StarBeast — Prologue: Alien, Dan O’Bannon’s Cosmic Horror
The Alien story begins with Dan O’Bannon, a Hollywood writer with a taste for Lovecraft and the sci-fi of old. It was during the pre-production of the ill-fated Dune directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky that O’Bannon had a fateful meeting: a Swiss surreal artist by the name of Hans Ruedi Giger. Giger had been hired by Jodorowsky to conceptualize Giedi Prime’s architecture and barren landscapes, as well as Arrakis’ Sandworms. The peculiar airbrush paintings portraying grotesque amalgamations of organic and mechanical parts (what Giger called “biomechanics”) made an immediate impression on O’Bannon, capturing his imagination. He recalled in his essay Something Perfectly Disgusting: “[Giger’s] visionary paintings and sculptures stunned me with their originality, and aroused in me deep, disturbing thoughts, deep feelings of terror. They started an idea turning over in my head — this guy should design a monster movie. Nobody had ever seen anything like this on the screen.”
Years before, O’Bannon had written They Bite, a script featuring ancient parasitic insects that could assume traits of their victims after consumption. Whilst the project would never see the light, certain ideas within that script influenced what would become Alien. “The producers I showed it to felt it was too weird,” O’Bannon related, “and that it would be too expensive to do because of the special effects involved. But they all did admit that it frightened them. When I got ready to write Alien, I pulled a couple of concepts from They Bite and put them into deep space.”
O’Bannon thus combined traits from They Bite with principal story elements inherited from Dark Star, O’Bannon’s own screenwriting debut. Other ideas were inspired by science-fiction classics the likes of which O’Bannon was an enthusiast of — such as It! The Terror Beyond Space and Planet of the Vampires.
Initially called StarBeast, it was finally titled Alien. ”StarBeast is one of those titles that you think of and then you… you throw them away. l was running through titles and they all stank. l didn’t like any of them. One morning at three o’clock, [in] Ronny [Shusett]’s apartment, l’m typing away and the characters are saying the Alien this and the Alien that — and suddenly that word ‘Alien’ just came up out of the typewriter at me. l said ‘Alien. lt’s a noun and it’s an adjective.’ l said ‘Yes, that’s it! l have the title!’ lt’s simple, it’s one word, no one’s ever used it — and it never changed from that moment on. The title stuck and that was amazing to us, just that aspect of it.”Giger’s art inspired the writer to resurrect the project — which had been considered again in a meeting with Alien producer Ron Shusett — and write a new script. “When I got back to America [after the trip in Europe for Dune] I was still haunted by his work,” O’Bannon said. “It was on my mind, and when we sat down to do Alien I ended up visualizing the thing as I was writing it — I found myself visualizing it as a Giger painting.”
The story and the nature of the creature were heavily influenced by classic science fiction, as well as the tales of Cosmic Horror of H.P Lovecraft — of whom O’Bannon was a big enthusiast. The Alien represented the primal Fear of the Unknown. “One especially insightful critic – I wish I remembered who – wrote that Alien evoked the writings of H.P. Lovecraft,” he said in Something Perfectly Disgusting, “but where Lovecraft told of an ancient race of hideous beings menacing the Earth, Alien went to where the Old Ones lived, to their very world of origin. He was right, that was my very thought while writing. That baneful little storm-lashed planetoid halfway across the galaxy was a fragment of the Old Ones’ homeworld, and the Alien a blood relative of Yog-Sothoth.”
Before even seeing Giger’s art, O’Bannon had conceived the creature as “some sort of psychic force” that would use the crew of the spaceship as hosts. The idea later changed to an actual, physical creature. “It was Ron [Shusett] who finally broke the ice,” O’Bannon told Cinefex. “He brought up an old idea I’d had about gremlins harassing a B-17 bomber crew on a night mission over Tokyo and suggested I make the Alien creature physical and have it stalking the crewmen on their own ship.” This decision shifted the story of the film radically — making the Alien into an organic animal.
