Fan Reaction to Alien, 1979.

alien ad scan

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?

Scott McSkimming, East Kilbride, Scotland.


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Alien: the 1978 Scripts


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.

Alien February 1978

The next picture here is cut off, but the script date is intelligible as March:

Alien March 1978

Another Revised Draft appeared in May:

Alien May 1978

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.’”

Alien June 1978

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.”

Alien October 1978

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.”

Alien December 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!


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Alien Resurrection: Hybrid Theory


“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.”

alien warrior sketch by Sylvain Despretz

“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, and design elements from some animals were incorporated into the design. 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 itself, 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 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, 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 effect 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.



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Writing Aliens

2167-29 - Copy

In 1983 Dan O’Bannon sat with Starlog magazine to talk about his career, including a customary overview of the Alien production and a poke at the possibilities of a sequel. “Also extraordinary,” the article read, “in this age of sequelmania, is the impossibility of Alien 2Return of AlienRevenge of the Alien, or anything else smacking of a second curtain call for the grisly astronaut-eater.” The problem, O’Bannon revealed, was that “The rights were altogether too divided among a number of us who can’t get along.” As far as he knew, he added, “There has never been any intention of doing a sequel.”

Contrary to his claims, producers Walter Hill, David Giler, and Gordon Carroll had mused on the prospects of a second film during the promotional run for the original film. “We’re involved in preliminary discussion right now,” Giler told Cinefantastique in 1979. “It’s still too early to say how it will unfold. Hill and I are working on it. I know a lot of people who think we intended the close-ups of the cat in the shuttle as a hook for the sequel. Not so. It probably won’t have anything to do with the cat.” When Fantastic Films magazine pressed them on plans for any further sci-fi movies, Giler mentioned a sequel, on which Carroll elaborated, “We don’t have any one idea we like better than the rest. But I think it’s a very realistic idea.”

Fantastic Films: Will it feature the same Alien?
Giler: Probably not.
Fantastic Films: The company the crew works for seems to be very sinister. Will they be elaborated on more?
Carroll: That’s a possibility. I would think that’s one of the things we might do. We also have, for example, the planet and all that. I think that the sequel would have more. I’m not saying necessary of that planet, but of the fantasy of science fiction in terms of design.

The producers weren’t the only ones musing on Alien II, with director Ridley Scott admitting to Fantastic Films magazine that, concerning the first film, “What I missed most of all was the absence of a prognosis scene. There were no speculative scenes or discussions about what the Alien was and all that sort of thing either. I believe that audiences love those, especially if they’re well done. They give the threat much more weight. If they make Alien II, and if I have anything to do with it, the film will certainly have those elements in it. From a certain point of view, Alien II could be more interesting than Alien I.” Ridley further mused with Cinefantastique that “In many respects it’ll be more interesting [than the first movie], from a pure science-fiction stand point. We’d get into speculative areas, deal with two civilisations.” He told Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies in 1984 that “It certainly should explain what the Alien is and where it comes from. That will be tough because it will require dealing with other planets, worlds, civilisations. Because obviously the Alien did come from some sort of civilisation. The Alien was presented, really, as one of the last survivors of Mars – a planet named after the god of war. The Alien may be one of the last descendants of some long-lost self-destructed group of beings.”

Then, not long after Alien’s theatrical run, rumours of a TV sequel, made in the vein of ‘Salem’s Lot, hit the trades:


Not long afterwards, details for a movie sequel emerged in the press:


  • The Alien, merely stunned by its close encounter with the shuttle engines, manages to survive outside the craft and reaches civilisation along with Ripley.
  • A second expedition to the planetoid is stranded there and, weathering a storm within the derelict and their own ship, its members deal with a group of Aliens, climaxed by the appearance to whose race the Space Jockey belongs.
  • A prequel, rather than a sequel, telling the tale of the Space Jockey and ending where Alien begins, with the arrival of the Nostromo crew.
  • The planetoid of the Alien explodes, sending Alien eggs to Earth where -shades of Invasion of the Body Snatchers– a whole flock of the monsters run rampant.

But despite all of Ridley’s theorising and the commercial and cultural success of the original, the sequel did not appear. The reason for this is perplexing but simple: Twentieth Century Fox did not want it. Alan Ladd Jnr., the head of Fox who had heralded both Star Wars and Alien (and affectionately called ‘Laddy’ by Ridley Scott and co.) left the company in 1979 to found his own production firm, The Ladd Company, whom most will recognise as the producers of another science-fiction classic, Blade Runner. Ladd’s replacement was Norman Levy, who, according to Giler, opposed the very notion of an Alien II. “Norman Levy wouldn’t even hear about it,” Giler told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “He thought it would be a disaster … I was introduced to John Davis at a bar one night, and I asked him, ‘When is your dad (Marvin Davis, owner of the studio at the time) going to make the sequel?’ He said, ‘Never. Norman Levy is going to save my father millions by not making that movie.'”

In an interview with Blade Runner fansite BladeZone, journalist Paul M. Sammon, responsible for the excellent Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, said of the sci-fi/horror genre at the time: ”You have to keep in mind that even though Alien was a smash, it was still a science-fiction/horror film. And back in the late Seventies/early Eighties, those two genres, at least in the opinion of many Hollywood executives, were barely a step above pornography, even if horror and science fiction films were suddenly becoming these huge cash cows.”

When Levy left his post in 1984, Giler and Hill finally managed to make some headway. Giler attributes the revival of the project to a Fox executive who stopped him in the car park. “I told him the story that was a cross between Southern Comfort and The Magnificent Seven,” said Giler. “He said, ‘Great! That sounds fine.’ And we all had a meeting and we were on.” The producers then proceeded to band ideas about. “David and I sat down and had a discussion about what the sequel should be,” Walter Hill told Film International in 2004. “We figured the next one should be a straight action thriller -the military takes over- a patrol movie.” But though ideas had begun to materialise, Giler and Hill, who both confessed to sci-fi not being their area of expertise, made no headway on a screenplay for the film.

The breakthrough came when Larry Wilson, a development executive working for the Phoenix Co. (Giler’s production company), came across a script called The Terminator. “It was electrifying,” he recalled. “I put the script on David’s (Giler) desk and said, ‘This is the guy.’” Giler and Hill, after perusing the script, had to agree that Cameron had talents worth investigating, and they arranged a meeting with the budding filmmaker to discuss ideas for a film, though not specifically an Alien sequel.


Cameron cut his teeth on films like Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) before branching out to write and direct his own features.

 “When I went over to visit the Corman facility, where the special effects were done, he was the genius, the resonant genius – everyone was talking about how great he was. I remember meeting him on the set [of Escape From New York], actually it was over in the San Fernando Valley, he was doing a glass painting for us. He was sitting on a hillside with some glass setup painting a New York skyline to be able to shoot the next shot. It was just beautiful – he was really technically great.”
~ John Carpenter, Sci-fi-online, 2008.

At this point in time Cameron was in a rut – his first directorial project The Terminator had been picked up by Hemdale and Orion Pictures, but shooting was put on an 8 month long hiatus due to Dino De Laurentiis pulling Arnold Schwarzenegger out of the movie to fulfill contractual obligations with a Conan sequel. Suddenly, despite having the entirety of The Terminator scripted, designed, cast, and ready to film, Cameron found himself with a lot of spare time to whittle away. So, not the type to sit on his hands, he sought new writing projects, taking on the sequel to First Blood as well as attending the meeting with Giler and Hill to discuss further projects. At first, the two offered him a take on Spartacus set in space which Cameron listened to with some bemusement. “It quickly became clear that David Giler wanted a swords and sandals-type film set in outer space,” Cameron said, “with literal swords and sandals.”

After some to’ing and fro’ing, the meeting stalled.“And I was sort of getting up and sort of making my way towards the door,” Cameron continued, “and David Giler said, ‘Well, we do have this other thing.’ And I said, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ And he said, ‘Alien II.’ And all the kind of pinball machines lights and bells went off inside my head.” The original movie had left an indelible impression on Cameron. “I saw Alien on its opening night in 1979 and it had a great effect on me …  It created such a benchmark for visual design in science-fiction, as well as photography, acting, sound, and editing – all things that one did not necessarily associate with science-fiction.”

To aid him with the story, Giler and Hill pointed Cameron in the direction they thought it should take. “All they said was, ‘Ripley and soldiers,’” Cameron explained. “They didn’t give me anything specific, just this idea of her getting together with some military types and having them all go back to the planet.” The producers also imparted Cameron with their notes and story ideas. “I’ll never forget this,” commented Cameron, “The outline concluded with this sentence: ‘and then some other bullshit happens.’ Which I thought trivialised the entire process of figuring out what the story should be.”

Cameron, a science-fiction fan since his childhood, had already made attempts at sci-fi scripts in the vein of Alien and Star Wars before, none of which he had developed, but could now mine for his Alien sequel just as Dan O’Bannon had amalgamated his own Dark Star with a myriad of other ideas and influences. One of Cameron’s unproduced screenplays, titled ‘Mother’, was extensively reworked and would come to form the many throughlines of Alien II. “In 1980 or 1981,” he explained, “I wrote notes and an initial treatment for a science fiction story that I initially called E.T., meaning extraterrestrial, a commonly used term in science fiction literature. As I was writing it, I found out that Steven Spielberg was making a film called E.T. The Extraterrestrial, so I promptly changed the title of my story. I used Protein as an interim working title, but then switched the title to Mother, because the story concerned a female genetically engineered creature attempting to ensure the survival of its young.”

“It featured a character very much like Ripley,” he continued, “had its own type of Alien Queen, and ended with a final battle between the protagonist and Mother while the main character was encased in what I’d later call a ‘power-loader’.” The ‘Mother’ screenplay also originated many other Aliens tropes, including a company (Triworld Development Corporation, generally referred to as ‘the Company’) that funds inhabitation and resource-mining of other worlds, the term ‘xenomorph’, as well as a strong maternal theme. “I’d felt that that fit like a glove in the development of [Ripley]. I just grabbed all the stuff that I’d already been thinking about and slammed it together. It felt very mercenary, at the time.”

Cameron stayed up for three nights drinking coffee and working on First Blood II and the Alien II treatment, deconstructing his ‘Mother’ script for the latter and injecting it with Giler and Hill’s mandate that the military be involved. Luckily, his research for First Blood II offered an insight into the Vietnam War that he figured would meld very well with the story of an elite fighting force confronting “a less technologically advanced but more determined enemy” which, in his case, would happen to be not Viet Cong guerillas but a horde of murderous biomechanoids. “I was kind of fascinated by Vietnam at that point and what a weird and surreal kind of war that was. So my approach to [First Blood II] was a lot heavier, a lot more character.” Frustratingly for Cameron, Sylvester Stallone’s rewrites obliterated much of the depth that he had tried to instil in the film. “They kept a lot of the action,” he said of the film. “They just kind of made it a Mission Impossible thing – for me it took on kind of a superhero-type quality. I thought it was much more interesting to kind of explore this traumatized character.” Not wanting to let a good theme go to waste, Cameron realised that Ripley’s encounter with the Alien would undoubtedly have traumatised her in a way that would be powerful and lingering. “One of the things that interested me is that there are a lot of soldiers from Vietnam,” he told Time magazine in ’86, “who have been in intense combat situations, who re-enlisted to go back again because they had these psychological problems that they had to work out. It’s like an inner demon to be exorcised […] I used a bit of it in Aliens, having them come back from something they were traumatized by. There was a bit of that delayed stress syndrome stuff in Aliens they didn’t use in Rambo II.”

Another theme of Alien II would be one that James Cameron was fascinated with for some time: “Would you be willing to go into hell for someone, and if so, who would it be, and what would your relationship to them be?” Though the original Alien ended with what David Giler termed a “Sleeping Beauty … lyrical ending,” Cameron geared the sequel to encompass more than lyricism, but a sense of healing and catharsis for both Ripley and the audience. “The first thing I did was give Ripley a past,” explained Cameron, “a life back on Earth – it’s just barely sketched, but there are resonances throughout the story: she was married, she got divorced because her career took her into space, and she had a daughter who, in the time that Ripley was on the Nostromo, grew up and died of old age. So there’s a sense that Ripley survived what happened, but there is still tremendous loss – all this was taken from her.” Cameron’s hopes for the cathartic experience were best put by Stanley Kubrick, who said, though he was talking in regards to 2001: A Space Odyssey, “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent – but if we can come to terms with the indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

But a snag came when Cameron, finally entering production of The Terminator in late ’83 and early ’84, had yet to finish the full Alien II screenplay. “Giler lost it,” Cameron recalled. “He actually said something I never thought I’d hear anyone say in Hollywood – ‘You’ll never work in this town again!’” Luckily, Walter Hill was of a cooler disposition and advised Cameron to send in whatever he’d written, and the resulting 60 page treatment, submitted on September 21st, 1983, pleased Brandywine enough to keep him on the project. In fact, Giler & Hill liked Cameron’s treatment so much, they added their name to it, placing Cameron third in the credits and earning themselves a pay cheque from Fox. ”Walter and David got a cheque for my treatment, and I got nothing,” he said. “I was pretty pissed off about that one.”

Alien II

Twentieth Century Fox, however, were not so impressed. “An executive told me he didn’t like the treatment because it was wall-to-wall horror and it needed more character development,” Cameron told the LA Times. As The Terminator went into production in March 1984, Fox made an attempt to sell the rights to the Alien franchise to producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vanja, but the deal ultimately fell through. When producer Larry Gordon replaced Fox studio production head Joe Wizan in the summer of ’84 he came across the Alien II treatment. “I couldn’t believe it hadn’t already been done,” Gordon said. “In this business there are those decisions you agonize and lose sleep over, but this was so obvious. It was a no-brainer.” Gordon, who had worked with Hill on the 1982 hit 48 HRS, kept the Alien II project alive and rolling. Though Cameron was busy directing his first feature, Gordon allowed him to continue to refine and complete the first Alien II screenplay draft throughout The Terminator’s production, even throughout the editing phase. There was even another promise: that if The Terminator was successful, then Cameron could also direct the Alien sequel. “I agreed to write Alien II on the basis– and on the sole basis –that I direct it,” Cameron said. “I created the characters, I created the scenario, and I got emotionally involved. I had a large creative investment in what I’d done up to that point.”

The first public announcement that Cameron had written the sequel came in December 1984, when he told Starlog magazine: “I have written the screenplay for Alien II. It does exist. What will be done with it, no one really knows. I can’t really say anything more about Alien II than that it exists.” While drafting the screenplay Cameron, who had never intended for his sequel to imitate the original film, concocted a title that shed the roman numerals and allowed it to immediately air its own identity. “I don’t know Dan O’Bannon,” he explained, “but I read an interview with him that said he was typing away one night at four o’clock in the morning, and he was writing , ‘the Alien did this, the Alien did that,’ and he realised that the word ‘alien’ stood out on the page. It was very much like that for me on this film. I was writing away and it was ‘Aliens this and Aliens that’ and it was just right. It was succinct. It had all the power of the first title, and it also implied the plurality of the threat. It also implied, of course, that it’s a sequel, without having to say Alien II.” The first draft was handed into Fox in early 1984, and was received with enthusiasm by the studio. There was some sweat shed over the cost: Cameron’s partner and producer Gale Anne Hurd insisted the film could be made for around $15.5 million; Fox estimated it would total an unacceptable $35 million.

