Category Archives: Alien

Casting Ripley

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May 1978, and production, with all its attendant problems, was well underway at Shepperton Studios.

Though sets were being mapped out and constructed, some were being hotly debated; the Alien had been committed to canvas, if not rubber (Giger had not, for now, been tasked with the actual construction of his monster); the script was in a constant state of flux, and tensions between the producers and the film’s writers were beginning to break out with Ridley, trying to compromise between the O’Bannon script and the Giler/Hill rewrites, being stuck in the middle of a writers feud that had opened, and would probably close, the film’s inception and completion.

There was another, arguably more pertinent problem: in a month the cameras would finally roll, but the part of Ripley had yet to be cast. Auditions for the part had seemingly wrung Los Angeles and New York dry. British-American actress Veronica Cartwright had read for the role twice, and Ridley reckoned that he wanted her for the film, but her ability to convey catatonia and fear—a talent that Scott and casting director Mary Goldberg especially admired— wasn’t a fit for Ripley. “Laddie was going crazy,” Ridley remembered, “saying, ‘You’ve gotta make your mind up.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you know, I can’t find it yet.’”[1]

Several other actresses had been prospected. Twentieth Century Fox had initially pushed for an established actress to give the film heft: Katherine Ross or Genevieve Bujold, but stars of that calibre were not keen to be involved with a grubby science fiction movie. The success of Star Wars however convinced Fox that unknown actors could carry a successful film if buttressed by an established face or two, as Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing had done for Lucas’ unfamiliar cast.

One better known star who read for Alien was English actress Helen Mirren, who admired the refreshing ambiguity of the characters’ sexes. “I read the original script for that,” she said, “and when you read it, you had no idea which character was male and which was female. They were just people engaging with each other in this situation. They all had these sort of asexual names, so when Ripley said or did things, you had no idea whether Ripley was a man or a woman. You could have interchanged all the characters —they could have been all male or all female— any one of them could have been anything.”[2]

“There was no, ‘a lean 32 year old woman who doesn’t realise how attractive she is’ – there was absolutely none of that!” Mirren continued. “You had no idea who was a man and who was a woman. That was the revelation.”[3]

It wasn’t until the USA casting department put forth two choices for the role that the production started encircling potential Ripleys. The first suggestion was Meryl Streep, an up-and-coming theatre actress who briefly appeared in Julia (1977) and had recently wrapped on Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) with her partner John Cazale. Unfortunately, Cazale, in the end stages of lung cancer throughout The Deer Hunter’s shoot, died March 12, 1978, and Gordon Carroll did not think it appropriate to ask Streep to consider the role.

“The other woman,” Carroll remembered, “was of course, Sigourney Weaver.”[4]

Susan ‘Sigourney’ Weaver was, of a sort, American aristocracy. Her grandfather Sylvester Laflin Weaver left St. Louis for Los Angeles in 1893 and placed an ad in the Times to find work, with salary “no object”. For years he eked his way as a janitor, book-keeper, shipping clerk and salesman. “I finally became sales manager,” he explained, “making stops at San Luis Obispo, El Paso and the City of Mexico, during which I accumulated a wife, four children and a fair modicum of this world’s goods.”[5] In 1905 he was chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, overseeing the development of Los Angeles Harbour, and in 1910 founded his own roofing company, Weaver Roofing; it was said that most, if not all, of L.A.’s emerging suburbs at the time had been roofed by Weaver.

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His ambitions did not end there: he was president of the Los Angeles Rotary Club and then, in 1917, was elected a director of the L.A. Chamber of Commerce. In 1919, Weaver, now a beloved and influential figure, ran for Mayor. His candidacy was received with enthusiasm: he was the centrepiece of a parade that rolled down Broadway “while bands played, horns blared, guns popped, red-fire flared and flashlights streamed their beams.”[6] But his mayoral candidature was not to be; he came in third place.

Yet this disappointment, coupled with the 1921 destruction of his roofing plant by fire, dampened neither his fortunes nor popularity. The family’s frequent partying and holidaying was a regular subject of the local papers and gossip circles. His wife wrote operas, books and was a patroness for charitable events. His four children —two sons, two daughters— lived accordingly. “My father was one of the young men about town,” remembered Sigourney. “He used to go out with Loretta Young and her sisters, and he went to high school with Carole Lombard, whose name was Jane Peters then. He used to date all the stars.”[7]

Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver Jnr, like his father, was never still. Starting out as a writer for KHJ radio, he quickly became program manager, switched to managerial positions in advertising, served in WWII, and then joined NBC in ’49. By ’53, he had been vice president of television and radio, then vice chairman of the board, and finally president of NBC. In ’43 he married English actress Elizabeth Inglis, who had appeared in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) and opposite Bette Davis in The Letter (1940), with their children Trajan and Susan Weaver coming along after the war.

By the time Susan Weaver was born in 1949, the Weaver family was still firmly on the ascendancy. Her uncle Winstead ‘Doodles’ Weaver was a celebrated television and film comedian, “Manhattan’s favourite clown”[8] according to the press; her aunt a noted New York Times fashion critic, and her father the president of NBC, where he heralded both Today and The Tonight Show. “I was brought up in a show business environment,” she said. “Actors and famous people were there when I was a kid. The unusual was usual for me.”[9] She remembered stars like Art Linkletter visiting her father at their home on Long Island, and being “miserable because I was quarantined with the chicken pox.”[10]

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Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver with his daughter Susan Weaver. June 1955.

It was at the Ethel Walker School for girls in Connecticut where Susan adopted the name ‘Sigourney’, lifting it from a one-off character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The name, she thought, would stop her classmates from calling her ‘Weaver’, and she was from a family of odd names anyway. Her father once suggested naming her Flavia —his interests, obviously, firmly Roman— but her mother relented, choosing instead to name their daughter after family friend Susan Pretzlik. “A very interesting woman,” said Sigourney. “She was quite an explorer. And if I had met Susan before I switched over to Sigourney when I was 13, I probably would have kept it.”[11] But, for the adolescent Weaver at the time, “To be named Susan in a family like that seemed inappropriate.”[12]

Her family took to Sigourney easily enough. “They called me ‘S’ for a while in case I changed it to something else. And then actually they wanted me to keep the Roman part of my name, which was Alexandra—Susan Alexandra Weaver—so my father and I tried to think of a way of calling me Alexandra.”[13]

But her father quickly abandoned this when his daughter’s headmistress pulled them up about the change in name. “Do you permit your daughter to use that ridiculous name?” Weaver remembered her headmistresses asking her parents.

“And my father said, ‘Are you talking about our daughter, Sigourney?’ I thought that was wonderful of him.”[14]

At school she played a greaser in an update of Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘The Highwayman’, and found she had a taste for performance. “I flipped my hair back and wore a big leather jacket and some girls chased me out. I guess I did a good job as an Elvis Presley type.”[15] Tall for her age, gangly and a little awkward, Sigourney discovered that acting could be liberating. “I figured it was like being an explorer. There were so many interesting things to be —a lawyer, a doctor, a biophysicist— and only one life. Acting was a way to get around it.”[16]

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Sigourney Weaver at 13.

