“Sunday, August 13th, 1978: Shusett wants to include my painting ‘Hieroglyphics’ in the film. I talked to Ridley about this. He said that the hallway leading to the cockpit might be a possible site for the painting.”
HR Giger’s Alien Diaries.
The hieroglyph depicting the Alien’s life-cycle was designed by HR Giger and was planned to be shown in the original pyramid sequences. When Kane descends into the structure’s breeding chamber his torchlight was to illuminate a series of images, but their messages were to fatally elude him. “He flashes his datastick around,” reads O’Bannon’s script, “The beam reveals that he is in a stone room. Strange hieroglyphics are carved into the walls. They have a primitive, religious appearance. Row after row of pictograms stretch from floor to ceiling, some epic history in an unknown language. Huge religious symbols dominate one wall.”
The imagery here very directly recalls passages from HP Lovecraft’s The Nameless City, in which an errant traveller stumbles inside an ancient city belonging to some primitive, non-human race. He deduces their history by inspecting the wealth of hieroglyphs that they have left behind. “Rich, vivid, and daringly fantastic designs and pictures formed a continuous scheme of mural paintings whose lines and colours were beyond description,” reads Lovecraft’s story. A feeling of impending disaster is also prevalent: “An ancientness so vast that measurement is feeble seemed to leer down from the primal stones and rock-hewn temples of the nameless city … Of what could have happened in the geological ages since the paintings ceased and the death-hating race resentfully succumbed to decay, no man might say. Life had once teemed in these caverns; now I was alone with vivid relics, and I trembled to think of the countless ages through which these relics had kept a silent deserted vigil.”
Lovecraft left an indelible impression on O’Bannon, who was, according to HR Giger, one of the most proficient Lovecraft scholars around. The scenes of an ancient, bygone race and soon-to-be-doomed explorers venturing into their cities was a staple of Lovecraft, and is the crux upon which Alien is built. “It’s unbelievable!” O’Bannon’s Kane exclaims over the radio. “It’s like some kind of tomb… some primitive religion.”
Inside the chamber is a pedestal upon which are a collection of “leathery urns or jars.” He pays some attention to these, but his attention is again captured by the temple’s glyphs. “Broussard [Kane’s original name] is moving his light along the row of hieroglyphics on the wall. They depict stylised drawings of strange monsters.” Whilst his attention is on the alien art, one of the urns/jars opens up, and a facehugger attacks and subdues him.
Later, after Kane has been returned to the ship, his crew mates look at the recordings of the temple made by his data stick. “I personally can’t make any sense of it,” says Captain Standard (later Dallas) when looking at the alien imagery. Melkonis (Lambert) offers the view that “It’s a crude symbolic language – looks primitive.”
Much later, when the Alien has erupted and grown and began its rampage, the crew decide to look over the hieroglyphics again:
Roby begins to punch buttons; the photographs of the hieroglyphics appear on some of the screens.
ROBY: Can you make out any pattern in all that?
STANDARD (baffled): Well… yes… there’s a pattern… but it’s meaningless to me.
ROBY: I know it looks like a senseless jumble, but if you look closely, there are recognizable forms.
HUNTER: Recognizable! In that?
ROBY: In symbolic form… very stylized… but if you stare at it, you can see some of the different creatures we’ve been dealing with.
HUNTER: Well… I suppose that star-shaped thing could be the parasite that got on Broussard. Is that what you mean?
ROBY: And right next to it, that oval design with the markings — it’s a dead ringer for the spore casings.
STANDARD: That next thing there — six legs, tentacles — that’s the thing we saw in the food locker.
ROBY: So the next step should be –
HUNTER: — The big one. And there it is.
Out of meaningless geometric symbols on a wall, it has become possible to recognize each stage in the alien’s life cycle.
ROBY: This is all the same creature. We’re seeing the different stages in its life-cycle.
STANDARD: Then that tomb… must have been some kind of fertility temple… where they stored their eggs, and maybe held mating rituals…
HUNTER: … And Broussard got caught in their reproductive cycle.
ROBY: You will notice, though, that there are no more phases. Only four forms are shown. After that the pattern repeats.
STANDARD: Which presumably means…
ROBY: … More spores coming.
Any sort of ‘prognosis’ scene was ultimately cut from the movie, a fact that Ridley Scott somewhat lamented. “What I missed most of all was the absence of a prognosis scene,” he said. “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.” He finished by adding, “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,” (as we know, the origin of the eggs was given an explanation in Aliens in the form of the Queen, which Scott went on to call “a very good idea.”)
The life-cycle mural was eventually designed by HR Giger, whose contribution features an arched biomechanoid birthing an egg, as well as the subsequent stages of the egg and embryo’s development. The mural itself was moved from the pyramid and into the derelict when these two locations were combined.
To the bottom left of the images we can see the behemoth biomechanoid’s feet, tracing up to its backside in the top left, the beginnings of its torso, a break in its body at the top centre from which an Alien egg is ‘beamed’ down, then we continue on to its shoulders at the top right, a hint of its elongated head, its lower jaw, and then we fall down to its hands in the bottom right. The space explorers/Jockeys investigate the egg; a facehugger leaps forth; and a chestburster is born at the bottom of the image.
The arched biomechanoid being is not so far removed from the other biomechanoids that feature throughout Giger’s Necronomicon and his other works, and it is quite close to the Alien itself. We have the long limbs, metallic/bony structure, an elongated head and a familiar Giger-biomechanoid mouth.
Giger’s completed hieroglyphic was shot in a piece of test footage showing a torch beam hovering over the life-cycle of the Alien. The rushes can be seen here, overlaid with O’Bannon explaining the ideas behind the creature’s parasitic nature. In the book Giger’s Alien, the artist talks about having viewed rushes of the mural. “The previous day rushes are shown,” he says in the entry dated August 17th, 1978. “A test is made of my hieroglyphs picture. Scott comments, ‘It works!'”
With the test being satisfactory, the production looked for a place within the derelict to show it off. “A place for it has been found in the ‘mineshaft’,” said Giger to his dissatisfaction.
“Wednesday, August 16th, 1978: There was a discussion about where to place the image. To me the only option is the corridor of the Alien spacecraft, which has been brutally altered. It’s supposed to be part of a flying object but looks more like a mine shaft. I try to make this clear to G. Carroll. No luck. In matters like these, he’s always stubborn as hell. R. Scott thinks that the hieroglyph would tell the story of the Alien too directly so I should try to put it directly in the cockpit.”
HR Giger, Alien Diaries.
In the end, the hieroglyph was not included in the film. There seemed to be no place for it, and Scott seemed concerned that the images inscribed upon it would foretell the shocking chestburster sequence and dampen one of the film’s greatest shocks. There does seem to have been some effort by Giger to include it elsewhere, since he had in fact also sketched the outline of the hieroglyph into his paintings of the egg silo, “I had originally planned for it to be the decor of the egg silo,” Giger commented, “where to my mind it still belongs.”