Tuesday 18 December 2018

Alien revival: the return of the scariest creature in space

Spaceship story: A 29-year-old Sigourney Weaver stars in iconic sci-fi thriller 'Alien'.
Spaceship story: A 29-year-old Sigourney Weaver stars in iconic sci-fi thriller 'Alien'.
Ridley Scott
Sci fi success: Sigourney Weaver in 'Aliens', the follow-up to the smash hit, 'Alien'.
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

South African director Neill Blomkamp is one of a dynamic group of younger filmmakers who have revitalised the science-fiction genre in recent years. His 2009 film District 9 was an astonishingly original feature début, telling the story of a colony of aliens who have the great misfortune to crash-land into apartheid Johannesburg.

That was always going to be a hard act to follow, and while his 2013 movie Elysium had its moments, the general feeling was that Blomkamp's talent had been diluted by his relocation to Hollywood. And maybe he agreed, because in his latest film, he's back on the mean streets of Johannesburg.

Chappie, which opened here yesterday, stars Dev Patel as a scientist who builds a six-foot, intelligent robot. Chappie soon begins to show encouraging signs of talent and personality, but a cruel world awaits outside, and Hugh Jackman plays a cynic with an ugly mullet who fears the robot could become violent.

As usual with Blomkamp's work, Chappie is bracingly original, but his next project has a much more familiar feel. At the start of this year, Blomkamp posted images on his Instagram page that suggested he might be working on an Alien sequel. And a few weeks ago, he confirmed that Alien 5 would be his next project, and that Sigourney Weaver would be returning in the key role of Ellen Ripley. "I've been wanting to make an Alien film for like years and years," the director said.

Interestingly, Blomkamp has stated that he plans to completely ignore the critically lambasted Alien 3, in which Ripley died, as well as the crass and anatomically disgusting 1997 sequel Alien 4. Instead, he will return the franchise to its original themes, as "a kind of Freudian nightmare". He made no mention of Ridley Scott's 2012 prequel Prometheus, or a sequel to that, which may also be in the works.

Of course, franchise reboots are all the rage in these risk-averse days, and if Neill Blomkamp can recapture the energy and creativity of Alien, we could be in for something special. A case could be made, in fact, for Ridley Scott's 1979 original being the greatest science-fiction film ever made.

Scott tends to get most of the credit, but Alien was a collaboration between a group of very talented individuals, and was born in the wild mind of screenwriter and science-fiction guru Dan O'Bannon. In 1974, O'Bannon had collaborated with John Carpenter on the sci-fi satire Dark Star, in which an alien had been rendered by spray-painting a beach ball. Afterwards, O'Bannon decided it would be much more interesting to create an alien that "looked real".

Gradually, the idea of a group of astronauts stuck on a spaceship with an extraterrestrial began forming in his mind, but he was sidetracked in the mid-1970s when Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky hired him to work on an adaptation of Frank Herbert's sci-fi novel Dune. The film, which would have starred Orson Welles and Mick Jagger, never got made, but while designing special effects for the aborted project, he met several artists whose work impressed him, including Swiss painter, HR Giger.

The collapse of the Dune project devastated O'Bannon, who was left homeless and broken. And when he returned to Hollywood, he turned in desperation to that half-finished script about a marauding alien. He was living at the time with his friend and fellow screenwriter Ronald Shusett, who helped him pull the script together.

Their finished screenplay was originally known as 'Star Beast', but O'Bannon was never happy with the title and, noticing how many times the word 'alien' popped up in the script, changed it to that.

In the opening scenes of Alien, the crew of the spaceship Nostromo are woken from hyper-sleep to investigate a distress signal emanating from a remote mining colony. It was Shusett who came up with the idea that one of the crew would be implanted with an alien embryo while investigating, that would later burst out of him when they returned to their ship. It was an ingenious, if shocking way to introduce the antagonist to the story.

When O'Bannon and Shusett began touting their idea around the studios, they pitched it as "Jaws in space". For a time, it looked like Roger Corman was going to run the script through his B-movie treadmill, the result of which would probably have been anything but classic. Then Star Wars happened, and suddenly sci-fi was the hot thing in Hollywood.

Dan O'Bannon later recalled that, after their huge success with Star Wars, 20th Century Fox wanted "to follow through fast, and the only spaceship script they had sitting on their desk was Alien". In 1977, the project was green-lit.

Producers Walter Hill, David Giler and Gordon Carroll began a series of script rewrites, and introduced the character of Ash, an android with an agenda. O'Bannon had assumed that he'd direct the film, but he was considered a bit too unpredictable and Fox asked Hill instead. After he declined, Peter Yates and Robert Aldrich were considered, but Hill and the other producers felt they'd be wrong - they wanted a dark and serious thriller, not a monster B movie.