Her budding acting career was off to a bad start when, while rehearsing for a play at the Red Barn Playhouse, she was quickly replaced when the producer realised her romantic interest was only half her height. She had been a lanky 5’10 at 13, and even now many of her peers had yet to catch up. She stuck out. She looked odd. “I called my parents and described this situation to my mother and she said, ‘Well, welcome to the business.’ She said, ‘Your heart will be broken a hundred times.’”[17]

She found some acting work in weekend productions and summer stock, and even toured San Francisco with a comedy troupe, but these, she felt, were relegations: she wanted to do more, could do more, but no one else was willing to look beyond her height. “I was very much a loner,” she said, “and a self-conscious loner at that.”[18]

It was after gaining her English degree and while preparing for a PhD at Stanford that she decided to tackle acting head on, despite any misgivings about her physicality. Academia, she decided, wasn’t for her. “The course started getting really boring. Finally, I went to my adviser and said, ‘This is a desert, this part of it, right here in the middle. I hope it’s not going to be like this for three years.’ He said, ‘It’s going to be quite like this.’ I said, ‘I don’t think I can stand it.’ I was studying criticism of criticism. It was all this twice-removed stuff—deadly dry. So I just applied to Yale Drama School and got in.”[19]

Her family, who had so often occupied show business echelons, always warned her that the business was unfair, rarely a meritocracy, and even cruel—but she did not expect the disillusion to set in before she had even graduated from drama school. “My acceptance to Yale was addressed to Mr. Sigourney Weaver, so I really wasn’t sure when I got there what they thought they’d taken. My second day there I got violently ill from food poisoning and had to go to the hospital. I’d eaten liver at the Elm City Diner—I was trying to be healthy by eating liver. I remember sitting next to this window on Chapel Street that had a big bullet hole in it. I should have known then….”[20]

At Yale she was rarely cast. Her tutors asserted that she had no future as an actress. The best roles, she remembered, went to classmate Meryl Streep. “I still think they probably had this Platonic ideal of a leading lady that I have never been able to live up to,” Sigourney reflected. “And would never want to.”[21]

If she reckoned that, after graduation, her father’s show business contacts would give her a lift she was to find that she had to rely solely on herself. “When I got out of Yale Drama School I called up a friend of my father to see if he could find me some stage work. He said: ‘Look kid, why don’t you get a job at Bloomingdales?’ Ever since then I’ve been on my own.”[22]

She teamed up with Yale friend Chris Durang, a budding playwright who had been one of the few at Yale to cast her in his productions. “I sensed that the audience had a special rapport with Sigourney,” Durang recalled. “Actors need skill and intelligence—which Sigourney has in abundance—but stars need charisma, which hard work can’t give you.”[23] Sigourney, he knew, had charisma in spades; she just needed exposure. He remembered how, after graduating, casting agents tended to complain about her height and “kept trying to type her as a patrician girlfriend who poured cocktails and nodded politely while the leading man talked.”[24] Stepping in, Durang teamed up with Weaver, casting her in his off-Broadway plays ‘Titanic’, ‘Beyond Therapy’, and ‘Das Lusitania Songspiel’.

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Weaver and Durang on a poster for Das Lusitania Songspiel’s 1980 revival.

For Weaver, her adventures off-Broadway with Durang were more than affirming favours from a good friend: they were a life line. “After I left Yale,” said Sigourney, “we were all doing these mad plays off-off Broadway. And I got back to that feeling I had from college, of everyone making up in front of one cracked mirror, which is what I loved—the scrappy theatre idea. I think off-off Broadway healed me, made me an actor again, and I was in so many different crazy shows. I played a woman who kept a hedgehog in her vagina in one play; I was schizophrenic in another. It was just so much fun.”[25]

It was at this time that her name had started to circle around, and she came to the attention of the desperate Alien production. “She came recommended the long way around,” said Ridley, “where somebody had said to somebody, ‘There’s this girl who’s doing theatre on Broadway who’s very interesting, is a giant, I think she’s 6’1 in her stockinged feet. She’s very interesting. Smart performer, very physical.”[26]

To get an idea of how she came across on film, Walter Hill screened Madman (1978), an independent Israeli film that featured Weaver opposite Michael Beck. Liking both actors, he tapped Weaver for Alien, and Beck for his forthcoming film The Warriors (1979). Sigourney was sent the Alien script and invited to audition in New York before Ridley Scott, David Giler and Gordon Carroll.

She did not, at the time, prioritise film roles, having turned down the part of Dorrie in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) when her commitments to Chris Durang’s ‘Das Lusitania Songspiel’ clashed with the filming schedule – Christine Jones took the Dorrie role, though Weaver was afforded a non-speaking cameo in the closing moments of the film as Allen’s date as recompense. It had been the theatre that reinvigorated her, and that was where her loyalties lay; there, she had rediscovered a joy in performing that she thought had been irreparably lost at acting school. When the Alien script came through she was busying herself with the play The Conquering Event as well as various acting and charitable seminars, and didn’t see herself as a science-fiction actor, let alone lead.

“I was doing a seminar called the Hunger Project,” she said, “which was simply about making a difference in the world. Within the context of that seminar a movie part was so unimportant. I went up for Alien and didn’t want to be bothered, because I thought I had not suffered through the Yale School of Drama to do a science-fiction movie. I read the script and didn’t really care that much for it.”[27]

Though she was averse to science-fiction and couldn’t imagine the Alien looking anything other than silly, she still admired how “They had broken the rule and written two of the parts, originally designed for men, for women to play.”[28] One of those parts intrigued her in particular. “Actually, the part I wanted was Lambert. In the first script I read, she just cracked jokes the whole time. What was wonderful about it was that here was a woman who was wise-assing, telling stupid jokes just when everyone was getting hysterical. And she didn’t crack up until the end. That’s a character I could identify with because that’s how I assume I would act. If the elevator gets stuck that’s what I do.”[29]

The audition, held at the Loews Regency hotel on Park Avenue, was almost botched from the start, with Weaver turning up to the wrong hotel. She called her agent and suggested blowing it off, but he recommended that she go ahead anyway. Without much else to do, she rushed for the Regency. Ridley, Giler, Carroll and casting director Mary Goldberg waited, and waited, until finally, thirty moments after she had been due, Weaver turned up. “And then we hear,” said Carroll, “l can’t say running feet in the corridor, but we hear fast-paced feet coming toward the door, and then slowing down, composing itself… The bell rings, Mary opens the door, and Ripley was standing there.”

Weaver was quite the sight – standing over six feet tall in long boots, the panel found themselves looking up at what Carroll called “This extraordinary-looking woman; tall, commanding presence.”[30]

They talked about the script, beginning by asking Weaver what she thought of it.

“It’s a very bleak picture where people don’t relate to each other at all,”[31] she answered.

Mary Goldberg signalled that Weaver was sabotaging her own audition, but Weaver was undeterred from speaking her mind. “I happen to have worked on many new plays with new playwrights,” she said, “so I have been encouraged to speak up — I didn’t know if people in movies were used to that.”[32]

To her surprise (and relief), her interviewers acknowledged the shallowness of the characters, explaining that they were relying on interesting actors to bring them to life. “I thought it was best to put all my cards on the table,” said Sigourney, “because if they really wanted a ‘Charlie’s Angel’ I knew it wouldn’t be right for me. But they were the first to admit that it was going to take a lot of development and close working together.”[33]

Then Ridley, remembering how effective Giger’s Necronomicon had been on himself, propped up a display of images by Giger and Rambaldi. Weaver was suddenly piqued. This would be the monster. She had never seen anything like it. They broke for lunch, with Scott and the producers taking Weaver for Japanese food on Fifty Fifth Street, where they met Walter Hill, before returning to the Regency to read through the script.

