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Rock Jockey

GR Giger's sketch of the Space Jockey lying dead on the planetoid's surface.

HR Giger’s sketch of the Space Jockey lying dead on the planetoid’s surface. Image copyright HR Giger.

At one point in the film’s production the decision was made to remove the Space Jockey from his pilot chamber and deposit his body in the rubble surrounding his ship. This was done to ensure the Jockey’s appearance, since there was talk of removing the pilot room to spare the budget. In this version, Dallas, Lambert and Kane would wander past the skeleton without ever having noticing it, since it has ossified to resemble the indigenous twisted rocks.

“They said, ‘This [pilot chamber] is not your main set. You’re just gonna have to walk by and see a skeletal imprint in the mud of this 15-foot creature, and then you’ll walk into this strange-looking building. It’ll be a bunker or something…”
~ Ron Shusett, making of Alien, Alien Anthology.

On May 14th 1978 HR Giger, sitting at home only a week after having sent his slides and sketches to Twentieth Century Fox, received a phone call from London. He’d already been contacted two days earlier by producer Gordon Carroll, who had complimented his work so far. Now Carroll was calling again to notify Giger that one of his pieces, the cockpit of the derelict craft, would not be needed. Ridley Scott reiterated this message.

“They have a new idea for the script that I should visualise,” Giger wrote. “The skeleton of the astronaut, which used to be in the spacecraft, should now be placed in the landscape, blending in so that it can’t be distinguished, and the crew wouldn’t notice it until they see it on the recorder, back in the [Nostromo]. Like the film Blow-up, where the figure hidden in the bushes is only discovered once the negatives are developed.”

Storyboard for the Space Jockey's appearance, disguised amongst the rocks...

Storyboard for the Space Jockey’s appearance, disguised amongst the rocks…

The crew later freezefram their helmet footage and make out the shadowy skull of the Jockey.

The crew later freeze-frame their helmet footage and make out the shadowy skull of the Jockey.

On July 4th 1978 Giger, now firmly entrenched in the film’s production, received another call from the producer’s office. “Another change,” he wrote in his diary, “They want the skeleton of the alien Space Jockey to lie in the cockpit again.” It wasn’t the only backtrack that occurred during the film’s production. By this time Giger was well-acquainted with ideas coming, going, and coming back again, either exactly as they were before or as some odd permutation of the original.

Though the idea of the Jockey’s outdoor appearance was on the cards for several months its design never amounted to more than some sketches and doodles (though one can be spied in Giger’s ‘Alien Landscape’ painting – if you look for it).

For many years fans theorised that an actual prop was built and photographed. The rumour emerged in 1979 after a Topps trading card depicting a ‘grotesque rock formation’ was released, and many peregrine-eyed fans thought they could spy the shape of the Jockey in there somewhere.

Unfortunately for them, the rock formation was simply that, and nothing more – but the trade-off was ultimately worth it, considering that the rock Jockey’s excision meant that he could make a far more memorable appearance within his cockpit.

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Gods & Monsters

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“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the hierarchies
of angels? And if one did take
me to his heart: I would perish from his
stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
but the onset of terror we’re still just able to bear,
and we admire it so because it calmly disdains
to destroy us.
Every angel is terrifying.”
~ The First Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke.

“They are men – and yet not men,” opens Jon Spaihts’ Alien prequel script. The scene is a primordial world, and three figures have walked out of the darkness… “Their skin is snow-white,” it continues. “Their features heavy and classical – as if Rodin’s Thinker had risen from his seat.” But it’s not Auguste Rodin’s masterpiece finally standing before us, it is HR Giger’s.

The origin of these pale giants harkens back to 1979’s Alien, which introduced us to the enigmatic and sessile Space Jockey. The  Jockey had never figured into any of the Alien sequels, save for a brief mention in one draft of Aliens that went unfilmed. After a three decade absence the creature was back, though rebranded as the ‘Engineer’, an apparent biological warmonger, seeder of worlds and god-errant who, at some point in prehistory, created mankind.

Artist Neville Page was given the task of conceptualising the look of the Engineers. “We know that the Engineers were the engineers of us,” he elaborated, “but we don’t know, and nor can I speculate, why they left and came back and how many times they came back and what the intention was of returning and why they gave us the map to find them.”

“Their civilisation is millions of years old. Once, the Engineers expressed themselves as humans do, taking pleasure in music, colour and story, but they’ve long learned to see in more dimensions than we do. Their art and ornament exist on planes imperceptible to human senses. Their constructions look dark and grim to us; but the Engineers’ eyes see far more than our own. Individual Engineers live for a hundred thousand years. Ages ago their race abandoned sex and gender, reproducing by more abstract methods. In recent millenia they have ceased to reproduce altogether.”
~ Jon Spaihts’ “Alien Master Narrative”, script notes.

“When Shaw and Holloway conceived the mission, their expectation was they would discover a benevolent species that might provide answers to some of our greatest mysteries. In other words, they were hoping to meet gods. But these beings prove to be anything but compassionate. They are a dangerous race of superbeings.”
~ Michael Ellenberg (executive producer), screenslam, 2012.

As for the look of the Engineers, they “were an exercise in classic human beauty,” he explained. “Ridley was quite specific about his references of Roman and Grecian sculpture. ‘God-like, classical, powerful, with skin like that of stone’. In some ways, it was the easiest to design as there was little to do in terms of invention. In other ways, it was very difficult as the pursuit of human beauty is quite subjective.”

The most controversial aspect of the Engineer however was his relationship to the Space Jockey, ie: the Jockey was only one component of this gargantuan being; a suit or instrument. The real creature lay within.

“The giant [in Alien] was conceived as a skeleton,” Ridley Scott admitted. “I kept staring at the skeleton … then I thought, twenty, thirty, actually twenty six years on, ‘what if this is not a skeleton, but we only see it as a skeleton because of our own indoctrination?’ and I thought, ‘what happens if it’s another form of protection, or a suit? If it’s a suit, then what’s inside the suit?'”

The Space Jockey recast as a biomechanical spacesuit. The 'trunk' is a breathing apparatus and the eye sockets are covered by lenses.

The Space Jockey recast as a biomechanical spacesuit. The ‘trunk’ is a breathing apparatus and the eye sockets are covered by lenses. The body is plated by a blue-grey coating. In the film the suits of dead Engineers have a more ossified look, like the Jockey of the original.

“It could be a degraded suit,” Scott says in Prometheus: The Art of the Film. “It’s only you saying that because you think you’re looking at bone structure and a ribcage. Why isn’t that a suit? It’s been lying there disintegrating for two or three thousand years in deep cold; that could be a suit. The suit works great as a kind of organic, very sophisticated spacesuit.”

“I think that was,” said Neville Page regarding the Space Jockey-Engineer, “and I’m guessing here quite honestly, that it was a bit of reverse engineering. I’m not sure how much Ridley knew when he was doing the first film that the elephantine face was going to be a helmet.”

