“Existing is plagiarism.”
~ E.M. Cioran, Drawn and Quartered, 1983.
“When I saw Alien for the first time,” writer Mark Ellis told Starlog magazine in 1992, “about thirty minutes into it I turned to my soon-to-be wife Melissa and grumbled, ‘Aw, hell this is just an uncredited remake of It! [the Terror from Beyond Space.]’ I still look at Alien as just a remake, and I groaned at the end when they dispatched the monster. They couldn’t even think of a better way to get rid of this damn thing than to have to borrow from It! again. The picture just didn’t do much for me.”
Ellis is in rare company these days, but he was correct about one thing—Alien’s resemblance to It! was no accident. “If somebody is responsible for stealing the idea,” David Giler said to Cinefantastique magazine in 1979, “it’s [O’Bannon and Shusett]. They signed a paper saying it was an original idea. If it isn’t, they lied to us. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that O’Bannon stole the idea, I must tell you.”
If Giler was incensed and accusatory at the charge, Dan O’Bannon was positively jubilant and unashamed of his pulp roots. “I didn’t steal from anybody,” he explained, “I stole from everybody!”
O’Bannon’s space comedy Dark Star was the largest template for Alien, since disaffected crew-mates, a dingy ship with a used universe aesthetic, an alien intruder, an airduct stalking sequence and third act self-destruct devices all feature in his first cinematic effort. “Alien was very similar,” he said in 1979. “It was just, ‘Well, I can’t make them laugh, maybe I can make them scream.’” Of course, that doesn’t preclude the other films in this article from influencing Alien; they certainly did, but were expressed through Dark Star first.
The works most commonly cited and acknowledged by O’Bannon as key influences on Alien include 1956’s Forbidden Planet and the aforementioned It! The Terror From Beyond Space, released in 1958. Literary influences include a wealth of Weird Science and Weird Fantasy comic strips as well as the collective works of HP Lovecraft. Other possible sources include Planet of the Vampires (Dan and Ridley claimed not to have seen it) and A.E. van Vogt’s novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle (Dan never read it.)
First, a minor but related digression…
Originality is a modern concern. Literature and film, like man, is no island. They thrive by adaptation and appropriation. Appropriating other stories for frameworks, themes and motifs goes back to the dawn of storytelling: it is why we find an abundance of Flood myths in comparative mythologies; it’s how the Arthurian canon managed to evolve from British comitatus poesies into the French romances of Lancelot and Guinevere and the exploits of the Round Table; it’s why we find Tolkien’s Smaug in the climax of Beowulf; it is how Shakespeare’s Capulets and Montagues became the Sharks and Jets of West Side Story – in fact, the bulk of the Shakespearean canon are adaptations of older works: Romeo & Juliet for one has a multitude of predecessors. What makes ‘new’ pieces of fiction relevant is the ability to recontextualise older works for newer generations, hopefully with the addition of new meanings, applications and resonance. King Arthur hopped from the tongues of anonymous British bards to the quills of Giraldus Cambrensis and Layamon, then over to Normandy to Wace, who invented the Round Table, and to Chretien de Troyes, who invented Lancelot. After a dalliance in German romances the canon returned to England and was further exemplified by Sir Thomas Malory and later Alfred Tennyson. And there were texts between these texts, each swapping or inventing new devices (like the sword in the stone) that over the centuries became the Arthurian canon we know today. A new work that aims to be successful should master repetition without replication; its effect must be enrichment rather than robbery. It should encourage rivals, not wannabes. That is the thin and delicate line between appropriation and outright theft.
Thanks to the embarrassment of riches that Alien was blessed with –Ridley Scott’s directorial eye, the artistry of Ron Cobb, HR Giger, Chris Foss, Jean Giraud and innumerable others– it succeeded in becoming more than its constituent parts, redefining well-worn tropes and becoming a milestone as a result. It is not a monster-on-a-ship movie, it is the monster-on-a-ship movie. In film, this is not unique, Star Wars being the most famous example – a blend of Flash Gordon and Campbellian monomyth and Kurosawa; a fantasy interspersed with science fiction and the Western.
