Bringing ALIEN Down To Earth

space-jockey1The original script for ALIEN was written by Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett, and it underwent development by Walter Hill, David Giler and Gordon Carroll. Though the mix of science fiction and horror was considered a selling point, one idea that emerged in development made the creature’s origin somewhat less alien: Instead of being found in an alien temple, the facehugger came from an abandoned human scientific installation. Although a description of this accompanies a Ron Cobb painting in my battered copy of The Book of Alien, this idea never made it to the screen.

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“It’s a gigantic alien pyramid, created by some ancient, godlike race! Oh, wait–there’s a beer can…”

It’s telling that an effort was made to bring the movie more in line with the grittier reality that was such an important part of the design for STAR WARS that blew up the Clean Spaceship cliché, but I suspect this was an attempt to pull away from making the movie TOO out-there. The idea of a Lovecraftian race dropping monster eggs might be too esoteric for the JAWS and STAR WARS audience.

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Ron Cobb’s alien world designs were left unused, but he designed the Nostromo. This was for the alien altar concept from the O’Bannon/Shusett script.

As far back as 1979, Ridley Scott expressed interest in the space jockey race, what they were doing, what their world was like. He delved into this in PROMETHEUS. H. R. Giger’s design for the space jockey’s skeletal remains suggested an elephantine creature, much larger than a human, fused with its own ship–a bio-mechanoid, but Scott surprised many of us with a drastic reconsideration.

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Much cooler than a giant elephant walrus that flies a spaceship.

That was no skeleton; that was a spacesuit. In the PROMETHEUS Blu-ray’s behind-the-scenes material, people praise Scott’s revisionism as a brilliant idea. We all thought it was a skeleton, but Sir Ridley showed us it was a suit.

What is so amazing about an alien form of life that looks like a human? I’m still not sure, but I am sure it is less interesting than what was suggested in ALIEN. In an era with the tools to create almost anything Scott could imagine, he had a godlike alien played by a guy in a suit, just like every fifties sci-fi cheapie.

 

In itself, there’s nothing at all wrong with this. I am a big fan of PROMETHEUS for taking pieces of a classic movie and using them to create something very different. ALIEN  was a SF horror movies; PROMETHEUS is a science fiction movie with some gross elements. It has more in common with 2001 and FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH than with the original. But it is part of the ALIEN series, and in that context it’s a retreat from imagination. ALIEN had many strong elements–the crew of non-heroic regular working folks, the art direction, the effects, the score, the sound–but it is most remembered for one thing: The alien itself was the first convincing depiction of a space monster in movie history. Even Kubrick, whose 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was a huge influence on Scott, who managed to make space scenes that are still the gold standard, could not find a way to convincingly depict alien life, rejecting every proposal until he just gave up. Not showing the aliens worked in 2001 in a way showing them would not have, but the monster was the star of ALIEN, and you couldn’t not show it. Scott showed the alien, and a decades-long series began. What would the aliens who made that alien look like? They had to be something!

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Scott’s interest in the engineers is part of the shift to SF from SF-horror. The alien was not the only horror in the original movie, but a symptom of a much greater, cosmic terror never depicted in the original. The sets and matte paintings implied much more than what we saw on the screen, evoking something much stranger, much bigger than humans could handle. The space jockey’s control room made for another contrast with the human technology, giving a sense of vastness to a film taking place mostly in cramped rooms and corridors.  The three Nostromo astronauts climb around the wreck of a ship, seeing the remains of a godlike race without ever seeing them. It’s like the end of 2001, where instead of a terrarium created for them, they find some junk the engineers forgot about. If the 2001 aliens keep tabs on humanity and leave sentinels behind to signal when the humans get interesting, the engineers don’t even care about human, or know they exist.

 

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“If it suddenly falls on its side, run away, but in a straight line, right?”

This concept is an opening-up of what these truckers in space know about the universe. There is Someone Else out there. What are They doing? Will they see humans as friends, enemies, prey? Guinea pigs? Do they already know about us and not care?

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From what I’ve heard about ALIEN: COVENANT, Scott is continuing down the road toward that long-dropped idea of the alien being the result of human involvement, and not some Lovecraftian Elder race of gods. This might be surprising to longtime fans, but as was the case with the skeleton-no-a-suit idea, it reduces the scope of the universe so beautifully implied in ALIEN. I’m not going to make any predictions before I see the movie, but it seems pointless to deny things that have been said and shown that indicate the ultimate source of the alien monster in ALIEN is human, or at least the human-created machine David. At the very least, we’re seeing more and more human involvement and knowledge of the aliens before the Nostromo setting down on the planet.

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Already the mystery, the sense that something completely non-human created the aliens is being erased from the series. Knowing what little we do now, the Nostromo crew’s visit to the planet feels less like the exploration of the unknown as a plot point in an action movie. The sense of awe, of things unknown, is replaced with the knowledge that humans have been here already. Instead of an unknowing and uncaring universe the crew are confronted with the science fiction equivalent of an oil spill: Those Dumb Humans Screwed Up Again!

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“There’s this cool movie!” “Is it about monsters and man’s smallness in the infinity of all things?” “No, it’s about corporations!” “KEWL!”

The best horror movies work on our fear of the unknown, and ALIEN mined that vein as no other film before it. Scott cut out as much of the creature footage as he could to give impressions; at no point do we see the creature in a well-lighted long shot, displaying itself. It is a force as much as it is an animal. And what kind of God would make such a thing?

 

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MUCH cooler than an Elder God of Otherness and Nothing

Hate for the damned company was always a Watergate-era cynical throwaway in the series, but with PROMETHEUS it took center stage, with the rich industrialist, his daughter, and his robot son. It looks like it may become the series’ main theme.

It seems that we’re about to take a turn away from something that made ALIEN so special to so many. Is the series about the quest for knowledge leading to death, horror but also a widening of awareness about who and what we are? Or is it only that safest of “daring” ideas, that Greed Is Bad?

 

 

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