Neville admitted that though they were retconning the original Space Jockey, it didn’t seem like a challenge to imagine that the ossified creature could be, essentially, a biomechanical life-support machine:

“It was a matter of shoehorning the Engineer into that device and being able to have him revealed so that he does look like the iconic Florentine sculptures that Ridley referenced in the ‘Art of’ book. Trying to have it be human yet knowing that that elephantine structure could not be a human head. It was pretty easy to just imagine that that’s some kind of specialized space helmet shell device.”

Creature conceptual artist Carlos Huante also provided designs for the Engineers, though he was not entirely satisfied with the end result: “I wasn’t entirely happy with the Engineer design” he told AVPGalaxy. “I thought it was great in theory but I thought it was going to be very difficult in application. And then after the design was settled on, we discussed the fabrication issues I foresaw. I predicted that the Engineers could end up looking fat or thick with bellies if they added too much rubber build up for the suit. Then the costume over all that rubber I thought they’re going to look fat for sure, which they did. So… There’s that.”

The Engineer was also originally planned to match the gargantuan height of the original Space Jockey. Jon Spaihts’ script takes a close look at one Engineer corpse, revealing that: “If he were standing he would be fifteen feet tall. He is roughly human in shape. Barrel-chested. Withered to the bone. There are bulky protrusions fused with his flesh: hard to say whether they are equipment or parts of his body. His head, lolling to one side, is severed from his body.” The Engineer was later shortened to make him practical to shoot on film, and for an actor to portray convincingly.

An Engineer design by Carlos Huante.

An Engineer design by Carlos Huante.

A hermaphroditic concept piece.

A hermaphroditic concept piece.

“I still was,” said Page, “where appropriate, channeling Giger’s work and Giger’s aesthetic, particularly with the Engineer’s spacesuit because it had to be that aesthetic. It was interesting because Ridley did say, ‘I don’t necessarily want to see you copy Giger’s work. That’s not what we’re doing here.'”

“I don’t like to repeat myself,” Scott offered as way of explanation. He was happy to use Giger’s aesthetic but keen to marry it to other influences. “In discussing it,” explained Page, “it was clear though that the Engineer was a Space Jockey, sitting inside of that vessel … The ironic thing is I didn’t open one Giger book. I didn’t look at his work, mainly because his work I’ve been looking at for years, since the original Alien and I’ve been a huge fan of it. So it was pretty deep in my mind and it was clear enough that I could actually replicate that aesthetic without having any of his artwork in front of me.”

Page referred to the biological suit as being “truly Giger”, but explained that the Engineers required “some kind of undersuit” which he was to design. “I started off just by doing basically underpants on the engineer with this exposed body. Then we realized he should probably not be as naked. If you were in a cryo chamber over years, you’d probably be in some kind of suit that could connect with your body tissue, protect it, monitor it, etc.”

The Engineer wearing his 'skin-suit'.

The Engineer wearing his ‘skin-suit’.

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The Engineer in his ‘flight-suit’.

For the unsuited Engineers, Ridley Scott also invoked the fallen angels of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. “If you look at the Engineers,” said Scott, “they’re tall and elegant … they are dark angels. If you look at Paradise Lost, the guys who have the best time in the story are the dark angels, not God.”

Scott frequently alludes to the idea of Paradise as having sinister connotations. If we think in the vein of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the realm of heaven is presented as being authoritarian to an extreme, and more than capable of anticipating and destroying (or degrading) its enemies. In Milton’s tale Pandæmonium is the parliament of Hell, but Paradise’s power is far more terrible. “They’re going off to Paradise,” said Scott of the film’s two survivors, who leave LV-223 for the Engineer homeworld, “but it could be the most savage, horrible place.”

The Engineers in the film, then, are an amalgamation of Classical ideas of the heroic figure; Renaissance-era ideas about Heavenly and Hellish beings, and Giger’s signature biomechanics. All in all, it’s an enticing and interesting conglomeration of influences. The trouble would be not in selecting from differing artistic sources, but in melding and achieving equilibrium between them. On the one hand, the designs could be passed off as being generic if they conform too closely to an ‘ideal’ of the human figure: beautiful but blank. Marrying this aesthetic to biomechanics also has a shortfall: they simply may not be biomechanic enough; a bastardisation rather than a natural progression or offshoot.

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There are traces of biomechanical flourishes throughout the film’s designs. The decapitated Engineer’s helmet was to be like “cracking open an oyster” according to Neil Scanlan, and was sculpted with “castings from organic textures, including cabbages, cauliflower, and lichen. When the helmet opened, Ridley wanted the interior to be velvety and soft like the lining of a stomach, as if the helmet had nurtured the internal head with life-giving material.” One of Spaihts’ early scripts describes the Space Jockey’s suit as being welded to his body, flesh and machinery as one.

After Prometheus’ release many fans were disappointed that the motivations of the Engineers were not explained in the movie. As Ian Nathan said in his review at Empire Online: “[The Engineer] turns out to be an overly-pumped bald bloke with dead-eyes who has no dialogue and punches people across the room. So basically … God is Jason Statham.” Though the Engineer in the movie’s climax prefers to enunciate with his fists rather than his mouth, there are traces of motivation to be inferred… if we look beyond the film.

Engineering: In Jon Spaihts’ script it is revealed that the Engineers return to Earth every thousand years to ‘update’ their creations. “I was analysing historical changes in human DNA,” the script reveals through the character of Watts/Shaw. “I found the same pattern. Every eleven centuries, a pulse of new information in the genome of the human race. All over the world. Evolution can’t do that. Something was changing us. Changing the DNA of our species.”

This would have clarified why humans are so genetically close to the Engineers, whilst our Earthly cousins, such as other primate species, have taken another evolutionary path. Essentially, what makes the human race so unique among Earth-life is merely a helping hand.

At some point in the film’s development it was planned that the Engineers, the creators of humanity, were gearing up to destroy us for the crime of crucifying Christ, who was a representative of the gods. “We definitely did [plan that],” Scott told movies.com, “and then we thought it was a little too on the nose. But if you look at it as an ‘our children are misbehaving down there’ scenario, there are moments where it looks like we’ve gone out of control, running around with armor and skirts, which of course would be the Roman Empire. And they were given a long run. A thousand years before their disintegration actually started to happen. And you can say, ‘Lets’ send down one more of our emissaries to see if he can stop it.’ Guess what? They crucified him.”

It seems ridiculous to propose that a Jewish man at the time of Augustus and Tiberius was an eight-foot tall milk-white alien. Though some Biblical scholars posit that Christ, as characterised by St Paul in the earliest Christian texts, may have been an angelic or non-corporeal being, it is not a widely disseminated theory. If it’s difficult to convince some that Christ was not a man, it would be harder to convince audiences that he was an alien.

“We’re dealing with a highly hypothetical area in terms of who these beings are, what, if any invitation they issued, and who is responsible for making those cave paintings. And did something happen in between when those cave paintings were made -tens of thousands of years ago- and our arrival now, in 2093, 2,000 years after these things have perished. Did something happen in the intermediate period that we should be thinking about?”
~ Damon Lindelof, IGN, 2012

Again, Lindelof talks about something happening to sour the Engineers’ opinion of us. But with the Engineer Messiah scrapped, what was the motivation for the Engineers to destroy us? There seems to be none, but a potential answer, when considered, seems simple – the Engineers were afraid of humanity turning against them.