She did not know it yet, but Carroll, Scott and Giler all felt that she was perfect for Ripley the moment they laid eyes on her. “Somehow,” said Ridley, “I knew this was her.”[34] Hill was similarly enthused, but Weaver herself did not feel like a shoo-in. In fact, she was somewhat mystified by the attention. “I didn’t really know what was expected of me as I’d only made one film,” she said, “and an eight-part television series about aristocratic women called The Best of Families.”[35]

But it was her naivety and inexperience that the producers and Ridley knew would be perfect for Ripley. The character was thinly-sketched in the script, the only real characterful moments being her adamancy that quarantine rules be stringently obeyed, and her swift assumption of command after the death of Dallas. Looking at Weaver— her intelligence, twinkling humour and soft-spoken assertiveness as obvious as her strong jaw, high cheekbones and broad shoulders— they could see the blanks being filled already.

Scott had been enamoured the moment she stepped through the door, and continued to marvel at her throughout the day. “Jesus Christ, I was always looking up at her!” he remembered. “I walked into a restaurant with her and she held my hand. I felt like, ‘Mummy, Daddy!’”[36]

“She clearly has the authority that she needs to have,” he continued, “and can give any guy as good as he can give back.” Gordon saw how Weaver could project composure, and yet, “You knew that just an eighth of an inch behind that composure was a very nervous actress, a very tense actress, and that was exactly right.”[37] Giler noted her “American aristocratic” bearing, how she embodied perfectly the officer class.

With the producers and director keen, Weaver was flown out to Hollywood to meet Alan Ladd Jr., and Gareth Wiggin. “I lost my bags on the plane and went in my rotten clothes,” Sigourney recalled. “We had a typical chatty Hollywood meeting where you’re all supposed to pretend you’re there for social reasons and no one mentions the film.”[38]

Ladd, ever cautious, agreed to hire Weaver provided that she complete a screen test first. Scott protested that he was mere weeks from filming, but acquiesced: Fox placed a lot of trust in him due to his self-made success with RSA, but there were still plenty of executives, like Peter Beale, who still viewed him as untested. It irritated Scott, who had left a promising career at the BBC in favour of his independence, to suddenly have his creative decisions become the purview of a committee… but he trusted and respected Ladd, who had allowed head scratchers like Star Wars and Alien to be made at all.

“So,” said Sigourney, “the next week I flew to London. I hadn’t yet been hired but I was the only actress they were screentesting. They hoped I would do well. And we did a run-through of the entire script.”[39]

Weaver filmed her screentest on May 12th. She was apprehensive, imagining that she would have to duck and weave in an empty space or react to a potted plant, but when she arrived she found that Ridley had constructed a piece of set especially for her test. “This test corridor we built was the first look at the interior of the corridors of the Nostromo,” revealed art director Roger Christian. “It established the look of Alien for the very first time.”[40] In effect, not only was Sigourney being tested, but Ridley’s vision for the film was about to be captured—and scrutinised—for the first time.

Ladd watched the test in silence and, once done, picked up a nearby phone. He asked that some of the women upstairs come down to view the rushes with him. “So we ran the test again,” said Ridley, “and Laddy simply then said, ‘What did you think?’ and there were, I don’t know, maybe eight, twelve women who immediately jumped in. One said, ‘I think she’s like Jane Fonda.’”[41]

“Alan Ladd watched the screen test,” explained David Giler, “and had all the secretaries in the building come down and watch it. And they got into a big argument that she looked more like Jane Fonda or Faye Dunaway, and he just said, ‘You can have her. She’s in.’”[42]

Weaver, already on her way home to New York, was not entirely confident. She reckoned she had played her scenes wrong, that she had been too stereotypically tough. “If I hadn’t been in an unambitious place philosophically, I think I would have tried harder,” she said. “In fact, it wasn’t until the day before the screen test that I sat down and thought, well, Sigourney, you’d really better make up your mind if you want to do this or not. They’ve already flown you out here. If you don’t, you’d better think about ending it. I finally decided I really liked the character of Ripley as well as the designs and Ridley Scott. Besides, I didn’t want anyone else to do it.”[43]

Luckily, she was to find that, barely home after her long plane flight, that she had gotten the part. “I had sort of written it off every step of the way.”[44]

But there was a snag when the actors convened for wardrobe fitting. Veronica Cartwright, who was eventually cast in the film after auditioning for Ripley three times, had assumed, naturally, that that was the role she was to play in the film. “I get a call,” she remembered, “and they said, ‘Okay, you need to come in for your wardrobe for Lambert’. I said, ‘Oh no, I’m not playing Lambert, I’m playing Ripley.’ ‘No no… you’re Lambert.’”[45]

“I called my agent back in LA and said, ‘Aren’t I doing Ripley?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I think so.’ I mean, that’s what he thought too. I even auditioned again when I was in England, and the part that I read for was Ripley. They didn’t bother to tell me. And I’d never even looked at the script from the point of view of Lambert. So I had to re-read the script.”

“I heard [about] that,” remarked David Giler. “Ridley had met Veronica on his own somehow and he really wanted her and we said fine, you know. Very good actress. So she was certainly fine with us.”

For her part, Cartwright suspected that internal politics played a part in the confusion. “There was a lot of politics going on during the making of that movie,” she remembered. “It was Sigourney’s first job. But her dad was a bigwig. There were a lot of favours going on. It just got a bit bigger than anybody had planned. And studio pressure and egos and everything got involved.”[46]

There might be some basis for Cartwright’s suggestion, with Alien 3 actor Ralph Brown detailing a 1991 meeting between himself and Walter Hill to discuss rewrites concerning Brown’s character Aaron ‘85’: “I am now paranoid about being cut from the film” he said, “like Veronica Cartwright was from Alien as Walter gently reminded me earlier – ‘I don’t want to alarm you Ralph but, well, yes, actually I DO want to alarm you. Don’t end up like Veronica Cartwright.’”[47]

However, it’s also likely Hill may be referring to the abundance of deleted scenes, many of which, Cartwright had complained after the film’s release, overwhelmingly featured her character Lambert.

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Sigourney on the Nostromo bridge with her father Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver and mother Elizabeth Weaver.

Sigourney understood that her background would prejudice some against her, especially in an industry that was rife with competitive and suspicious attitudes. “When you are the lead in a film that costs a few million dollars,” she said, “you do get the best hair and make-up people, and you don’t have to worry about things in rehearsal you might not get if you were making an independent film or if you had a supporting role.”

“On Alien,” she continues, “there was some resentment towards me because I came from New York and got such a good part, the one character alive at the end. That was very difficult for me to deal with.”[48]


[1] Ridley Scott, Q&A with Geoff Boucher, Hero Complex Festival (2010).

[2] Helen Mirren, ‘Helen Mirren on The Tempest and Stealing All Her Best Roles From Men’ by Kyle Buchanan, vulture.com (13th December 2010).

[3] Helen Mirren, Empire (April 2016).