Former advertising director Ridley Scott was hired on the strength of his impressive 1977 feature debut The Duellists. Fox had originally given the project a budget of $4.2million, but when Scott sent them detailed storyboards, including designs for the ship and spacesuits, they doubled the budget straight away.

Scott, though, had one big concern: how the alien would look. After Dan O'Bannon introduced Scott to the disturbing and surreal artwork of HR Giger, the director flew to Zurich to meet him. And according to producer Gordon Carroll, as soon as "Ridley saw Giger's work, he knew that the biggest single design problem, maybe the biggest problem in the film, had been solved".

Giger was hired to design the alien in its entire, liver fluke-like biological cycle, and used his own painting, Necronom IV, as the basis for his extraordinary designs. Scott, who wanted Alien to be as much a horror film as a sci-fi fantasy, would use the finished creature sparingly and in tantalising snatches, to make it appear all the more terrifying.

Scott and his producers chose John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwright and Tom Skerritt to play the crew: strong character actors, who would not be dwarfed by the film's formidably gloomy design. Sigourney Weaver was the last to be cast: the tall and striking 29-year-old actress had worked extensively on Broadway, but had little or no experience on film.

She played Ellen Ripley, the Nostromo's spiky but resourceful warrant officer, and became the human heart of a film that would make her a star.

In terms of story, design, set-building and consistency, Ridley Scott and his talented team of creatives seem to have thought of everything. When Dan O'Bannon struggled to find a reason why the ship's crew didn't just shoot the alien and have done with it, conceptual artist, Ron Cobb, came up with the idea that the creature should bleed acid, which could seep through the hull at any moment and destroy the ship.

Ridley Scott went to great lengths to avoid the dreaded 'man in a rubber suit' moment that had turned so many promising sci-fi films into unintended comedies. The alien, as we have seen, was meticulously designed, and everything from sheep's hearts to shredded condoms were used to make each stage of the creature's metamorphosis seem real.

There was a rubber suit, however well Scott disguised it, and inside lurked a 26-year-old Nigerian design student called Bolaji Badejo. Spotted in a London bar by one of the casting team, Badejo stood six-feet-ten and was very slender: when wearing the costume, his arms and legs looked inhumanly long.

Alien was filmed at Shepperton Studios between July and October 1978. Ridley Scott's elaborate spaceship set was dimly lit, and enclosed. As a result, the actors felt trapped, and several of them found the globe-helmeted spacesuits so stifling that they passed out. For the sake of veracity, Scott stirred up tensions between the actors, and encouraged Yaphet Kotto to goad Sigourney Weaver between takes to give her performance an extra edge.

Kotto was a method actor, and picked fights with poor Bolaji Badejo in order to intensify his character's on-screen hatred of the creature.

If Alien was anybody's baby, it was Dan O'Bannon's. But he was a volatile character, hyper-critical of any changes to his script, and one day O'Bannon apparently lost his temper on set and insulted Scott in front of the whole crew. As a result, he was shunned by the producers, and didn't get the credit he deserved when the finished film was released. Which is a pity, because it turned out to be a very special film.

All great movies come about through a mixture of determination, vision and luck. Alien might have ended up in the hands of Roger Corman, and been turned into forgettable schlock, or it might have been directed by a man without the art-school imagination of Ridley Scott. Dan O'Bannon might never have met HR Giger on the doomed set of Dune, and Sigourney Weaver might not have turned up for her audition in distractingly high thigh boots.

But all of those essential elements were brought into play to create an enduring science-fiction masterpiece.

The greatest sequel ever made?

While Neill Blomkamp has grandly dismissed Alien 3 and 4 from his plans, neither he nor anyone else has ever cast aspersions on James Cameron's 1986 sequel, Aliens. Cameron knew the original film was going to be an extremely hard act to follow, so instead of trying to recreate the paranoid intensity of Alien, he and his producer Gale Anne Hurd decided to make Aliens a spectacular sci-fi action film. The result is surely one of the best sequels ever.

Having jettisoned herself from the doomed ship Nostromo at the end of the first film, Ellen Ripley has been floating in space in hyper-sleep for 57 years when she's rescued and rehabilitated. When she gets her bearings, she's told that the planetoid where she and her colleagues discovered the aliens has been colonised, but that all contact has been recently lost.

So Ripley heads back to the planet with a group of marines to confront her old enemy once again. It's a terrific action film, especially the unforgettable climax where Ridley uses a cargo loader to tackle the alien head on.

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