“The primary take away from the myth of Prometheus is that the Gods were nervous about mankind,” explained Lindelof. “They were nervous about what they would be capable of if they had fire. Fire was a big piece of technology that they would build off of.”

“Of wretched humans [Zeus] took no account,” explains the titan Prometheus in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. “[He] resolved to eliminate them and create another race.” The only being who opposed Zeus’ genocide was Prometheus, who stole the secret of fire and delivered it to humanity. In the play, Prometheus presents himself not as the creator of mankind, but certainly their protector and teacher:

Chorus: What? Men, whose life is but a day, possess already the hot radiance of fire?
Prometheus: They do; and with it they will master many crafts … At first [they were] mindless, I gave them mind and reason. In those days they had eyes, but sight was meaningless; heard sounds, but could not listen; all their length of life passed like shapes in dreams, confused and purposeless.”

Prometheus’ gift allows humanity to better understand the world: they domesticate livestock, build ships and chariots, craft medicines, categorise all the beasts in nature, and master the art of prophecy. “So,” Prometheus concludes, “here’s the whole truth in one word: all human skill and science was Prometheus’ gift.”

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In the movie the Prometheus figure is represented by Weyland. Fire is certainly represented by technological marvels such as David. Fire is our first form of technology,” Ridley told The Wall Street Journal. He also praised the simple-but-monumental central plot of Quest for Fire: “That was one of the most genius, simplistic but incredibly sophisticated notion of what [the first technological progression] was … And that got me sitting back on my ass thinking, ‘Damn! What a fundamentally massive idea'”.

In Prometheus fire is at this point in history superceded by robotics. To the Engineer, David is confirmation that mankind itself has become a creator of life, the very role for which the Engineers themselves are so vaunted. When your creations begin to construct other beings in their image, and can tailor these new life-forms to their needs, then it’s obvious that the creation has become the creator – it has become God. A key lesson in Paradise Lost is that God is, of course, unwilling to be usurped.

“Slaves! Scoff not at my will!
The mind, the spirit, the Promethean spark,
the lightning of my being is as bright,
pervading, and far-darting as your own,
and shall not yield to yours, though coop’d in clay!
Answer, or I will teach you what I am.”
~ Manfred challenges the Gods, Manfred, Lord Byron.

Lindelof explained that, “The idea that Ridley was advancing for Prometheus was, A) what if those things weren’t as alien as we thought they were? And, B) what if there is a fundamental relationship between those beings and us? And, C) what if they weren’t victims of these eggs but were directly responsible for making them? As in, it’s more of a thing where they made Pandora’s Box and something got out, rather than them being innocent, hapless victims.”

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Humanity, as far as the film’s final Engineer is concerned, is simply another monster unleashed from Pandora’s Box, and needs to be contained or eliminated.

“[We looked at Prometheus as] an archeology dig,” Lindelof told The Hollywood Reporter, “where we’re basically going to turn up some artifacts and we’re going to put them on the table for everyone to look at. How these artifacts necessarily connect to each other and what the larger story behind them is going to be a matter of some discourse, and the characters in the movie will be having that discourse amongst themselves. But no one’s going to basically come out of the skies and tell them whether or not they’re right or wrong. That is very much in tune with the movie that Ridley wanted to make, which is, ‘This is what happens when mankind is silly enough to think they can go and ask God questions.’ First off, God might not necessarily be interested in answering you, but even worse than that, you might just set him off just for the act of trying.”

So, just as the characters in the film discover that ‘God’ is unwilling to explain himself, the fans of the film discover that it is also equally unwilling. It seems like a cruel joke that can amuse only its hardest of fans after the first telling, but I think that this is an unintended result, rather than a deliberate expectation. There are ways to reveal a secret to a viewer without giving the characters an epiphanic moment (Citizen Kane‘s final shot is a famous one) but Prometheus prefers to keep us pondering.

“That’s the fun of watching all the people rave lovingly and hatefully about it,” Neville Page told CraveOnline. “I don’t think you ever want people to go, ‘Yeah, it was okay’, in that gray zone. It’s like love me or hate me, but if you’re talking about me, that’s a good thing.”

“I think that Prometheus wanted to have two children. One child grows up to be Alien, the other child grows up to become this other mysterious force where we’re heading off in a different direction and contemplating why it is our creators wanted to destroy us. This is a fundamentally interesting question looked at on a theological level, but also on a sci-fi level as well.

In constructing those questions, Ridley wanted to know what the answers were as well, and we talked about those at great length, and then he determined what it was he wanted to put in the movie. I think that we had a very defined idea of why the Engineers put those paintings on cave walls, and why it is that they loaded ships full of death, as Shaw puts it at the end of the movie. So those answers are not definitively presented in Prometheus, though if you look through all the materials, I think that the evidence is all there to form a very informed opinion as to what happened, but I’m not going to tell you what my opinion is, as frustrating as it might be.”
~ Damon Lindelof, IGN, 2012

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Engineer Architecture & The Engineer Mythos

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The Engineer Mythos

Creation and destruction… when the Engineer awakens from his aeonic slumber he immediately re-kickstarts his mission to wipe out humanity.

When Dan O’Bannon was twelve years old he stumbled across an old anthology of stories in a book store. He paid the nickel and took it home. Inside was a story titled The Colour Out of Space, by HP Lovecraft. “I stayed up all night reading the thing, and it just knocked my socks off,” O’Bannon said.

In Lovecraft’s fiction the universe is a source of both awe and terror. Humanity’s dominion over the world is illusory. Revelation is destructive and victory is often paltry, if attainable at all. Humans are beleaguered by demons, devils, minor and major gods, and chthonic beings. Lovecraft would go on to inspire O’Bannon’s creative life, with HR Giger telling Cinefantastique in 1988 that Dan was “definitely one of the greatest Lovecraft experts around.” In 1979 Giger and O’Bannon brought their own form of Lovecraftian terror to the screen with Alien, which according to Dan, “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.” Whilst Lovecraft’s influence on Alien was expressed as a very palpable undertone, in Prometheus Lovecraft’s notions of alien creators would be embodied further through the daemonic Engineer race.

Both of Lovecraft’s parents were at one point in their lives confined to mental asylums, and the writer himself suffered from frequent bouts of severe illness, semi-invalidism, alienation and eremitism. These difficulties apparently influenced and cemented his dim view of humanity. His fiction married supposedly dichotomous Enlightenment (reason) and Romantic (the irrational) ideals. Most, if not all, of his protagonists are investigators, professors, and scientists who happen to stumble across the Infernal. Other influences included the macabre writing of Edgar Allan Poe and Lord Dunsany; the latter of whom wrote of a slumbering god (Mana-Yood-Sushai) who creates before he sleeps and destroys upon waking, with existence being merely an endeavour to let sleeping gods lie.

