The shuttle in Dan O’Bannon’s original screenplay was never referred to by name until the closing moments of the script (“Snark 2”) and was instead always called the ‘lifeboat’ by the story’s characters. It’s a rather small, slow, dingy ship, equipped with one freezing capsule and is incapable of reaching light speed – lone survivor Roby comments that the vessel will take him back to the Frontier in “another 250 years or so”, which makes Ripley’s 57 years sound like a stroke of good fortune. The shuttle lacks any real use as an escape vehicle during any mass evacuation. “Only one of us could survive,” Captain Standard points out when the crew discuss escaping the Alien by using the Snark 2. “It is an extremely simple, stripped-down vehicle,” describes the script, “even the metal struts and beams are exposed. A single hypersleep freezer takes up a fair amount of floor space. It is an escape-craft, nothing more.” Later, when Walter Hill and David Giler rewrote O’Bannon’s script, they deigned to give the escape-pod another name: Narcissus.
The shuttle continues the Conradian naming conventions of the series (Nostromo, Sulaco), and its name is derived from the 1897 novella, The Nigger of the Narcissus: A Tale of the Sea. In Conrad’s story, the Narcissus is a small merchant ship sailing from Bombay to London. The name likewise seems fitting for a small, cramped, battered space-coble. Conrad’s work addressed the effects that indifferent empires inflict on their subjects, which compares quite nicely with the Company of Alien and its harried employees, but, as producer/writer Walter Hill revealed, the ship names weren’t chosen to reflect any of Conrad’s thematic ideas at all. “I called the ship Nostromo,” Hill told Film International in 2004, “from Conrad. No particular metaphoric idea, I just thought it sounded good.”
Like Agatha Christie’s bestselling Ten Little Niggers, Conrad’s rather tasteless title was altered once released in the States to Children of the Sea – Agatha’s novel became Ten Little Indians, and was adapted for the screen. Christie’s story is often cited as a distant influence on Alien. “[Alien] is Ten Little Indians in The Old Dark House,” said Ridley Scott.
The Narcissus was first drawn by Ron Cobb before the film had been greenlit, and his artwork of the shuttle featured within the script’s pages, along with his renditions of the crew’s gear and weaponry, the Alien, and the Alien pyramid. Cobb began his career as a an artist on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, then worked as a newspaper cartoon satirist, and moved on to film design through Dan O’Bannon and John Carpenter’s Dark Star, before moving on to Mos Eisley cantina alien design in Star Wars, pitching E.T. to Spielberg (as a horror film titled ‘Night Skies’), and designing Back to the Future‘s time-travelling DeLorean. Sandwiched between these was Alien. “I acquired a permanent reputation in the film industry when Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett wrote Alien,” said Cobb, “and asked me to help them sell the script by adding some illustrations. As a result I ended up going to London to work on the 20th Century Fox version of Alien as an illustrator/concept artist.”
Once officially hired for the film, Cobb set to work on the Nostromo with fellow concept artist Chris Foss, and though it was only one small component in lieu of the larger task of designing the Nostromo’s interior and exterior, Cobb also took more turns at designing the shuttle and turned out some differing concepts.
A small model was built by Martin Bower and touched up and embellished by Phil Rae, and a larger model was built for shots of the docked shuttle, through which the Nostromo crew can be seen moving behind the windows. Footage of the actors was filmed and then played back on small screens placed behind the shuttle windows.
The shuttle’s interior was built on the Nostromo bridge set, to save having to build more sets and to save money and time – the final scenes aboard the ship were filmed in the shoot’s closing days, and were only included at the insistence of Ridley Scott, (the producers reckoned that the Alien stowing on board was unnecessary, given the schedule and dwindling budget. See Filming the Fourth Act for more.)
For the Narcissus’ brief appearance in Aliens’ opening sequence, the ship had to be built from scratch, since the original model was considered lost, stolen, or even destroyed. The film crew poured over Alien art books and also requested images of the props from some of the original film’s model makers. “I was approached by Steven Begg to provide photos of the original,” said Phil Rae, “so they could remake it for Aliens. They did, but whilst the basic shape is pretty much ‘right’, the detailing was quite different.” Differing details included the lack of the blue ‘E1’ label on the ‘forehead’ of the ship above the windows, and the shape and number of many of the exterior panels were altered. The Aliens Narcissus is also missing the painted mascot (ie, the scantily dressed lady in red) and numerical information by the windows.
Ron Cobb was also hired for the sequel, and designed Hadley’s Hope, but it’s unlikely that he was consulted for the shuttle, since the finer detail of the ship was absent from his concepts. Instead, L.A. Effects model maker Jay Roth built the new Narcissus in the States, and Miniatures Technical Supervisor Pat McClung made amendments once it arrived in London.
The interior of the Narcissus was rebuilt from production photographs of the original by Peter Lamont. Though it is the first scene of the movie, the Narcissus interiors, like those in Alien, were the last to be shot. When Cameron was told that there was nothing in the budget to allow for the salvage team’s mechanical arm, Cameron dipped into his own pocket to procure one. The recreation of the interior was fastidious – the production crew even included Ripley’s harpoon gun, which can be seen wedged under the door just as the machine arm begins cutting its way into the shuttle.
The last we see of the Narcissus is it docking into the salvage ship. After that, it is inspected by the Colonial Administration, who apparently find no trace of the Alien to corroborate Ripley’s story. If the ship is scrapped or pressed into service again, we can only speculate.