen. The fact of seeing the creature in its entirety looming over the captain for a single split second is an unexpectedly shocking moment.
One final moment I must make in praise of the film is the point when Ripley backs into the shuttle craft and, through the strobe-lighting, sees the creature. Perhaps this is one of the points where (and here I agree with Brosnan again) we see rather too much of the creature, but in this instance at least, I feel the atmosphere carries it through.
Finally, I would like to say that, overall, the film is a big success. It is the closest I have yet seen sf translated to the big screen, and the most atmospheric production certainly. Its horrific elements work very well indeed (even though they’re not novel in any sense).”
Rob Frampton, Canterbury, Kent.
Some viewers saw the film’s contents as somewhat questionable in the larger scheme of things; namely, the prevalence of violence at the cinema:
“Good ole Alien is here at last! And it isn’t all bad! Everyone loves John Hurt’s death! And Ash’s last gasp! By Jove, yes!
And I confess, Ridley Scott has knocked together a fair dinkum hunk of celluloid. So let us pause…
Some would call it a return to the Middle Ages: this new wave of viscera meets a demand for ‘stronger stuff’ from a hardened audience; blood n’ guts is making a come-back. American tv audiences have seen an execution – by firing squad; most of us saw the horrifying murder of the American newsman in South America. But what really followed? We see a man shot in cold blood, and no one reacts; we say, ‘That’s awful!’ and try to ignore it. Yet faked death is ever-popular: and the more vicious and bloodier it is, the better we like it. Are we really immune to the suffering of our fellow man?
I think so. The Romans had The Amphitheatre; we have the cinema. The hideous contests which the Romans watched are now said to be decadent; but have you ever heard a Romero fan rave on? Phantasm’s silver ball, with its skull driller, is also popular; yet the effect is revolting. Cronenberg’s Shivers, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and Grau’s Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue contain scenes which could be called pornographic, if violence were as unpopular as sex in the cinema. Anyway, Lenny Bruce said all this before, in plain language, so I’ll call it a day.
My point (at last) is that something must be wrong with us if all we want to see is intestines hurtling all over the place. Will ‘bread and circuses’ be our last words?
No: but I don’t care that much either; otherwise, this would be a rational, intelligent, sophisticated letter.”
Simon Cunnington, London W6.
“John Brosnan’s review of Alien in issue 14 was up to his usual high standard, although I must disagree with him about the ‘scientific inaccuracies’ which the film contains. Mr Brosnan complains about hearing sounds in space, and about the lifeboat being buffeted by the shock-wave caused by the destruction of the ‘Nostromo’. While being scientifically inaccurate, I maintain that these are cinematically correct, as they are designed to heighten the audio-visual impact taking place on the screen.
Mr Brosnan also complains about the makers of the film ignoring the problem of lack of gravity in space, and comments, ‘there’s not even a mention of that old gimmick, artificial gravity’. In fact it is mentioned. When the Nostromo is lifting from the planetoid to rejoin the refinery, Captain Dallas instructs Ripley to engage artificial gravity – so there!
While on the subject of Alien – which I enjoyed very much, I would like to ask readers if I am the only one who felt in retrospect that I was missing something? By this I mean that I had the impression that though cleverly edited, I got the feeling that a lot of footage was excised at the final cut, and that some scenes, especially the ‘chestburster’, were toned down radically. Perhaps a case of the film’s backers getting cold feet at the last minute?
Alien’s script, much like the creature itself, was an ever-evolving beast. That Dan O’Bannon’s original screenplay was rewritten by Walter Hill and David Giler is pub trivia; but what shapes the script took between its first incarnation in 1976 and the final draft of the film issued December 1978 is something of a mystery. I have spent some time trying to find different variations of the script from throughout 1978, the year that Alien finally went into production and, it seems, underwent some of its more drastic changes from O’Bannon’s: Ripley being changed into a woman (occurring sometime in early ’78 when Ridley first came aboard), the near excision of the Space Jockey, and various permutations of the Nostromo crew’s fates. There was also a larger battle waging between O’Bannon, Ron Shusett, and the producers at this time concerning whether the film should feature alien civilisations and pyramids or a government conspiracy that depicted the Alien as a bioweapon encountered in an installation known only as the Cylinder.