[4] Gordon Carroll, ‘Truckers in Space: Casting’ by Charles de Lauzirika, Alien Quadrilogy (2003).

[5] Sylvester L. Weaver, ‘Sketches of Big Men in Industrial Life: Sylvester L. Weaver Devotes Energies to Civic Upbuilding’, The Los Angeles Sunday Times (Sunday 2nd December, 1923).

[6] ‘Weaver is Parade Center’, The Los Angeles Times (May 4th 1919) p. 6.

[7] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[8] ‘Doodles Weaver, Manhattan’s Favourite Clown, Is a University Graduate Who Earns a Living Imitating Lions, Worms,  and Baby Kangaroos’ by Virginia Irwin, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (24th March 1941).

[9] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver: Alien Creature’ by Joe Baltake, Philadelphia Daily News (Friday June 8th, 1979) p. 37.

[10] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Independence isn’t an alien concept to Sigourney Weaver,’ Chicago Tribune (Friday 8th June 1979).

[11] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[12] Sigourney Weaver, interview with Bobbie Wygant (1979).

[13] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[14] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver rolls with punches’ by Dick Kleiner, The Index-Journal (9th July 1979) p. 5.

[15] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[16] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Independence isn’t an alien concept to Sigourney Weaver,’ Chicago Tribune (Friday 8th June 1979).

[17] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[18] Sigourney Weaver, ‘An Eyewitness Report on Actress Sigourney Weaver’ by Patricia Bosworth, The Santa Fe New Mexican/Family Weekly (August 9th 1981) p. 22.

[19] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver Tough Cookie in Alien’ by Richard Freedman, The Indianapolis Star (Sunday June 10th 1979).

[23] Chris Durang, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[24] Ibid.

[25] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver’ by Jamie Lee Curtis, interviewmagazine.com (23rd February 2015).

[26] Ridley Scott, ‘Truckers in Space: Casting’ by Charles de Lauzirika, Alien Quadrilogy (2003).

[27] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[28] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver defends her semi-strip in Alien’, Photoplay vol. 30 no. 12 (December 1979) p. 42.

[29] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Playing Ripley in Alien: An Interview with Sigourney Weaver’ by Danny Peary, Omni’s Screen Flights/Fantasies (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1984) p. 159.

[30] Gordon Carroll, ‘Truckers in Space: Casting’ by Charles de Lauzirika, Alien Quadrilogy (2003).

[31] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Playing Ripley in Alien: An Interview with Sigourney Weaver’ by Danny Peary, Omni’s Screen Flights/Fantasies (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1984) p. 158.

[32] Ibid, p. 158 – 159.

[33] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Alien Interviews: Sigourney Weaver’ by Jim Sulski, Fantastic Films vo. 2 no. 6 (1979).p. 33.

[34] Ridley Scott, ‘Truckers in Space: Casting’ by Charles de Lauzirika, Alien Quadrilogy (2003).

[35] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver defends her semi-strip in Alien’, Photoplay vol. 30 no. 12 (December 1979) p. 42.

[36] Ridley Scott, Q&A with Geoff Boucher, Hero Complex Festival (2010).

[37] Gordon Carroll, ‘Truckers in Space: Casting’ by Charles de Lauzirika, Alien Quadrilogy (2003).

[38] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Playing Ripley in Alien: An Interview with Sigourney Weaver’ by Danny Peary, Omni’s Screen Flights/Fantasies (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1984) p. 159.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Roger Christian, ‘Exclusive Preview: Roger Christian’s Cinema Alchemist’ by Roger Christian, shadowlocked.com (27th October 2010).

[41] Ridley Scott, The Alien Legacy (1999)

[42] David Giler, The Alien Saga (2002).

[43] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[44] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Playing Ripley in Alien: An Interview with Sigourney Weaver’ by Danny Peary, Omni’s Screen Flights/Fantasies (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1984) p. 159.

[45] Veronica Cartwright, Texas Frightmare Weekend Q&A (2013).

[46] Veronica Cartwright, ‘Veronica Cartwright Interview’ by David Hughes, Cinefantastique vol. 31 no. 8 (October 1999) p. 36.

[47] Ralph Brown, ‘Alien 3 – Paranoia in Pinewood’ by Ralph Brown, https://magicmenagerie.wordpress.com/2016/10/12/my-pop-life-171-praying-for-time-george-michael/ (12th October 2016).

[48] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Playing Ripley in Alien: An Interview with Sigourney Weaver’ by Danny Peary, Omni’s Screen Flights/Fantasies (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1984) p. 160.

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Alien Reviews From Yesteryear

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As we pointed out in the snippets provided throughout Bad Alien Reviews and the letters from Fan Reaction to Alien, 1979, the critical reception that Alien received upon release in 1979 was somewhat mixed: though some prophesied, somewhat understatingly, that the film could perhaps become a cult favourite in time, many reviewers were simply unimpressed with the film’s unapologetic B-movie roots and its sheer single-mindedness. A few others wrung their hands, fretting that the film was indicative of the sickness of both society and its creators (you know, the old “the cinema is our modern-day Coliseum/Grand Guignol” sort of tracts).

The following are selections from a range of American newspapers that reviewed Alien in the summer of ’79…

Great Galaxy! Won’t these space explorers ever learn?

~ by Dick Shippy
The Akron Beacon Journal
Thursday June 28th 1979.

Ancient mariners could have told ‘em: You don’t mess around with another guy’s spooky space, even if it looks deserted, because you might find what you don’t want to find, and… phht!… there you are, stuck with an albatross, or the plague, or some other scourge of mankind.

But the future voyagers of Ridley Scott’s Alien exist solely for the purpose of locating the horrifying unknown in the deserted mansion of outer space. It means they’re a lot less smarter than ancient mariners, and a lot more commercial.

For if Alien is punctuated by blood-curdling shrieks and screams, there’s at least one other noise it engenders: The clanging of a cash register. Every time The Alien gobbles up one of God’s living creatures, another $8 to $10 million changes hands.

This is not creative filmmaking, but you might make a case for Alien representing a slick mixing of movie metaphors through movie technology.

What is Alien, after all, but a primeval terror (Jaws) expressed in gory special effects, surrounded by the mock-technological gadgetry of outer space hokum (Star Wars) and aimed at reducing, under fearful circumstances, the population of a floating, zero-gravity charnel house (which is only a substitute for any movie house of horrors you could care to mention!)

Maybe director Scott and his colleagues, including scenarist Dan O’Bannon and the special effects folks with their marvellous techniques with flesh and spewing blood (Linda Blair’s vomit in Exorcist being almost tame by comparison), have created the definitive scare-0the-pants-off-‘em, science-fiction monster to date.

But as The Alien had its antecedents —The Thing, the Blob, and let’s never forget the popular Whatchamacallit Which Made Mincemeat of Walla-Walla— so will it have progeny even more petrifying. Isn’t that the true test of American technology!

Before then, though, we’ll have to settle for the hideous business aboard SS Nostromo, sailing from Out There to Back Here. It is a space tug towing an oil refinery through galactic seas — which at least gives us hope they’ll have found a substitute for Iranian oil 200 years hence.

There are seven crewmen aboard SS Nostromo, including the black gang which works the engine room and complains about long hours and low pay (one of them literally black, Yaphet Kotto having integrated space.)