A bigger snag came when Cameron insisted that only Sigourney Weaver could play the lead. Fox protested that taking such a stance would allow Weaver a great deal of leverage over her pay, and that they would make Aliens without her if possible. In return, Cameron and Hurd left the project and, recently married, honeymooned to Hawaii.  “We assumed it was a dead issue,” said Hurd, “and when we left for Hawaii we thought the movie was off.” But when they returned they found that the movie was still on, and that Weaver had been approached to resume her role of Ripley. Weaver, having found the script suddenly dropped in her lap, was impressed enough with Ripley’s characterisation to sign on. “The emotional content is much greater in Aliens,” she said. “I tried to imagine and comprehend something like that […] Coming back to a whole different world and haunted by the other one. Ripley’s personal situation is so bleak. I know I’m playing the same character, but I feel she has changed so utterly by what happens to her early in the film. I don’t think she’s the earnest young ensign she was when she went into space the first time.”

To begin with, Alien happened in space,” Cameron told Prevue magazine in ’86. “The characters literally existed in a vacuum – they had no past or life beyond that film. Ripley, of course was the only survivor because she was a very strong female, and that impressed me very much. I wanted to take the character further, to know Ripley as a person, to see some depth and emotion. The movie is about her, every scene. It gets inside her mind, takes her back to face her own worst nightmare – and conquer it, so to speak. In a way, Aliens is about her revenge.” Weaver affirmed Cameron’s concern that a Ripley without catharsis would ultimately end up as a self-destructive person: “I play a character who, probably, if she stayed at home and the nightmares continued, she might end up with a loaded gun next to her bed.”


 “Ripley is very different [in Aliens]. The horrific experience she endured on the Nostromo changed her irrevocably from the eager young ensign to a really haunted person. And we must remember that she drifted in space for fifty-seven years … I firmly believe that Ripley’s mind never stopped working while she slept … she’s probably been over that experience in various nightmare forms through the years. Ripley has to start life over again and finds it very difficult to do so. There are so many ghosts in her life. And yet she agrees to face the horror once again … She feels she must finally lay to rest the ghosts and sadness of the past or there will be no future for her. But once on the planet and faced with the nightmarish situation, she finds a purpose … she finds she can identify with the little girl, Newt, who is the only other person to experience what Ripley experienced, and survive … She is a fellow creature who shares the same nightmare. When Ripley finds her, her life means something again.”
~ Sigourney Weaver, Starbust, 1987.

Ripley’s actions on LV-426 were intended to serve as atonement for her (self-perceived) failure to protect her Nostromo crewmates. “Ripley still feels responsible for what happened on the Nostromo,” explained Weaver. “She has a feeling that she could have done more to help the crew to survive. It’s nonsense of course; but she can’t help thinking that she could have done a better job […] To me, it is the story of a woman who loses her whole life, and has to start over again,” she surmised. “I don’t think she’ll ever be the same again. I mean, she’ll never be that eager young ensign, but who’d want to be anyway? You’ve got to move on […] It’s been very satisfying to see how Ripley coped with what turned out to be a real tragedy in her life.”

Though the writing process was generally smooth, Cameron noted that “[Sigourney] tried to have an influence on Aliens, but it didn’t work! She said, ‘I don’t want to shoot a gun,’ I said, ‘No, you have to shoot a gun.’ ‘Oh, well, can I get killed?’ ‘No.’ When I saw the third film I cracked up, because it was all the things she’d asked for on the second film.” This isn’t to suggest that Cameron wasn’t accommodating to Weaver’s suggestions, as the latter praised his ability to interpret the character of Ripley correctly: “Jim is incredibly open to things. I always felt that he trusted my instincts and that he had his own very clear idea of Ripley. Whatever decisions I made about her mental and emotional attitude, he has tried to incorporate into scene changes, how we play them, and things like that. For the most part it has gone very well.”

Aliens finally went into production in September 1985, and would wrap in April 1986 on a budget of $18 million – half of what Fox had frightfully predicted. “If Jim Cameron hadn’t fallen in love with something about Alien,” stated Sigourney, “then a sequel wouldn’t have been made. No one really wanted to touch it … Luckily, Jim wanted to make his own movie.”



Filed under Aliens

1992 Fan Response to Alien³


Alien 3 may as well have been dead on arrival. Despite encouraging box office results outside of the US, the film received a lashing not only from professional critics but from fans as well, precipitating a particularly nasty brand of bad feeling that continues to this day. The subsequent articles and documentaries covering its troubled production often feel like an autopsy, as the film’s crew and cast try to deduce which of the film’s various wounds finally killed it.

Starlog issues #182-184 were deluged with letters from fans who felt let down and outright insulted by the film. The magazine had maintained secrecy over the film’s plot and many readers went into the theater not knowing what they were in for.

Passionate letters ensued, pretty much all of which appeared under the telling header: ‘Alienated’.

Issue 182 (September 1992)


There was only one letter of complaint in this issue, though the fanpage comic strips were already beginning to mock the decision-making processes of Fox executives.

…Watching sequels is an experience that constantly changes – there are sequels that work (Aliens), the sequels that don’t (Robocop 2), and the ones that fall somewhere in the middle, ambitious attempts at improving on the concepts of their predecessors but lacking a certain something that makes them ultimately unsatisfying. Such is the case with Alien 3, a misconceived and often choppy third installment. Director David Fincher starts off the movie well, using unusual camera angles and stunning production design to establish the set-up of the picture, with Ripley crashlanding on a prison planet filled with rapists, murderers and other assorted stock characters who have become involved in their own religious cult. This leads to numerous undeveloped subplots (one needless scene of ‘sexual tension’, ties with religion never fully established) most likely attributed to the film’s well-reported script rewrites.

After 30 minutes of sequences that both provide plot for this film and a funeral for the dead characters left over from Aliens, Alien 3 goes very wrong very quickly. Fincher goes from a lengthy introduction to the prison and one particular character (Charles Dance) to Dance’s demise to lots of running around in the dark with flashlights attempting to destroy the Alien in the prison’s furnace. In the middle of all of this is a laughable subplot with Ripley becoming ‘pregnant’ with the next Queen Alien, leading to one unforgettable, unintentionally funny sequence with Sigourney Weaver going down into the prison’s basement to get killed by the Alien, spouting out lines like ‘Come on!!… after all, I’m one of the family.’ This brings up numerous logistical problems inconsistent with the other Alien films. How can Ripley get infected  by the Alien and still be able to live for such a long period of time, especially when the dog in the movie gets infected and dies from its Alien in a matter of hours?

There’s no need to go on, for the movie has other problems that have nothing to do with the previous picture. Fincher seems to have gone from point A to point B to point D — there’s no pacing in this picture at all, and no character development of any of the prisoners, which is a big problem in that the final chase scene depends on the audience’s knowledge of who all these convicts are. The audience that I saw the movie with thought the final climatic scene, with the prisoners running from the Alien trying to cut it off, was much more enjoyable for unintended laughs rather than suspense. And those well-reported six seconds of added FX at the end really improved the picture overall — couldn’t the producers have used that money for the script, which is a muddled mess of a hundred ideas from countless writers who worked on this picture?

One interesting problem is the editing — an early NY Times piece running time for the movie was 135 minutes, yet the final cut was under two hours. There was scenes talked about (Weaver’s sex scene, the bugs running through her hair) and scenes from the trailer (a prisoner walking outside the colony during daylight) that weren’t in the movie — all of which adds up to pre-release cutting. But whatever material was cut couldn’t save one factor in Alien 3, which is suspense, or in this case, lack of it. Fincher’s music-video style (complete with occasionally rock-synthesised music by Elliot Goldenthal) sure is flashy, but it doesn’t deliver the scares. The whole project seems to have been misguided and tired, for the Alien in this picture seems to have been inspired by the rip-offs of the Alien movies and not by its actual predecessors. And that’s the bottom line of Alien 3. Another sequel that not only doesn’t measure up to its predecessors, but fails in its own right to deliver the kind of surprise that a film like this so desperately needs.
Andy Dursin,
Glocester, RI.

Issue 183 (October 1992)


The next issue saw a deluge of reader mail, with Alien 3 occupying the entirety of the letters pages – all four of them.

Common complaints included the swift killing of Aliens’ surviving characters, the bleak tone, the splatterhouse approach to gore, plot holes and retcons -some perceived, some legitimate-, the underdeveloped characters, and even David Fincher’s direction.

…I just saw Alien 3, and I would like to say that I was deeply saddened and very disappointed. I love SF because it is an escape from everyday troubles. There is enough pain and misery in this world. Why put it on film? Movies should be entertaining and at least leave you with the hope that the characters you have grown to love through the years don’t end up dead in a horrible fashion.

The scenes that troubled me the most in the film were Newt’s autopsy, Hicks’ death and Bishop’s sad remains joking with Ripley and then begging her to unplug him. And finally, Ripley’s death. I wish I could say that it didn’t bother me, but it did,  and I think it will affect many people. As a true SF fan, I was saddened by such a hard and sobering view of life in the last of the Alien trilogy.
Mark A. Kaufman,
Address Withheld.

…I could not believe my eyes! After watching the first two minutes, I was so mad I almost stood up and walked out of the theater. How could they take the amazing story of Aliens and destroy it? Right now, I’m just pretending I never saw the movie, and Ripley, Hicks, Newt and Bishop are still in hypersleep on their way to Earth, instead of all dead!!!

It is so infuriating that the surviving cast from Aliens, who fought against unstoppable creatures and won, who escaped death in their darkest hour, who, by the exceptional direction of James Cameron, were living, breathing characters, are just plain dead! What a useless excuse for a plotline! Kill off Newt, Hicks and Bishop, just like that. And impregnate Ripley with a Queen Alien. Perfect. How much worse could the movie’s plot be? Not much. I’m sure James Cameron is laughing right now, laughing at the fact his movie is a thousand times better than Alien 3. The only thing I kind of liked about Alien 3 was the Alien P.O.V. shots. But even that has a plot hole right through it, as Aliens don’t have eyes! They use a type of radar sense!

And what a horrible way for Ripley to die. An Alien Queen bursts from her chest before she hits molten steel; hey, do I hear T2 bells chiming? What a complete rip-off of Terminator 2′s end sequence: Main character dies in orange-glowing molten steel. Give me a break!
Godfrey C. Pflugbeil
Toronto, Canada.

Alien 3 was a good movie, but at the same time, disappointing.  It just didn’t measure up to the lofty standards set by its predecessors. In Alien and Aliens, the Aliens attacked and killed their victims (when not using them as hosts) with lethal speed, inner jaw parts swiftly ending the doomed humans’ suffering. In Alien 3 however, the Alien often ‘chews’ on its prey while they’re still alive and screaming, rather than striking and ending their lives quickly. This is not because it is not strong enough to do so, because it kills Clemens and a few of the prisoners quickly, as in the previous films. But overall, most of Alien 3′s characters die kicking and hollering as the Alien eats them alive. Dillon was killed near the movie’s end, yelling at the creature to fight harder and asking it if that was ‘as hard as you can bite’. I suspect this was a cheap ploy thrown in by the filmmakers to add to the film’s horror. Actually, it detracts from the slick, deadly charisma surrounding the Alien.

Finally, the idea of the prisoners outrunning the Alien (when they use themselves as bait to lure the creature into the piston tunnel near the movie’s end) is ridiculous. As fast as that Alien moved, the convicts wouldn’t have a chance.

There were other minor problems, such as the Alien surviving the barrage of molten lead, and the evident fakery of the Alien Queen bursting from Ripley’s chest, but overall I enjoyed the movie the second time I watched it, my initial disappointment out of the way. There were some fantastic scenes as well, most notably the Alien chestburster’s birth from the dog, the prisoner falling into the gigantic fan and Clemens’ death. I also found Dillon, Charles S. Dutton’s character, to be intriguing and extremely well done. Sigourney Weaver, as usual, turns in a formidable performance as Ripley and first-time director David Fincher does a good job, creating a very dark and at times, genuinely scary feature debut.

Unfortunately, these good points do not prevent Alien 3 from joining the likes of Predator 2 and Robocop 2 as sequels unworthy of following their predecessors.
Matt Nunan,
Myrtle Point, OR.

Never have I seen a more thoroughly offensive motion picture than Alien 3. Not only is it fraught with glaring inconsistencies with the first two films, but we are deluged with endless scenes of screamed profanity and relentless gore that completely redefine ‘gratuitous’. While its predecessors left its audience with a creepy fascination that stayed with you long after leaving the theater, Alien 3 merely lingers like a bad virus.

Utterly missing is any of Ridley Scott’s meticulous craftmanship. Nor are we treated to anything resembling James Cameron’s  carefully orchestrated rollercoaster rides. What is dumped on us though are annoying confusing intercuts with inaudibly soft dialogue juxtaposed against a cacophony of yelling prisoners, thundering sound effects and loud music. We are carelessly thrown around this sludge-infested planet by David Fincher’s dizzying, awkward camera work, and splattered with bottomless buckets of blood. The close-ups of hypodermic needles puncturing skin, the ridiculously drawn-out autopsy scene, the sickening throes of an inmate’s beloved dog and the relentless series of gruesome murders overwhelmed even the teenage gore freaks which populated our audience.

Bad direction, however, might have been overlooked, since Fincher is completely inexperienced in filmmaking; but what is utterly inexcusable is the script! Character development was so badly lacking that only a pitiful few of the 20-odd people were given any individual personalities of their own (the rest were just a crowd of bald Brits); but just when a bit of insight was revealed about someone, he would be ripped to shreds and lose his meager importance anyway. Clever dialogue was jettisoned in favor of shouted vulgarities (and these guys were supposed to comprise a fundamental Christian cult?) And lest we forget Ripley herself…

She knew (or strongly suspected) her old nemesis was roaming about  the prison, but how did she react? By simply parking her bottom in the doctor’s office, afraid to tell him for fear of being labelled crazy? Come on, now! Is this the gal who ran through the Nostromo’s corridors and blew the monster out of an airlock? The same feisty lady who charged an armoured personel carrier through walls of metal to rescue Marines from an onslaught of creatures? The same beloved heroine who became a walking armoury to save one little girl from the clutches of a beast? No. This ‘new’ Ripley is a stranger.

No new insights on teh Aliens themselves were revealed to us, either. Instead, our scriptwriters convieneintly ignored what had been established in the earlier stories and went their own way. Since when did facehuggers leave marks on their victims?  And while there was seemingly one aboard the Sulaco, two impregnations resulted: Ripley’s and the dog’s; yet it had been concluded before that there could only be one per creature.

Also, Ripley apparently hosted an Alien for days on end while in other victims, this incubation period was considerably  shorter. Perhaps this was attributed to her infestation’s being a larval queen, but once more, no explanation was offered.

And how dare they kill off the gutsiest heroine in film history! They’ve earned the wrath of legions of loyal fans everywhere,. Ripley deserved much beter than to die an agonising death, and we don’t want to have to remember her this way. She is a survivor.

I have yet to meet anyone who liked this film, and I’ve already spoken with dozens of people. We are all thoroughly disgusted with it. Since the 20th Century Fox executives had a guranteed hit with another Alien movie, it seems they just didn’t bother with a good script or a capable director.

But the news is quickly getting around. Word of mouth is one of the most effective means of advertising a good film: conversely, it can send the box-office receipts plummeting on a bad flick such as this one. I nly hope word gets out fast enough.
B. F. Simon,
Address Withheld.

Issue 184 (November 1992)


People were still not ready to move on: this issue’s front page header read ‘Why Readers Despised Alien 3’, which was, again, the main focus of the letters pages, and the letters themselves appeared under the rather exhausted tag ‘Still Alienated, Alas’.

