one of the greatest fight scenes in cinematic history

Design Analysis: The Alien Films

Giger’s original alien design is fairly well recognized as the pinnacle of the art, so sequel decay was inevitable. Once you have something perfect, anything you add to that perfection will alter it and by definition make it imperfect. The further the Alien films diverge from the design above, the worse the designs get, sometimes by fractions, sometimes by great leaps. This is not a comprehensive list of all changes made to the design over the years, but a look at the directions other artists took. Essentially, a brief Fall of the Roman Empire for alien design.

Giger’s only “hands-on” involvement with the series to make the final cut was on the first film. His most impressive creation for that movie is, in my opinion, the Space Jockey, the truest fusion of flesh and machine, literally grown into the ship despite what unbelievably horrible ideas future movies would try to retcon into the series. But the alien itself is the most enduring work. The elongated head, the inner toothed tongue, the mechanical components within the meat of the creature, its ribs, its inexplicable back-pipes, it all manifests as a symphony of disturbing elements that, when combined into a humanoid figure, speak of pain, wounds, death, cruelty and danger. This is widely known.

What fewer people (including future creature designers) realize is that one of the most critical features of the alien is that it is aesthetically displeasing. It is not sleek. It is not cool. It is ugly. It doesn’t fit together right. It is not streamlined not conventional in color or form. Where Giger designed the Space Jockey to be oddly beautiful, he went for something in the alien itself that makes it hard to look at. Some consider this “cheap” or “incomplete.” I’d argue that it was not only intentional but one of the most critical features of the design.

The original alien was never meant to appeal to us. It was made to scare and disgust us. The original film is the only time it did so successfully. Commentaries on the series suggest that the repetition of the design in further movies made it less impressive, that it was done to death. This is not true because the original design only appeared in one film. Though that design too is demystified by now, the films did not need to suffer from any inevitable decrease in horror. That decrease is intentional.

James Cameron didn’t want to make a horror film, he wanted to make an action thriller with some horror elements. His alteration of Giger’s designs helps elucidate this. The design of the aliens from Aliens is close to Giger’s with three critical embellishments: The arms now have bony protrusions at the elbows, the dome has been removed revealing the ridged head, and the design has been normalized and streamlined. The alien is no longer grotesque, it is awesome.

The original alien looks dirty and ragged by comparison. This was not a mistake by any means. Aliens is not about hurting the audience like its predecessor, it’s an action movie and the turn from horror to action was extremely successful.

Cameron then took Giger’s aesthetic, more or less, and designed his own super-alien, the Queen. Little attempt at horror remains, if any. This is an epic beast made to appeal to the eye with smooth curved structures and spines that follow the form naturally and elegantly. It has less of a mechanical influence, and no sign at all of Giger’s ugliness. Its use in the film is similarly unhorrifying, it’s an intense escape followed by one of the greatest fight scenes in movie history. Cameron diverged from Giger and Scott, but what he made was a new expansion of the universe that was all his own, and in typical fashion for the director, it amazed audiences and proved highly influential ever after.

Giger was invited back to design a new iteration of the alien for the third film. He set out to perfect his original design, and did so artistically but not cinematically. His new design introduced an even more horrifying tongue that would enter the victim’s throat, and with shark-tooth-like barbs, come back out bringing their guts with it. It had a visible, moving brain under its dome, and it lost the back tubes in favor of a more animal-like structure. It also had new artsy elements that brought it further into Giger’s developing aesthetic. The filmmakers elected not to use it.

Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis took over. Students of Stan Winston who had implemented Cameron’s concepts, they redesigned the alien into a near-fully organic beast. The only remainder of its mechanical elements are the repeated flutes on the side of the head. The rest is all animal, with inhuman legs and feet. Its cheeks are no longer messes of visible mechanisms, but rumpled skin. And it is sleek. It’s streamlined. It is, in essence, what the alien would look like had it been originally designed by someone other than Giger.

Alien 3 attempted to bring the series back to horror. That might have been a mistake but we can give the creators the benefit of the doubt and instead of criticizing the aspects of the film that have already been criticized ad nauseam, focus only on the design. Basically, it’s meatier and meaner and although it has lost Giger’s surface, it does retain his basic concepts and yields an appropriate movie monster for a very dark film. It would be brilliant had it not followed such vastly superior works.

Gillis and Woodruff returned for the fourth film and further organicized the creature. They took the Alien 3 design and regained the tubes, and made the back of the head a little less round. While the alien from 3 was alternately red or black depending on the lighting, the Resurrection beasts were generally greenish-brown or grey depending on whether they were computer generated.