The ship’s captain (Tom Skerritt) and the scientific guru of SS Nostromo insist on poking into a mysterious signal emanating from a seemingly deserted planetoid. If only they would listen to the ship’s resourceful, no-nonsense executive officer (the winsome Sigourney Weaver) who thinks they should not mess around with the unknown. She heeds ancient mariners!

What is found on that planetoid is the wreck of a space vehicle from another galaxy, and what is found in the eerie interior of the wreckage is an egg-like substance (it’s as ominous as Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack can manage) and —PHHT!— the fat is in the fire. The Alien has struck some poor sap!

Now, what form does The Alien take? Let’s say that, initially, it looks like a big chicken liver with tentacles, and the poor sap is wearing this thing like a helmet.

So, back to SS Nostromo where the chicken liver can be lugged inside, in violation of quarantine. It is learned the whateveritis does not bleed; it emits an acid substance. One tough turkey!

Suddenly, The Alien is gone; just as suddenly, it is back again — this time bursting through a crewman’s chest in a bloody froth. And this time it looks like either a small dinosaur or small snake, and it had a voice like Johnny Ray and it’s definitely a challenge for an up-and-coming mongoose.

Well, there’s a cat aboard, but no Rikki Tikki Tavi!

Thereafter, The Alien continues to change shapes, looming larger and larger in the blackness and eventually getting to a size which makes it eligible for the National Basketball Association draft.

And thereafter, amid screams and howls attendant to butchery, Alien plays down-you-go with its cast of seven.

It is gross foolishness and grievous horror-mongering, the grisly nonsense done expertly, maybe, but will the last man out please turn off the projector? We’ve had enough.

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If gore is your cup of tea, see Alien

~ by Randy Hall
The Anniston Star Sun
June 24th 1979.

Well, summer is here, and it’s silly season at the movies.

Last summer it was Grease and Jaws II. This summer, it’s Alien, hands-down the monster movie with the most revolting monster you ever saw in your life.

Even though it borrows spiffy special effects technology from Star Wars and Close Encounters, the film is put together with all the wit and taste and subtlety of an ax murderer. Still, if it’s screams you want, Alien has got ‘em.

The film is set aboard the Nostromo (name for the Joseph Conrad novel), an outer-space freighter about the size of Manhattan returning to Earth with 20 million tons of mineral ore. The ship is a bit clunky and used-looking, borrowing the ‘used future’ concept from Star Wars.

Awaking from deep sleep is a grousing, non-heroic crew (Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm and Sigourney Weaver) who are more concerned about their shares in the voyage than investigating a radio signal from what appears to be the surface of Saturn.

But investigate they must, and in one of the film’s more spectacular visual sequences, borrowing from the fantasies of Frank Frazetta’s outer space landscapes, discover an abandoned space ship. There they find the Horror which they bring back aboard the Nostromo, nuch against the intelligent objections of warrant officer Sigourney Weaver.

Alien is the kind of film that can’t be described without giving away too much of the plot. Suffice it that when the monster actually does appear, it sends the audience into gales of laughter — the monster is just so gruesomely, disgustingly AWFUL, especially when it shrieks and goes running off. The rest of the film is spent watching the monster munch down members of the crew like Pop Tarts while they try to kill it.

Is it worth pointing out the improbabilities?

Alien is the kind of film in which people go wandering off alone into dark rooms, disobey rather elementary rules of quarantine, and stop and worry about the safety of pussycats while the monster is chasing them.

Fully conscious of how the filmmaker is manipulating the viewer, one sits in the dark theatre thinking, ‘Oh, get up and run, dummy!’ but glued to the long, slow panning shots of the camera. You never know what is going to turn up at the end of one of them.

Director Ridley Scott, previously known for his art film, The Duellists, has learned his lessons in suspense-making from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, but hasn’t bothered taking notes on Spielberg’s carefully constructed storyline.

But who cares? It’s summer silly season at the movies.

Faint praise: Alien succeeds in the scare department.

~ by Gene Siskel
The Chicago Tribune
Friday 25th May 1979.

A veteran filmgoer friend has been slightly amused at all of the hoopla surrounding the new outer space horror movie Alien. He had head the reports of an usher fainting during a sneak preview in Dallas. He had heard about women at the same screening running up the aisles and out of the theatre in order to throw up in the john.

“I’m amazed,” he said, “that people can get that worked up about a movie, especially when they know it’s supposed to be scary.” That remark may explain it all. Knowing that a film is supposed to be scary may put people in such a frenzied state of mind that if you showed them Bambi they still might blow lunch. That was certainly the case with the hyped-up crowds waiting to see The Exorcist a few years ago. People were hyperventilating in line, all in an attempt to stay cool.

Which is not to say that Alien —or The Exorcist, for that matter— is some kind of cheap, vulgar movie that is trying to out-gross every other film ever made. On the contrary, Alien in its many quiet moments is an extremely cool, even droll, commentary on the banality of space travel. The point of the picture: Just as there is random evil on Earth, so will there be random, indifferent evil in space.

The story is set a decade from now. Seven Americans (five men, two women) are travelling through space on a commercial tug, hauling a huge refinery being them. Their mission is to find intergalactic sources of fuel, and they go about their business in a lacklustre, routine office staff manner. In fact, as the picture opens, a couple of the guys are complaining about their wages (this is refreshing to see. Frankly, I’ve always been peeved at science-fiction movies that suggest the future will be radically different from today. My guess is that life in the next hundred years will be disturbingly similar to life today.)

Anyway, all is routine aboard the ship until its computer, a micro chip off the old HAL, suddenly receives a signal that eventually turns out to be a warning. The computer is receiving a signal from somewhere other than Earth, and it is a primary mission of the crew to investigate all such extraterrestrial transmissions.

What follows is that the crew touches down on a planetoid in order to investigate the transmission and winds up encountering a space monster.

The monster cannot be reasoned with. It’s not Darth Vader from Star Wars. It’s not Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon. It’s not even HAL the Computer from 2001. This monster, the alien of the film’s title, is an organic mass that grows and grows. It cannot be talked to, charmed, persuaded, or even hit over the head. It can only be destroyed. In a way, I suppose, this monster is like a number of space monsters from sci-fi films of the ‘50s. It’s a Blob of sorts, only the people who made Alien are much more accomplished filmmakers.

Ultimately it is film technology, as much as anything, that makes Alien something more than a routine shock show. Its monster is first a horrifying blob, then a vicious snakelike critter with teeth, and ultimately… oh, why spoil it? But regardless of what shape the monster takes, Alien basically is a standard thriller about a bunch of people trapped in a haunted house (in this case a haunted spaceship) with a monster on the loose. You will spend much of the film guessing where the Alien is hiding, when it will strike, and who in the crew it will kill first — and last. There are some surprises.

There are some disappointments, too. For me, the final shape of the Alien was the least scary of its forms. I also wanted to learn more about the organisation, known as The Company, that apparently is running the world back home away from the spaceship. And on a technical level, I was disappointed that the film didn’t convey the enormous size of its spacecraft very well. Once we’re inside the tug, everything seems cramped.