The aforementioned concept appears in a script in my possession that is, unfortunately, undated, so I cannot tell if it is from 1977 or 1978 (I suspect early ’78) and I cannot compare its contents to other scripts from early 1978 because I’ve yet to peruse any scripts prior to June 1978.
So, I am putting forth all the different variations of the script that I know of from 1978. Perhaps someone who is luckily enough to possess one of these drafts will be able to let me know of any substantial or notable differences that occur within or between them.
The first script I can find for the year is dated February. This is the month where pre-production was really kicking into gear, with Ridley being hired, the cast and production crew being assembled, and the visual design of the film being ironed out. It’s possible this is the first draft to feature Ripley as a woman.
The next picture here is cut off, but the script date is intelligible as March:
Another Revised Draft appeared in May:
Next up is the Revised Final Draft, dated June. Apparently this is the last draft that Walter Hill and David Giler worked on together. “The last couple we did in New York in my room at the Navarro (now the Ritz Carlton) while I was prepping The Warriors,” said Hill, but his involvement with that film apparently caused consternation between him and the Alien production in England, who were attempting to reconcile disparate visions for the film. “And finally at the last minute,” said Dan, “I saw that everyone, including Ridley, was so fed up with Giler and Hill’s failure to make any of the promised revisions that they said they were gonna make, that a little sliver of opportunity was created. I was standing there, I said, ‘You know, I’ll fix it if you’ll let me.’”
Rewrites carried out by O’Bannon (apparently aided by Shusett, Scott, and Gordon Carroll) were dizzying: Revisions came on July 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th, 17th, August 1st, 2nd, 4th, 7th, 11th, 24th… essentially culminating in a new draft dated October. “It’s amazing,” said Cobb at the time. “The whole film is in a constant state of flux. Script revisions are going on every day. Things that haven’t been shot are still being rewritten and that’s why Dan is feeling better, because he and Ron Shusett are having substantial input into these last minute script changes. They’re fixing it quite well, strengthening it considerably.”
A final draft was pieced together in December, some two months after principal photograph had concluded. The first inner page notes: “This script reflects dialogue changes added in post production for story clarification. Changes also reflected are: all computer readout information, miniature effects shots, scene composition and scene omissions, all as written and edited after completing principal photography on October 21st, 1978.”
If anyone has these scripts in their possession, most certainly the pre-June drafts, then please give me a shout, either in the comments or via e-mail. Much appreciated!
“It was important to me to restore the Aliens’ superiority, their elegance and ability to sense what people are going to do even before they did. I really wanted to bring back what the Aliens were about in the first movie.”
~ Sigourney Weaver, Starlog #247, 1997.
One complaint regarding the third movie’s Alien was the abandonment of its modus operandi. The creature, fans complained, made no effort to secure hosts for its Queen, nor were there scenes to parallel the Alien’s mysterious appearances in the first movie. Originally, the creature was to cocoon its victims just as its forebearers did, but, according to Tom Woodruff, “the plug was pulled because Fincher’s idea was that the creature simply kills to eat.” And so instead, it gored and chewed on its victims, tugging at their carcasses like a rabid dog.
“What I loved about the first one,” said Sigourney Weaver, “was that there was just one Alien and it was so incredibly smart. And we’ve tried with the Alien Resurrection script to get it back to the idea of that the Aliens are not just eating machines, which they never were. Why would they want to eat us? They would use us for purposes much more horrible. If you’re just afraid of them eating you, then they’re like tigers.”
Alien Resurrection screenwriter Joss Whedon had the same concerns and criticisms. “I think the fans were robbed in the third one,” he stated. “They actually had a scene where people we didn’t know were killed by the Alien. That’s Jason, that’s bullshit, because nothing is more boring than people you don’t know being killed.”