In It! The Terror from Beyond Space a rescue crew is sent to Mars to investigate the fate of a previous expedition. They find one survivor, but suspect him of murdering his comrades. The survivor, Col. Carruthers, insists than an alien entity is responsible. The rescue crew take the Colonel and depart for Earth. Unfortunately, the alien has stowed aboard the ship and starts picking them off. With their weapons ineffective, the survivors retreat to the ship’s control room and, cornered, they don spacesuits and expose the creature to the vacuum of space, quickly suffocating it. The similarities to Alien should not need pointing out.
In 2012 Cinema Dope asked the writer of the It! screenplay, Jerome Bixby, to weigh in. “Frankly,” he answered, “I feel like the grandfather of Alien.”
“There’s a whole roster of similarities between what I wrote and [Alien],” he continued. “They’re both about a small group of people trapped aboard a spacecraft with an inimical creature out to get them and which, in fact, knocks them off one by one. No problem there; that’s a pretty general plot outline. In both stories the creatures use the ship’s air ducts. In both stories they are held off with gas and electricity. And at the end of both stories, they’re dispatched by suffocation, by evacuating the creatures from the ship and depriving them of air.”
Bixby, far from feeling outraged or shortchanged, was honest about the fact that though Alien was an offspring of his film, It! was also the sum total of science-fiction films that had come before. “In all honesty, my story was also derivative,” he told Cinema Dope. “Essentially what I did was take Howard Hawks’ The Thing and play it aboard a spaceship. But I didn’t copy the storyline; I used the film ‒a masterpiece in the genre‒ as inspiration for my story. The Hawks film has long been a model for SF writers.”
In a more level-headed discussion with Cinefantastique magazine David Giler admitted these realities and was unfazed by the similarities between Alien and any of its predecessors. “We only began to hear about It! The Terror towards the end of production,” he said. “I haven’t seen it, but I know of it. We were convinced we were doing something new stylistically, even if the basic outlines were the same. I gather the Alien-hiding-on-a-space-ship idea is pretty much a classic premise with science fiction writers, like the gunfight in a western. So the similarities you refer to didn’t bother us.”
In Forbidden Planet a spaceship is sent to a distant world to investigate the fate of a previous expedition. Near the planet’s orbit they receive a signal warning them to stay away, which they ignore. When they arrive they find that only two people (Dr. Morbius and his daughter) have survived the assault of a mysterious alien being. It is revealed that eons ago a technological civilization was mysteriously wiped out. A remnant device called the Great Machine has the power to manifest thoughts into reality – and it is revealed that the mysterious psychic force running amok is a manifestation of Dr. Morbius’ Id. In the end, Dr. Morbius and his psychic offspring are annihilated when Morbius sets the planet to explode, and the investigatory crew escape with his daughter.
The influence on Alien may not be entirely clear here, but we should look to Dan’s original screenplay. There, he wrote of a spaceship crew who decide to investigate an apparent SOS (later revealed to be a warning) on a mysterious planet. In the screenplay, the planet contained the ruins of a long destructed alien (or Alien) race. The crew find evidence of another alien species (later nicknamed the Space Jockey in future drafts) on the planet: they were prior explorers who had been decimated by an unknown force, which later turns out to be the long dormant spore of the indigenous Alien. This set-up was entirely excised from the film, but the influence of Forbidden Planet should be clearer. O’Bannon, when first writing the screenplay in 1972, even considered depicting his Alien as “a non-physical, kind of spiritual alien that would possess people,” not too unlike Dr. Morbius’ murderous projection. There is also another similarity in that both Dr. Morbius and Ash share an immeasurable thirst for knowledge that is ultimately destructive. Ash’s obsession with the Alien, clearly, goes beyond protocol and detached fascination.
“I always felt that the author of the Alien script had probably seen my film and gotten some inspiration from it. Ridley’s film is like a greatly enhanced, expensive and elaborated version of Queen of Blood.”