Inspired by parasitoid wasps, O’Bannon and Shusett conceived the Alien’s life cycle as following: an egg opens to reveal a creature — the ‘Facehugger’ — that latches onto the host’s head and forces a proboscis down its throat, depositing an embryo in the process — a plot device conceived by Shusett to actually get the Alien inside the ship without having to resort to old clichés. Shusett said: “Dan said to me, when I first read the script, ‘I know what has to be done, but I don’t know how to do it. If you can help me do it, we’ll get this script done and it will be up to its potential. We need to figure out how the Alien gets on board in a way that nobody’s ever seen before.’ We worked together for months and we just stared at the wall.” The inspiration came to Shusett, suddenly, in his sleep. “I [woke] up at three o’clock in the morning, and I came into the living room, and I said to Dan, ‘I think I’ve cracked it. I think I know how it gets onboard in a way that nobody’s ever seen in their whole life: it impregnates one of them. When they were down there looking they didn’t know what they would find; they find some almost primordial life. It’s prehistoric but it’s moving; that [would be] the egg. They’re going to try and open it up.’ We know what happened. Something jumps on his face and puts a tube down his mouth and impregnates him. They can’t see it on X-Ray because — like an octopus produces ink — it blocks out what’s growing in there. We know it’s breeding in there and then in the middle of the movie it comes bursting out his chest.’ Dan and I just looked at each other. We knew that would have to happen. Once implanted you have to operate or it comes bursting out the chest. Dan and I just pictured that and we were amazed. We looked at each other in shock. We said ‘nobody’s ever seen that on screen!” Within three weeks, we had the whole structure exactly as you saw it in the film, once that one moment came to me. Dan was right. He knew that would unlock the rest of the movie.”
“That was one of the ideas that made it possible to make [the film] worth doing at all,” O’Bannon said. “This is a movie of Alien interspecies rape — that’s it, that’s scary, because it hits all of our buttons, all of our unresolved feelings about sexuality.” When fully developed, the baby monster would then violently burst from the chest of its victim — earning the crew nickname ‘Chestburster’ — and finally grow into the adult Alien. “It was our idea that it would be the life cycle of an insect,” Shusett said in an interview with Cinefantastique. “The way a wasp will sting a spider, paralyze it, and lay its eggs in the spider… that we did want [for the Alien’s life cycle].”
A key trait of the Alien is its acidic blood, included as another plot device that would forbid the crew to kill or even wound the monster. The screenwriter wanted the creature to be mortal and was radically opposed to making it impenetrable (a trope common in earlier monster films). Ron Cobb, who designed the human technology for the film, eventually suggested the idea of a creature with “acid for blood”. O’Bannon recalled: “Ron Cobb gave continual input to the film right from the very start. He gave us one of the major plot elements: the monster has an incredibly corrosive bloodstream. One of the reasons the monster can’t be cut up or fired at is because its blood would eat right through the ship. That was Ron’s idea and I want everyone to know it — I wanted the thing to be, in every respect, a natural animal, which means yes, if you shoot it, it’ll die.” A scene removed in the final film involved the Alien having its left arm cut off, resulting in a portion of the ship being compromised.
Otherwise, the Alien’s appearance, as well as other traits, varied from version to version. In one of the drafts, for example, the Chestburster is described as a “worm with legs… and tentacles,” and the adult Alien as a six-feet tall creature, “ghastly beyond imagination, squamous,” and equipped with “razor-sharp tentacles” to grasp its prey. Curiously enough, it is also described as moving “like an over-sized bird.”
O’Bannon’s original intent was also for the Aliens to be an advanced civilization, a concept lost in the final version of the film. Cobb elaborated: “in Dan’s original conception the Alien race had three entirely different stages in its life-cycle. First, the egg, which is tended by 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 fetus into the stomach. The Facehugger soon drops off and the fetus develops inside, eventually chewing its way out and killing its host. This creature, the Chestburster, is the Alien’s second stage, and it simply runs about eating, mindlessly carnivorous. At this stage, the creature is still controlled and nurtured by adult Aliens until the Chestburster begins losing appendages and becomes more and more harmless. Finally — its bloodlust gone — the Alien becomes a mild, intelligent creature, capable of art and architecture, which lives a full, scholarly life of 200 years. At some point, a cataclysm causes the extermination of the adults of 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.”
