Why Alien Remains Influential: Dan O’Bannon, H. R. Giger, and the Film’s Legacy.
Introduction and Overview
“It was the most incredible preview I’ve ever been in. I mean, people were screaming and running out of the theater.” —Editor Terry Rawlings describing the film’s screening in Dallas.
39 years have passed since the release of Alien (1979). Since then we have received Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992), Alien Resurrection (1997), Prometheus (2012), and most recently Alien: Covenant (2017). Plans for more prequels and future films continue to be thrown about even now. We now approach Alien Day 2018 – a massive fan celebration with all assortments of new releases related to comics, films, collectibles, and general enjoyment and appreciation of the franchise. How has a series like Alien been able to retain influence and continue to grow its fan-base after so many years?
In this short entry, we will look at why lead writer Dan O’Bannon’s dogged search for a truly realistic depiction of a monster would be one of the keys of the franchise’s success. A follow up introduction into the mind behind the beast, and the evolution of its initial design, will follow. Beyond these two sections (for fear of word-vomiting for far too long), I hope this will spark discussion as to why Alien has remained an important part of film, art, and personal experiences.
(Much of this information comes from this interview with O’Bannon by David Konow. I highly suggest reading it as only highlights exist here!
When Dan O’Bannon worked with John Carpenter and Ron Cobb to create the sci-fi comedy Dark Star (1974), it left him desiring to create something far more serious, unique, and realistic. He is quoted as saying he was left “really wanting to do an alien that looked real“.
“We had to pull the monster off on no budget” said Dan O’Bannon of the spray painted beach ball monster in Dark Star. In 1976, while living with Ronald Shusett, O’Bannon pitched to studio executives that the Alien creature special effects would not be crippling financially to pull off. One card played that would end up making all the difference was the use of surreal artist H.R Giger’s horrifying creations as a genesis of the creature O’Bannon had in mind.
Working on what would become Total Recall, Ronald Shusett was impressed with Dark Star and got together with O’Bannon to work on his new idea for a sci-fi film. Taking ideas from The Thing From Another World (1951), Forbidden Planet (1956), and Planet of the Vampires (1965), Alien (like the titular parasitic creature) salvaged parts from its hosts and was born as an incredibly unique, beautiful baby.
“Looking at them I thought, If somebody could get this guy to design a monster for a movie, it would be something no one’s ever seen before. So I went in knowing that I had the cherry on top with the visualization of the thing.” —Dan O’Bannon on Giger’s art
A “B-movie presented in the A-way”, Alien would by no means be a silly or incompetent film. Directed by Ridley Scott, who took the film’s production very seriously, and taking heavy inspiration from H.R. Giger’s fantastically creepy art design, Alien was released in 1979 to mixed reviews and was a commercial success.
By watching it so many years later, it is surprising how well the tension and effects hold up. Great care on the part of every mind collaborating to design the movie has resulted in a near-timeless assault on audience’s conception of horror – what human beings fear most being what is on the inside. This is not meant just figuratively, but very literally as well:
“I thought, Well we outta do something in here, something fairly early that is excessive. Something over the line. Something so awful that you just shouldn’t do it. I’ll just do it once, and I’ll do it early enough that most of the picture still has yet to play. Then after that all you have to do is make sure there’s a lot of dark shadows in the corridors as you’re walking around so you can’t see anything. You can stretch those scenes out until the audience’s teeth will shatter into nothing waiting for the unpredictable moment where the next dreadful, unacceptably thing is hurled at you.” —Dan O’Bannon
The use of a parasitic form of reproduction was implemented by O’Bannon, as was the desire to attack, specifically, the men in the audience by the forced impregnation and emasculation of the male characters in the film. The Xenomorph, as it has been dubbed since Aliens, represents the horrible unknown – and yet, the wholly familiar as well. Examining the creature and the artist behind it is essential to understanding and appreciating Alien, as fans have been doing for years.
Some people say my work is often depressing and pessimistic, with the emphasis on death, blood, overcrowding, strange beings and so on, but I don’t really think it is.
Born in Switzerland in 1940, Hans R. Giger is recognized as one of the world’s lead ‘Fantastic Realist’ artists. Giger is credited with designing the famous star beast that terrorizes countless audience members even now. His claim to fame, being beautiful airbrushed bio-mechanical landscapes and surrealistic, nightmarish twisted abominations of man and machine made the creature in Alien unique and scary. Ultimately, Giger’s design succeeds in tapping on primal human fears of sexuality (most importantly, sexual violence) and self-destruction. The Xenomorph is everything horrible about mankind wrapped up in one terrific package.
I could say more on Giger, but I prefer his own words. He is a fascinating individual with such a unique perspective on the world. It is no wonder, then, that Alien has been so successful, so stuck in the minds of those who worship it.
A stroll through time: all incarnations of the adult Xenomorph in the main films:
Due to its unique creative vision, Alien has been a constant source of inspiration for writers and artists since its release onto the big screen. Films as recent as Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018), feature homages to Giger’s unique art style and thematic similarities to what O’Bannon had envisioned. Lucky for us today, even when not presented an Alien film, we get bits and pieces of the material used to make it in other sources, interpreted differently by other creative minds.
With the franchise now firmly in the grip of Ridley Scott, we have seen a shift in focus. Androids and what it means to be human (and non-human) have been the focus of the Alien prequels, and the Xenomorph apparently taking a back seat has led some to worry for the future. But the themes prevalent in the prequels were prevalent in the originals and androids were always a critical part of the series. Not to worry, to those who want the Xenomorph to get the attention it deserves. Back again in Covenant after brief hiatus in Prometheus, I am confident the next film to come out will feature the Xenomorph in a similar fashion to the ones in Covenant – an endgame, the root of evil, the ultimate defiance in the face of both Gods and men… and perhaps androids.
Let us take this Alien Day as a day to enjoy a healthy dose of uncomfortableness, share in a few scares, and think about the meaning of life by watching these films and anticipating new ones. As with all art, it is always fascinating to see how people interpret a film and I urge the readers here to discuss what these films mean to you and how you will be celebrating Alien Day 2018.
– Mike, @officerjoek9
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