His script, from its earliest incarnations, always stressed the inevitability of the Aliens breaking from the confines imposed upon them by the Auriga’s scientists. No amount of behavioural conditioning can break their will; no amount of steel and glass can keep them from eventually finding escape — but there was more to their ‘character’ than mere rampage and slaughter. The inclusion of a Queen, around which the Aliens can construct their society, would allow audiences some insight into the Aliens’ motivation (even if, technically, said motivation was nothing new.) “They’re breeding,” Ripley 8 states in the first draft. “They’ve got new bodies to work on.”
Since Resurrection was the first movie to show the Aliens in captivity, there are some attempts in the various scripts to elaborate on their abilities. Brad Dourif’s Dr. Gediman explains (in one of Ripley’s dream sequences) that the Aliens communicate “through ultrasonic soundwaves. Sort of like bats.” Though this information is imparted through one of Ripley’s nightmares, she later tells Call that she can feel the Alien presence “In my head. Behind my eyes” much in the same way. We learn more about the Aliens’ sensory abilities throughout the drafts, such as their ability to “smell fear” and to adapt situationally to threats. In one scene, we find that some caged Aliens have been observing Dr. Gedimen as much as he has been observing them: once his attention slips they launch an attack on one of their own, spilling its intestines upon the steel flooring, melting it and providing an escape. The Aliens swiftly incapacitate the scientists and elimate the military personel so effectively that commanding officer General Perez can only liken it to a “military strike”.
“I don’t quite know how to express it. The Alien, to me, is a symbol of evil.”
~ Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Starlog magazine, 1997.
The various Aliens in the film were conceptualised by a dearth of artists including Sylvain Despretz, Jordu Schell, and Chris Cunningham. The costumes and props were again built by Amalgamated Dynamics, with Tom Woodruff returning to portray the Alien as he had in the third movie. The creatures would be more angular and spindlier in design, rendered in ochre and blacks, stripped of their metal piping and bones, with the animal design elements magnified. “What we were trying to do was give a little more character to these Aliens, and also do something that was more threatening,” Alec Gillis told Fangoria in 1997. “We were given a little more leeway to do some redesigning than perhaps we had been able to do on the last film.”
“The biggest change that we did to the Alien was to make him seem more cunning or more vicious,” Woodruff explained on the Quadrilogy’s special features. “In terms of the way to do that, design-wise, was to look for more directional lines, sharper angles, and a lot of art elements that went into it. We had the dome, for example, [which] is more pointed this time around; the chin is more pointed and brought forward. We’ve exaggerated the shoulders; elements of the ribcage appear to stand out more and help reduce the forms around it. It’s like a process of honing, refining something each time you go through it.”
A multitude of animals were studied for the Alien’s various movements and actions, including sea iguanas and sharks for the underwater scenes which showcased the Aliens’ maneuverability. A fin was added to the tail to aid with swimming, and the elongated head of the Alien even resembles a cockroach shell. For rendering the CG Aliens VFX co-ordinator Kerry Shea told VFX HQ that Blue Sky Studios were contracted due to their rendering of cockroaches for 1996’s Joe’s Apartment. “We were looking for Alien effects that were sort of insect-like,” she said, “and they had done such a terrific job on the cockroaches.” Tom Woodruff told Strange Shapes that, “It was never a pointed intention to duplicate a cockroach, but yes, the design element of the insect world is always prevalent in each design iteration.”