Lovecraft’s interstellar gods were no kinder. Arguably at the top of Lovecraft’s hierarchy of gods sits Azathoth and Yog-Sothoth. Azathoth is a being of cosmic immensitude who lies beyond understanding: he is unseen, unspeakable, and ultimately unknowable. In addition to this, he is completely inimical or indifferent towards our existence. Yog-Sothoth, called “the lurker at the threshold,” is equally beyond human scope but, unlike Azathoth, makes contact with humanity, if only to guide their destinies, to demand devotion and worship, and sometimes to breed. Most famous of Lovecraft’s dark gods is of course Cthulhu, the submerged, dreaming god whose inspiration can be drawn back to Dunsany’s likewise sleeping Mana-Yood-Sushai. Though Prometheus’ title and central metaphor points towards Greek myth, it also parallels, perhaps even more strongly, the work of Lovecraft.

“They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult […] hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu should rise and bring the earth again under his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready…”
~ HP Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu, 1928.

An example: in Prometheus it is revealed that an ancient race of alien beings, the Engineers, inhabited the Earth in its prehistory and were responsible for the creation of its first life-forms. Humanity owes their existence to the Engineers, who created them for reasons unknown. The Engineers also created an amorphous, tar-like substance to manipulate life and death; this substance is deadly, and is essentially a form of bioengineered weaponry. However, the Engineers are ultimately annihilated by their creation. The characters in the film muse on ancient gods who came to Earth to create and instruct mankind for purposes unknown.

In At The Mountains of Madness, it is revealed that an ancient race of alien beings, the Elder Things, inhabited the Earth in its prehistory and may have been responsible for the creation of its first life-forms. Humanity may owe their existence to the Elder Things, who created them to be slaves or playthings or for consumption. The Elder Things also created amorphous, tar-like creatures known as Shoggoth to serve as a slave race; the Shoggoths are deadly, and are essentially a form of bioengineered weaponry. However, the Elder Things were ultimately annihilated by their creations. The characters in the story muse on “Great Old Ones who filtered down from the stars and concocted Earth life as either a joke or mistake.”

The Elder Things & Engineers: one key difference between Lovecraft’s Elder Things and Prometheus‘ Engineers is that, despite being the creators of Mankind, the Elder Things remain completely alien in shape – we were certainly not made in their image. The Engineers by comparison are anthropomorphic.

Both Prometheus and At The Mountains of Madness dispel the notion that Man is a divinely inspired creation. We are not “Creation’s pampered favourites”. Instead, we are simply the experiments of god-like creatures with little interest in our spiritual or physical well-being. If anything, Man is an accident, a mistake, or perhaps even a joke; subject to arbitrary extermination for little or no reason at all.

In At The Mountains of Madness, the expedition team find the remains of their creators, the Elder Things, within the bowels of an Antarctic ruin. Also lurking in the ancient city are the black, amorphous Shoggoth…

In Lovecraft’s The Nameless City the narrator uncovers an ancient pre-human city on the Arab peninsula. “It must have been thus before the first stones of Memphis were laid, and while the bricks of Babylon were yet unbaked.” The narrator enters and deciphers the history of a long-lost civilisation through their remaining murals and hieroglyphics. In the end, this shrieking, apparently human-hating race returns from the bowels of the Earth to snatch him.

Ridley Scott frequently referenced Erich von Daniken, rather than Lovecraft, as an influence on Prometheus, with Lovecraft being an inheritance from Dan O’Bannon’s unfilmed Alien material. It’s somewhat ironic that the work of von Daniken, whose books were referred to as exercises in “sloppy thinking” by Carl Sagan, is purely a pseudo-scientific pilfering of the fiction that Lovecraft jokingly referred to as “Yog-Sothothery.” In The Cult of Alien Gods: HP Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture, author Jason Colavito writes: “To add a layer of reality to his story, Lovecraft drew on existing pieces of myth and legend as well as the sensational claims of amateur historians and philosophers. Here he threw in a bit of the myth of Atlantis, there a dollop of Theosophical philosophy. He never believed in any of it himself, committed as he was to science, reason, and materialism. However, he recognised that dropping in bits of dark legends made for a sensational story.” Von Daniken also could not resist these same literary flourishes.

Prometheus can also lend itself, interestingly, towards Gnostic creation myth. The Gnostics had a simple solution for solving the problem of evil: the Creator of the world was himself evil, or at least imperfect; not a God, rather a Demiurge. Whilst the Supreme Being (God Itself) exists within the Absolute (the world beyond the tangible), the Demiurge exists in a plane where he is unaware of both the Supreme Being and the Absolute, and concludes that he is the only thing in existence. With this in mind, he creates the physical universe as we know it. Because this Demiurge is not God (though he may consider himself so), his universe is intrinsically imperfect. The Demiurge, essentially, has usurped the name of God. The Engineers can be seen as a race of Demiurges who colonise and seed planets with life, utterly ignorant of their own Creator, or perhaps in defiance of him. These creator-beings seem benign, but as the characters of the movie find out, they are in fact interstellar warmongers with an apparently atavistic tendency towards violence. The Prometheus research crew “find an establishment which is not what they expected it to be,” according to Scott, continuing: “it’s a civilization, but what we find in it is very uncivilized behaviour.”

As we see in Prometheus, the Engineers are not, or were not, annihilators per se. The aptly-named Sacrifice Engineer donates his body to a young planet (not necessarily Earth, according to Scott) and seeds the waters with DNA that presumably goes on to form that particular planet’s first cells and creatures. The notion that “to create, you must first destroy,” is also tied into cyclical creation myths. According to the Rigveda, an ancient Hindu scripture, Creation is unknowable, even to the gods: “Who really knows, and who can swear, how Creation came, when or where! Even the gods came after Creation’s day …”

“It’s everything…”: Whether the Engineer creates all life or simply human life is a muddled and murky affair; it does not make sense biologically nor narratively either way—though the film wants to play at science, it comes completely unarmed; mythology is its stronger suite. Shaw however does note that, “it’s us, it’s everything,” and Arthur Max stated that humanity in particular were further enhanced and modified -made distinct from other life, as it were- throughout Earth’s history post-seeding. None of this is implicit in the movie, however.

Indian mythology posited that the Universe is subject to a constant cycle of death and rebirth. Where Lord Dunsany’s wicked god creates, sleeps, wakes, then destroys, the Hindu conception sees the living Universe as Brahma’s day: when Brahma slumbers/dies, the Universe ends, only to be born again once he awakens/is reborn (reassuringly, Brahma’s day/lifespan lasts many billions of years according to the text).

