Narcissus

Narcissus as drawn by Ron Cobb.

The Narcissus as drawn by Ron Cobb, illuminated in the depths of space by a white-hot star.

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.”

Crude lifeboat sketch from O'Bannon's script.

Crude lifeboat sketch from O’Bannon’s script. The basic idea of a small perfunctory ship with the entrance/exit settled between its boosters was a constant throughout production.

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.

This concept of the shuttle probably veered too far from the original idea - it looks closer to a short range, one-man scouting ship than an emergency escape vehicle where Ripley can battle the Alien.

This concept of the shuttle probably veered too far from the original idea – it looks closer to a short range, one-man scouting ship than an emergency escape vehicle where Ripley can battle the Alien.

In this design by Cobb, the shuttle fits snugly inside the body of the Nostromo. Upon evacuation, a hatch reveals the ship, which is deployed. This was replaced by the 'claw' we see in the film. This concept was returned to somewhat with the Sulaco's EEV in Alien 3's opening scenes.

In this design by Cobb, the shuttle fits snugly inside the body of the Nostromo (note the temporary name for the lifeboat here). Upon evacuation, a hatch reveals the ship, which is deployed by a rotating arm. This was replaced by the ‘claw’ we see in the film, as well as the gun-metal grey shuttle. This ‘hatch’ concept was returned to somewhat with the Sulaco’s EEV in Alien 3‘s opening scenes.

Ridley's production sketch for the Narcissus' 'claw', drawn during a production meeting for the benefit of Ivor Powell.

Ridley’s production sketch for the Narcissus’ ‘hatch and claw’, drawn during a production meeting for the benefit of Ivor Powell.

The Narcissus' garage unit. The garage slides back...

The Narcissus’ garage unit from the film. The garage slides back…

... o reveal the ship, which hangs suspended from a grip. When the grip releases, the Narcissus can drop, then move either forwards or backwards to evacuate. "The ports that light up on the front are indeed engines," confirmed model maker Phil Rae, adding, "or better perceived as retro thrusters. The ship did indeed escape backwards - quickest way outta there!The miniature was filmed against bluescreen for use in the sequence but this was cut."

… to reveal the ship, which hangs suspended from a grip. When the grip releases, the Narcissus can drop, then move either forwards or backwards to evacuate. “The ports that light up on the front are indeed engines,” confirmed model maker Phil Rae, adding, “or better perceived as retro thrusters. The ship did indeed escape backwards – quickest way outta there!”

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.

“Here’s some more of the big forced perspective Narcissus I built. Little did I realise when I was asked to detail the smaller (30in) complete model, I’d be asked to reproduce all the detail in bigger scale! The photo of me with the drill is me making holes for the corners of the 2 TV monitors used inside to get them into the right position for filming… This model is now in the Bob Burns’ collection… wish I could get it back!”
~ Phil Rae, Eagle Transporter Forum, 2008

"This one shows the 1/24th scale (approx 30 inches) Narcissus, pretty much as it was handed over to me for finishing. this "shell" was built by Martin Bower from perpex (plexiglass) on a square section steel frame so they could mount it on a rig for filming."~ Phil Rae, Eagle Transporter Forum, 2008

“This one shows the 1/24th scale (approx 30 inches) Narcissus, pretty much as it was handed over to me for finishing. This ‘shell’ was built by Martin Bower from perpex (plexiglass) on a square section steel frame so they could mount it on a rig for filming.”
~ Phil Rae, Eagle Transporter Forum, 2008

"Finished model dirtied down with dry black powder paint applied liberally then wiped off, highlighting all the detail. The docking clamp on the top was made by Martin and had two compressed air rams to raise the clamps on the sides."

“Finished model dirtied down with dry black powder paint applied liberally then wiped off, highlighting all the detail. The docking clamp on the top was made by Martin and had two compressed air rams to raise the clamps on the sides.”
~ Phil Rae, Eagle Transporter Forum, 2008

"Close up detail. You can just made out some tiny writing in front of the 'E1' symbol. It say's 'windscreen wiper control'... just a bit of fun."~ Phil Rae, Eagle Transporter Forum, 2008.

“Close up detail. You can just made out some tiny writing in front of the ‘E1’ symbol. It says ‘windscreen wiper control’… just a bit of fun.”
~ Phil Rae, Eagle Transporter Forum, 2008.

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.)

The interior of the ship. cryotubes to the left and right, the Alien's hiding spot is to the far right.

The interior of the ship. cryotubes to the left and right, the Alien’s hiding spot is to the far right.

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.

The last we see of the Narcissus in Aliens. Compare the underside of the ship with images from Alien given throughout the article. The differences are minute but not hard to spot upon inspection.

The last we see of the Narcissus in Aliens. Compare the underside of the ship with this behind the scenes picture from Alien. The differences are minute but not hard to spot upon inspection.

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6 Comments

Filed under Alien, Aliens

6 responses to “Narcissus

  1. Is that a ‘Pin-up girl’ graphic just to the left of the windscreen wiper transfer? I’d never noticed until this article.

  2. BillTed

    “Hill told Film International in 2004, “from Conrad. No particular metaphoric idea, I just thought it sounded good.””

    I’m sure,
    like he just thought that changing every characters name just sounded good

    Although I’ve wondered if Hill naming both ships after Conrad novels was an effort by him to shmooze up to Ridley by referencing Ridley debut movie during his the battle to sway the director away from O’Bannons version of the script and towards his and gilers rewrite

    Its a simple and childish enough maneuver to have actually happened

    I’ve also suspected that Ridley NOT taking Hill and gilers side in that battle was exactly what led to him NOT being considered for the sequel

    Giler and Hill would finally get their more military and less dreamy version of Alien, which was quite successful

    • BillTed

      BTW: Is it just me, or does the original Cobb sketch of the Narcissus at the top not NOT vaguely resemble a SD squished version of the Darkstar?

      🙂

      • Actually, BillTed, it was Dan O’Bannon who did the few sketches in the original ‘Star Beast’ screenplay from which that drawing was acquired. Of course that would explain its resemblance to Dark Star.

  3. I’m not an authority by any means, and perhaps you can clear this up, but I didn’t think Hill had anything to do with “Aliens” after the initial talks (very) early on. This also sort of explains why the “Aliens3” script essentially squashes the ending of, as well as destroying everything that took place in, “Aliens.”

    When you realize what happens to the heroic survivors of “Aliens” after the credits are over (meaning, the opening sequence if “Aliens”), it takes the air out of everything they overcame. It really does ruin “Aliens,” to a degree. Especially if one cannot completely disassociate the events from the 3rd film from the canonical history.

  4. Pingback: Concept Art, Props, and Behind the Scenes Pictures from Alien (1979) | Brain Cage

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