When Alejandro Jodorowsky approached HR Giger with his film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, he enticed Giger with the prospect of creating his own alien world and civilisation. With Chris Foss and Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud designing vehicles, costumes and storyboards in one corner, and with Dan O’Bannon overseeing the special effects, Giger set to work on his vision of the dreary Harkonnen homeworld, Giedi Prime. “My planet was ruled by evil,” Giger explained, “a place where black magic was practised, aggressions were let loose, and intemperance and perversion were the order of the day.” When the film fell apart before entering production Jodorowsky sent back Giger’s work, without pay, and the dream of creating his own alien world fell apart. Later, in August 1977, Giger received a phone call from Dan O’Bannon, who had written a science-fiction script of his own…
“The planetoid … is turbulent, completely enveloped in dun-coloured clouds,” reads O’Bannon’s Alien script. “The night-shrouded surface is a hell of blowing dust.” When the spaceship Snark (later renamed the Leviathan, and finally Nostromo) lands, the chaotic weather grounds the vessel, necessitating repairs. “A ring of floodlights on the ship come to life … They illuminate nothing but a patch of featureless grey ground and clouds of blowing dust.” In addition to being bleak, the planetoid’s day/night cycles pass by in rapid succession, discomforting the investigating spacemen. “These day and night cycles are totally disorientating,” says Melkonis, who would later become Lambert. “I feel like we’ve been here for days, but it’s only been how long?” Roby, the proto-Ripley, replies, “about four hours.”
With Giger having designed the derelict, he was also given reign over the planetoid’s surface; a job he found more enticing than designing the film’s titular monster. He told Sci-Fi Invasion! magazine in 1998: “[Designing] the creature is a boring thing! … After modelling you give it to other people [to build]. I liked to do the world the Alien was coming from. It was my world.”
For his world, Giger painted a biomechanical landscape of strange shapes formed out of twisted metal and bone. “I wanted the landscape of the planet to be biomechanic,” said Giger, “a mixture of our technology and some kind of magma, so as to create the feeling that maybe something has happened before on that planet, maybe a technical civilisation has been destroyed.”
In fact, in the original screenplay there were traces of a bygone alien race on the planetoid’s surface – the most notable element being the famous spore pyramid. The characters deduce that the pyramid is a “a pre-technological construction. That slab was engineered by an Iron Age culture at best.” The structure once served as a breeding temple for the planetoid’s primitive beings, who required three sexes to reproduce: two consensual, and one sacrificial – an incubator to carry the seed.
Unique Race: “In Dan’s original conception the Alien race had three entirely different stages of its life-cycle,” explained Ron Cobb. “First, the egg, which is tended by the third stage adults and housed in a lower chamber of the breeding temple. When ready to hatch, the egg is placed in the middle of a sacrificial stone and a lower animal, the equivalent of an alien cow, is then led on to the stone. Sensing the warmth, the facehugger springs out, attaches itself to the animal and deposits a foetus into the stomach.” At some point in the planetoid’s history, a “cataclysm causes the extermination of the adults … leaving no one to tend and nurture the young. But in a dark lower chamber of the breeding temple a large number of eggs lie dormant, waiting to sense something warm …”
The pyramid would find itself excised in the first rewrites conducted by Walter Hill and David Giler. “We believed,” Hill explained to Film International in 2004, “that if you got rid of a lot of the junk -they had pyramids and hieroglyphics in the planetoid, a lot of Von Daniken crap- that what you would have left would be a very good, very primal space story.” However, Hill and Giler did not merely remove the pyramids and hieroglyphics, but they replaced them as well. For one iteration of the script, the Alien spore was housed in a man-made construct known only as the ‘Cylinder’.
The Cylinder was not to last long. “I remember getting this call from Gordon Carroll,” O’Bannon told Fantastic Films. “He said, ‘You must meet Ridley. You’re going to like him’ … I went in, and there he was. Ronnie Shusett had feverishly rushed up to him and shoved a copy of the original draft of the script into his hands because Hill and Giler had begun to rewrite it. We were disturbed by the content of the rewrite. Ridley read it and went, “Oh yes. We have to go back to the first way. Definitely.'”
After Scott’s exposure to O’Bannon’s original draft, the alien angle was re-inserted into the movie. Rather than a pyramid however, Giger designed a breast-like biomechanic egg silo to store the eggs. Eventually, due to time and budget, even this was eliminated, and the egg silo merged with the derelict craft. “I would love to have shot it [the pyramid/silo],” Ridley explained, “but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it would have been wonderful in a three-hour version. What finally cracked it was the budget. We just had to get rid of it.”
At first, Scott flirted with the idea of shooting on location, but due to financial and logistical impracticalities, the dream was short-lived. “Studio landscape is bloody difficult,” he complained. “You’re constantly staring at plaster rocks and saying, ‘Christ, this doesn’t look right.’ I would have preferred to do some of it on location and then do a studio link. In fact, I‘d been looking at some spots for another picture that would have been beautiful for Alien, particularly in Turkey where there are these pyramid-like dwellings – huge mountainous structures which cover hundreds of square miles. Absolutely extraordinary. But it was a practical budget decision not to go away on location, and so we just did what we could in the studio.” Scott would eventually get outside for the LV-223 landscape in Prometheus.
Michael Seymour explained to Cinefex the difficulty of building a convincing alien environment on a stage: “The alien landscape was really just a collection of shapes, and unless one saw it only in carefully lighted conditions, it looks exactly like that. Obviously, when you’re striving for believability, the last thing you want is a set that looks like a set.”
To hide the set, the production crew turned to masking the environment. Nick Allder explained: “We used vermiculite. In fact, we used a lot of vermiculite – somewhere in the region of two or three hundred bags a day. Normally I think it’s used for insulation and things like that, but it was ideal for this purpose because it looks rather like small pebbles even though it’s actually very lightweight. Then in addition to the vermiculite and the smoke, I used a lot of live steam venting out of the [Nostromo] leg, just for atmosphere.”
To give the planet texture in the shots of it from orbit, crew member Dennis Lowe turned to a technique he had tested as a student: “[On Alien] we had to devise a way to produce planet-like textures. When I was an art student I spent hours photographing aluminium paint poured on white spirit in a shallow tray to produce an abstract effect. I remembered this technique and suggested we have a go. This time I used powder pigments to mix into the aluminium paint and photographed it using a Hasselblad 2 1/4 camera. What resulted was a globular surface with infinite detail that could pass as a planet surface. This would then be projected using the same technique onto the white dome.”
At the time of the film’s release, Giger stated: “I am a bit disappointed, but I think the film comes off alright as it is now. We had made a lot of little models, but very few were executed full-size. And, due to lack of time, the one made for the landscape is not really biomechanic. But, at least, it is full-size. Only in one scene is a model used for the landscape: when you see the three men [actually Dallas, Kane, and Lambert] with the derelict in the background.”
“I was not satisfied with my work because I thought it would be better,” Giger told TotalMovie in 2001. “There were many more shots of the alien environment and the derelict spacecraft. We worked so long on this, and then it was shown in a few seconds, and it was already old! I didn’t understand why Ridley showed people’s faces so long while the more interesting things were shown so short … Later, I saw that Scott did a good job. He filmed it very well because he knew exactly how it should look.”