Of course, though a direct line can be traced from the Engineers to Cthulhu to Mana-Yood-Sushai, the parallels to Gnosticism and Hinduism are largely speculative. Ridley Scott himself invoked the fallen angels of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. “If you look at the Engineers,” said Scott, “they’re tall and elegant … they are dark angels. If you look at Paradise Lost, the guys who have the best time in the story are the dark angels, not God.” (The allusion to angels personally evokes the opening line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Second Elegy: “Every angel is terrifying …”) Scott drew on the art of William Blake to illustrate the Engineers, along with a dash of Greco-Roman sculpture to suggest nobility, power, and empire. Blake, famously, provided illustrations for Milton’s epic poem, and his images of the Adonic, alabaster-skinned fallen angels were referenced for the unsuited Space Jockeys.

William Blake’s rendition of Milton’s Satan, who is calling upon the other fallen angels to raise their parliament in Hell. “[Ridley] wanted the aspect of the naked Engineer to recall the characters of William Blake’s work,” revealed creature prosthetics supervisor, Conor O’Sullivan. “The other main references for these characters was Michelangelo’s statues, like his famous David.”

Scott had invoked myth and demonology in regards to the Alien before. In an interview with Don Shay in the early 1990’s, he stated: “We’d always talked about and played around with the idea of the absolutes – of good and evil. And if the Alien was really … what was it? Was it the face of the Devil; was it the face of the demon? Because if you look at historical manuscripts, engravings, and pictures, from wherever they come from, whether it’s China, whether it’s Europe, whatever the nationality, there’s a kind of continuity of the idea of the demon, as there is about the dragon. So, [Alien was] like taking off the mystical aspects of it and saying it’s nothing to do with [myth]; it’s a biological fact, it’s a biological creature, and it’s been here before.”

Whether the Engineers are genuinely heavenly outcasts or awakened gods is not revealed in the film. Arthur Max, in Prometheus: The Art of the Film, did note that the Engineers “play the role of God in the universe” and “have visited Earth many times over the millenia and given Mankind genetic upgrades, both physical and intellectual.” The Engineers then, with their advanced technology and knowledge of biology, are simply playing at god. Their “upgrades” may settle the debate on why humans are so close to them in physiology, and yet other life from their colonised worlds (dogs, cats, birds, our ape cousins, etc.,) are not. They seed worlds with life and then craft select organisms in their image. Presumably.

When Lord Dunsany learned of the Greek Pantheon, he felt pity “for those beautiful marble people that had become forsaken.” Though mankind had discarded these gods in favour of new ones, in Prometheus it is humanity that is forsaken, and the Engineers strive for unknown cause to destroy us, just as the gods of innumerable mythologies condemned and attempted to destroy mankind before. Whatever their motive, we can ascertain that the Engineer culture revolves around the notion of sacrifice. “All he’s doing is acting as a gardener in space,” explained Scott when describing the actions of the Sacrifice Engineer in the movie’s beginning. “And the [resulting] plant life, in fact, is the disintegration of himself. If you parallel that idea with other sacrificial elements in history –which are clearly illustrated with the Mayans and the Incas– he would live for one year as a prince, and at the end of that year, he would be taken and donated to the gods in hopes of improving what might happen next year, be it with crops or weather, etcetera.”

The didactic nature of the Space Jockeys as arbitrary creators and destroyers remains the film’s most intriguing element. Though Scott raised the thought that humanity was due punishment for the crucifixion of Christ (a thankfully deleted element) a more haunting prospect could be the proposition that we are due to die for nothing at all, but are merely caught in an impersonal cycle of death and rebirth. To invoke Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Worlds on worlds are rolling ever/From creation to decay/Like the bubbles on a river/Sparkling, bursting, borne away …”

“The primary take away from the myth of Prometheus is that the Gods were nervous about mankind. They were nervous about what they would be capable of if they had fire. Fire was a big piece of technology that they would build off of. And the story of any creation is eventually a child will try to destroy its parents. It’s a very paranoid world view, mythologically-speaking it pops up a lot. Especially for us Star Wars aficionados. So the essential story is: I don’t want to give my kid this toy because eventually he will develop it into a weapon that will kill me. So I will therefore withhold it from him. And what is the price I must exact on somebody who betrays me?”
~ Damon Lindelof. Collider, 2012.

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Engineer Architecture

“And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
~ Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1817.

“There are inspirations for Alien,” said Dan O’Bannon in 1979. “I had a lot of second thoughts about Dark Star, that was one of them. Well, another source was that I met Giger when we were working on Dune, and I’d looked at his picture books and when I got back to America I was still haunted by his work.  It was on my mind and when we sat down to do Alien. I ended up visualizing the thing as I was writing it, as we were thinking it out and I was writing it.  I found myself visualizing it as a Giger painting.”

Giger’s biomechanic style was so pivotal to the look and feel of the Alien, the Space Jockey and his derelict aircraft, that O’Bannon would later state, “without him I don’t think we would have had much of a movie.” Ridley Scott famously stated that upon see Giger’s Necronomicon art book he had “never felt so sure of anything” in his life – Giger had to design Alien. When the producers resisted, Scott threatened to walk. He got his way. Thirty years later with Prometheus, Scott was more reluctant to return to Giger’s signature biomechanical style. “I don’t like to repeat myself,” he stated.

“At first the Giger element was almost inexistent, because we really wanted architecture that looked as if it was Giger stuff but had been ‘kidnapped’, as if we had arrived many thousands of years before, and the Engineers place was clean, spotless.”
~ David Levy, Prometheus concept artist, 2012.

“One of the first things you start to think about when you’re working on a movie like this is, ‘how much are we revisiting that [Giger] look?’” said Prometheus concept artist, Ben Proctor. “I mean clearly if we’re showing the society of these Engineers, which is Ridley’s new take on where that Juggernaut ship came from in the first movie, we’re going to be seeing a lot more Giger, right? And that was our assumption going in, but our geek fan presumptions were not necessarily shared by Ridley and Arthur [Max]. So there were ideas about Engineer architecture and the style of that civilisation that initially were quite far from Giger, much more monolithic and much more heavy and simple and brutal, but in a totally different way.”

Production designer Arthur Max claimed that they “didn’t want to be like any one of those [original Alien designs.] We wanted to be new and fresh because, I hate to admit it, otherwise it really dates us. We decided to make it less biological, in terms of the styling of the alien planet, and more mechanical … The people who inhabit this planet, called the Engineers, and their technology, is beyond anything we’re able to know or understand, but it has to be visually interesting. That’s, I think, the hardest challenge, too, because we have to compete with the most iconic science fiction creature ever. Trying to come up with something that’s going to rival that is the real trick.”

The Space jockey's chamber in Alien and its equivalent, the Orrery, in Prometheus.

The Space jockey’s chamber in Alien and its equivalent, the Orrery, in Prometheus.

Steven Messing, the film’s visual effects art director, and the other artists tried to shoehorn in Giger’s aesthetic wherever they could, usually bartering with Scott and Max to include more of a Giger influence on the Engineers’ technology and architecture. The artists took everything they had designed thus far and infused it with more of a biomechanic coating than they had included previously.

“I think he [Scott] just didn’t want the Giger style to be necessarily the driving force behind the look,” said David Levy, “there had to be more, something smarter in the terms of what’s the background of those Engineers – and then we infused them with the Giger style.”