…I have been a fan of Starlog since issue #1. Since Starlog covers my type of movie, I thought that this would be a good place to express an opinion. Since Alien, Ripley has been a survivor and a heroine. In Alien 3, they at least let her keep her heroine part of her persona. This is not true of Newt.

In Aliens, Newt is definitely a survivor, since she was able to stay alive for weeks against the bad guys. To just kill her off in the new movie makes it B quality. It reminded me of Friday the 13th movies where the heroine would survive the whole movie just to be killed off in the first few minutes of the next. I realise that the actress who played Newt, Carrie Henn, has probably grown up quite a bit, but this could have been dealt with by just placing the timeline up a few years. If Alien 3 had followed Alien, I could have accepted it as a fair sequel. Newt, in my opinion, made Aliens what it was – a fantastic movie with a great story.

Alien 3 is just one of those bad dreams Ripley had in hypersleep. Newt and Hicks are still alive and having a wonderful life. I think we all could have lived just fine without Alien 3.
Gregory Young,
Las Vegas.

Alien 3 is one of the worst pieces of trash I have ever seen. As a fan of the previous two Alien outings, I was downright offended by this insult to Ridley Scott and James Cameron’s visions and the blatant attempt on behalf of the film’s producers to capitalise on the success of the Alien series without any decent attempt to make a decent third chapter. There are so many things wrong with Alien 3 (what’s the deal with the raised 3 anyway? Is it supposed to be Alien Three or Alien Cubed?) that it could be shown in filmmaking 101 classes across the world as an example of how not to make a movie.

The screenplay is a garbled mess. However, this is no surprise, considering it went through 27 writers. I also didn’t like how Hicks and Newt were cheaply killed off at the film’s beginning. In Aliens, people grew to care about these two characters, and Ripley’s reaction to their deaths was dramatically unsatisfying. The rest of the movie’s plot is simply a weak repeat of the first movie. One by one, the characters are systematically stalked with surprisingly little suspense and only one extended action sequence.

Regarding music video director David Fincher, I have to question the intelligence in the decision to hire an unknown, first-time director to helm a $50 million-plus motion picture that is a sequel to two of the most popular films ever made. Fincher doesn’t seem to have a clue as to how to direct a feature film. His use of low-angle shots, extreme close-ups, and cross-cutting may work fine in music videos, but these techniques lost their impact very fast on screen. In addition Fincher doesn’t seem to support the theory of starting scenes off with an establishing shot. I was very confused as to what was happening and where things were taking place. Fincher is also ignorant of another basic filmmaking technique: how to build suspense. I knew exactly when the Alien would strike and was never scared or surprised.

The music by Elliot Goldenthal is also no improvement over the scores by Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. It is not only dull,  but at times completely innapropriate — namely in the scene where an attempted rape is made on Ripley and rock music is played in the background. Making a third sequel would be a mistake if it opted instead to repeat the formula of of the first two movies without adding anything new, as this one did.
Adam Kargan
Scottsdale, AZ.


… Now let’s talk about Alien 3. I liked the story and the FX. The majority of the acting was solid especially Charles Dutton, who stole every scene he was in, including those with the mutant alien. I think that Charles Dance as the doc was killed off way too early. I mean, come on — we just find out about his character’s history, and one half-second later, the Alien breaks his arm, then yanks and rips the man’s head off his shoulders. Ripley discovered the Alien wouldn’t kill her because of her being impregnated, but why doesn’t the Alien kill the guy screaming his head off on the bed? And why didn’t Ripley figure out that the Alien was trying to protect the Queen inside her by offing the good doctor? Count the seconds from when the doctor injects Ripley with that ‘solution’ and how fast the Alien jumps down to the floor. Yes, no, maybe so?


While I liked the FX, I didn’t care for the endless P.O.V. shots. The old sneak-up gag has been a cliche, and as for the running Alien P.O.V. shots, I almost half-expected Bruce Campbell to come running out with a chainsaw for a hand from Evil Dead II.
Darren J. Seeley,
Address Withheld.

I’m a SF fan and I don’t mind a little dab of horror, but I’ve think I’ve ever seen so much unnecessary gore  in one film. And what the other Alien films left to the imagination, this one didn’t. The audience was even subjected to seeing the gory death of a dog! Was the autopsy scene with Newt really necessary? In a way, this movie is an imitation of the first one: one Alien against a bunch of people in a dark, desolate place. Of course, the prison was much bigger than the Nostromo, but it didn’t seem like it. The ending expressed the futility of the whole series. Everything Ripley tried to avoid happened anyway. She was impregnated thus signalling inevitable death and everybody died. This movie is a virtual opposite of Aliens. Where Aliens was hopeful, Alien 3 is just downright depressing.

I was very excited and open-minded about the film, thinking it would be a true sequel to Aliens, thanks to the false advertising (‘the bitch is back’). They should have had the courage to advertise the movie more for what it really was. The previews made it look a lot like Aliens. They even used the music from Aliens in the trailer. Michael Biehn, who played Hicks, was right when he said that they would never be able to top Aliens.
Eric Wemmer,
Miami, FL.

I would like to direct my comments towards the rotten Alien 3 story. From what I understand, there was a lot of money spent on this flop. My question is, where did it go?

Where James Cameron was meticulous in his sequel, matching every little detail, David Fincher’s effort doesn’t even bother. Anyone notice how different the hypersleep chambers were? They looked more like the original ones on the Nostromo. So, I guess we’re to believe that they just magically changed from Sulaco-type chambers to the Nostromo-type. Also, in Aliens, the lettering of Sulaco was in black. It was white in Alien 3. Who’s going to tell us that the Aliens Queen pulled out her magic paintbrush and repainted it? Fincher must think we’re stupid.

And what about the Alien 3 xenomorph? How did it get so stupid? These are very intelligent creatures. So intelligent that this one knew Ripley had a Queen inside her. But it wasn’t smart enough to trap the prisoners for hosts. Nor did it have sense enough to cocoon Ripley and wait for the queen to emerge. If it was one of Cameron’s Aliens, it would have waited and then attacked. Anyone remember that Ripley said, ‘They don’t kill you’?

They were worried that Alien 3 would be a tired rehash of the previous films, yet they didn’t mind copying dozens of other horror movies. If I wanted to see Jason or Freddy, then I’ll go see their movies. But when I go to an Alien movie, I expect to see something more creative than a monster running around killing anything that moves. I would have preferred a rehash to Aliens than to sit through that ‘slasher in space’ garbage.

To Sigourney Weaver: Your acting was terrific, but why did you accept this role? You had this ‘creative input’, but what did you do with it? Looks like you did (as Private Hudson would say) ‘zippo’. You could have at least relented to get a decent story that would have done justice to Ripley. I guess if you give a person $5.5 million, she’ll do anything, right?
Greg George,
Babson Park, FL.



Filed under Alien 3

Crew Logs: Ron Cobb


Though Burbank, California, lies only a few miles from the epicentre of the Western film world, it seemed all too far away for the adolescent Ron Cobb. His parents had moved there from Los Angeles in 1940, when Cobb was three years old, in search of a better life promised by the area’s mid-30’s property boom – when the Cobbs relocated in 1940 the city’s population stood at 34,337; by 1950 it would rocket to 78,577. But a middle-class life in a burgeoning Burbank appeared to Cobb to be “bleak and unexciting.” He saw worse ahead of him, remarking that, “The future held even less promise,” but fortunately he had an escape in his nascent imagination: “I began to notice out of the corner of my eye distant vistas of fantasy, of a world out there glimpsed through the wonderful window of television and E.C. comics. I daydreamed and nurtured my fantasies, and to make them more real I drew. At the same time I became introverted, a terrible student, and waited for something to happen.”

It was science fiction that provided inspiration and spurred Cobb’s enthusiasm for the wondrous. “When I was a little kid I would sit out in the back yard,” Cobb said in 2015, “and I swear I could see people signalling me from the moon. And I knew it was important somehow, but you know, you might say I had a science-fictional childhood, because I always thought about science as adventure, nothing more than adventure, and when it started to appear in movie pictures I was transfixed. I said, ‘I want to do that somehow.'”

Cobb found like-minded friends at Burbank High School with whom he formed C.D. Inc. (the C standing for Cobb, and the D for co-founder Tad Duke), a small club whose members held common interests in pranksterism, atheism and sci-fi — their first official club act was a trip to see War of the Worlds (1953). The group also busied themselves creatively by drawing and conceptualising a fictional history of fictional European country Donovania, along with its fictional prince, Chesley Donavan (apparently named after Cobb’s early influence Chesley Bonestell, whose 1949 speculative sci-fi book The Conquest of Space can be seen  in C.D.’s hangout.) Chesley Donavan retroactively became the namesake of the group, with C.D. reconfigured into the ‘Chesley Donovan Science Fantasy Foundation’, which was, according to Cobb, “a deliberately pompous and satirical name for a group of introverted and eccentric students.”

“Our mutual fascinations with science, astronomy, philosophy and theology kept us together until we were in our early twenties,” he explained. “Our involvement in C.D. drew each of us out of our introversions, while we nurtured and entertained each other.”

Ron Cobb, far right, in 1954.

Ron Cobb, far right, with C.D. in 1954. The group crafted their own uniforms and insignias.

After graduating from Burbank High School in 1955 Cobb, having been a poor student with an aptitude for art and imagination, sought work at Disney, who had opened their lot in Burbank in 1940 on the proceeds from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). “I had always been fascinated by Disney and deeply influenced by Fantasia. The studio was clearly advancing the art of film animation, in those days, and I was very excited about being a part of it.” After spending two years working as an in-betweener and breakdown artist (notably on Sleeping Beauty, released 1959) Cobb realised that many of the animation giants and geniuses that had attracted him to the field had “retired or died off” and, after being let go by Disney, he decided to seek out opportunities in live action film. “I just didn’t feel like waiting 30 years to become an animator,” he told Starlog magazine. But first was a series of odd jobs and a stint in the US Army and a brief posting in Vietnam.

“I was a prime target for the draft,” said Cobb. “I had to decide whether to evade it as most of my friends had done, or become a member of the military, one of the truly evil institutions of the state, according to the tenets of C.D. This became my great confrontation/escape. I allowed myself to be drafted. It confirmed that my basic anti-militarism was correct, but let me recognize some of my prejudices were unfounded. I gained confidence in the army, but I hadn’t reckoned on spending a year in Vietnam.”

It was during the turbulent Sixties and specifically within the American counterculture that Cobb first found himself attracting artistic acclaim. His political cartoons, at first rejected by Playboy but disseminated through the underground newspaper The Los Angeles Free Press, presented future visions of the ultimate law and order state, the destruction of the American landscape and dark lampoons of Cold War-era doctrines like M.A.D.


One early fan was a USC film student from Missouri named Dan O’Bannon, who reached out to Cobb after appreciating his work in the underground presses. “[Dan] had been following them and had wanted to meet me,” explained Cobb. “We shared an enthusiasm for film, science fiction and filmmaking.” O’Bannon and Cobb’s lives would not intersect again for several years, and in the meantime the artist kept penning celebrated political cartoons that were widely redistributed.

Ron also dabbled in science-fiction and fantasy illustration, drawing covers for Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine including images of Lon Chaney Jnr. and Bela Lugosi’s Frankenstein and Wolfman, two-headed golems, the hunchback of Notre Dame and bulb-headed alien beings. He also provided the cover art for San Franciscan rock band Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 album After Bathing at Baxter’s, (Cobb’s involvement with musical endeavours continued throughout the following decades; he won an MTV music video award in 1986 for his art direction on ZZ Top’s Rough Boy.)

His political work continued to attract acclaim and was showcased in an issue of Cavalier magazine that called him ‘The Toughest Pen in the West’, though Cobb denied being a political cartoonist (“because politics is too superficial”) preferring instead to be called a ‘social commentator’. “But whatever he calls himself,” Cavalier read, “he’s the only artist we’ve seen recently who has the force of conviction, the draughtsmanship, the intelligence and the necessary harsh insight into these harsh times to be a cartoonist in the great tradition.”

Cobb profiled in an 1969 issue of Playboy.

But Cobb was becoming disillusioned. He began to notice clichés and recycled content in his peers, and then recognised it creeping into his own work. An artistic block came over him. “I couldn’t paint or draw or think straight. I couldn’t snap out of it. I couldn’t finish anything. I was taking amphetamines. It was really an awful time. And I didn’t know what it was.” Cobb would later reflect that, “I had truly become sloppy with the content of the cartoons while conversely, growing in my attraction to the film medium. It wasn’t an interest in animation that pulled me. My two years at Disney taught me that animation lacked spontaneity. It was the writing, and possible directing, of live action short films or maybe features that intrigued me now.”

A break came when he received a phone call from Robin Love of the Australian Aquarius Foundation, the ‘cultural wing of the 170,000 strong Australian Union of Students’ that primarily helped organise university festivals and counter-culture events. Cobb recounted that Robin had told him that his “cartoons [were] very well-known here” among the Australian counter-culture, and “would [he] be interested in coming to Australia?” Still in a slump in the States, his answer was enthusiastic: “I said, ‘Yes, I’ll come! I’ll come!'”

Cobb’s political cartooning however earned him the scorn of Australia’s Liberal government, who made attempts to ban him from visiting and touring universities, but thanks to Love and the AUS his Visa was not revoked and the tour commenced with protest singer Phil Ochs in tow (and occasionally supported by The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band). “I discovered a country on a human scale: unpretentious, hardy and social,” Cobb said of his tour. “I began to come out of a non-productive, post-sixties slump which had lasted two years. The exuberant and colourful political scene intrigued me, the air of anticipation of a change in government after over twenty years of conservatism was infectious.” He certainly was not missing the American counterculture. “It should be said,” he clarified in 2005, “I never identified that much with the counter-culture, the new left or ‘The Sixties’. I fully expected flower power to wilt and teach-ins to teach out. Some of what happened was partially effective like the women’s movement, but most of it was too faddish, emotional and self-indulgent (read, American) to really fit the complex mix of world events and thus, change things in all the intended directions.”

At the end of his stay in Australia, Ron and Robin moved in together, married, and moved to Los Angeles in ’73, living on Robin’s dime while Cobb sought involvement in the film industry. “I never expected Ron to make any money,” Love told the LA Times in 1988. “Ron could have been doing everything he wanted to do a lot sooner if he had hustled. But he is not an ambitious person.”

Ron’s first foot into film came way of old acquaintance Dan O’Bannon, who was toiling to assemble his student film Dark Star with director John Carpenter. “I met Dan some years back because of his interest in fantastic films, then didn’t see him again for a number of years,” said Cobb. “He contacted me next when he was in the middle of Dark Star, and wanted to know if I’d be interested in giving him some of my comments on it. When I got there, he had an exterior design for the spaceship, and I started suggesting things.”

“I tried to reach Cobb to get him to design the whole film, but he was unreachable,” said O’Bannon. “For weeks his phone rang without an answer, and then it was disconnected, and then I got his new unlisted number but it was invariably answered by one of the girls who were living with him, who always told me he was out. It was impossible. It took another year and a half to track him down and get him to agree to design us a nice, simple little spaceship for our simple little movie. Finally, one night about ten pm, Carpenter and I drove over to Westwood and roused him out of a sound sleep. He was hung over from an LSD trip and I felt kind of guilty, but I had to have those designs. We took him over to an all-night coffee shop and fed him and got him half-way awake, and then he brought out this pad of yellow graph paper on which he had sketched a 3-view plan of our spaceship. It was wonderful! A little surfboard-shaped starcruiser with a flat bottom for atmospheric landings. Very technological looking. Very high class stuff.”