The most notable design change was the fleshier aspect of the Aliens’ bodies, a result of the imperfect human-Alien DNA mixing process. In one undated draft, it is noted that there is “some genetic mix” between the Aliens and Ripley that may lead to “further mutation” (an early hint at the Newborn creature) but other drafts and the film focus more on Ripley’s altered mental and physical state than that of the Aliens, with the Newborn appearing rather unnanounced at the end. “The cloning process would naturally be contaminated,” Gillis explained, “so the Aliens would have slightly messed-up DNA and be somewhat different. We thought this was the perfect opportunity for us to do something like give them longer arms and other subtle things. Our belief was that the design from the first movie was very successful, and you don’t want to fix something that ain’t broke. So all our effort went into improving it and making it look more organic, having more of a bio-mechanical exoskeleton feel, instead of going for the easier route of combining car parts into the clay before we cast it.”
The slime was also revised to look heavier and more viscous: “Rather than just putting a glazing coat of slime on the Alien, we mixed up a viscous slime that made the creature look like it was under half an inch of mucus — much wetter and sleeker than in the past.”
Compounding this new look was cinematographer Darius Khondji’s careful lighting. “He at times built almost a ‘cage of fluorescence’ around the Alien,” explained Alec Gillis, “so that you get a million of little [reflections on] the slime. He kept going back to us, asking for thicker slime, because the stuff we had used in the other movies was too runny for him — he wanted a quarter of an inch build up, so we started going for a slime that was almost like gel; and it really had a different look.”
By the end of the film we discover that the genetic gambling that the Auriga’s scientists partake in results in an entirely new creature altogether, an amalgamation of human and Alien DNA that takes the form of a spindle-limbed albinoid called the ‘Newborn’. Born in the murky bowels of Waste Tank No. 5 and ripping itself from the Alien Queen’s egg sac, the Newborn quickly rejects and murders the Queen before seemingly imprinting itself on Ripley, whose scent it recognises as being neither entirely Alien nor human, much like itself.
In the first draft the Newborn is described as being almost as big as the Queen, with four forelegs and two thick haunches, pincers on its head and a webwork of red veins that cover its long eyeless head, like hair. In this draft, the Newborn drains the blood from its victims through its tongue, tries to attack Ripley, and is staunchly defended by the hive. Aided by ‘drones’, the Newborn chases Ripley throughout the ship, rides the Betty down to Earth, is bombarded with rocket-fire from Call, immolated in the Betty’s thrusters, and goes on the run across Earth’s landscape where, after being fought by Ripley, it unfurls a pair of “batlike, leathern” wings that drip with slime. After another battle between the Newborn and a futuristic combine harvester (piloted by Call), the creature is shoved into the propelling blades by Ripley herself.
The second draft also features a battle on Earth between the Newborn and the Betty crew, and though it is less bombastic and outrageous than the first draft, it does come with further embellishments to the Newborn as a character: it now laughs after using DiStephano as a human shield, it “sighs in quiet ecstasy” as it surveys the Earthly city before it (Paris), it licks its lips as it hones in on a band of children, and expresses outrage when it mistakenly devours some of Call’s android blood, which is revealed to be, somehow, magnetic. The Newborn, with Call’s blood in its belly, finds itself stuck to an electromagnetic crane, dropped into a compactor, and finally crushed and impaled.
The Newborn’s death in the film resembles one planned demise for Lambert in the original Alien, but there was another hull breach in the Resurrection screenplays that has one of General Perez’s soldiers being “sucked through a hole no bigger than his fist” after he ill-advisedly shoots an Alien onboard the Auriga. This simple but gruesome gag replaced the high-octane chases and battles that Whedon had originally planned for his finale, and the finale is probably the better for it: as ill-received as the Newborn was, its death throes were horrifying and touching: it is hard to not pity it, as revolting as it is.
Ultimately, the creature was not well received. “The Newborn, I think, is an interesting idea,” said conceptual artist Sylvain Despretz. “Chris Cunningham […] was asked to draw the Newborn that appears at the end of Alien Resurrection and did some gorgeously spooky paintings of semi baby-like Aliens with human skin, bones and ribcages, that bizarre black head, you know. And it’s very subtle stuff that works if interpreted as on the painting […] Unfortunately by the time you saw the final Alien, you just kinda got a Creature from the black lagoon with a terrifying skull, and you have to have a skull in there otherwise people won’t be scared. You sort of go, what did go wrong, you know, you’ve got these beautiful paintings. How hard can it be to just make a model of that?”