O’Bannon further elaborated: “I saw the inhabitants of this planetoid as tough and primitive, and with an extremely complicated sexual cycle. Reproduction was very difficult for them and had therefore become central to their religion. And this pyramid was a temple to reproduction. When the astronauts come upon this crumbling structure covered with ugly angular carvings, they begin to realize that they are in the presence of real antiquity. They’re unable to find an entrance at the base, so they scale the pyramid and discover at the top a flue that goes straight down from the peak. This was where the Kane character set up his tripod and winch and lowered himself down — way below ground level — to the floor of this chamber. Using his suit lights, he looks around in the darkness and in the middle of the room finds a huge stone plinth with blood drains in it. All over the walls are Alien hieroglyphics. Also in there, centrally located, are these eggs — spores really. See, these Alien beings had two sexes of their own, but they needed a third host animal to reproduce. So they’d bring in an animal. put it up on the plinth with a spore, and whammo! Then they’d lead the inseminated animal off to an enclosure somewhere to await the birth. But the planetoid was now dead and this civilization had been gone for a million years. All that remained of it was this pyramid and the spores — which can survive dormant for incredible lengths of time under even the most adverse conditions.” For reasons of pacing and budget, the pyramid was excised from the film and blended into the Derelict spacecraft — the eggs would thus be found in a lower chamber of the ship, making their true origin ambiguous.
Once completed, the script went through a wide array of rewrites; when it was passed to David Giler and Walter Hill, the duo removed all otherworldly elements — transforming the Alien into an earthly biological experiment. Supported by Shusett, O’Bannon strongly opposed the change: “Ronnie Shusett had feverishly rushed up to [Scott] 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, ‘0h yes. We have to go back to the first way. Definitely.’ So it was Giler and Hill’s turn to be disturbed. As a result, the entire remainder of the production became a battle between camps. One camp wanting one version of the film and another camp wanting the other version.” Scott ultimately combined traits from both versions, with the conception of the creature reflecting O’Bannon’s vision of an otherworldly menace. Its origins are left ambiguous, and the final film does not delve into the background of the monster.
Whilst concretely shown only by the third chapter of the series, the notion of the Alien inheriting traits from its host was actually seeded during the creative process for the first film. “The Alien life form lived to reproduce,” Scott said, “and in reproducing took on the characteristics of its last inhabitant and its new host. Thus, the Alien on board the Nostromo had the characteristics of the Space Jockey on the Derelict and Kane. If the facehugger had hit the cat, it could have been a hybrid of the Space Jockey and the cat.”
Since the beginning, O’Bannon wanted Giger to design the Alien in all of its stages and drew the first Alien sketch as a means of creative input for the Swiss artist; Giger himself made preliminary designs for the Facehugger stage. The producers of the film, however, did not agree with him over the choice; he told Cinefex: “when I tried to get Giger on the picture, I got a lot of resistance. They hired Ron Cobb and Chris Foss at my request rather readily — even brought foss over from England — but there was just something about Giger; they didn’t want to touch him. I think maybe Walter Hill didn’t like his work.” For this reason, artists already attached to the project, including Ron Cobb, were assigned the task of designing the creature.
“I’m afraid Ron Cobb’s ego was sorely wounded when he didn’t get to do the monster,” O’Bannon said in an interview with Cinefex. He found Cobb’s concepts visually interesting, but nowhere close to what should embody the Alien. He continues: “he was endlessly frustrated because he could design Aliens without number, and they were all convincing and all unique and all startling to look at. The only problem was, he’s a rationalist. I noticed this when we first started designing the picture. All these different things were coming out so well that I decided to have him take a crack at the Derelict spaceship. But when I asked him to come up with an irrational shape he got very disturbed. He couldn’t handle that. He kept coming up with convincing technology for a flying saucer or some other kind of UFO. And when it came to the Alien, he had the same problem. His designs just weren’t as bizarre, or as bubbling up from the subconscious as the stuff Giger was doing. Cobb’s monsters all looked like they could come out of a zoo — Giger’s looked like something out of a bad dream.”
After Ridley Scott was attached to the project as the director, he had the last word on the matter — and finally chose Giger as the creature designer. With Giger hired for the project, the Alien finally started to take shape. In the foreword to H.R. Giger’s Film Design, Scott said that “I was first introduced to H.R. Giger’s artwork while in the very early stages of pre-production for Alien. The writer and co-producer Dan O’Bannon showed me a copy of H.R. Giger’s Necronomicon book, and I immediately saw the potential his work had to offer the project. The executive producers were a bit hesitant in initially committing to his art until they had a director locked up. In this case that wound up being me. My enthusiasm with regard to the film increased significantly as I realized we had the ability to create a monster that would be superior to most of those from the past.”
For more images of the early Alien sketches and designs, visit the Monster Gallery.