The brief collaboration was encouraging enough for O’Bannon that he kept Cobb vigorously in mind for future projects. When he was hired by Alejandro Jodorowsky to oversee the special effects for Dune, he recommended that Jodorowsky add Cobb to his artistic stable, which already included eminent artists like Chris Foss, Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, and HR Giger. “I tried to get Cobb on to Dune,” O’Bannon told Fantastic Films in 1979, “but it never worked out.”

“Transatlantic phone calls [to Cobb were] made,” O’Bannon said of the arrangements to get Cobb on board, “and a date is set for Cobb’s transfer to Paris. Cobb and his wife pack their bags, the date arrives, but no plane ticket.” While waiting to officially join the project, Cobb managed to submit designs for the film, but Jodorowsky apparently thought they were too Earth-bound, too realistic, “too NASA.” Still, efforts were being made to fly him out to. “A new date is set,” O’Bannon goes on, “it arrives, and passes. More phone calls. Altogether, Cobb and his wife were packed and ready to get on a plane for about three months. They had terminated the lease on their apartment. This was the position I had gotten Cobb and Robin into when Dune collapsed completely, like a pile of rotten sticks.”

For his part, O’Bannon felt incredible guilt for leaving Cobb in the lurch. When he too ended up back in LA, broke and despondent, he managed to bounce back with a position on George Lucas’ Star Wars and, while there, he put in a word about Cobb. Allegedly, Lucas, visiting his friend John Milius, saw one of Cobb’s paintings on the wall called ‘Man on Lizard Crossing Over‘, depicting a proto-dewback carrying a mysterious traveller over a desert landscape. “Lucas said that he had the idea [for the dewback design] before he saw the painting,” Cobb said in 2015, “and Milius said, ‘No you didn’t. I remember the night you came here and pointed at the wall.'” Cobb laughed, “But that’s Star Wars for you!”

Either way, the image must have tapped into Lucas’ own imaginative ideas for his space opera, and he agreed to a meeting with Cobb on O’Bannon’s recommendation. “It was Dan who was working on this crazy space opera that we had all heard about,” said Ron. “It was costing so much money and George [Lucas] was convinced it was going to be a flop because the budget had blown out so much.”

Ron's designs for Star Wars' Cantina aliens. “George had been unhappy with what they had shot, which was mostly people with bits of foam stuck to their face as the aliens. So he called me in and I sat down across from him with these pages of designs where the aliens were more biological. He looked at each one and went ‘Okay, okay, okay. These are good.’ When I left the meeting all the production staff were waiting at the door. They asked me what he said, I told them, and they were all flabbergasted. One of them said ‘That’s the most excited he has been about anything!’”

Some of Ron’s designs for Star Wars‘ Cantina aliens.

“George had been unhappy with what they had shot, which was mostly people with bits of foam stuck to their face as the aliens. So he called me in and I sat down across from him with these pages of designs where the aliens were more biological. He looked at each one and went, ‘Okay, okay, okay. These are good.’ When I left the meeting all the production staff were waiting at the door. They asked me what he said, I told them, and they were all flabbergasted. One of them said, ‘That’s the most excited he has been about anything!’”
~ Ron Cobb,, 2014.

Dan rushed to Cobb again when his long-gestating screenplay for Alien was picked up by Brandywine Productions and then greenlit by Twentieth Century Fox. “The first person I hired on Alien,” said O’Bannon, “the first person to draw money, was Cobb. He started turning out renderings, large full-colour paintings, while Shusett and I were still struggling with the script – the corrosive blood of the Alien was Cobb’s idea. It was an intensely creative period – the economic desperation, the all-night sessions, the rushing over to Cobb’s apartment to see the latest painting-in-progress and give him the latest pages.”

“So basically, it’s all been Dan,” said Ron. “He went to work on Star Wars and Dune, and each time he tried to get me on those projects. But since I didn’t have a great deal of film experience, producers were quite reluctant to hire me—except for George Lucas, who’d been familiar with my cartoons … Then Dan finally sold his script, and Alien was underway. He suggested that they use me, and the same problem arose, but I was taken on sort of a trial basis for about seven months in California, before the entire production moved to London.”

“We were put through shed after shed after shed,” said Chris Foss, whom O’Bannon had hired for Alien after having previously met in Paris while working on Dune, “and they were going through director after director after director.” Cobb himself told Den of Geek that “I soon found myself hidden away at Fox Studios in an old rehearsal hall above an even older sound stage with Chris Foss and O’Bannon, trying to visualize Alien. For up to five months Chris and I (with Dan supervising) turned out a large amount of artwork, while the producers, Gordon Carroll, Walter Hill and David Giler, looked for a director.”

“And he was doing some incredible stuff,”O’Bannon continued. “Wow! I was really happy during this period, seeing the movie appear under Cobb’s fingers. Of course, we usually had to go over and sit on his back to get him to do any work -otherwise he would just party on with his friends- but how beautiful were the results.” Cobb accompanied O’Bannon to England when Alien’s production went into full swing, having been personally recommended to director Ridley Scott by O’Bannon. “O’Bannon introduced me to Ron Cobb,” Scott told Fantastic Films in 1979, “a brilliant visualiser of the genre, with whom he’d worked on Dark Star. Cobb seemed to have very realistic visions of both the far and near future, so I quickly decided that he would take a very important part in the making of the film.”

“I made the two-hour round trip [to the studio] with [Cobb] every day in a miniscule red Volkswagen Golf,” said O’Bannon. “I hate to drive, so the first time I got behind the wheel I took off for London at about 70 mph and made it back in record time, through the most horrendous commuter crush and with all the traffic going the wrong way as well. Toward the end there, Cobb actually screamed, and cried out something about how I was going too fast. The next morning when he picked me up in the Golf, he told me firmly that he would be doing all the driving from here on out, so that took care of that.”

Cobb with Giger at the King's Head Pub, Shepperton, England, 1978.

Cobb with Giger at the King’s Head Pub, Shepperton, England, 1978.

Cobb, along with Foss, was tasked with realising the human elements of the film, but he also took a crack at the Space Jockey, Alien, and the Alien temple from O’Bannon’s version of the screenplay. In Cobb’s conception of the Alien temple, a hieroglyph depicts, in a Mayan-esque fashion, an insect-like creature prone on its back as another being erupts -depicted in glorious fashion- from its midcentre. Above the new lifeform’s head is an image of an Alien egg, deified and ensconced within an aureola. The pyramid was ultimately cut due to budgetary and time constraints, and Giger was tasked with its design when the silo was incorporated with his derelict craft (which Ron also took a shot at). Ron’s concepts for the planetoid, which hewed close to O’Bannon’s Mars-esque description in his screenplay, were also ‘ignored’ by the production when the planetoid was given a grey colour scheme (Dennis Lowe’s early effects work for the planet depicted it as a turbulent orange and red swirl, akin to the surface of Jupiter.)

Though O’Bannon loved Cobb’s other designs for the Alien and derelict ship, they were lacking what only Giger was able to provide: a tangible nightmarish quality. Cobb’s Alien was rejected in favour of Giger’s almost from the get-go. “I’m afraid Ron Cobb’s ego was sorely wounded when he didn’t get to do the monster,” O’Bannon told Cinefex in ’79. “He was endlessly frustrated because he could design aliens without number and they were all convincing and all unique and all startling to look at … His designs just weren’t as bizarre, or as bubbling up from the subconscious as the stuff Giger was doing. Cobb’s monsters all looked like they could come out of a zoo—Giger’s looked like something out of a bad dream.”

But Dan did love his concept for the Space Jockey, which he described as “Just perfect! Very small jawbone – no teeth to speak of. Of course, I expected it to look horrible when you first see it in the film; but if you looked at it a bit closer you’d discover that it didn’t have the large teeth or mandibles or any of the other things that are characteristic of a carnivore – and then maybe you’d begin to imagine it as some totally nonviolent herbivorous creature sailing around in space.”

Ridley however was enamoured with Giger’s Space Jockey, and elected that the other conceptual artists focus on other areas of the film, namely the Nostromo, which had to have all the appearance of a functional and plausible 22nd century ship, but also had to convey the idea of being a haunted house, or castle; its comm towers and satellites would have to evoke a conglomeration of cathedral spires and other Gothic shapes. “I wanted the ship to look like a gothic castle,” Cobb explained, “but resisted that approach—it might have been a bit too much … I grew up with a deep fascination for astronomy, astrophysics, and most of all, aerospace flight. My design approach has always been that of a frustrated engineer (as well as a frustrated writer when it came to cinema design). I tend to subscribe to the idea that form follows function.”

Cobb, who was later quoted in the Book of Alien explaining that he preferred to “design a spaceship as though it was absolutely real, right down to the fuel tolerances, the centers of gravity, the way the engines function, radiation shielding, whatever,” found himself struggling to maintain a balance between his aesthetic preferences and Ridley’s more fantastical ideas. “They pressured us a lot to bend the technology to have a somewhat similar look to Star Wars,” said Cobb. “Sort of half-believable, but rather highly stylized—or perhaps a better word would be romanticized. The interior of the ship finally looked like a deco dance hall, or a World War II bomber, and a genuine projection of what a space ship of the future might really look like—or a combination of all of them. The theory was to give Alien more of a horror look, but I never personally agreed with that, and I didn’t have as much influence as I’d like to have had.”

Cobb’s strident rationalism impeded his attempts at the alien technology. “The only problem was that he was a rationalist,” O’Bannon explained. “I noticed this when we first started designing the picture. All these different things he as doing were coming out so well that I decided to have him take a crack at the derelict spaceship. But when I asked him to come up with an irrational shape he got very disturbed. He couldn’t handle that. He kept coming up with convincing technology for a flying saucer or some other kind of UFO.” 

For his part, Ridley also found that his flashes of artistic license caused consternation with Cobb’s more realistic design philosophy. For one, Cobb insisted that every detail on the ship be accounted for: how doors opened, where the screws went and how the pistons pumped, etc. Scott however tended to find himself fighting to retain ‘illogical’ images like the ‘rain’ during Brett’s death in the Nostromo’s leg room, reconciling it to dissenting voices as condensation from within the ship. He found similar resistances when it came to getting across his ideas of the Nostromo’s outer shell. “The concept was to have the hull covered with space barnacles or something,” said Scott. “I was unable to communicate that idea, and I finally had to go down there and fiddle with the experts. We gradually arrived at a solution.” It seemed that removing any ‘space barnacles’ was a concession Scott made to the artists. “I would have liked to see it covered with space barnacles or space seaweed,” he told Fantastic Films, “All clogged and choked up, but that was illogical as well.”

Cobb meanwhile figured that the resistance to exploring the stark reality of space travel came from disinterest or inexperience on the part of the production. “There’s a certain awkwardness in the naturalistic portrayal of the space flight,” he said, “Partly because most of the people involved in this film had never made one before. They didn’t understand what they were getting into, and were put off by concepts like no sound in space, and all the gravitational effects.”

“When I met Ron, he was very adamant that they were very realistic. He wanted a heat shield on the underside of the Nostromo lander. He wanted a contrast between the smooth underside of the heat shield and the detailed upper surface. However this was not to be. Our instruction was to encrust the whole craft. When it came down, we weren’t seeing a craft come through an atmosphere; there was no re-entry. Ron was concerned that it should be there if that type of action was present. Ron is very much into the believability of things. He created wonderful background histories about his designs.”
~ Bill Pearson, Sci-Fi & Fantasy FX magazine, Aliens Collector’s Issue (#48)

“I’ve always done future designs as though they’re real,” Cobb said, “and I’ve found the more realism you put into it, the more original they look, and most of the time you don’t do that you’re just recycling a lot of silly props from every idiotic movie that’s ever been made. We just covered the walls with drawings and, slowly but surely, Alien emerged.” The amalgamation of all these various aesthetics allowed for Alien to present a very believable environment with little bearing on issues like faster than light travel or time dilation: instead, the Company’s armada of commercial ships flit from one side of the galaxy to another in short spans (the film tells us the return journey to Earth from the planetoid would take “Ten months”) and the crew do little to expositise on the ship’s technology.

In the end, the Nostromo’s design was not coalesced from various concepts by its artists, but by frustrated technicians tired of waiting for something to build. Cobb explained that “Brian Johnson, the special effects supervisor under pressure to build the large Nostromo model, went into the deserted art department and, out of frustration, grabbed all the Chris Foss designs off the wall and took them to Bray Studios. There he would choose the design himself in order to have enough time to build the damn thing … Well I soon found out that Brian found and took all of my exterior design sketches as well. About a month later I was told that Brian had used my sketch, ‘Nostromo A’, as the basis for the model, even to the extent that it was painted yellow. Ridley found the colour a bit garish and had it repainted grey.”

Some of Cobb’s interiors were replicated from the page directly onto the screen, so his sketches for a passage on the Nostromo’s A deck–

–was rendered faithfully as below:


Cobb’s creative contributions extended beyond the look of the film: he also inspired O’Bannon to give the Alien acidic blood, coined ‘Weylan-Yutani’, and crafted with costume designer John Mollo all manner of fictional corporate insignias and emblems intended to give the film additional depth, even though the majority of their work would not be seen or even referenced on screen. “One of the things I enjoyed most about Alien was its subtle satirical content,” explained Cobb. “Science Fiction films offer golden opportunities to throw in little scraps of information that suggest enormous changes in the world. There’s a certain potency in those kinds of remarks. Weylan-Yutani for instance is almost a joke, but not quite. I wanted to imply that poor old England is back on its feet and has united with the Japanese, who have taken over the building of spaceships the same way they have now with cars and supertankers. In coming up with a strange company name I thought of British Leyland and Toyota, but we obviously couldn’t use Leyland-Toyota in the film. Changing one letter gave me Weylan, and Yutani was a Japanese neighbor of mine.” The Company would be called Weyland-Yutani in the following movies, with the ‘d’ added sometime during Aliens’ production by Cobb for an unspecified reason – perhaps it was an error, or he was no longer shy about the ‘Weyland/Leyland’ allusion.

For the Company’s logo Ron figured that “It would be fun to develop a logo using the W and Y interlocking. We tried a lot of variations and came up with some very industrial looking symbols, which were to be stenciled all over the ship. By that time though Ridley was already set on using the Egyptian wing motif. We tried some combinations, but they didn’t really work. Weylan-Yutani now only appears on the beer can, underwear and some stationary, so the joke sort of got lost.” Though it’s not obvious at a glance, Cobb’s Egyptian motif logo appears on virtually every piece of equipment on the Nostromo, including dinner bowls and coffee cups. The crew wear blue Weylan-Yutani wing emblems on their chests, except for Kane, who wears a silver patch, and Dallas, whose gold patch is possibly coloured to denote his captaincy.

Cobb and Mollo also conceived a pseudo-historical backdrop over which Alien takes place, creating space corporations like Farside Lunar Mining and Red Star Lines that went virtually unseen and absolutely unmentioned in the film, but which, for its creators, helped flesh out the unseen universe permeating the movie frame. Cobb also designed a flag for the United Americas -the union of South, Central and North America which took place in 2104, at least in the Alien universe- which is essentially the stars and stripes with one unitary star rather than fifty.


“I think Dan will be pleased. You know, for a while they strayed pretty far from his original concept, but eventually they found their way back into the primary science-fiction/horror framework. By the time the principal photography was finished, everybody was looking forward to seeing how all the pieces fit together. At the very least, Dan won’t have to sleep on anyone’s sofa for a while—I hope.”
~ Ron Cobb, MediaScene, 1979.