As a result the planet no longer resembles LV-426 as it did initially, and the interiors of the derelict craft, now named the Juggernaut, is pristine, almost sterile. Whereas Alien‘s derelict drips and glistens, the new ship is sepulchral but static. The former is the belly of some great dead carcass. The Juggernaut is a piece of machinery awaiting activation.

“The Juggernaut might look like it has come from the same factory as the one in Alien,” Richard Stammers told Cinefex, “but it is not the same ship. The exterior shape is similar, but it has way more detail; and inside it had a little less emphasis on bones and organic shapes  than were present in Giger’s work.”

“Ridley was very attached to the biomechanical aspect,” explained prosthetics supervisor, Conor O’Sullivan, “but in Prometheus, the biomechanical details on the walls and ground [of the derelict] are much finer, better defined, because this environment is meant to be in almost mint condition. There is no sign of decay, of rust, nor of translucent slime as in Alien, because time yet hasn’t had its effect.”

The Juggernaut then, is an almost fresh-from-the-factory aerial destroyer. Perhaps in time to come the walls will tumble and reveal bone-like protrusions, ribbing in the walls, and decaying biomechanical innards, as the technology of the Engineers (or of the Space Jockeys as represented in Alien, at least) is a cross between genetics and mechanics.

“In Prometheus,” explained production designer Arthur Max, “this [Engineer] technology is in perfect operating condition, while in Alien you could only see the ruins of it.” Biomechanics, he explains, “is at the root of their culture and technology.”

Ridley himself had always kept an idea of the ship’s back story in his mind. “I was amazed that no one asked me about this mysterious element of the film,” he said to French magazine L’Ecran Fantastique, “but if you would have asked me in 1978, I would have gladly explained that, in my mind, all this alien ship could be was a battleship.”

Ridley himself had always kept an idea of the ship’s back story in his mind. “I was amazed that no one asked me about this mysterious element of the film,” he said to French magazine L’Ecran Fantastique, “but if you would have asked me in 1978, I would have gladly explained that, in my mind, all this alien ship could be was a battleship.”

There are traces of biomechanical flourishes throughout the film’s designs. The decapitated Engineer’s helmet was to be like “cracking open an oyster” according to Neil Scanlan, and was sculpted with “castings from organic textures, including cabbages, cauliflower, and lichen. When the helmet opened, Ridley wanted the interior to be velvety and soft like the lining of a stomach, as if the helmet had nurtured the internal head with life-giving material.” One of Spaihts’ early scripts describes the Space Jockey’s suit as being welded to his body, flesh and machinery as one.

The production also chanced upon the work of Russian artist Alex Kozhanov, known as Gutalin, whose ZBrush art pays homage to Giger – some pieces even feature the Alien itself, and others feature the impressions of facehuggers. Steven Messing printed off Gutalin’s work and left it lying on his desk in the hope that Ridley would chance upon it – he did, and Gutalin was hired from afar, working on the textures of the Juggernaut. “Bit by bit with these kinds of sneaky interventions we kind of got some of the Giger back in. When [Ridley] saw something that was clearly Giger-esque, but had a fresh take on it, it piqued his interest.”

For the Engineer temple, or pyramid, the production drew on Giger’s work on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune. For that film Giger had designed the Harkonnen Castle: a mobile fortress made of bone, studded with spikes and surrounded by a storm of dirt, gore and faeces. At the pinnacle of this structure sits a monolithic head.

Giger’s Harkonnen Castle. Image copyright HR Giger.

Harkonnen reimagined as the Engineer temple.

Harkonnen reimagined as the Engineer temple.

Initially, the production drew on O’Bannon’s original Alien screenplay, and the Engineer temple was a pyramid in design. In the movie, it is still referred to as a pyramid by the crew, despite being ovoid in shape.

This wasn’t the first time that Giger’s Dune designs found themselves cast as an alien/Space Jockey structure. In several of Scott’s Ridleygrams for the original Alien, the temple/egg silo containing the Alien spore was derived from Giger’s work:

Spherical temples based on Giger’s Dune and Alien conceptual pieces. In the background we can see several other silos passing into the distance, just as they do in Prometheus.

At the summit of these silos sits a dessicated head. Kane was to enter the egg chamber through here.

The interior of the temple in Prometheus is cavernous, rocky and wet. Flowstone walls. We find that it functions as an atmosphere processor, cut into the shape of a near-natural formation. Further inside is the ‘head room’, also known as the ‘ampule room’, where the crew of the Prometheus make the find of the century – the decapitated corpse of an Engineer; the ampules containing their biological weaponry; the monolithic carving of an Engineer’s head; and the murals of this ancient race, adorning the ceiling and far wall.

The murals hint at some history between the Engineers and mutated, deformed beings. The Alien/Ultramorph mural on the far wall hints at the Engineers’ reverence for some supreme being. “The Xenomorph in my mind was the descendant of the Ultramorph,” explained Steven Messing, “in my mind it was the pure form of this kind of virus that the Engineers had created.”

“They’re a lot about sacrifice,” Messing continued, “so in my mind there was [in the past] an Engineer who sacrificed himself to this virus and it created this horrific creature. This being, that was gonna eradicate planets, it was like a parasite that would destroy the planet and then they [the Engineers] could start over and rebirth it. And they kind of worshipped it and you see this relief sculpture where it’s almost a religious sculpture  As the virus spread and got polluted the Xenomorph was an evolutionary descendant that was not as pure.”

“Another set that I worked on was known as the ‘Head Room.’ This was a ceremonial room that contained hundreds of ampules beneath a giant sculpture of an Engineer’s head. Julian Caldrow did an amazing job of working out all of the details for this environment and created the set drawings. The final set was built at full scale and was incredible to walk on. I also sculpted an altar area for this set that paid homage to Giger – it is a relief sculpture hanging from the wall and has the impression of an alien form with flowing structures surrounding it. There are a lot of easter eggs in this sculpture – including several hidden Giger motifs that were not used in the original film.”
~ Steven Messing, i09.com, 2012.

Essentially, what we can infer is that the Engineers created a life-creating substance that acted as a virus – it could break down and reconstitute matter: living beings are broken down and mutate. An Engineer at some point, somehow, created the first Ultramorph during a sacrificial rite, perhaps like the one we see at the beginning of the movie. The Ultramorph is vicious, and wipes out entire planetary populations. The Engineers, who travel from world-to-world, arbitrarily creating and destroying as they go, come to worship or revere their creation. Somehow, this Ultramorph leads to their eventual demise, or at least the demise of the Engineers inhabiting their installation on LV-223.

One problem with Messing’s interpretation is that the derelict in Alien is eons older than the installations in Prometheus – ergo, the Alien eggs predate the urns, and the Xenomorph predates the Ultramorph. We can probably settle the discrepancy by concluding that the installations on LV-223 are in fact older, but were maintained until only 2000 years ago; the derelict is younger, but has not been maintained for a longer span of time. Later movies may decide the issue.