~ Curtis Harrington, terrortrap.com, 2005.
There is also Mario Bava’s 1965 movie Planet of the Vampires. In Bava’s film a spaceship picks up a mysterious beacon emanating from an unexplored planet. Whilst exploring the hellish landscape they find a derelict spacecraft containing the long dead corpses of another exploratory alien race, who have been killed by some malignant force on the planet. This force possesses the human crewmen, incites them to murder, and reanimates their corpses.
A.E. van Vogt’s The Voyage of the Space Beagle has also been touted as an influence, but this has been categorically denied by O’Bannon. Still, van Vogt litigated Twentieth Century Fox over the similarities, and Fox settled out of court. Given Dan’s willingness to attribute ideas to their original sources (he has likewise singled out the individual contributions of Shusett, Cobb, and Ridley on many occasions) it seems odd that he would celebrate every other influence, but then not give van Vogt due credit.
“There were comic books [that inspired Alien] too: EC’s Weird Science and its companion publication, Weird Fantasy. I recall one fondly, about seeds from outer space which fell onto the deck of a Navy destroyer, and an incautious sailor ate one. A horrible, tentacled monster hatched out of him.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, Something Perfectly Disgusting.
Another comic tale featuring a creature erupting from a man’s body was Weird Science’s ‘Seeds of Jupiter’, featured in the July/August edition in 1951.
Alien is not only a successful amalgam of various science fiction influences but also contains obvious consonances with the horror genre. The story of the Nostromo could easily be that of the Demeter, the ship that Dracula stowed upon on his way to London. And if its behaviour or function was similar to monsters in many other films, the Alien itself was not — a triumph of design and presentation, it put a cap on the age of amorphous blobs and pod people and inflated reptilemen and any other rubber exaggeration. Such creatures would continue to appear in B-movie schlock (as would a number of biomechanic imitations), but they could never aspire to be anything more than knock-offs or throwbacks. Despite the simple and familiar trappings (monster seeks and spills blood) Giger’s creature would be the measuring stick by which all future alien monsters would be judged.
What else gave the film an edge over its forebearers and competitors? Interestingly, the characters are not the ideologically aligned adventurers and scientists of prior genre movies. They resemble far more closely the disaffected and ennui-ridden cast of O’Bannon’s own Dark Star, but with a corporate twist supplied by David Giler and Walter Hill. There are three distinct tiers in the hierarchy aboard the Nostromo: on the bottom rung are the engineers, Parker and Brett, who are physically separated from the rest of the crew by being consigned below deck. They are also, to their chagrin, paid less than the other crewmembers. Then there is the officer class, consisting of Ripley, Kane and Dallas. Above them is the unseen Company, whose protocol not only allows for divisions between its crew but also allow the conditions on which a hostile organism like the Alien can be allowed on board. Ash exists as an outlier, an anomaly — he represents the Company and is either distrusted or wearily tolerated by both officer and engineer alike.
Ash himself was nothing new, his closest analogues being the mad scientist trope and also what Dan O’Bannon would term ‘the Russian Spy.’ “It annoyed me when they did it,” he said of Ash’s inclusion, “It was a tendency in certain types of thrillers, when people are on an interesting mission, to stick in a Russian spy. One of them is a spy and they don’t know which one, he’s trying to screw up the mission. Fantastic Voyage had that. When I saw Fantastic Voyage, I thought it annoying … instead of it adding any genuine suspense all it did was annoy me … It’s a tension device which is commonly resorted to and doesn’t work because it doesn’t provide any real suspense.”
Most if not all of the film’s fans will agree that Ash was another element, tried and almost tired, that was pulled off with the same finesse as the Alien itself. Ridley himself disagreed with Dan, saying years later: “This is a great turnabout in the story because just when you think your main and only aggressor is this thing loose on the ship, you’ve now got a much bigger problem – you’ve got two aggressors, which raises the paranoia and that of the audience twofold.” Critical and fan reception would prove that Ash’s inclusion was ultimately beneficial to the film – not an original one per se, but employed in an innovative and shocking manner.