“On the whole, I’m pretty happy with the way my ideas were eventually realized,” Cobb told MediaScene on the film’s release. “It was fascinating to watch the process all the way through, even some of the set dressings. I was pleased with things I had a fair amount of control over, but those I didn’t oversee were a little disappointing … Then there was always surprising contributions from draftsmen and other people who would occasionally design a set that would turn out very, very well. It was a mixed bag of many styles and many approaches.”

Alien’s success unlocked doors that had been frustratingly barred to Cobb for more than a decade and the eighties saw a boon for him: he designed Conan the Barbarian’s Hyborian age in John Milius’ film of the same name as well as Conan’s weaponry and armour. He was a production artist on Raiders of the Lost Ark, contributing concepts for the Nazi airplanes, designed the interior of the Mothership in the Close Encounters special edition, and he created the initial concepts for the time-travelling DeLorean in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future.

Cobb in costume for his cameo appearance in Conan the Barbarian.

Cobb in costume for his cameo appearance in Conan the Barbarian.

While working on Conan the Barbarian in Spain Cobb would visit Steven Spielberg, who was down the hall working on Raiders of the Lost Ark. “I first met Spielberg when I was working on Alien,”  Cobb told “At one point Spielberg was considered as a possible director for the original Alien. It was just a brief thing, he could never work out his schedule to do it, but he was interested.” With Spielberg Cobb would find himself able to express his directorial ambitions. “I would suggest angles, ideas,” he said, “Verbalize the act of directing — ‘Let’s do this and do that, and we could shoot over his shoulder and then a close-up of the shadow.’ Steven used a lot of my suggestions. I was very flattered.” One day, Spielberg told him, “I think you can direct. I want to back a film for you.”

The film, a sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind built around a nebulous idea that Spielberg had about the Kelly-Hopkinsville UFO Incident, was quickly nixed when the family at the centre of the event threatened to sue. The desire to make the film remained, but it was in need of a new story and characters around which to frame the tale of a terrifying alien visitation. Cobb then pitched a concept to Spielberg and John Sayles wrote the script, titled Night Skies. However, Spielberg hired screenwriter Melissa Mathison (soon to be Harrison Ford’s wife of nineteen years) to rework the story with a new title: E.T. “I realized that Steven had changed the script a lot,” said Cobb. “He went back to a story he had told me about years before: An alien is abandoned and protected by a little boy. It wasn’t scary anymore. It was kind of sweet. Finally, [Spielberg producer] Kathleen Kennedy called to say, ‘Steven doesn’t know how to tell you this, but E.T. is very close to his heart, and he wants to make that his picture next year, and he’s decided to direct it himself. So what we would like to do when you get back is work out another picture for you. Because Steven really wants to back your career.'”

In truth, Cobb was relieved: the new script was far too different from his pitch, far more “cutesy”, and the final film itself too saccharine for his tastes. Spielberg did allow him a cameo in the movie as one of E.T.’s doctors (“I got to carry the little tyke out”) as well as a generous take of the resulting profits. The first cheque to drop through the door amounted to $400,000. “Ron spent all those years doing cartoons and not getting paid,” Robin Love told the LA Times, “and then he gets a million for not doing anything. Friends from Australia always ask, ‘What did you do on ‘E.T.‘?’ And Ron says, ‘I didn’t direct it.'”

In 1985 James Cameron enlisted Cobb to design Hadley’s Hope, the Atmosphere Processor, and some of the Colonial Marine gadgetry for Aliens. Though many Alien stalwarts returned for the sequel (including Brian Johnson, Adrian Biddle, and stuntmen like Eddie Powell among others), Cobb was the sole conceptual artist to provide continuity with the first film.

Collating with James Cameron for the dropship in Aliens.

Collating with James Cameron for the dropship in Aliens. Courtesy of Harry Harris.

“Jim always had a strong vision with all his scripts and features,” said Cobb. “However, he was always open to good ideas from just about anyone (but they had to be damn good ideas). If I could submit an idea or design that collaboratively enhanced his vision (something I always endeavored to do on any film project) Cameron was quite receptive.”

Cobb found working with Cameron fruitful and straightforward enough (“his talent spanned smoothly from science to art, a mix I have always aspired to,” he told JamesCameronOnline) that he also drew concepts for The Abyss (1988) and True Lies (1994). He continued to design for film throughout the nineties and the new millenium, with Total Recall, The Rocketeer, Schwarzenegger’s late nineties effort The 6th Day, the animated Titan A.E., Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 being added to his already impressive oeuvre.

Ron Cobb’s contributions to science fiction and fantasy films from the 70’s onwards has been profound, though he remains relatively obscure in comparison to celebrated figures like Ralph McQuarrie or Stan Winston, and even his early cartooning career remains an often unknown element to fans of his film work — probably due to the immense success of his reinvention from an underground social commentator to a visualiser of some of the most evocative and memorable science-fiction environments, creatures and contraptions of the last four decades.

Ron Cobb at the Offis eClub Xmas Party, December 2015.

Ron Cobb at the Offis eClub Xmas Party, December 2015.


Filed under Alien

Wrapped in Plastic: Kenner’s Alien Toys

Alien figurines being packaged. From Cincinnati magazine, December 1979.

Alien figurines being packaged. From Cincinnati magazine, December 1979.

“I keep trying to imagine it…Alien dolls? I don’t see how they have any merchandising potential whatever. But I’m sure they’ll find it—maybe a little rubber Alien doll that sneaks across the room and bites your foot off. Great for people with kids and pets.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, MediaScene, 1979.

Bizarrely for an R-rated feature, Twentieth Century Fox hoped Alien’s release would encourage the sort of toy craze that had come in the wake of Star Wars (some promotional materials boasted ‘From the producers of Star Wars!’ possibly in a hope to lure kids to the shelves). MediaScene reported the high hopes Fox had pinned on the film’s merchandising, saying that, “The merchandising aspect of Alien is not being left to chance either. Charles Lippincott, whose position was to oversee the licensing and publicity for Star Wars, is performing the same function for Alien.” There were Alien egg puzzles, Alien picture viewers, Nostromo baseball caps, blaster target toys, various Alien puzzle and jigsaw sets and more that you can see in Alien Ads from Yesteryear. But most infamous of all is Kenner’s Alien figurine, released Christmas 1979.

The 18 inch figurine’s appearance was remarkably faithful to the movie’s creature, though perhaps too much so for parents to handle. Sales were reportedly low and the toy poorly constructed: the back-pipes and tail would snap off (not ideal when your packaging reads: ‘Movable tail to swing by!’) and the translucent dome was prone to falling off and going missing.

While adults shook their heads at the distastefulness of trying to make such a monster appeal to young children (another packaging blurb read: ‘Spring loaded arms… to crush its victims!’) I have never seen anyone gifted it grow up and regret its inappropriateness as a child’s toy (here’s one kid who looks absolutely delighted — Alien toys were quite common in stores when I was young, having been born in the late eighties, but I distinctly remember seeing -and wanting- a plastic Freddy Krueger glove, never realising the strangeness of wielding a child murderer’s weapon on the playground.)

Amusingly, Kenner were not allowed to show images of the Alien on their packaging throughout much of 1979, resulting in early promotional materials that replaced the creature with an amorphous cloud from which only the Alien’s hands reached out. One jigsaw set replaced it with a question mark and an explanation to assuage buyers that their children were not being asked to assemble images of punctuation marks.

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While the 1992 toy line would find more success (Alien variations included Gorilla, Bull, Scorpion, Panther and Snake Aliens, and were probably considered hokier as a result) Kenner’s original remains a more memorable and perhaps endearing attempt at rendering the creature in plastic, probably because of the toy’s fidelity to Giger’s original Alien and the inherent strangeness in prohibiting children from seeing a film and yet merchandising said film to them. As such, it remains a popular collectors item, with unboxed figurines going for as much as $2,000 on eBay. Other industrious fans have taken to restoring broken originals, with AVPG’r Windebieste chronicling his restoration of an original 1979 Kenner Alien over at Mego Museum.

Often regarded as a marketing failure, Kenner’s attempt provided a precedent for merchandising R-rated movies for younger audiences. The Terminator endoskeleton, Rambo, and Robocop would all become action figures throughout the late eighties and early nineties, with the latter two even boasting their own cartoon shows — plans for an animated Aliens series were made on the back of the new toy line’s success, and the project even entered production, but never came to fruition.

“One day, I happened to be wondering if I had any impact on the world at large. I was shopping at a drug store and I saw a plastic toy version of the Alien. That is when I realised I had reached out and in some small way, put my mark on history.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, Starlog #228, July 1996.



Filed under Alien

David Cronenberg and David Lynch on Alien

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In David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) a deranged scientist creates a parasite that enters the bodies of his apartment block neighbours thanks to the promiscuity of his young mistress. Spread by sex, the parasites begin to infect the entire building, causing their hosts to react violently against the remaining human occupants until, at the film’s closing, the city of nearby Montreal is at risk of infection and so too, presumably, is the world.

The film contains many Cronenbergian hallmarks: the ugly amalgamations and distortions of flesh, infection via sexual contact, and the uneasiness of eroticism, but it’s also familiar as another riff on invasionary paranoia à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) or a precursor of sorts to the paranoia and rending of flesh seen in John Carpenter’s The Thing remake (1982), or even as an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise (also 1975). But Cronenberg himself was less interested in where his film’s influences came from or what they paralleled and was more concerned with where they were going — and they went, in his estimation, directly into 1979’s Alien.

“I have to say that some of my images like this [parasite] ended up in things like Alien, which was more popular than any of the films I’ve ever made. But the writer of Alien has definitely seen these movies, Dan O’Bannon. The idea of parasites that burst out of your body and uses a fluid and leaps on your face, that’s all in Shivers.”
~ David Cronenberg, David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grünberg, 2006.

From the get-go Cronenberg expressed frustration with Alien. “It has no metaphysics, no philosophy,” he told Fangoria in 1979. “The creature winds up as a man in a crocodile suit who chases a bunch of people around a room. I think that my own films do a lot more in touching a deep seated nerve, more than the simple reaction that you don’t want a crocodile to eat you. Alien was just a $300,000 B-movie with a $10 million budget.” The pivotal chestburster moment also came under fire: “The parasite device isn’t used in a metaphorical way, it wasn’t used to evoke anything,”Cronenberg said. “In Alien, John Hurt has the parasite in him, he goes about his business as usual. In Shivers, the parasite stays inside the people and changes their behaviour and their motives. It’s used for something more than simple shock value.”

But Alien’s lack of philosophy bothered him less than the alleged plagariasm of its writer. “Dan O’Bannon knew my movie,” Cronenberg insisted in an interview with “In a case like that you wouldn’t mind a little credit for it. But beyond that, if you are influential –and I’ve had many young filmmakers say that I was a big influence and sometimes their movies do remind me of my old movies– you take it as a compliment. You obviously touched a nerve. It’s nice to have people be aware of that. But beyond that it’s inevitable; things become communal understandings, let’s say. The whole parasite thing. I mean there are movies called Parasite. But I did it first but, you know, whatever.”

Cronenberg often reiterated that he did not know and had never even met Dan O’Bannon, yet he was resolute that Dan had seen his films and deliberately plagiarised from them. His source, he revealed, was An American Werewolf in London director John Landis. “John Landis told me that [Dan] knew very well what he called ‘the Canadian films’, by which he meant Shivers and Rabid, when he wrote Alien. And so I know he stole all the parasite stuff from Shivers. And Ron Shusett said, ‘He never saw those movies and knows nothing about it’ … Dan O’Bannon later denied that he had ever seen those movies, but John Landis swears that he talked about them all the time and knew them very well.” Cronenberg has told this story several times, always referring to the oblique ‘Canadian films’ which he took to specify his own films. “I mean, everybody steals from everybody else,” says Cronenberg, “but he was apparently a very aggressive sort of hostile character. I don’t know, I’ve never met him.”

But Alien, though it certainly employed body horror (“a human subject dismantled and demolished,” Kelly Hurley defines it, “a human body whose integrity is violated, a human identity whose boundaries are breached from all sides”) merely uses it as a launching pad for its plot rather than as a fulcrum. The creatures in Alien and Shivers (home-grown experiments in the latter, of unknown alien origins in the former) are also quite distinct from one another. The facehugger in Alien is but one transitional stage of the Alien’s lifecycle; the parasites in Cronenberg’s film do not undergo metamorphosis: they slither from body to body in order to spread and survive, whereas the Alien can be more accurately described as a parasitoid or protolean being, defined by Wikipedia as creatures “that begin the growing phase of their lives as parasites, and in particular, typically as internal parasites. As a rule they end that phase of their lives parasitoidally by killing or consuming the host, and then they emerge as free-living adults.”

“As far back as Alien, for example, which totally ripped off things from my movie Shivers – Shivers featured a parasite that lives in your body, bursts out of your chests, jumps onto your face, and jumps down your mouth, and suddenly you see this in a studio film, which was hugely successful, Alien. The writer of the script, Dan O’Bannon, had seen Shivers, we know that he had seen my movie and, shall we say, appropriated it. So this is not new stuff for me.”
~ David Cronenberg, Collider, 2015.

The creation of the facehugger and chestburster has been covered extensively on Strange Shapes, along with the insect influence on the creature’s life-cycle. Dan’s Crohn’s Disease, undiagnosed but certainly afflicting him at the time, also influenced the Alien’s agonising birth process, as did the various comic strips that he had read in his youth, many of which featured alien spores erupting from human bodies to run amok.


‘Defiled’, Death Rattle Vol I, 1972

Despite his distate for Alien, Cronenberg was approached by Fox to direct Alien Resurrection, an offer he found temporarily appealing. “It’s tempting for a minute because they’re begging me to do it,” he told “And it’s Fox, and I’d love to work with Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder. It’d be great fun. [But] the problem with doing a schlocky big-budget horror film or studio film is that it wouldn’t actually be fun for me. I’m innately honest, I think. If I’m gonna do Aliens 4, then I’m gonna deliver Aliens 4. I’m going to try and make it the best version of Aliens 4 I can. So I’m not going to try and subvert it and make it something else, because why spend $80 or $100 million of the studio’s money, and just be deceitful and be fighting them all the time, and have them combat at you, and then end up with something that isn’t really good either way … I actually said to them, ‘You know, I don’t even do sequels to my own movies; why would I do sequels to somebody else’s movies?’ I didn’t do The Fly II. Why would I do Aliens 4?”

There was another famed director by the given name of David who also, apparently, found O’Bannon’s film to be uncomfortably appropriative. David Lynch has never, to my knowledge, publicly spoken about Alien, but HR Giger, eager to work on Lynch’s adaptation of Dune after two failed attempts under Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott, tried to reach out to Lynch in the early 80’s. “Through friends I asked Lynch if he was interested in my co-operation,” Giger told Cinefantastique magazine. “I never heard from him. Later I came to know that he was upset because he thought we copied the chestburster in Alien from his monster baby in Eraserhead, which was not so. Ridley Scott and I hadn’t even seen that film at the time. If one film influenced Alien it was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I would have loved to collaborate with Lynch on Dune but apparently he wanted to do all the designs by himself.”


The Eraserhead (1977) baby, a sickly, mewling creature, is similar to the chestburster in that they are embryonic, apparently serpentine, monsters, but Lynch’s baby frightens because of the juxtaposition between its humanity and inhumanity: it is frighteningly monstrous and yet helpless. The relationship between the viewer and the baby is one of unease, disgust, and pity. No such relationship exists between the creatures of Alien and the film’s viewers: the Alien is an interloper that uses human bodies both brutally and impersonally.