But Alien is mostly in the business of thrillers, and on that score it did provide more than a few. I looked away from the screen during its most gory scenes. Even more enjoyable, though, was watching the film debut of an actress who should become a major star, Sigourney Weaver (she probably changed her name from Alice) makes an auspicious debut as one of the sturdiest crew members. A number of people who had seen Alien claim that Weaver, in looks and voice, is a dead ringer for Jane Fonda. I don’t share that opinion but clearly, her appeal is that of a strong but seductive woman, and that, I suppose, is Fonda-like.

In sum, Alien is not worth getting oneself into a vomiting dither about, but it is an accomplished piece of scary entertainment.

Heart-pounding terror: Alien

~ by Pete Lewis
The Des Moines Register Sun
June 3rd 1979.

Ridley Scott’s science fiction film Alien was released by 20th Century Fox two years to the day after the same studio release the phenomenally successful sci-fi epic Star Wars. The two films share a few production workers, but otherwise are galaxies apart.

Where Star Wars was a light-hearted romp of space fantasy that had its roots in the swashbuckling adventures of yore, Alien is a gory thriller that recalls Jaws, House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and nameless dozens of 1950s space monster movies.

Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent soundtrack sets the eerie tone as the movie opens, and if there’s any doubt as to the intent of the film, it is dispelled by the first view of the space tug ‘Nostromo’ (shades of Joseph Conrad) as it tows 200 million tons of ore back to Earth. In the gloom of deep space, the ore refineries resemble the ominous, gothic mansions that have been home to countless terrestrial horror stories. The interior views of the Nostromo lend to the mounting apprehension as the camera snakes though its vast, yet claustrophobic corridors.

The ship’s computer, ‘Mother’, intercepts a patterned broadcast signal that indicates intelligent life, reroutes the Nostromo and awakens the crew that has been in deep space hibernation.

It is our first view of the Nostromo crew: Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt); warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver); science officer Ash (Ian Holm); executive officer Kane (John Hurt); navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright); Engineer Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and his monosyllabic assistant, Brett (Harry Dean Stanton). And of course, the ubiquitous mascot, Jones the Cat.

It is a refreshing blend of fine actors in brief parts, with especially noteworthy performances from Cartwright and Kotto. Weaver, who brings to mind the young Jane Fonda, is in fine form for her screen debut. Jones the Cat brings to mind the young Morris.

Even Shakespearean veteran Ian Holm manages well despite being shackled with an incredibly asinine character. Why screenwriter Dan O’Bannon included Holm’s character in a script already riddled with holes (black holes?) is one of the mysteries of the universe.

Anyway, whether it’s because their own conversation is so boring, or because they’ve been ordered to do so by a vaguely sinister organisation called ‘The Company’, the crew members are compelled to seek out intelligent life forms. They arrive on a bleak, howling, frozen planetoid and discover two things: the remains of a giant space ship, and director Scott’s obsession with sexual images.

In the womb of the ship they discover the fossilised remains of a giant alien (not the title character, however.) The giant, it soon becomes apparent, is but the first of many victims of the real alien (the title role.)

The message intercepted by Mother, it turns out, was not an S.O.S. but rather a warning sent by the dying giant.

Thus begins Alien. What follows is a terrifying film filled with psychological and jack-in-the-box horrors that will curdle your blood and dialogue and plot twists that will curdle your brain.

Take these examples (please):

“Let’s get out of here,” says Lambert to Dallas. As things get really spooky, she offers, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Parker concurs: “This place gives me the creeps,” he mutters.

Dallas catches on: “I just wanna get the hell outa here, awright?” he tells Ridley. Later, he announces, “I want to get the hell out of here.”

Their eagerness to get out of there is attributed to the alien, which assumes many equally repugnant forms, and is, in the words of science office Ash, “one tough [expletive deleted].”

Ash elaborates: “… A perfect organism; its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility… It’s a survivor — no conscience, no remorse, no delusions of morality.”

So, the crackerjack crew that in minutes can whip up sophisticated electronic tracking devices —“It works on micro-changes in air density”—sets out to slay the monster with torches, much as did the 18th century townsfolk in Frankenstein.

Ah well. Despite director Scott’s penchant for ramming the camera lens up under the actors’ noses, the film is beautifully photographed. The suspense is maintained (except for a temporary breakdown when the Ash character short-circuits into absurdity) and is ushered along quite nicely right up to the denouement. And the special effects are very special and very effective.

Weaver does unload one good line (in frustration at the computer ‘Mother’) but otherwise the dialogue is unrelentingly tepid, and in the case of closing lines, downright corny.

But short of screaming ‘BOO!’ probably no dialogue could do anything to enhance the heart-pounding terrors of Alien. The movie is advertised with the slogan, ‘In space no one can hear you scream.’ In the theatre you can hear everybody scream.

Alien is rated R, restricted. It contains considerable violence and gore, and some profanity. Definitely not suited for children.

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Alien is frightening; killing gets boring.

By Paul Koval
The Decatur Daily Review
Tuesday June 26th 1979.

Alien starts out superbly. Director Ridley Scott manoeuvres his camera through the empty corridors of the commercial spaceship ‘Nostromo’. The camera’s movement is restless as it searches the spaceship for signs of life. We in the audience are vaguely tense, waiting for something to happen.

Right away it is obvious that we are being manipulated by a talented director. Scott knows how to pull the strings of his audience’s emotions. Seemingly at will he can jolt us into shock or keep us breathless in suspense. Oddly enough, this mastery of the audience by Scott turns out to be both the primary strength and crucial weakness of Alien.

The film’s story line is fairly simple. The space vessel ‘Nostromo’ encounters signs of intelligent life. The crew members of the ship are then sent off to investigate.

Through a frightening turn of events, the alien life form they discover manages to get himself aboard ship. Once there, the alien methodically begins killing the crew members.

Exactly why the alien finds it necessary to kill every moving thing in sight is never made clear. The audience simply has to accept this side of his personality without question.

This lack of motivation for the alien’s rampage is symbolic of the manipulative tendencies of the entire movie. Scott wants the people on board to be hunted down, so he invents an outer being to do the dirty work. The monster just as easily could have been the shark from Jaws or the 15-foot mutant in Prophecy.

All Scott is interested in is frightening us. No attempts at thematic development are made. For that matter, there are not even any attempts made to develop the characters beyond cardboard depth.

Probably every member of the cast, excluding screen newcomer Sigourney Weaver, will be recognisable to you by face if not by name. Yet none of these talented actors (including Yaphet Kotto, Tom Sherrit [sic], and Veronica Cartwright) are ever given a chance to do anything. They are all used merely as pawns to be killed off at the director and Alien’s whim.

For the record, Alien did succeed in frequently frightening me. Unfortunately, as time passed the scares decreased with the repetitive violence of the movie. By film’s end I had been subjected to the pointless aggression of the alien for so long I was bored.

And I was also irritated with Ridley Scott for setting his sights for mere thrills when a director of his obvious talent is certainly capable of much more.

Alien attempts to wed genres of science fiction and terror

~ by Joseph Gelmis
The Clarion Ledger Sun
Sunday June 17th 1979.

Alien entertains by punishing. Alien looks to be the season’s biggest hit. The implications are disturbing.

There is a mass audience for sick entertainment, and Alien is the slickest of them all and therefore, the most realistically repulsive movie to be offered by a major U.S. company in the thrall of this latest trend.

