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The Alien Planet

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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.”

Planetary concept art by Ron Cobb. A red giant and white dwarf illuminate the roiling, ruddy clouds.

The Snark stranded in a dust storm. The planetoid in the film is essentially as described in the script, but none of the concept art, bar Giger’s, presented it as the grey gloom evoked by O’Bannon. Instead, preliminary artwork by Ron Cobb, Chris Foss, and even Moebius showed a Mars-like wasteland.

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’.

One piece of Cobb’s art shows the short-lived Cylinder construct. In this version of the story, the Alien is a bioweapon engineered by the malevolent Company. The Nostromo crew are re-routed to be used as specimens to test the creature’s lethality. The Lovecraftian tones infused into the script by O’Bannon were utterly removed. When Ron Shusett presented the original script to Ridley Scott, Scott decided that they should go back to the original plan. Though the Lovecraftian tones would persist all the way to the final movie, the pyramid, ultimately, would not.

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.”

Twisted biomechanical landscape. Image copyright HR Giger.

The expansive sets were shrouded in smoke and dust to simulate storms and to hide the physical limitations of filming on a stage.

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.”

Surface of the planet from orbit.

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.”

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Hadley’s Hope

Aliens returns to the blasted landscape now designated LV-426, also known as Acheron.

“[Acheron] is a feature in the ninth circle, I believe, in Dante Alighieri’s Hell,” James Cameron said in an 1986 interview. “There never was a name for the planet in the original film, so I made up one. [Acheron] seemed to be the sort of thing that some sort of colonist who had a literary bent might have named the place.”

Ridley Scott’s Alien presented space exploration as a tedious, blue-collar affair inhabited by glorified truckers, miners, and low-level officers. Aliens would do the same, and expanded the universe not only by presenting grunts in space, but by opening up a space frontier inhabited by colonists and planetary immigrants. These space frontiers face a gruelling life on the miserable planetoid now designated LV-426: the sun burns cold and even daylight is bleak; the terrain is malformed; near-perpetual storms lash across the surface; and bolts of lightning sear at the earth.

“The ugly little planet had been an anonymous alpha-numeric on the star charts until the first survey team christened it ACHERON, after the frozen swamp at the center of the ninth circle of Dante’s Hell [see Trivia 1# ~ Valaquen] With a stubborn optimism characteristic of hardy frontier types throughout history, the people of the colony ECA/C486 call their little community ‘Hadley’s Hope’, after one of the founding members. That’s what the sign set in concrete pylons between the landing field and the main complex reads, or would at least, if gale-force winds hurling rain laced with carbonic acid hadn’t corroded the paint off it. The terraforming stations dotted around the planetoid have succeeded in warming and oxygenating the atmosphere sufficiently so that closed spacesuits are no longer required. Near the equator, where the colony is located, it is usually above freezing. Unfortunately, the terraforming plants create almost perpetual nasty weather, the birth pains of a new ecosystem. The colonists have so far achieved a state of continuous freezing rain…”
~ Aliens treatment, by James Cameron, 1983.

In the planet’s current state, livestock seems unable to thrive, likely leaving the colonists with a poor diet. The climate forces them into boxed-in, pre-packaged blocks. The only light is largely artificial. A stormwall protects the colony from the worst of the howling wind, but the persistent rain turns the ground into muck. Settlers in the American Frontier of the 19th century, if they were lucky enough, often came to rely on Native American generosity to survive during harsh winters. Poisonous snakes and rival missionaries were legitimate hazards, along with starvation, disease, and misadventure. Cameron’s space settlers, however, are only connected to civilisation by the thinnest of threads and the greatest of distances, and are apparently forced to be completely autonomous on a world that Dan O’Bannon described as a “baneful little storm-lashed planetoid, halfway across the galaxy.”

Trivia 1# “It’s a frozen swamp,” Cameron says of the mythical Acheron, though he confuses it with Cocytus, the frozen lake that lies at the nadir of the ninth circle, within which stands an entrapped Satan. Acheron, in Greek myth as well as Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, is a river that serves as the outer boundary of Hell/Hades. Virgil, who leads the Pilgrim through the circles of Hell, describes the periphery of Acheron in Canto III as a “sorrowful shore”. The rivers of Hell -Acheron, Styx, and Phlegethon- all conjoin at a lower point to lead to Cocytus. Though Cameron mixes up the two, the imagery is no less potent: “Here sighs and cries and shrieks of lamentation echoed throughout the starless air of Hell …”

Trivia 2# Who is Hadley? According to the treatment, s/he is one of the founding members of the colony. But what makes this person so distinguishable? According to the crew dossiers seen in the inquest scene from Aliens, Kane, some years before the events of Alien, was a medical student who abused medication, resulting in his hospitalisation. He subsequently underwent “psychological reorientation” at Mann Hadley’s medical clinic. It’s not a stretch to conclude that this enigmatic, likely famous public figure is also the namesake for the colony on LV-426. Whether s/he was a technological pioneer, business-person, or a Curie-esque figure, we can only imagine.