The monolithic head, once rumoured to be the pilot of the Juggernaut ship, seems to testify some sort of blank, terrible power. Whether it signifies a god, a particular Engineer, or the Engineer race as a whole, we don’t know. “The idea there is that it’s part of the culture of the Engineers,” said Arthur Max, “this race of interplanetary visitors who have given us upgrades –mentally and physically– over the millennium.” The head is inscribed with glyphs on its front and sides. One idea thrown around production was to have the Engineers bearing facial, tribal tattoos. The glyphs on the giant head resemble those on the structure’s walls, doorways and on the deadly ampules.

Ethiopian statue of Benito Mussolini, and the Engineers’ ‘God-Head’. Testaments to power and worship. Mussolini was gunned down, hoisted to the girder of a garage, and his corpse pelted, shot, and spat on. As Percy Shelley wrote in his poem Ozymandias, great and terrible leaders die, and the monuments to their reign topple and crumble, left to gaze over a buried empire. The legacy of the Engineers has fared no better

The headquarters of Benito Musolini and the Italian Fascist party taken in Rome in 1930.

Palazzo Braschi, taken in Rome in 1934. The Engineer head monument is an allusion to worship and power, perhaps even fascistic power.

Statue in the Boboli Gardens, Florence.

Statue in the Boboli Gardens, Florence.

A monolithic Moai statue.

A monolithic Moai statue.

The lone surviving and hibernating Engineer lies within the depths of the alien earth. Tesselated pathways lead to the pilot’s chamber. The sleeping pods are a new addition to the pilot’s chamber, as is the command seat and the orrery light show. The sarcophagus-like shape of the cryo-pods evoke, somewhat, Giger’s painting known as The Tourist IV, which depicts a strange, sleeping biomechanoid creature in stasis.

The Engineer’s shipmates are all dead – their chests punctured and corpses long ossified. “The dead Engineers decayed where they fell and became part of the environment,” explained Scanlan. Whatever sprouted from their bodies is long gone, perhaps dead, and completely unknown. They may have given birth to a host of Ultramorphs who proceeded to wreak havoc on the installation. The awakened Engineer, freshly roused from his aeonic slumber, strangely has no concerns for this, and proceeds to resume his mission to destroy the Earth before falling victim to the fruits of his peoples labour. A new Ultramorph is thus born.

“Dear to me is sleep; still more to sleep
in stone while harm and shame persist;
not to see, not to feel, is bliss;
speak softly, do not wake me up, do not weep.”
~ Michelangelo Buonarroti .

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The Pilot

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Suddenly, Melkonis lets out a grunt of shock. Their lights have illuminated something unspeakably grotesque: A huge alien skeleton, seated in the control chair. They approach the skeleton, their lights trained on it. It is a grotesque thing, bearing no resemblance to the human form.
Melkonis: “Holy Christ…”

And so we meet the mysterious, gargantuan extraterrestrial pilot of the derelict spacecraft, as dictated in Dan O’Bannon’s original Alien script. Having landed on a barren planetoid to investigate an apparent SOS signal, the crew of the commercial vehicle Snark find an alien ship amid the stormy dunes. “It is dead and abandoned,” reads the synopsis for O’Bannon’s script. Deep inside the crewmen discover the derelict’s dead tenant. The creature, long deceased, has mummified over perhaps decades or even centuries. “That thing’s been dead for years,” remarks Broussard, the character later known as Kane. “Maybe hundreds of years.” The pilot’s last act was to etch the shape of a pyramid onto his console before death took him. When the planetoid’s storms abate, the crewmen spot the pyramid on the horizon. Overcome by curiosity, they decide to investigate…

Though the pilot’s function in the film doesn’t quite change from the first script to the finished film (first warning flag of imminent danger) the creature’s in-universe biography was altered radically. Originally, the creature was to be a mere explorer that had stumbled upon the planetoid, and consequently the pyramid and its deadly spore. “In my script,” said O’Bannon, “[the pilot] was a space-going race that landed on the planet and had been wiped out by whatever was there. And now the Earthmen come and they endanger themselves in the same way.” The pilot therefore served as a warning to the audience that something about the pyramid and its contents were deadly. The race of indigenous aliens required host bodies to birth their young, and the reproductive process was undertaken in temples. Alien concept artist, and friend to O’Bannon, Ron Cobb explains:

“At some point a cataclysm causes the extermination of the adults in this unique race, 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. Years later, the Space Jockey’s race comes to this planetoid. The Jockeys are on a mission of exploration and archaeology and they are fascinated by this marvellous temple and unknown culture. One of them finds the egg chamber and gets face-hugged. He’s rescued, but no one knows what’s happened. They take him back to their ship and continue their exploration of the planet’s surface. When the chest-burster erupts from the Jockey it goes on a killing rampage until it is shot and killed. The Alien dies, but immediately decomposes and its acid eats through the hull of the Jockey ship, leaving them stranded on the planet. The Jockeys radio out a message that there is a dangerous parasite on the planet, that nothing can be done to save them in time, and that no one should attempt a rescue. Then the Jockeys slowly starve to death.”
~ Ron Cobb, Alien portfolio.

In the version of Alien that ended up on screen, the creature has become a victim of its own cargo – eggs that house parasitic alien spore. This alteration was born from a need to economise. First, the designers considered scrapping the pyramid in favour of a biomechanic egg silo, as the pyramid was, according to HR Giger, “too close, we found, to our own Egyptian culture and we thought it should be completely unearthly.” Eventually, it became clear that the film’s running time wouldn’t allow for repeat jaunts between the derelict craft, back to the crewmen’s ship, and then over to a pyramid. Additionally, the film’s budget did not allow for the creation of these separate elements, and the two -pyramid/silo and derelict- were fused into one location.

“It would have been wonderful in a three hour version,” said Ridley Scott. “Sometimes financial practicalities force you to do a certain amount of editorial work, and I’m glad we simplified it.” O’Bannon was less pleased: “In the original script the men find a crashed derelict spacecraft and they enter it; they discover that the alien crew are all dead. They return to their own ship to contemplate what may have killed the alien crew and then they discover a pyramid on the planet which appears to be indigenous and primitive. They enter the pyramid and there they find the eggs. They [Ridley and co] combined these two elements, they squeezed them together into one sort of uneasy entity … In the new version it’s just some sort of a surrealist mystery.”

When David Giler and Walter Hill began to rewrite O’Bannon’s script, the alien pilot was removed – along with every other extraterrestrial element. In their initial versions of the film, the titular Alien was a product of The Company’s bioweapons division, with the spore housed in an off-world facility known as The Cylinder. The extraterrestrial pilot was rewritten as a downed human pilot that the Nostromo crew find dead within his vehicle, a ship recognised by Dallas as a “L-52.”

“Suddenly, Lambert lets out a grunt of shock. Her light has illuminated a skeletal shape. Seated twenty feet beyond them in the control chair. A human being, terribly disfigured.”
~ Walter Hill & David Giler Alien draft, undated.