“People have asked [Lynch] about me,” said Giger, “but he isn’t really enthusiastic about my work. I’ve been told that he thinks we stole his Eraserhead baby for the Alien chestburster, but that’s not true. I told Ridley Scott that he should see the film, though he never did. David Lynch said that it was filmed exactly as his was, but it couldn’t have been because Ridley hadn’t seen it! Lynch talked like it was some sort of homage to his work … He doesn’t seem to want to be friendly to me, and I don’t know why.”

Ever gracious, Giger, who took every given opportunity to exalt Lynch’s Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks, finished by saying: “I think he did a great job [with Dune]. I admire Lynch tremendously. I think he’s one of the greatest filmmakers and I would very much like to work for him some time.”


Filed under Alien

Crew Logs: Dan O’Bannon

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Tracing Alien to its origin leads us to many disparate and far-flung places: one is 1940’s Chur, where Hans Ruedi Giger is stumbling upon the museum mummies and dreaming the claustrophobic nightmares that would inspire his art. Another is Teesside, an English chemical and steel hub where the industrial landscape was being soaked up and stored in the imagination of a young boy called Ridley Scott. And another leads to the Ozarks of Southern Missouri, where Dan O’Bannon relegates himself to the back of a school bus with the tomes of HP Lovecraft on his knee and stacks of Weird Fantasy by his side. There are many people whose contribution to Alien is indispensable, but for now these three are the most central, recognisable and pertinent. As for Alien’s beginnings, they lie rooted, undoubtedly, in Dan O’Bannon — removing the film’s director or conceptual artists would have made for a very different movie, but without O’Bannon’s involvement there would have been no grand collaborative effort between this trio, no mind for the Alien to germinate and spring from, and no film at all.


Daniel Thomas O’Bannon was born September 30th, 1946, in Shannon County, Missouri, to parents Thomas Sidney O’Bannon and Bertha Lowenthal O’Bannon. “I grew up in a small town in Missouri named Winona,” Dan told The Washington Post in 1979. “A dreadful place. We moved to St. Louis during my adolescence. That was even worse. If I had my finger on the button, the first place I’d blow up would be St. Louis. The whole medium of social interaction in St. Louis is games of humiliation. The ambience is depression, despair. For me the world is shaped like a funnel and St. Louis is at the bottom. It’s a fight to keep out of it.”

“My father was a carpenter with an IQ in the genius range,” he continued. “He was multi-talented in the arts, but he’d grown up too poor to be able to express himself. He always put people ahead of principles, but my mother was the reverse. She was physically violent. She’d throw me to the wolves for a principle.” Thomas O’Bannon kept a running journal (a habit that Dan would also pick up) that documented the formative years of his son’s life. Within its pages he recounts his son’s birth (Thomas checked his wife into hospital and passed the time seeing a Marx Bros. movie) as well as his flowering imagination:

“This morning we were discussing the green cheese and the man in the moon and kindred subjects. During the discussion the boy came up with the startling information that the man in the moon so loves green cheese (of which the moon is composed) that he eats up the whole moon every twenty-eight days or so and has to order a new one. So far as I know this little notion is original with him. He says he never heard it anywhere. Not bad, huh?”
~ Thomas O’Bannon, ‘The Book of Daniel’, excerpt from Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value.

Danny, as he was known at school, grew up without a television and with Hollywood itself seemingly “as remote as the moon”; the O’Bannons therefore entertained themselves by visiting the local cinema several times a week. “There was one theatre, and a drive-in outside of town,” Dan explained. “Movies were probably the single most important influence of my childhood; I loved them and wanted to make them, but I had no idea how one would go about getting to be a filmmaker.” Meanwhile, he busied his childhood with filmmaking games (his friends serving as stuntmen and actors) and scanning the night skies for UFOs. His father encouraged his wonder for the inexplicable, running a tourist trap outside Winona known locally as Odd Acres that sold magic tricks and promised alien sightings and other celestial phenomena. Dan’s widow Diane O’Bannon told that, “Odd Acres also included things like a stream of water that flowed uphill and an off-kilter room where you could have a picture of yourself taken standing at a gravity-defying angle.” One sign on the Odd Acres property read: ‘Impossible Hill! That strange place! You are tall. You are short. You can’t trust your eyes. And gravity goes crazy!’

In addition to running shop, Dan’s father also encouraged extracurricular mischievousness. “He also helped his father fake UFO landing sites on their acreage and watched as his father took UFO believers and the press around and told them about the landing he had witnessed!” (apparently, a Tom O’Bannon is listed as the witness of a 1957 UFO sighting in Winona, MO — the UFO was revealed to be a chicken brooder. The photograph can be seen in the publication Man-made UFOs 1944-1994.) In other photographs displayed at the Shannon County genealogical website a young Dan can be seen grinning as he seemingly suspends from a ‘gravity-defying angle’ and Bertha O’Bannon’s legs magically depart her torso.

The O'Bannon's at Odd Acres.

The O’Bannon’s at Odd Acres.

Even from a young age Dan was discerning what did and didn’t work for him concerning the horror and sci-fi films that revolved through the local drive-in and theatre. One thing that turned him off was incessant gore and scenes of pointless torture. “There was a lousy, crummy little film called Horrors Of The Black Museum,” he said in 2007, “whose high point was a pair of binoculars that shoved needles into someone’s eyes. I saw that as a kid and I just found it sort of disturbing in the wrong way, just disgusting and unpleasant. You can divide horror movies into two general categories: sadistic or masochistic. In the sadistic films they invite you to enjoy the mutilation and to empathise with the monster. In the masochistic film you are invited to empathise with the victim, and to not like mutilation. Well, I make masochistic horror films.” In addition to critique, he was soaking up whatever he could from the great filmmakers of the 40’s and 50’s. “[Filmmakers] these days [have] the monster doing terrifying things, but there ends up being too much of it,” he explained. “The terror still comes from the ‘in between.’ [Howard] Hawks obviously understood the whole idea of the ‘Terror in Between’, because the creepiest moments of [The Thing From Another World] arose from the interaction of characters between appearances of the monster. You weren’t sure of what the people trapped in that camp would do to each other when faced by the threat from outside.”

Other influences were literary. Specifically, pulp literature and comics. At twelve, Dan came across an anthology of horror tales (“Science Fiction Omnibus, edited by Groff Conklin,” he recalled) that included HP Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space, and a lifelong obsession with Lovecraft’s unique brand of cosmic horror took root. “I stayed up all night reading the thing, and it just knocked my socks off,” he later enthused. “One of the elements in the story is of course, vegetation growing out of season, and when I read it , it was mid-winter and we were living down in the Ozarks. Next day when I got out, the whole ground was covered in snow, and when I went out to look around, I found a single rose growing up through the snow, and it really spooked me, ‘Oh my god.'”

His adoration for Lovecraft would find its ultimate expression in Alien which, as he expressed in his essay ‘Something Perfectly Disgusting’, “Went to where the Old Ones lived, to their very world of origin. That baneful little storm-lashed planetoid halfway across the galaxy was a fragment of the Old Ones’ home world, and the Alien a blood relative of Yog-Sothoth”; but, for now, he contented to dream about being a filmmaker, an actor, or an artist. He would later comment that exerting his creative energies by writing helped him process feelings of anger about his surroundings: his mother was allegedly harsh, and school became unbearable when the affable, playful Dan felt the spotlight suddenly turn against him in a dreadful epiphanic moment. “I could always make people laugh, in high school,” he told The Washington Post. “Then I began to discover that people were laughing at me rather than with me. I got angry. That anger has accelerated. I used to make a lot of jokes, I could stand up on a stage and make people laugh. But I mistook the laughing for people liking me, and I began to get angry … All through my childhood and my teens I was constantly picked on, attacked, assaulted.”

Despite these struggles, O’Bannon was averse to retorting with violence: when a classmate smeared shaving foam in his eyes he gave chase, held him against a locker, but was unable to bring himself to physically strike the bully; years later, an angry girlfriend would point a gun at him (“a .22 Colt varmint pistol”) but all he could do was disarm her and then beat himself with his fists. “I abhor violence,” he explained in ’79. “I don’t think I could portray it if I didn’t abhor it so much.”

The great turning point was 10th grade, I’ll never forget it. I was sitting at a play rehearsal, and I asked an upperclassman why I didn’t have more friends. He said, “If people don’t like me, fuck ’em.” That’s when it began. I went home to think about that. Fuck ’em.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, The Washington Post, 1979.

As a young man Dan enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, the school of fine arts, where he studied with the intention “to be the next Norman Rockwell”, an artist famed for his depictions of American domestic scenes: cozy grandmothers, slumbering mutts, apple-cheeked Boy Scouts and the like. “I soon learned that the world only needed one Norman Rockwell,” he realised, “so I decided to try for the movies.” He enrolled at the University of South California film department, typically acronymised as USC, in 1968.

… Dark Star…

USC at the time was a hotbed of ambitious young would-be filmmakers including, among others, John Milius, Robert Zemeckis, and George Lucas, “who was a year ahead of me and therefore not of my tribe.” Francis Ford Coppola had graduated before O’Bannon’s enrolment, and Steven Spielberg had been rejected admission for poor grades, but graduates tended to hang around after completing their studies (usually to capitalise on the filming equipment and eager volunteers) and they brought similarly talented friends into USC’s orbit, which all coalesced to create an energetic environment that was spilling out as one contributory arm of what would be called ‘New Hollywood’ — it was a revolutionary movement in American cinema, and O’Bannon was in the thick of it. “[W]hen I was studying there the auteur theory was the big thing – the director has to do it all. And I believed them, and in fact I taught myself how to do every job on a movie.” His first student films included 1968’s ‘Good Morning Dan’ (“Set in the then distant future of 2006, an old man reminisces on his days at USC”) and 1969’s ‘Bloodbath’ (“A slovenly young man commits suicide out of curiosity and boredom”); the latter film was shown in a class that included student John Carpenter, who decided to seek out and befriend O’Bannon — the two had already worked together on ‘Good Morning Dan’, on which Carpenter operated the camera, but it was O’Bannon’s later project that compelled Carpenter to strike up a creative relationship.

Carpenter, like Dan, had been exposed to science fiction and horror films as a kid, visiting the cinema to check out the latest in the big wave of monster movies that were besieging the screens throughout the 1950’s. Later, his enrolment at USC would further expand his interest and awe. “We had directors like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and John Ford come down and lecture us,” Carpenter told Deadline in 2014. “It was unbelievable! Roman Polanski was there with his bride, Sharon Tate, in 1968, with Fearless Vampire Killers. To sit and listen to Orson Welles … man, oh, man.”

Dan also found the frequent celebrity drop-ins to USC useful, passing his first script, a Western titled ‘The Devil in Mexico’ (which centred around “the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce into Mexico during the Revolution of 1917”) into Welles’ possession. “I had in mind it would be directed by David Lean,” Dan reminisced. “Orson Welles did see it, liked it, and passed it around, but nothing came of it.” William Froug, a TV writer and producer whose credits included The Twilight Zone and Gilligan’s Island, also met O’Bannon on campus when the young student was passing out copies of his script. “One morning after my USC class was over, one of my students approached me,” he wrote. “Thin, emaciated, skin too pale, he looked like death lurking. He said his name was Dan O’Bannon. His cheeks were sunken, color pallid, his eyes dull. He handed me a screenplay and asked if I would read it.” The screenplay was, again, ‘The Devil in Mexico’. Froug suggested changes and O’Bannon agreed. Froug spent some time reworking and trying to sell the script, but, according to his autobiography, it was quickly picked up by Peter Ustinov, who claimed it as his own, and the film was never made. Still, O’Bannon remained friendly with his former tutor and managed to pay direct homage to him in Dark Star, when his character Sgt. Pinback draws up to the camera and says, “I should tell you my name is not really Sgt. Pinback, my name is Bill Froug.”

In August 1970 Dan met John Carpenter for dinner at the International House of Pancakes on Jefferson Boulevard, just across from USC’s cinema complex. “John told me that he wanted me to act in his graduate 580 project,” Dan explained. “It was to be a science fiction film called ‘The Electric Dutchman’, about four seedy astronauts in a small spaceship who are bombing a sun that is about to go supernova … It was to be twenty minutes long, in black-and-white.” Dan, whose interest in science-fiction had lapsed during his time at Washington University (“I let that kind of fall by the wayside. I was interested in experiencing a ‘real life’”) now jumped at the opportunity: “I said, not only did I want to act in it, I wanted to help him with a lot of other things, like the script and special effects. He accepted, and we embarked.” He now had a project, a collaborator, and a forte. After all, he knew the science-fiction genre “Like the back of my hand.”

In addition to finding a use for his repository of science-fiction know-how, Dan was also happy to get in front of the camera as a performer. “I’d always acted from childhood on,” he told Den of Geek in 2007, “and I was always in theatrical productions at school and then college. It was an obvious thing to do in Dark Star. Since we weren’t paying anybody, the other actors were unreliable in terms of showing up. And I was there and so I acted in the thing.” Dan had also performed in several student films, playing a proto-Michael Myers in Terence Winkless (who later penned The Howling) and Alec Lorimore’s 1971’s Judson’s Release (“A young man returns to a small town and begins to torment a girl who is babysitting a little boy”), a small feature that apparently presaged Halloween. Decades later Carpenter, when told that Dan had once joked about giving up writing to pursue the easier task of acting, replied with earnest that, “O’Bannon’s actually a very good actor. He should pursue it, he could be really good.”

Trouble arose when Dan’s parents decided to cut him off financially and told him to return to Missouri. To keep him in L.A. Carpenter invited the penniless Dan to move into his apartment, and it was there that they bashed ‘The Electric Dutchman’ into shape. Dan had a few ideas to contribute: a cryogenically frozen Captain was one, as was the star-struck Talby’s obsession with the mythical Phoenix Asteroids and the sentient and argumentative bomb from the film’s closing moments. “The way we wrote together was: We would go off separately and write the scenes we liked best, and then John would assemble all the material into its final form.” For his part, Carpenter found his new partner’s input indispensable. “Dan contributed mightily to the tone of the film; many of the funniest moments are his ideas.” They also settled on a new title for their movie: ‘Planetfall’.

The two began searching for a crew to help bring their film together. “I composed the score for my first film Dark Star because I was cheap and fast,” Carpenter told in 2012. “I talked to a couple of other composers but they all seemed weird. One guy had glitter all over him. Not that wearing glitter is a bad thing… it just didn’t inspire confidence.” Though O’Bannon was a confident DIY effects man, he sought greater artistic talents to design the spaceship needed for their movie. For this, he sought cartoonist Ron Cobb, whose bitingly satirical strips for the Los Angeles Free Press had found cult appeal, having been reproduced in counterculture magazines and papers like the Underground Press Syndicate, and who had recently turned to drawing up frightening lizardmen and two-headed golems for magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland.

“I tried to reach Cobb to get him to design the whole film, but he was unreachable,” said O’Bannon. “For weeks his phone rang without an answer, and then it was disconnected, and then I got his new unlisted number but it was invariably answered by one of the girls who were living with him, who always told me he was out. It was impossible. It took another year and a half to track him down and get him to agree to design us a nice, simple little spaceship for our simple little movie. Finally, one night about ten pm, Carpenter and I drove over to Westwood and roused him out of a sound sleep. He was hung over from an LSD trip and I felt kind of guilty, but I had to have those designs. We took him over to an all-night coffee shop and fed him and got him half-way awake, and then he brought out this pad of yellow graph paper on which he had sketched a 3-view plan of our spaceship. It was wonderful! A little surfboard-shaped starcruiser with a flat bottom for atmospheric landings. Very technological looking. Very high class stuff.”