“It’s a raw and primal world,” Cameron said, describing Acheron. “Windswept, not a place you’d wanna live.” Why exactly people would leave Earth for the space colonies is addressed in one early iteration of the script. In the first draft is a TV commercial, only mentioned in passing by Ripley in the finished movie, that depicts the promise of space frontierism:

The wall-screen is on, blaring vapidly.
VOICE FROM VIDEO: (o.s.) Hey, Bob! I heard you and the family are heading off for the colonies!
BOB: (o.s.) Best decision I ever made, Bill. We’ll be starting a new life from scratch in a clean world. No crime. No unemployment…

“[The planet is designed] in every line and every bit of lighting and colour and everything, just to be incredibly hostile,” Cameron continues. “Wind, lightning, rain. These tormented rock forms that are eroded by the wind into strange shapes. And then it’s all very dark and shadowy and when you look at these shapes sometimes you see things that aren’t there … I wanted to say, ‘this is definitely unlike anything that exists on Earth, but with points of familiarity –mountains, clouds, rain, that sort of thing– and using that to create a sensation, not of something that’s inhuman and bizarre, but just of a place that’s very, very difficult to survive in.”

To design the colony, Cameron sought out Ron Cobb, a friend to Dan O’Bannon who also designed the Nostromo from the original movie, and who also contributed to the idea of the Alien having acid blood. As with Alien, where O’Bannon bounced preliminary ideas and plot difficulties with his artist friend, Cobb found himself happily collaborating with the sequel’s writer when it came to designing the film: “There was always a lot of collaboration with Jim,” he explained, “because he always had a sketch or two and contributed. Then I’d go into the details … I did the airlock and the colony control room. I did all that and I did all the labs, and all the operating rooms and certainly most of all of the colony, really. The casino and a cafe and the lousy weather and such. It all just fell into place.”

Concept of the storm wall, by Ron Cobb.

Concept of the storm wall, by Ron Cobb.

Storm wall by James Cameron.

Storm wall by James Cameron.

Sketch of the Colony streets, by Ron Cobb.

Sketch of the Colony streets, by Ron Cobb.

Hadley’s Hope is cut into three distinct areas. First is the main complex, which houses Operations, and where we spend the majority of the film. Next up is the frontier town, which holds the bar and clubs. Finally, in the distance, is the Atmosphere Processor. Also on the outskirts of the colony is the Airfield, which is where the dropship deploys the APC.

“Beyond the town, across a half-kilometer of barren heath, stands the nearest of the ten terraforming stations. It resembles a squat, slightly conical smokestack but on a vastly larger scale. It’s a man-made steel volcano, 200 meters high, blasting superheating air straight up into the stratosphere. The rim glows cherry-red against the dark sky.”
~ Aliens treatment, by James Cameron, 1983

The colony is described by I.C.C. executive, Van Leuwen, as a “shake n’ bake” project, a term often used to denote something that has been pre-made and quickly pieced together at low cost and effort. The laserdisc notes that “the frontier town was supposed to look like cargo containers and other scraps strung together to form a liveable environment. The concept here was that the colonists would dismantle their spaceships in order to create their new living quarters and towns.”

The colonists’ feelings of dissatisfaction with their adopted world can be seen in the film: upon the Hadley’s Hope sign someone has scrawled a sardonic have a nice day message, and in one piece of concept art another disgruntled colonist has written this place sucks by the stormwall entranceway. Inside, the colonists we meet seem weary and harried by their work and environment. Milling around the colony are several vehicles designed by Ron Cobb, some with their own nicknames (“Wee Hulk”, “Iron Fairy”) bestowed on them by the film’s model makers.

Cameron explained further: “the colonists that live there are like pioneers in a very unforgiving climate, and they work very hard to get a toehold.” Cameron describes the inhabitants in his scriptment as thus: “Tough. Pragmatic. Grapes of Wrath faces. Calloused hands.” The inside of the colony, specifically the Operations room, is ramshackle but functional: “Jammed with computer terminals, technicians, displays … most of the business of running the colony flows through here. It’s high tech but used and scrungy. Papers piled up. Coffee cup rings.”

Description of Hadley’s Hope from the screenplay: “The town is a cluster of bunker-like metal and concrete buildings connected by conduits. Neon signs throw garish colours across the vault-like walls, advertising bars and other businesses. It looks like a sodden cross between the Krupps munitions works and a truckstop casino in the Nevada boondocks …”

“… Huge-wheeled tractors crawl toad-like in the rutted ‘street’ and vanish down rampways to underground garages.”