Director Ridley Scott claims to not know the origins of the term “Space Jockey” in relation to the gargantuan carcass found within the derelict. “Who is the big guy in the chair, who was fondly after Alien called the Space Jockey?” Scott said at a Prometheus press event in April 2012. “I don’t know how the hell he got that name.” The term has its earliest origins in this iteration of Giler and Hill’s rewrites, where Dallas refers to the dead human as:

Dallas: “One dead space jockey, no sign of the other crew members, the old L-52’s generally went up with a compliment of seven…”

The term is a spin on desk jockey, which is defined as “an office worker who sits at a desk, often as contrasted with someone who does more important or active work.” Since the filmmakers were trying to evoke the feeling that space travel was unglamourous, maybe even boring, the name makes sense in terms of human space pilots, and isn’t hard to fit the alien jockey either. The name also has a precedent in a 1947 Robert Heinlein story, titled, of course, Space Jockey, which is about “a rocket pilot who pilots a commercial passenger spacecraft”. The Shepperton crew, who were given copies of the Alien scripts to read prior to production, seem to have been responsible for making the name stick after its excision from one of the drafts.

When O’Bannon and executive producer/co-writer Ron Shusett heard of Giler and Hill’s rewrite, they appealed to Ridley Scott with copies of their original script. “We were disturbed by the content of the rewrite,” said O’Bannon. Upon seeing the original script, Scott said, “Oh yes, we have to go back to the first way, definitely.” The alien elements were restored – and yet the Space Jockey character was cut altogether, as the producers had decided to eliminate its scenes due to budget. Eventually, Ridley got his way, and the Jockey set was built, also doubling as the egg silo by the removal of the Jockey chair.

The design of the actual Space Jockey and his craft saw all of the film’s conceptual artists taking a turn at conceptualising it. Chris Foss, Ron Cobb, and Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud all submitted sketches and paintings, but the father of the Jockey was none of them, with HR Giger eventually coming up with the winning design.

Chris Foss’ sketch of the Jockey’s head. In O’Bannon’s script, the crewmen return to their ship with the decapitated skull. They note, with some disappointment, that mankind’s first encounter with extraterrestrial life has begun with disappointment. It may very well end with death.

“For the inside [of the derelict], Ron Cobb did the skeleton –what they later called the Space Jockey- and it was 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.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, Cinefex, 1979.

Space Jockey design attributed to Moebius, printed in American Cinematographer and Mediascene magazines.

Space Jockey design attributed to Moebius, printed in American Cinematographer and Mediascene magazines.

None of these concepts were taken too seriously by Ridley Scott, who commissioned HR Giger to design the Space Jockey, using one of Giger’s Necronomicon paintings as a launching pad for the final creature.

“From the script I knew he was huge and had a hole in his chest, but that was all. Ridley suggested another one of my Necronom creatures as a guide. They don’t look much alike now, but it was a starting point; and the Space Jockey kind of grew up from there in bits and pieces. The creature we finally ended up building is biomechanical to the extent that he has physically grown into, or maybe even out of, his seat – he’s integrated totally into the function he performs.”
~ HR Giger, Cinefex, 1979.

“As for the chair in which he sits, I thought it had to be mechanical but not with normal arms and legs that could be moved with the feet or the hands. I liked very much the stone tablet in 2001: A Space Odyssey, because it seemed to have some interior-like computer. So I thought that the outside could be very normal-looking and the whole machinery could go inside.”
~ HR Giger, 1999.

“I wanted a fossil, almost,” said Scott regarding the Space Jockey’s integration with his technology, “one which you’d have a hard time deciding where he leaves off and the chair, on which he died, begins.” In the film, this fossil idea is voiced by Dallas, though the Jockey itself is ossified, not fossilised.

“When you see the so-called Space Jockey they [Fox] said, ‘That set costs half a million dollars and it’s only used one time – it’s economically unfeasible! It’s too damn expensive for that one scene!’
One day by accident I went on an errand to do something on the back of the lot [at Shepperton Studios], and the set was being built – the one they said they wouldn’t let us have. I thought it was miscommunication between the art department and the studio heads. I didn’t tell anybody until about a week before shooting.
I said, ‘Ridley, they built the Space Jockey set.’
He said, ‘Yeah, I know.’
I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’
He said, ‘Because if we told you that, you would never stop asking for anything!’
But you needed that one scene – I call it the Cecil B. DeMille shot – to make it the big movie it was, not a little Roger Corman movie.”
~ Ron Shusett.

The Jockey itself is regarded as a marvel of the movie; a nigh unparalleled sight in the series. Giger himself was humble when describing it, saying: “I modeled it myself, in clay. It was then cast in polyester. I worked particularly on the head, and I painted it. To make the pieces of skin, I put on some latex and then scrubbed it off. Then painted some more. If we had more days, we could have made it better — but I think for the film it’s okay.”

The sad fate of the Jockey prop, as reported in Starlog, 1979.

The sad fate of the Jockey prop, as reported in Starlog, 1979.

The Jockey did not return in any of the sequels (thought the derelict appeared in the Special Edition of Aliens), a fact that Scott lamented: “They missed it!” James Cameron explained that the Space Jockey’s story was something only thinly sketched in Alien, and best left to the original director: “Presumably,” he said, “the derelict pilot (space jockey, big dental patient, etc.) became infected en route to somewhere and set down on the barren planetoid to isolate the dangerous creatures, setting up the warning beacon as his last act. What happened to the creature that emerged from him? Ask Ridley.”

Cameron also mused on the nature of the Jockey: “I could provide plausible answers for [the Space Jockey], but they’re no more valid than anyone else’s. Clearly, the dental patient was a sole crew member on a one-man ship. Perhaps his homeworld did know of his demise, but felt it was pointless to rescue a doomed person. Perhaps he was a volunteer or a draftee on the hazardous mission of bio-isolating these organisms. Perhaps he was a military pilot, delivering the alien eggs as a bio-weapon in some ancient interstellar war humans know nothing of, and got infected inadvertently.” This latter view is an idea that Ridley himself has encouraged throughout the decades, and explored further in Prometheus.

“I always wanted to go back and make an Alien 5 or 6,” Ridley said in the 1999 Alien DVD commentary, “where we find out where they came from and go there and answer the question, who are they? Mars is too close, so they can’t be gods of war, but the theory in my head was, this was an aircraft carrier, a battlewagon of a civilisation, and the eggs were a cargo which were essentially weapons. So right, like a large form of bacteriological/biomechanoid warfare.”

“This Space Jockey I’ve always thought was the driver of the craft,” Scott explained further. “[He is] a perfect example of Giger’s mind, which is ‘where does biology end and technology begin?’ because [Giger] seems to have grafted the creature into what was essentially a pilot’s seat. But clearly from here, this is where the [warning] transmission would emanate from, probably in an automatic transmission… maybe one of the eggs had been disturbed and a creature had got out, had attacked the rest of the crew, don’t ask me where they got to, but he’s pretty gruesome…”

A shaft of light filters through the ship’s oculus, illuminating the long-dead pilot within.
Image copyright, HR Giger.

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