But look at its cheeks and neck. The region on the sides behind its mouth. The clumpy skin of the third alien is now a total ugly mess, and not ugly in Giger’s way. Just a mess of blotchy crud. Its arm has little trace of the underlying tubes and mechanics, it’s just a bumpy human arm. Alien 3 took the creature into animalistic design, but 4 began to turn it into a mess.

The newborn has no mechanical elements whatsoever, or even any trace of them. It bears only the slightest resemblance to Giger’s design and that’s okay. It had a new purpose- To be gross. Not grotesque, necessarily, but icky. There it succeeded. Its face was also more expressive, at times almost human. Its sunken eyes, its bat-nose, the bloated filigree on the sides of its head, all contribute to something appropriate to the film this creature was designed for.

Notably, the creature was designed with genitals, which were censored from the film for being too much, the director said, “even for a Frenchman.” The Newborn represents the end of the series. The alien has gone everywhere it can go, and retains nothing of what made the original what it was. Evolution is inevitable but I can’t help but wonder what might have happened had the ADI team that handled the latter two films honored Giger’s new designs, or kept his originals, or designed new works of their own along his guidelines instead of simply making the aliens closer and closer to blobby animals.

Prometheus provides another succinct view of what happened- Giger’s original derelict ship was a misshapen bony surrealist sculpture. It had no visible means of flight, it had nothing to even compare to any vehicle ever designed. It made no sense. It hurt the brain to think of as a spaceship. Prometheus featured a similar ship- But made it work. It was streamlined and curved naturally instead of bent and ugly, it was a mechanical ship and not something that might have been grown. That’s what happened to the alien over the years. It was cleaned up, made sense of, and turned into something normal. But the final insult was yet to come.

That’s the finale of Prometheus. Look at it.

Now look at the original:

Now back to deacon:

How did anyone, especially Ridley freaking Scott, think this was acceptable? It’s a god damn cartoon. I mean literally! It’s what Gary Larson spoofed the aliens into!

It has no surface detail, just some bumps like what a child might push into a lump of clay. Its pointy head is a joke. And its inner jaw is based on the goblin shark’s:

The goblin shark is notable in two ways- One, its jaws are horrifying. Good. Reason two- It looks like Jerry Lewis.

It’s goofy! It’s silly! The prominent upper maxilla looks absurd and funny despite its sharp spiny teeth. The goblin shark is certainly bizarre and bizarre is often good, but in this case it turned the iconic alien, the greatest design in the history of creature effects, into an absolute total JOKE.

Never mind the squid. Never mind the plain white tentacled blob that replaced the chestburster. Never mind the idea that the brilliant concept of a pilot grown into its ship was made into a white guy in a suit. Never mind the dull serpents or the atrocious uncreative bumpy makeup on Fifield. Ignore all the problems with Prometheus because this is about the design of the adult form alien. Look what they did to it.

Resurrection ended the alien’s tenure as the greatest monster. But it did not make it into a joke. The deacon is a poorly sculpted, plainly painted, uncreatively applied, horribly conceived, silly, pathetic, absolute low point of creature design in cinema. That’s where the alien ended up.

This is one of the greatest plummets in art. From the pinnacle to the nadir. So what comes next? Alien: Covenant, appears from its trailer, to be even more of a remake of the original than Prometheus. The same plot, slightly different specifics. Of its true story and creatures, only time will tell. But I have the lowest expectations. I expect the worst, for the alien to go from joke to insult. Or further insult, all things considered.

The trend in cinema (among other things) right now is to take whatever was good once and ram it into the ground as hard as possible. I don’t know what more they can do to the alien after the pointy headed atrocity above, but I have a feeling we’ll find out.

But I also have hope. Worst expectations but a glimmer of hope that we’ll see the redemption of this creature. Giger is dead, and the world is poorer for it. I hope Scott has found someone new, an unknown artist as Giger was in the 70s to come to fame as the next great surrealist. I hope we’ll see the birth of a new form of horror cinema. I hope a great many things every time an alien movie comes out.

My mother was pregnant with me when she saw Alien. I drew it over and over as a child. I studied it above all other films and designs as an adult. I grew up with the alien on every level. I don’t know what will come next, and I will go in with an open mind.

But I can’t help but feel that the iconic monster has hit rock bottom, and it’s about to crash through the stones down into hell.

Sure you’ve seen all the classics; Pretty in Pink, Goonies, Footloose, Heathers, John Hughes’ entire filmography, The list goes on. You’re probably pretty sick of them too, After all, one can only watch Sixteen Candles so many times. As jammed-packed as the 1980s were from all these memorable teen movies and all their not so subtle rip-offs, There were some gems that fell through the cracks of 80s nostalgia.

So here are 5 movies that always seem to be left out of conversation that I personally find in desperate need of more attention.

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