Set aboard a spaceship a hundred years from now, Alien offers several gruesome episodes. The first —and most harrowing— graphically depicts a man’s stomach exploding. Gore splatters on his fellow crew members. Out pops the alien, on his way through a series of shape changes, getting bigger and uglier and more powerful each time.

Alien is merely an atmospheric monster movie featuring the savage demolition of human and humanoid bodies. It is a movie about five men and two women trapped aboard an interplanetary ship with a remorseless killer—who just happens to have, in his service, a $9 million dollar budget and an army of makeup and special effects workers to make him ferocious.

What distinguishes Alien from another movie in the atrocity trend, Dawn of the Dead, is the money and skill lavished upon it. Dawn of the Dead is lower budget, lower grade shock “entertainment”. (That film highlighted cannibal zombies having their brains blown away by bullets in scores of close-ups.)

The only meaningful difference between the two movies is production values. Each film had its share of outraged and offended viewers who walked out of preview screenings. Each film is, ultimately, an oppressive, calculated nightmare violation of the human body. Each film is, in a word, obscene. But Alien is technically effective moviemaking while Dawn of the Dead is crude on nearly every level.

Money isn’t the only criterion for making a realistically terrifying horror movie. Cut-rate crudity has proved to be a virtue in such shoe-string budget, it’s-so-bad-it-looks-real movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead. Thus, money isn’t the only criterion for making a realistic slaughterhouse thriller. The significant thing about Alien is that 20th Century Fox spent about as much on it as on Star Wars and that Alien is not an independent exploitation film but a corporately-funded freak show. Fox is counting heavily on Alien to be its summer blockbuster.

Alien has some value, aside from the purely esthetic use of sounds and images, as a sign of our times. A predominantly young mass audience eagerly endures the most terrible and excruciatingly painful assaults on the human body that the mind of any shockmeister can invent. The era of the simple ‘disaster’ movie has passed. Each advance in screen realism automatically leads to the next. Jaws did not end a cycle. It began one. It is ironic that, unable or unwilling to top themselves in straight terror, the producers of the two Jaws movies plan to collaborate with the National Lampoon people to emphasize sick humour when next the man-eating shark eats.

What makes morbid and sick subjects and treatment so fascinating in our time? Future historians will have to sort out the causes. What we can observe right now is the vicious cycle that produces the films we see. Alien is an attempt to wed the two most successful genres —sci-fi (Star Wars) and terror (Jaws)— of the 70’s. The major companies are caught in a jackpot fever to keep up the conglomerate-mandated annual growth rate. They will exploit a nerve that shows, go as far as the public will allow.

Ridley Scott, the British director of Alien, obviously wanted his film to do one thing: Shake up the audience. Scott had gotten good notices for his first film, The Duellists, based on a Joseph Conrad story, but the movie didn’t do well at the box office. Scott claimed recently that he was not paid for his work on that film, since he deferred his salary and The Duellists didn’t earn a profit.

Scott spent eight years “knocking at the door” to get a film made, supporting himself by shooting TV commercials. “Then I analysed my problem with The Duellists and I realised that I had not entertained,” he said. “When I was offered the script for Alien,” said Scott,” it never occurred to me to question the morality or value of the material. I saw it as a chance to scare an audience.”

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Fear is game amoral Alien plays — but it wins.

~ by Jacqi Tully
The Arizona Daily Star
Sunday June 24th 1979.

Science fiction and horror join hands in Alien to produce a chilling, calculated, effective and infinitely repulsive cinematic adventure.

It’s a movie without a soul, replete with glittering hardware, several monsters and director Ridley Scott’s supreme indifference toward humankind.

Scott’s given us a new breed of movie, one that combines two highly successful genres with a vast sum of money. That money —$10 million— gives the horror movie unique status. The 1950s spook shows exuded a tackiness that let us achieve distance from the screen image.

But the supreme polish of Alien serves to heighten the fright factor. All Scott wants is to scare the hell out of his audiences. He succeeds. But he also gives new thought to the notion of amorality.

No doubt it’s an innovative, spectacular achievement in the field of special effects and clean, precise execution of visual disgust. But it’s also a predictable plot that begins beautifully and quickly succumbs to a perfunctory series of “who’s gonna be next” killings.

The story is simple: Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay tells of seven astronauts, five men and two women, working on a rather rusty commercial spacecraft deep in the womb of outer space. They encounter a strange, octopus-like creature. It cements itself to the face of one of the astronauts and finally disappears, only to explode through his chest. As the monster grows, so too does the horror.

The rest of the crew desperately tries to confront and kill the creature, which continually changes shape and colour. But this mysterious force only strengthens with battle, systematically terminating the humans.

A curious and rather appealing quality surfaces at the film’s beginning, with the fellow space travellers wear and light hearted. Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto want to get home. They’re rumpled and dishevelled and cynically put off when they’re ordered to investigate the strange object.

The eerie, haunting quality that so often gives horror movies an odd sense of grace and style gives Alien an initial lift.

But Scott isn’t interested in building suspense. He wants terror to chart the course of each second of the film. So there’s not a moment of rest, reflection or pause. It’s all exploding guts, severed heads, drooling saliva, slimy innards and cold violence.

As the crew members scream to their deaths, panic intensifies, and in the midst of this domino death game, an odd scene occurs. The scientist on board (Holm) wants to keep the creature alive. But the commander, Ripley, played marvellously by Weaver, is now in charge. Her boss has been killed. She tells Holm they will not save the creature but rather will try to save themselves. He beats her to a pulp, and then we discover that he’s a robot. His head is severed and insides exposed.

It’s a shocking moment to watch because Scott chooses to have his audience watch a woman, and the hero of the film, bloodied unmercifully. And it’s precisely that sort of manipulation and coldness that gives Alien its empty, heartless and amoral tone.

Scott is talented. So, too, are the actors, though they never have a chance to exhibit their deftness. They exist only as objects of elimination. Production designer Michael Seymour and all the special-effects people have produced a superb design for the ship and the monster’s various evolutions.

Alien is supremely sophisticated, then, but it’s a freak show with each gesture calculated to evoke both fear and loathing. So it is meaningless, finally, because once the shock wears off, nothing is left.

Alien will make an enormous sum of money; it has already broken Star Wars’ box-office records for the first two weeks. It will be seen because it is different and because many moviegoers thrill to the chills of monsters and madness.

But it’s an empty film proceeding on repulsion. It glitters with expertise and gloss. Alien isn’t fun, though. Nor is it funny. And it isn’t concerned with substance. Fear’s the game, and Alien will break box-office records on that single, and in this case, shallow emotion.

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Fan Reaction to Alien, 1979.

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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.

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“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

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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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Crew Logs: Ron Cobb

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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.

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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.”

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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, ninemsn.com, 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–
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–was rendered faithfully as below:

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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.

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“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 bttf.com. “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.

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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.

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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 thefilmexperience.net. “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.

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‘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 combustiblecelluloid.com. “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.”

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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.”

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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.

Dan…

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 bloodsprayer.com 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 thequietus.com 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 esquire.com 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 Deadline.com 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 rollingstone.de. “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 CraveOnline.co.uk 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 midniteticket.com 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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.”

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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,” he continues, “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.”

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“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 denofgeek.com 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 CraveOnline.co.uk 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

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Alien Seed: Event Horizon

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“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.”