Before the film’s release producer Bill Badalato opined that “The Aliens are truly characters in the story and not just background. The characters interact with the Aliens in a way that we haven’t seen before in an Alien film. It’s extremely effective.” But Weaver, whose mission statement had been to portray the Aliens in a more eldritch and frightening manner, expressed some disappointment at the results. “I was surprised by how much monster movie there was in Resurrection,” she admitted to Starlog.
She was, however, happy with ADI’s animatronic Newborn. “For me, playing opposite the Newborn was like playing opposite Lon Chaney Sr.,” she said. “This creature could do everything. It was immensely moving and all of my interaction with it came out of improvisation, not from the script. The Newborn was a creature operated by 14 puppeteers. They gave it energy. It was very eerie.” Conversely, many fans disliked the new creature, and complained that the Aliens themselves largey vanish in the third act.
Controversy about the film’s Alien designs arose when HR Giger discovered that he was not credited at all for the fourth film’s design elements. A campaign called ‘Alien Insurrection‘ lobbied Fox to restore Giger’s credit, with Giger himself writing in his first campaign letter that “The creatures in Alien: Resurrection are even closer to my original Alien designs than the ones which appear in Aliens and Alien 3.” This was a sentiment that he also expressed to journalist Javier Martinez de Pisón in an 1999 interview where he saw fit to add, “The Aliens themselves were not well sculpted or sharply defined. It seemed as if no molds had been made and as if the creatures were roughly shaped with mud.” In his second letter he further asserted his rights over the Alien and that the Newborn had been pilfered from one of his own designs. “In regards to the new Alien development called the Newborn,” he wrote, “it is just another Giger design, which you will realize when you look beneath the shell of the adult Alien head, as seen in the photos on page 60 of my book. The human skull under the face has been exposed and the creature’s sinewy body has been contaminated by deformed features. Fox, however, tries to deny HR Giger’s influence.”
Giger continued that “Woodruff, an excellent effects specialist, said about his ‘Alien Viper’s Nest’: ‘It is like an HR Giger’s painting come to life.’ Yes, it is. It has been newly stolen from my book Necronomicon. As photographed from above, you will see that it is a section of my painting Passagen-Tempel/Eingangspartie (Passage Temple/entrance section) Work #262. This painting existed three years before the first Alien movie had even started to be filmed.”
Fox, in the end, restored Giger’s credit for Resurrection‘s home release, but this did not spare them from the artist’s pointed thoughts on what the studio had done with his Alien after taking it out of his hands.
“I always wanted my Alien to be a very beautiful thing, not just something disgusting, not just a monster, but something aesthetic. Throughout the creature’s evolution what they’ve done is change it from something aesthetic to something that looks like shit – I mean literally, it looks like a turd.”
~ HR Giger, Alien Evolution, 2001.
STRANGE SHAPES is a blog dedicated to Ridley Scott's Alien and Prometheus, James Cameron's Aliens, and David Fincher's Alien³.
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"[Alien] created such a benchmark for visual design in science fiction, as well as photography, acting, sound, and editing – all the things that one did not necessarily associate with science fiction."
~ James Cameron.
"It's always a tough job to follow a successful film with a sequel to it ... so what I think James Cameron did was an excellent action picture. It really was amazing what he accomplished. There's also no question that Cameron made an excellent film with Aliens. It really is an achievement."
~ Ridley Scott.
"I actually think that Alien³ is a pretty good piece of work, in terms of film-making. Fincher early on showed what he had as a film-maker, and I think the film has some great stuff in it, some beautiful photography."
~ James Cameron.
"The first two Alien films are two of my favorite movies ... I love Alien and I respect and really liked Aliens. Jim’s movie is one of the twenty best movies ever made."
~ David Fincher.