Saturday, September 17, 2011
The ALIEN Vault
Alien is one of those movies where I couldn’t possibly say how many times I’ve seen it. I’ve owned it in four formats now—taped off a late night CTV airing, store-bought VHS, DVD (twice—as a single disc and again as part of the Alien Quadrilogy box set), and now finally again in the Alien Anthology Blu-Ray box set. Fans can endlessly debate the dubious merits of the third and fourth films in the series, and the Alien Vs. Predator franchise is probably best ignored altogether, but we can pretty much all agree on one thing—the first two installments are an unbeatable combo of outer space terror. However, my first love will always be Ridley Scott’s 1979 original, a beautiful and terrifying fusion of down & dirty sci-fi and Lovecraftian horror. It hasn’t aged a day, and I suspect it never will. So for a fan like myself, Ian Nathan’s new book from Voyageur Press, The Alien Vault, offers an indispensable peek behind the curtain of a classic.
The Alien Vault details the making of the film in all its lurid detail, all the way from Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s script (originally titled Starbeast) to the scribes’ battles with producers Walter Hill and David Giler, and all the way on into the torturous production that saw director Ridley Scott fighting tooth and nail with the studio over budget excesses and design elements, right on up until the early test screenings that reportedly had audience members running to the restrooms to vomit. Nathan seems to have had unprecedented access to archival materials—the book contains scores of fascinating photos from the set as well enough production art and creature design illustrations (including some pretty goofy early attempts to envision the monster as a sort of fleshy, bipedal space lobster) to fill a derelict space cruiser. These production illustrations underscore one of the most fascinating elements of the Alien experience—how the filmmakers charged two separate designers with creating the warring aesthetics of the movie. The visions of H.R. Giger (responsible for the alien creature’s life cycle, as well as the mysterious Space Jockey and his shipwrecked craft) and Ron Cobb (the artist behind the movie’s human elements, like the Nostromo and all the technology within) gave Alien an indelible originality, highlighting the gulf of difference between the film’s vision of spacefaring humanity and the interstellar horrors it encounters. Nathan was also able to interview nearly everyone involved in Alien, unearthing some choice bits of set gossip along the way (Yaphet Kotto got so into character as the abrasive Parker that, when it came time to film his death scene, he got up in the director’s face, insisting that his character was going to survive his alien encounter, despite what the script said).
The coolest thing about The Alien Vault, though, are the many “enclosures” found within—envelopes containing reproductions of design schematics, foreign one-sheet designs, Ridley Scott’s original storyboards (or “Ridleygrams”), script pages with handwritten revisions in the margins, and even a Nostromo crew patch in the form of a sticker. If you’ve seen The Marvel Vault or The DC Vault from Running Press, or the more recent Transformers Vault from Harry N. Abrams, then you’re familiar with this “Museum-In-A-Book” approach. It’s sort of like being allowed to hang out on the production lot of 20th Century Fox Studios after hours, sifting through the most exciting film memorabilia imaginable. More appropriately, it’s like landing on a strange, exotic planet and finding the wrecked hulk of a starship filled with fascinating artifacts of genre film history rather than hostile xenomorph eggs.