Dan and Ron on pre-production for Alien.

Dan and Ron on pre-production for Alien.

Casting the film with friends and building the sets themselves, Dark Star was completed as a short but expanded into a feature length film. “We were approached by a friend of ours named Jonathan Kaplan, who subsequently produced most of John Carpenter’s movies,” O’Bannon explained. “He was also in film school then and had a somewhat wealthy family, and he said that he would put in some additional money if we would expand it to feature length.” New scenes included some mania with an alien (in reality, a beachball) in addition to other ancillary material that padded out the length. Unfortunately, the extra expense and effort seemed for naught: when the film was released Carpenter and O’Bannon drove to a theatre and asked the manager if they could observe the audience. The manager replied: “What audience? There’s eight people in there.”

Of his Dark Star days, Carpenter told in 2014 that “I was a punk. I didn’t know anything. I thought I did, but I didn’t. That was a baptism of fire, of sorts […] Back in those days I didn’t know anything. We thought we were hot shit, but we weren’t. We were sadly mistaken. I remember getting my first bad review on that film. I’ve had many since, but that was the first one. It was so shocking. That shows how naive I was then […] They said something like, ‘It betrays its dingy origin.’ I remember that line. I thought, Really? Jeez, man.

In 2014 Carpenter told that, “After my first film, Dark Star, I expected the movie industry as a whole to greet me as a savior, pick me up in a limo and take me to a soundstage and anoint me as a director. That didn’t happen. I got an agent out of the first screening of Dark Star, and he said to me, ‘What you need to do is write your way into this business.’ So I started churning out ideas and writing screenplays.” But amid the ego-busting was a silver lining: “Dan O’Bannon and I were almost blinded at the time,” Carpenter told “We thought everything was quite simple, and we made a great feature film. Thank God, because if we had not indulged in this illusion, then we would have also failed in the film business.”

That audiences -whenever they actually gathered- did not laugh at the film’s jokes perturbed O’Bannon, who, in his despondency and dissatisfaction with how Dark Star turned out, decided to take the same premise -a beleaguered and bickering space crew, the meniality of interstellar life, an alien intruder, etc- and infuse it with scares rather than laughs. He had already started preliminary note-taking for Alien in 1972, apparently anticipating at the time that Dark Star would not satisfy him. Other creators would look on Dark Star as a sort of unmined resource. Red Dwarf co-creator Doug Naylor commented that it was a viewing of O’Bannon’s film that spurred the idea of a dingy space comedy. “We’d seen Dark Star,” Naylor told  Starburst magazine, “I remember remarking to Rob [Grant, co-creator] at the time that I couldn’t believe no-one had done a sitcom like that because it seemed like such a good thing to do. So it was the old memory of Dark Star.”

While Dan was at least encouraged by Dark Star enough to revisit and remold it into Alien, Carpenter, for his part, was so disappointed that he abandoned its premise altogether. “I don’t think I ever want to get near that idea again” he told in 2013. “Oh brother, once was enough.”

…and Dune

Dark Star’s greatest legacy wasn’t its lacklustre release and reception, or even its modern popularity (it remains firmly cult) but how it engendered Dan’s fruitful artistic collaborations with Ron Shusett, with whom he would write both Alien and Total Recall. Shusett told that, “When I saw [Dark Star] I said, ‘Wow, I should be working with this guy’. I hadn’t made any movies and I had been struggling for four or five years at that point.” Shusett tracked O’Bannon down, finding him living in an attic at USC, and the two agreed to work, firstly on Dan’s own project, Star Beast, later titled Alien, before tackling Total Recall, which Shusett had optioned and brought to the table.

The process of scripting the film has been covered extensively in Writing Alien, but in brief before it was finished Dan was contacted by Chilean avant-garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who had seen Dark Star and, impressed by O’Bannon’s ability to multi-task and concoct low-fi visuals, decided to hire him to take charge of the special effects on his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s opus, Dune. O’Bannon accepted, and set off for Paris.


O’Bannon’s time in Paris introduced him not only to Swiss artist HR Giger but also to English artist Chris Foss and French comic artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, all of whom would later work on Alien. In HR Giger Dan found an utterly unique artistic sensibility that, he reckoned, if brought to the cinema could be transformative. And in Moebius he found another collaborator with whom he would, with no inkling at the time, influence science-fiction for decades to come. “After a while [Moebius] got tired of me looking over his shoulder,” explained Dan, who had been impressed by the talents Jodorowsky had managed to summon for the film, “so he asked me to go and write him a comic-book story, a graphic story that he could publish in his magazine, Metal Hurlant.” The strip that he concocted he called The Long Tomorrow. “It was of course a film noir in the future. I didn’t think about it for many months until an American publisher decided to publish Metal Hurlant in an English-language edition, and call it Heavy Metal.”

“Dan came to Paris. Bearded, dressed in a wild style, the typical Californian post-hippie. His real work would begin at the time of shooting, on the models, on the hardware props. As we were still in the stage of preparations and concepts, there was almost nothing to do and he was bored stiff. To kill time, he drew. Dan is best known as a script writer, but is an excellent cartoonist. If he had wished, he could have been a professional graphic artist. One day, he showed me what he was drawing. It was the story board of The Long Tomorrow. A classic police story, but situated in the future. I was enthusiastic.”
~ Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, The Long Tomorrow introduction.

Dan had originally drawn The Long Tomorrow himself, but Moebius, impressed, asked for free rein to redesign the strip. “I scrupulously followed Dan’s story,” said Moebius, though he admired Dan’s artwork enough that he claimed, “One day I wish we could publish our two versions side by side. As the strip has pleased everyone, I asked Dan about a sequel, but it did not get his attention, so was simply an adventure I never designed.” Their work, initiated as a distraction, would become the visual inspiration for later landmark science-fiction movies and comics, including Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and some have pointed to what looks like the imperial probe droid from The Empire Strikes Back tucked away within The Long Tomorrow as well. The most obvious and touted influence is 1982’s Blade Runner. Indeed, Ridley told Film Comment journalist Harlan Kennedy in 1982, “My concept of Blade Runner linked up to a comic strip I’d seen [Moebius] do a long time ago. It was called The Long Tomorrow, and I think Dan O’Bannon wrote it.” Ridley again mined The Long Tomorrow for imagery in 2012’s Prometheus and an alien from the comic known as an Arcturian may have informed a gag in Aliens.


“It’s entirely fair to say,” stated Gibson, “and I’ve said it before, that the way Neuromancer-the-novel ‘looks’ was influenced in large part by some of the artwork I saw in Heavy Metal. I assume that this must also be true of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and all other artefacts of the style sometimes dubbed ‘cyberpunk’.” Dan commented on The Long Tomorrow‘s influence in a 2007 documentary on Jean Giraud. “Ridley kind of did an unauthorised borrowing of that city for Blade Runner, and he’s right – it does make a good image!” Moebius himself was asked to contribute to the film, but couldn’t, stating that he is “very happy, touched even, that my collaboration with Dan became one of the visual references of the film.”

Jodorowsky’s Dune fell apart before production could begin, with Jodorowsky blaming American theatre managers who balked at the thought of a European film sharing as many screens as an American one, and Chris Foss elaborating that the French production company pulled funding after it became apparent that American co-financers were not likely to be found after failed attempts by Jodorowsky to procure them. The budget was already extraordinary, the imaginations of the filmmakers seemed beyond reining in, and Camera One lost the nerve to bankroll the project. Dune would later find its way to the screens in 1984 under the auspices of David Lynch; though he succeeded in making the movie, Lynch would write it off as a failure, as did audiences and critics. But the Dune days, though they seemed like yet another stumbling block, would turn out, as Dark Star did, to be a stepping stone for greater opportunities. Upon returning to the United States O’Bannon found himself broke and living on Ron Shusett’s couch, but a phonecall from Gary Kurtz, who was producing Star Wars, gave him enough money to rent his own apartment. Kurtz had been impressed by O’Bannon’s whizz-kiddery on Dark Star (which included what is cited to be the first ‘hyperspace’ effect as the stars rush past a spaceship entering lightspeed) and had wanted him to come aboard Star Wars earlier, but Dan had already committed himself to Dune. “Kurtz called me again and said, ‘Well, Star Wars is just about finished, but we still need some people to do special effects work, to do clean-up. Are you interested?’ Since that time I was absolutely flat-broke, I was very interested. So I went to work on Star Wars for a few months doing computer graphics.”

Eventually, Dan and Shusett managed to finish the Alien screenplay and brought it to Roger Corman, who offered to finance the project. “Everybody would think a goddamn lizard coming out of somebody’s chest is nuts,” said Shusett. “Corman said, ‘Yes, I’ll give you $750,000 to do it right now.’ Right before we signed the contract we accidentally got the movie from Fox, which was the first studio we showed it to. Corman was fine, he said, ‘God bless you! If you can do it on a big budget. It will be someone else I’ve discovered. Dan and Ron. I don’t resent you.’ It did turn out to have a huge impact on cinema and we were ready to do it for $750,000.”


Alien had been brought to the attention of Twentieth Century Fox by Brandywine producers Walter Hill and David Giler. The duo rewrote the original script, changing the names and removing the alien elements, all in an effort to craft a visceral, stripped down space thriller. The pyramids, alien hieroglyphs and civilisations were, Hill thought, too hokey, too von Däniken. They excised these elements and their redraft saw Fox greenlight the film. O’Bannon was hired as a ‘visual design consultant’ for the film, a position that Giler mocked but which paid dividends for the production: O’Bannon was able to insist that Ron Cobb, Chris Foss, and HR Giger be hired to design the film’s environments, characters and creatures. Moebius would later briefly join at director Ridley Scott’s behest. The studio happily accepted Cobb and Foss, but balked at Giger’s artwork. O’Bannon had already taken the initiative to pay Giger for some conceptual designs, but the Swiss artist would not be formally hired -or it seems, accepted- by the studio until Ridley Scott came aboard and Dan rushed to show him Giger’s work. “He’s great,” Scott said of O’Bannon in Fantastic Films. “A really sweet guy. And, I was soon to realise, a real science-fiction freak … He brought in a book by the Swiss artist HR Giger. It’s called Necronomicon … I thought, ‘If we can build that, that’s it.’ I was stunned, really. I flipped. Literally flipped. And O’Bannon lit up like a lightbulb, shining like a quartz iodine. I realised I was dealing with a real SF freak, which I’d never come across before. I thought, ‘My god, I have an egg-head here for this field.’”

Not only did O’Bannon introduce Ridley to the artwork of HR Giger, but he also, according to Cobb, rewrote much of the script on the set. The initial pre-production rewrites by Walter Hill and David Giler removed many of the elements from Dan’s script that wound up in the film, such as the Space Jockey (a human pilot in their version), the alien pyramid and egg silo (government installations in their version; combined wth the derelict craft in the film) and the Alien was retooled as an experimental biological weapon. Other purported rewrites were bizarre, pitting the Alien against a variety of historical figures. “I think that the real problems were in Dan’s sphere,” said Cobb, “because of what [Giler and Hill] did with the rewriting. It’s terrible, sloppy revisions, some of them pointless. It was very difficult for Dan to tighten the thing back up to keep it consistent and have it make sense.” Both Shusett and O’Bannon were alarmed at the content of the rewrites, but had little to no say on such issues, so, they took the original draft to Ridley himself. Of that attempt, Shusett said, “Ridley read [the original script] and went, ‘Oh yes. We have to go back to the first way. Definitely.’”

Once the film was in production at Pinewood Studios O’Bannon revealed that David Giler “left for mysterious reasons”, apparently having left script rewrites unfinished and, since Walter Hill had stayed in the States, left the film with no on-set writer to untangle any problems with the script, which was in a state of fluctuation due to time and budget concerns. “And finally at the last minute,” said O’Bannon, “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.’ [So] there were two weeks of frantic mutual work between all of us, trying to put the script into a shape that they liked. By the time we got done, it was maybe 80% of the what the original draft was. What we got on the screen was actually very close to the original draft.” Cobb told Starburst magazine at the time that, “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.”

Years later Cobb would add that, “The final film is not the film that Dan and I would have made, or Dan, Giger, and I or Ron Shusett. It’s not exactly that film, but it is close enough to Dan and Ron’s. They stayed there and fought for it inch by inch, day by day to keep it from going too far from the original concept.”


A 1979 Washington Post interview found O’Bannon pained but gleeful that Alien had shocked audiences so thoroughly — “O’Bannon meant the movie as an ‘attack’ on the audience,” it read. “He wanted to ‘get even,’ he says, for the way they scorned him for his first movie, Dark Star. He wanted to ‘beat the stuffing’ out of us, he says. He means it.”

The aftermath of Alien’s release saw Dan cut a solitary, frustrated figure in the media. His propensity to say what he thought, belligerently if need be, alienated him from many in Hollywood. “I’m used to being alone now,” he told The Washington Post. He also added that despite managing to turn one failure around into a bona fide success by coming at it from a different angle, Dark Star was still “a trauma from which I have yet to recover.”

More concerning was his health: journalists and filmmaking friends occasionally detailed Dan’s struggle with what was eventually revealed to be Crohn’s Disease, for which he underwent extensive surgeries and periods of convalescence. For many years he suffered with no diagnosis or alleviating treatment. “O’Bannon explained that he suffered from a rare disease that produces severe abdominal inflammation and accompanying pain,” noted his former tutor, William Froug. “Doctors had told him it was inflammatory bowel syndrome, and it was genetic … For O’Bannon, poverty and pain were nuisances he would endure as the price of success. ‘Every dime I can scrape together goes to pay doctors,’ he told me with some bitterness.”Jason Zinoman writes in Shock Value that Dan’s doctors convinced him his bouts of agony were due to appendicitis, but a subsequent surgery didn’t stop the pain. “It wasn’t diagnosed correctly until 1980,” Zinoman writes, “but for years the incurable condition disrupted the normal process of digestion, inflaming his bowels, shortening his gut, cutting off the transit of food through his belly.”

Chris Foss likewise related to Den of Geek that Dan had suffered a particularly agonising incident after eating junk food, but he also added that O’Bannon , as he had with his everyday frustrations, managed to derive some creative output from his painful experiences. “Long before he came to Paris,” Foss said, “he ate some fast food and woke up in the night in incredible pain and actually had to be taken to hospital; and he imagined that there was a ‘beast’ inside him. And that was exactly where [the chestburster] came from.” HR Giger corroborated this in an 1999 interview, saying, “Dan O’Bannon, when he was writing the script, had a stomach pain and he wanted the pain to go away and came up with the idea of the pain leaving through the stomach, so he invented that.” According to The New York Times, O’Bannon also told them: “The idea for the monster in Alien originally came from a stomach-ache I had.” Much of his initial wage from Twentieth Century Fox was used up paying off his medical expenses. “I’d been under much stress and other problems plus not taking care of myself,” he said, “that I came down with a very bad stomach ailment in 1977. I was sick a great deal of that year, I was in and out of the hospital.”