For the general aesthetics of Hadley’s Hope, Cameron pushed for a cynical sort of pre-packaged, assembly line look to the buildings. “I figured the colony would have a more straightforward, rudimentary-type technology,” said Cameron. The modular colony buildings were envisioned as being pre-fabricated and ready for a quick assembly on the planet’s surface. Cobb explained that he designed the buildings as “long hexagonal, cylinder-type things that could be transported intact, lowered into place from some sort of hovercraft, and then mounted on huge concrete piers.” The colony’s model builder, Pat McClung, described the buildings as being built “out of giant shipping containers”. Cheap, downtrodden and weather-beaten, Hadley’s Hope is akin to a holiday home on the fringes of Hades.

Trivia 3# The Operating Manager at Hadley’s Hope, Simpson, is played by Mac McDonald, who played a similar sort of role as the exasperated Captain Hollister in the BBC TV comedy, Red Dwarf, which features another blue-collar, beaten down comedic universe seemingly inspired by Alien‘s ancestor, Dark Star. The Assistant Operations Manager, Lydecker, is played by William Armstrong (credited as Bill), who played Lau’s lawyer in The Dark Knight, as well as a lawyer character in 1408.

The colony interiors were also designed by Cobb, but as before, Cameron provided creative input: “Jim had done some sketches of how he wanted it,” said Peter Lamont, the film’s production designer. The set designers took “old VCR decks, backs of TVs … hundreds of them” as well as aircraft scrap to decorate the corridors of the colony. “British Airways were just doing away with their ticketing computer,” Lamont explained, “and when you took the covers off, the interior was just mind boggling with kinds of boards and wiring and all that … so suddenly in the complex itself we could have great banks of this.”

The Atmosphere Processor is described in one version of the screenplay as a “roaring tower … a metal volcano thundering like God’s Lear jet”. “One of thirty on the planet,” Burke explains to Ripley, before the number was whittled down to one in the final script and film. “They’re completely automated.” The grand irony in the structure is that this life-giving machinery becomes the Alien nursery in which the colonists, men, women, and children, all meet a torturous death.

The film’s production crew on the miniature colony set. Blast walls in foreground, the looming Atmosphere Processor and Alien hive in the distance.

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View of the colony miniature set.

Pieces of the colony miniature.

A sketch of the colony exterior by model effects worker, Steven Begg.

A sketch of the colony exterior by model effects worker, Steven Begg.

A sketch by Steven Begg of the Atmosphere Processor.

A sketch by Steven Begg of the Atmosphere Processor.

The denizens of LV-426 seem to live in their small sequestered colony with no real handle on their new world. Barren and violent, the planet does not seem to reward travellers. Explorers, such as the survey family to which Newt belongs, apparently explore the surface in an incremental way. When they stumble across the derelict ship from Alien, they are described as being beyond “the Ilium range”, which suggests a boundary of sorts, seldom reached or crossed, (“Ilium” is another Greek reference alongside “Acheron”. Ilium, in Homer’s The Iliad, is another name for the city of Troy, which finds itself besieged by the Achaean armies of Agamemnon. The ilium is also, fittingly, the largest bone in the human pelvis – apt for a world where HR Giger’s biomechanoids are resident).

The derelict’s warning beacon has long fallen silent. In Alien‘s script, storyboards, and novelisation, the crew discover the beacon device inside the derelict and deactivate it, silencing it forever. Though these scenes are not apparent in the movie, the beacon’s inactivity in the sequel is still explained by the damage wrought on the ship by seismic activity.

The derelict model itself had fallen into disrepair after Alien, but Cameron secured it for use in the sequel, with the ship being filmed in the States, as the model was in too fragile a condition to import to Pinewood. The real-life damage seen on the model ship was largely the product of time, but translated well into Aliens’ story.

James Cameron’s sketch of the rent in the Derelict’s hull. The ship has been capsized and upended from its perch by seismic activity.

The rent in the model's hull.

The rent in the model’s hull.

Newt’s parents, excited and in awe of their discovery, venture inside. When they return, Russ Jorden’s curiosity has obviously gotten the better of him. A facehugger has latched to his head and tightens its grip around his throat. Newt’s mother lunges for the radio and calls for aid from the colony. In the original screenplay, the story continued to show us the rescue team arriving to pick up the surveyors. The team head inside the ship with Anne Jorden as a guide. They discover the Space Jockey:

INT EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL SHIP — Through the biomechanoid corridors. They pause briefly to shine their lights over the body of a huge alien … fossilised in his command seat. The figure has been half-submerged by an inpouring of volcanic ash.

As well as the Alien egg chamber:

The eggs erupt. One. Two. Three. Then a volley. Screams are muffled by the facehugging creatures….Screams echo, escalate. The chamber is a writhing, living horror.

From here, the rescue team, along with Russ Jorden, return to Hadley’s Hope with the Alien spore, and ensure the doom of the colonists. The infestation begins…

Hadley’s Hope in a wet sunrise. Perhaps its last…

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