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“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 Joblo.com 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.”

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Alien Seed: Outland

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Any biography of Alien that fails to mention its antecedents It! The Terror Beyond Space and Forbidden Planet would fail as a genealogy. Likewise, Alien has its place in film’s tree of life, having spawned many imitations itself, with eminent titles like Contamination (1980), Inseminoid (1981), The Beast Within (1982), Forbidden World (1982), Creature (1985) and a completely unrelated Alien 2 (1980) among them.

These movies tended to feature biomechanical knock-offs stalking young women through darkened corridors and were, naturally, far more exploitive than the art-house predilections of Alien. While the latter subversively had a man become the focus of an extraterrestrial rape and birth, titles like Roger Corman’s Galaxy of Terror (1981) opted to show Taaffe O’Connell nude, lubed, and assaulted by a gigantic insect on camera. Corman’s film is interesting not because it is exemplary but because it helped James Cameron break into movie making (Robert Englund, Sid Haig and Grace Zabriskie notably starred.) The film was touted by the studio as “a spellbinding tale in the Alien tradition”, but was described perhaps more modestly by Cameron himself as “Roger’s paean, to be charitable, to Alien.”

Though Galaxy of Terror is often discussed at length regarding Alien, another film that is arguably even more interesting is Peter Hyam’s Outland (also 1981), specifically because, firstly, it is not low-fi schlock like much of Alien’s ‘progeny’, and also because its foundations lie not in the sci-fi/horror genre but in the Western, most especially Frank Zinneman’s classic, High Noon (1952). It swaps the sand and wood of High Noon however for a very Alien-esque mining facility on Jupiter’s moon, Io. Sean Connery plays the station’s sheriff, Marshal William O’Niel, who discovers a plot concerning drug running and bouts of psychosis amongst the facility’s workers. Investigating, he is drawn into a battle against the facility’s management company, Conglomerates Amalgamated. As O’Niel closes in on the conspiracy he finds himself abandoned by the station’s inhabitants and left to the mercy of incoming Company hitmen. There is not, unlike the endless concatenation of Alien knockoffs, a monster.

The High Noon influence is quite obvious from any cursory plot synopsis, but the film’s similarity to Alien strikes as soon as we’re granted a look at the film’s environments. Actress Frances Sternhagen, who played O’Niel’s only ally, Dr. Lazarus, recalled that the sets were dank and dingy, with Hyams’ explanation being that the mining facility needed to look lived in, an aesthetic that George Lucas had referred to as the ‘used universe’. It can be seen in the grubby interiors of the Millenium Falcon in Star Wars before it was rendered again in Ron Cobb’s designs for the Nostromo a few short years later, but this look  not did originate with either of those films, instead being preceded by Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star, where it was intended to be a jokey counterpoint to Kubrick’s glossy 2001: A Space Odyssey. “[The future is] not lucite domes where people glide back and forth wearing jump suits, and everybody is perma-pressed,” Hymans explained. “The only consideration was the performing of a task, and that’s true of all the designs for Outland. Function is the only criterion.” Compare these comments with Ron Cobb’s design philosophy: “My design approach has always been that of a frustrated engineer. I tend to subscribe to the idea that form follows function. If I’m to arrive at a cinematic spacecraft design that seamlessly preserves, as in this case, the drama of the script, the audience has to experience it as something impressive and believable.”

However, though it’s easy to get the impression that Hyams saw Alien and deliberately replicated it, Hyams himself denied that he was influenced by Ridley Scott’s film. “No,” he told Starlog magazine in 1981, “I was not influenced by Alien at all. This is a very dissimilar movie. Alien did not really focus on the characters. This movie is about a bunch of people that I think you get to see sides of that you don’t ordinarily get to see in films.”

His statement seems undercut by various factors: for one, there was considerable talent shared between both films: Martin Bower, Nick Allder, Bill Pearson, John Mollo, and Jerry Goldsmith all helped manufacture the look and sound of both, though Goldsmith was hired primarily because he had worked with Hyams previously on Capricorn One. Most telling is the allegation that Outland’s design office was adorned with a notice that read, ‘Make this film look like Alien.’

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There are other, perhaps serendipitous similarities between them: Outland’s Dr. Lazarus was originally written as a man, just as Ripley was. “I decided it was absurd for a picture set in the future to be unpopulated by women,” commented Hyams. Frances Sternhagen addressed her character’s likeness to Ripley in an issue of Starlog, saying, “There is some similarity between the two roles. Both characters were independent thinkers doing a job, and both were more concerned with doing the job than anything else. There is also the fact that both at one point had to decide to do something we hadn’t planned on doing that is very dangerous. I think those are the main things. Characterwise, we are different.”

There are perhaps many other similarities between the two films. Some, like the malignant Company, the grubby interiors, and the blue-collar, oily-fingered workers with their propensity for casually-worn flight suits and corporate emblems, are egregious. It’s worth watching simply to recognise pieces of the Nostromo being replicated sometimes wholesale throughout the colony, though it is different enough to be more interesting than a mere Nostromo clone; instead it feels like the craftsmen behind Alien applying that film’s aesthetic to a wider universe. Outland can easily be watched as a spin-off, a short story within the Alien universe about more smoky conference rooms and weary, exasperated spacefarers being beset by corporate malfeasance.

Curiously enough, Outland seems to have rubbed off, perhaps serendipitously, perhaps simply due to archetypical similarities, on the Alien sequel. “A mining operation like Con-Am #27 represents a frontier,” Hyams said, “and frontiers strike me as sinister, dangerous places of enormous hardship.” These comments concerning the mining facility and its occupants mirrors Aliens’ storm-harried colonists, who are described in James Cameron’s script as being “pioneers in a very unforgiving climate” who must “work very hard to get a toehold” but are fortunately imbued with “a stubborn optimism characteristic of hardy frontier types throughout history.” Hyams also describes the motivation of his miners as being “willing to put up with Hell for the chance to make some big quick money,” just as we hear Newt’s father, a prospector, proclaim in Cameron’s movie upon discovering the derelict: “Folks, we have scored big this time!”

But if Outland had any definitively tangible bearing on Aliens, it was the repurposing of the Con-Am spacesuits for the salvage team who find Ripley:

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There was also, finally, a Heavy Metal adaptation:

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Outland, though competently made and certainly entertaining, is not a seminal film and is usually remembered for its likeness to Alien and High Noon rather than its own merits; it is still fondly recommended and watched by those who appreciate the look of the movie, which did better to emulate Alien than the multitude of imitators that followed throughout the 1980’s.

The film barely recouped its costs at the box office and critical response was lukewarm. Harlan Ellison for his part called it “a bastardisation of someone else’s original idea” and explained that it was the “nasty reality” of allowing “dabblers, fools, and perverters” to have charge of a film that dared to mime greats like High Noon and Alien, the latter of which he called a “classic of terror” – Ellison was also unimpressed with John Carpenter’s The Thing for much the same reasons. Ellison, who at the time of the film’s release also rebuked Sean Connery in the pages of Starlog for his recent harrying of a journalist, recalled a conversation with Ridley Scott where Scott mentioned the time was ripe for a ‘John Ford of science fiction’ to emerge onto the film scene. Hyams, invariably, was not it.

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