Alien’s production had provided a brief respite; O’Bannon suffered little ill-health during his time in England, having been invigorated by the process of making a film that he himself had imagined. “I was stricken with a debilitating stomach disease still undiagnosed and spent most of ’77 in hospital making decisions by phone,” he told Media Scene in ’79. “So I was feeling really miserable and in intense pain when Gordon Carroll called up and says, ‘We’re all going to London to make Alien. Let’s go!’ I groaned and bitched, but everybody persuaded me I’d better do it. I’d already spent thousands of dollars from my Alien option and preliminary money on medical bills, and it looked like I’d need more, so I went to England. Lo and behold, in the process of working, I made what appears to be a complete recovery. It was the first time I’d felt normal in better than a year.” In the time between the film’s completion and release O’Bannon revealed that loneliness, dissatisfaction, and possibly the pain of his stomach ailment sent him somewhat off the track. “Sometimes, I like to get totally stoned out of my mind,” he said. “Liquor, marijuana, everything. Just get completely stoned, and go to some sleazy strip joint and spend all night watching the girls dance.”


“So he’s rich. Famous. Vindicated. If it weren’t for his stomach attacks, he might get his first shot at happiness; but they started coming on during the last year of work in the movie, incredible gut pain and nausea that the doctors, after endless scans and probes, found no cause for, whatsoever. The only cure is to shoot him full of Demerol and feed him intravenously. He just got out of the hospital a few weeks ago after one bout, but his worst attack came during the sneak-previews – one of the preview cities being his hometown of St. Louis, ironically enough.”
~ Henry Allen, The Washington Post, July 29th 1979.

During his interview journalist Henry Allen noticed that O’Bannon sat with his trousers unzipped; this was to ease the pain he felt from doubling over or sitting in a prone position. When Froug interviewed Dan for his 1991 book The New Screenwriter Looks at The New Screenwriter, he noted that he was “hooked up to a morphine drip while agitatedly pacing his UCLA hospital room.” But despite the agony, O’Bannon kept busy, all the whole plotting his next script. “O’Bannon continued to write,” said Froug. “Writers write because they can’t not write, they don’t waste time thinking about what sold or what didn’t. Regardless of the outcome, they put the seat of their pants back down on the seat of the chair and keep writing.”

His struggles with Crohn’s made travel difficult; stress only exacerbated his condition, and assuming the mantle of director in such straits would have been to invite tremendous physical agony and humiliation. In the 1980’s British journalist Neil Norman interviewed him and related that “Dan O”Bannon is a sick man. Shortly after my visit he had a date with a surgeon who was going to remove a large section of his bowels. Drawn and grey with pain, he was describing in minute detail the plot of his next film to someone on the other end of his radio telephone.” But the 1980’s also saw Dan find equilibrium in his personal life, marrying his wife Diane in 1986 after first meeting at USC back in 1971. “Dan was too wild for me in the early days,” Diane said of their early years, “and he was completely focused on his career. By the time he had directed Return of the Living Dead he’d calmed down a bit so when he asked me to marry him I said yes.” His resolve to work, to exert and express himself creatively, never waned. “I’m not tough,” he told The Face in 1986. “God did not mean for me to be a physical man of iron. He meant for me to be a mind. Anything I do in life is a compromise because whatever I do that I like, there will be something about me that makes it difficult. My health problems do not affect my ability to work. No matter how much pain I’m in it never stops me writing and it never affects the quality of my work. Part of this is because writing is a narcotic. When I don’t feel well, it is a way to escape from the pain.”

“I may write another script, to direct myself,” he had told Fantastic Films in ’79, “but I’m never going to get into hassle I got into Alien.” Despite this disavowal, and despite his misgivings about sequels, O’Bannon would further cement his cult success when he directed 1985’s ‘off-shoot sequel’ The Return of the Living Dead; the producers, for legal reasons, encouraged him to make it as different from George Romero’s original Dead films as he could. O’Bannon gave the film a comedic tone that distanced it from the doomy atmosphere of the original Dead films and introduced zombies that hungered for brains and ran after their victims instead of shambling, decades before Danny Boyle and Zack Snyder featured similarly athletic zombies in 28 Days Later (2002) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) respectively. “I was watching TV and there’s some young director who has done a zombie movie very recently,” Dan told Den of Geek in 2007, “he was congratulating himself on inventing the idea of swiftly-moving zombies. And I thought, ‘Hmmm, I guess he’s never seen Return Of The Living Dead.’ Apparently we both invented it.”

The long-gestating Total Recall, released in 1990, some fourteen years after its writers first met (Ron Cobb was also involved) would not be the last film that Dan contributed to, but it certainly topped off his achievements with aplomb; the film was critically and commercially successful, is considered one of Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarznegger’s best films, and is, perhaps appropriately, thought of as one of the last of its kind –a science-fiction action spectacle with brain, brawn, and the last to use many ‘extinct’ practical effects and one of the first to utilise many digital effects that are common today.

Dan O’Bannon’s fascination with the macabre may be said to have originated in his discovery of Lovecraft -his sense of wonder and love of science fiction seem to have already been there, instilled in him by his father- and the story which ignited his fascination, The Colour Out of Space, certainly stuck with him. HR Giger told Cinefantastique in 1988 that Dan kept “telling me he would like to do Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space with me as soon as he’s able to raise the necessary funds. That could be interesting because he’s definitely one of the greatest Lovecraft experts around.” Unfortunately, the passion project never materialised. John Carpenter likewise had trouble selling the idea. “I tried to pitch an NBC mini-series, The Colour Out of Space, and they didn’t really care,” he told in 2008. “They’d read it and say, ‘What is this shit?’ They don’t get it. They don’t dig it.” Despite Lovecraft’s immense influence on filmmakers, Carpenter opined to in 2013 that “There really hasn’t been a good Lovecraft movie. Well, mine [Mouth of Madness], but that wasn’t really picked up.” In summer 2009 Dan recieved the Howie Award, presented “for his lifelong promotion of the work and themes of writer HP Lovecraft.”

Dan O’Bannon passed away December 17th, 2009, after a prolonged struggle with Crohn’s Disease. For much of his life his forthrightness and unapologetic honesty rubbed many the wrong way and reduced many bridges to smoke and rubble, and though he was not a familiar name like Spielberg or Lucas, his death prompted odes from science-fiction and horror fans and outlets who testified to his work and efforts on Dark Star, the aborted Dune, Star Wars, Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, and Total Recall. “Jason Zinoman,” says Diane O’Bannon, “who interviewed Dan for Jason’s upcoming book ‘The Monster Problem,’ told me after he died that Dan had said to him ‘my wife understands me.’ I think that is the greatest compliment a wife can hear.”

“I would say Dan O’Bannon is probably one of the most important and most overlooked individuals, especially in horror, but in movies in general,” says Dino Everett, the archivist at USC who uncovered many of O’Bannon’s student films. “From the research I did compiling this project I soon learned that O’Bannon was this unsung hero, not only of modern horror, but also for his time here at USC. His work here in the 1960’s was really quite advanced and ahead of its time compared to many of his classmates, and he seemed to not only be a jack of all trades, such as writer, director, actor, makeup and effects, but also seemed to be a one man creativity catalyst contributing often to his fellow classmates’ projects.

The other thing I learned through all of this was that he was a fiercely loyal individual and showed a caring side that many might not suspect. In the 1990’s an old classmate of Carpenter and O’Bannon’s named Charles Adair (who made the zombie film The Demon, included in this project) was in failing health and in need of funds for his medical bills. O’Bannon co-wrote a script with Adair for a horror project called Bleeders (1997) and gave Adair all of the profits made from the writing job to help with the bills.”

Matt Lohr, who helped shepherd Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure to print in 2012, said of his mentor, “I always thought it was ironic that Dan died the morning Avatar came out. Several months later, Avatar went on to become a Best Picture nominee at the Academy Awards. If there was no Dan O’Bannon, or people like Dan, then Avatar wouldn’t get nominated at the Academy Awards. Dan elevated a genre through his respect for it. He elevated it in the eyes of others so they could say, ‘Yes, this movie has spaceships, monsters, and aliens, and it’s one of the best pictures of the year.’ And Dan’s one of the reasons we have that.”

See also: Interview with Dan O’Bannon


Filed under Alien

Alien Seed: Event Horizon


“I’ve been waiting to do a movie with Aliens in it since I was at school, since the first Alien movie came out, since I fell in love with Sigourney Weaver and since the Alien scared the hell out of me. I’ve been obsessed with Aliens for a while.”
Paul Anderson, Joblo, 2002.

Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon (1997) has attained a sort of cult appeal since its release; not the laudatory reappraisial that gradually saw films like 2001 and Blade Runner overcome their initial middling reviews and become certified classics, nor the kind that catapulted The Rocky Horror Picture Show into the midnight movie pantheon, nor even the slow rehabilitation that Alien 3 seems to be undergoing, yet it’s critical consensus among horror and sci-fi fans has become somewhat respectable.

Much of Event Horizon’s appeal, even its most ardent fans will admit, lies in what it liberally borrows from other movies — the story cribs from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and its imagery and even some dialogue derive from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). There are entire shots lifted directly from Alien, The Shining, and Stargate. The film’s flashlights emulate the look of the Alien derelict’s laser ‘net’; the Gravity Drive even feels, not to its detriment, like Event Horizon’s very own Space Jockey chamber set-piece. Not to mention a variety of production similarities: the film’s cinematographer, Adrian Biddle, started out as a focus puller for Alien before serving as Aliens’ cinematographer after a recommendation from Ridley Scott, leading to his turn on Anderson’s film. Like Alien and Outland before it, there was also gender-swapping between a male to a female character: “I’ve always tried to put strong women in my movies,” Anderson told Collider in 2008. “Actually, in Event Horizon, Jolie Richardson’s character, I think, was originally written as a man and then we retooled that character so she could play it.” Alien and Alien 3 editor Terry Rawlings even contributed, providing the cut between Sam Neill’s character shaving and the window blinds snapping open at the beginning of the movie. Production designer Joseph Bennet referred to the film as “an Alien film without the Alien.”

When designing the Event Horizon ship itself, models designer David Sharpe explained that “What we did was to scan elements of Notre Dame Cathedral into the computer, so the thruster pods at the side were actually towers from Notre Dame … when you pull back, you see the crucifix hanging above Neptune.” Likewise, Alien conceptual artist Ron Cobb explained that “Ridley saw the [Nostromo] very much as a metaphor for a Gothic castle, or a WWII submarine.” Ridley himself commented that he had drawn the Nostromo’s rig with “the vague idea that it would resemble a floating inverted cathedral.” Event Horizon‘s filmmakers were not shy about the aesthetic similarities between their film and Scott’s: the DVD commentary features producer Jeremy Bolt observing his film’s ship and commenting, “It’s not completely pristine, it’s kinda like the ship in Alien,” with Anderson also admitting that “Yeah, we were obviously very influenced by the look of the Nostromo when it came to designing this, you know, like that grubby realistic view of the future.”

Gravity Drive Chamber

“If you’re going into outer space you’ve got to have a very specific, exciting design concept. You can’t be sub-standard Alien or sub-standard Blade Runner.”
~ Paul W.S. Anderson.

However, there was an effort on the part of the filmmakers to acknowledge Alien’s influence on their film but also to delineate the differences between them. Anderson instead stressed its relation to Tarkovsy’s Solaris. “I love movies like Solaris, the original Solaris,” he told Grantland in 2014, “the script clearly draws from [it]. Those kind of meditative European films that are unsettling, but don’t really play to a modern audience. By adding that kind of visceral thrill, that’s making it my own.” Anderson also spoke about Tarkovsky’s film with Starlog back in 1997, saying, “If you took Solaris and turned it into an American action movie, you may end up with Event Horizon. There are many similarities between these two films, but we’re not three and a half hours long and we have much better FX.” He was also eager to promote the film as an ode to Kubrick’s The Shining. “It’s like The Shining in space,” he is quoted in ‘The Complete Kubrick’. “But instead of the Overlook Hotel, we have the Event Horizon.”

Anderson also explained that his film’s threat was, unlike Alien’s, supernatural as well as psychological – the evil didn’t exist as a concrete physical entity, but rather emanated from the Gravity Drive to possess the ship. According to the director, Event Horizon’s shell was admittedly very Alien, but the engine was more akin to classic haunting movies. “For me, what makes the movie really original is that you’re expecting another monster movie,” Anderson told Starlog in 1997, “another variation of Alien, and that’s not what you get at all. Instead, you get a very scary psychological horror movie.”

The film’s original screenwriter, Philip Eisner, also intended for the film to be a homage to older haunted house films, rather than a direct derivation of Alien. “When I came up with the idea for Event Horizon, I was inspired by The Haunting, The Shining, and The Abyss,” Eisner is quoted in ‘Cool Million: How to Become a Million-Dollar Screenwriter’. Inspired by Michael Biehn’s turn as Lt. Coffey in Cameron’s claustrophobc underwater thriller, Eisner decided to transpose the action into the orbit of Neptune. Biehn’s character also informed Dr. Weir’s steady corruption. “I was fascinated by a character who was going insane in a hostile environment. And he wasn’t evil, he was a good guy.”

Event Horizon is a film that frightened me when I first saw it in the late nineties but whose effect has diminished with every rewatch – what is most frustrating about it is a frustration that I share with Anderson himself – they both have potential that is quickly squandered: Anderson’s Mortal Kombat (1995) is still a great piece of work: not that the videogame called for an adaptation that was anything greater than Bloodsport (1988) or the like, but he managed to nail the Kung Fu cheese of the source material without almost capsizing the whole project as he would with the many Resident Evil films. There isn’t much else in Anderson’s body of work to cherish, but despite my antipathy for, say, Alien vs. Predator, that film still manages to showcase Anderson’s knack for a great shot — the opening moments, featuring a satellite that could be mistaken for the silhoutte of an Alien Queen, impresses me every time I see it.

Likewise, Event Horizon has great leads, great production design, a surprising fidelity to model work despite some shoddy (by today’s standards) CG, but an at-times utterly mismatched score or tone, telegraphed jump scares and an inability to transform its influences into something greater (for example, Alien itself borrowed much of its plot and set-pieces from older B-movies, as did genre classics like Star Wars.) While the supporting cast is good, Richard T. Jones’ character merely exists to yelp comically and he Wayanses his performance during the tenser moments of the film, punctuating the third act’s doomy atmosphere with his propelling through space and yelling, “I’m coming back, motherfuckas!” (should an audience really be compelled to laugh during a horror flick’s third act?) His reappearance at the Event Horizon and interruption of Dr Weir seems spliced in from a spoof and the tonal mismatch almost tanks the scene.

The film was heavily cut by the studio prior to its release and some suggest that restoring deleted footage of gory scenes would make for a better film, but while I’m as interested in seeing that as I am in Hellraiser II‘s once-lost surgery scenes (read: very), I doubt there was much depth lopped off. Still, the movie remains a point of interest and entertainment for many sci-fi and horror fans who acknowledge its shortcomings but appreciate Anderson’s ability to wring out a good image and the first act’s atmosphere, as well as the strong leads in Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill (both are, frankly, great, as well as great fun.) avpalienandersonsitdown

After Event Horizon’s cult success and Anderson’s reputation with genre work was cemented, he was given what one interviewer called “the poisoned chalice” that was 2003’s Alien vs Predator. Anderson approached the project with much enthusiasm and a bag of ideas, pitching the plot to Fox executives and securing wrting and directing duties. “It’s the coolest cinema franchise out there,” Anderson told in 2002, “and Predator is the baddest hunter in the universe. So the idea of combining the two of them is just phenomenal! It will be a stand-alone franchise. It will not be a continuation of the Alien franchise.”

Anderson’s AVP was followed in 2007 by Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, directed by the Brothers Strause. “That movie showed what a good job we’d done with the first movie,” Anderson told Grantland in 2014. “It’s like, OK, you can pick apart my AVP, but take a look at that one and then maybe watch my movie again and you’ll have a new appreciation for it.”


Filed under Alien