Apart from Ridley Scott, there is one other man who’s ideas and designs are synonymous with the “Alien” franchise, H.R Giger. Having the honor of being credited with creating one of films most terrifying monsters, Giger’s name is now an adjective for anything that carries his signature style.
Giger was born Hans Rudolf Giger in Switzerland in 1940. After studying Architecture and Industrial Design, he used the skills he had learnt and incorporated them into the craft that would make him famous. Moving from the traditional ink and oil paintings, Giger started using Airbrushes to create large canvasses that depicted dark, surreal imagery that hadn’t really been seen before. The subjects in his work are often biomechanical combinations of human and machine which are unnerving to see, as is his strong sexual imagery. It also links with a trend that was prominent in the 70′s that explored the relationship between man and machine, Kraftwerk being another example. One of Giger’s main influences was Salvador Dali which goes some way to explain the surreal nature to his art.
People who see his work often wonder what must have shaped Giger to conceive the ideas he expresses through his Art. As a child, he wasn’t abused in anyway but states that he would regularly visit a local museum and be fascinated by a blackened mummy on display and obsess over photographs of a mob attacking and murdering the Emperor of China in 1904. Later in life he suffered from a condition known as ”Night Terror” which causes feelings of terror and dread in the first few hours of sleep. His first painting was a part of his art therapy to help him deal with his condition.
”Erotomechanics VIII” 1979
Dan O’Bannon, the screen writer of Alien had previously worked with Giger on the first failed attempt to bring Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ to the big screen. Once Alien had been given the green light, O’Bannon showed Ridley Scott some of Giger’s art work, specifically his Necronomicon book and suggested that Giger should be hired to design the alien creature.
Ridley Scott saw Giger’s 1976 Necronom IV print and immediately knew that was the alien he wanted in his film. What attracted Scott was that the creature in the print looked aggressive and sexual while at the same time it was a thing of beauty. Alien’s line producer Ivor Powell commented that it looked like it could ”easily fuck you before it killed you.” 20th Century Fox initially didn’t share Scott’s enthusiasm and were worried that Giger’s designs might be too ”disturbing” for the general audience but thankfully saw sense and hired Giger for the job.
”Necronom IV” 1976
After he was hired to work on Alien, Giger offered to redesign the alien from scratch but Ridley Scott (conscience of time restraints) said that the basis of the creature should be from Necronom IV. Originally he was only going to design the Alien, the Egg and the Chestburster but went on to create the ”Space Jockey” and his ship and the planet LV-426.
Giger envisioned the creature to be human like but with an armor that gave it full protection. And apart from looking menacing, Giger also laced it with sexuality to further disorientate the audience. This is most notable by the way the Xenomorph (it’s widely adopted name) penetrates it’s victim with it’s inner, phallic, secondary mouth which also has a second set of teeth and evokes ”vagina dentata” (a vagina with teeth). The facehugger also orally rapes its victim as it impregnates the embryo that will eventually kill it’s host during it’s birth.
Giger deliberately gave the Xenomorph no obvious eyes as he thought it made the alien more frightening if you didn’t know where its looking. When constructing the alien, he used bits from a snake’s vertebrae, cooling tubes from a Rolls Royce and an actual human skull for the face. The head also had a semi-transparent dome but it was too fragile and kept breaking so it was designed to be easily removable if it needed changing. By the time of the second film, the transparent dome was replaced with an opaque, dark black dome.
The actual Xenomorph head from Alien with the semi-transparent dome removed.
I don’t think I need to go into the life cycle of a Xenomorph in any great detail as its fairly well known that the queen lays the egg that will eventually release a facehugger, who will then attach and impregnate an unlucky host. Once the embryo has matured, it will burst out of the chest and grow into a Xenomorph. Also, everyone knows about the acid for blood and it’s ability to crawl and camouflage itself.
But over time, fans have fleshed out the Xenomorph and theorized on how it actually functions. The fact that it has no eyes has led people to think that it uses echolocation in the same way a bat does to judge distances and locate potential victims. That may be an explanation for the ”hiss” it makes. It’s also been suggested that they have a hive mind so they can be directed by the queen in the same way bees or The Borg are in Star Trek.
They are also not just a dumb killing machine as demonstrated by the way they break out of confinement in Alien Resurrection and when the Queen figures out how to use the elevator during the climax of Aliens. James Cameron said that the Xenomorphs in Aliens had been alive much longer than the creature in the first Alien film and therefore learnt how to control machinery on a basic level as seen when they cut power to the base in Aliens.
However you look at it, its testament to Giger’s design that so many layers can be applied to the Xenomorph to make it stand out from the average movie monster.
Giger’s work on Alien won him an Academy Award in 1980 and brought his artwork to the attention of people who wouldn’t have known about it before. He’s designed jewelry, furniture and even bars. He also created the cover art for Debbie Harry’s solo album Koo Koo which was voted by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the top 100 album covers of all time.
When a redesigned variation of the Xenomorph was needed for Alien 3, Giger was approached by director David Fincher to see what he could come up with. However, this collaboration did not go as smoothly as it did in 1979 with Ridley Scott. Under the impression that he was primarily in charge of the redesign, Giger drew up plans for a new four legged alien that he hoped would out-do his original. Giger said in an interview;
”I had special ideas to make it more interesting. I designed a new creature, which was much more elegant and beastly, compared to my original. It was a four-legged Alien, more like a lethal feline – a panther or something. It had a kind of skin that was built up from other creatures – much like a symbiosis.”
Once he completed his concepts, he presented them to Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis who were also doing the design work for Alien 3. Giger was under the impression that Woodruff and Gillis would be working from his designs but it turned out that infact they had their own plans for the new Alien. The situation got so out of control that Giger was dropped from the film but that didnt stop him from continuing to fax suggestions to Fincher. Giger recalled;
”David Fincher neglected to inform me that Woodruff and Gillis were also contracted to take care of the redesign of the Alien – I found out much later… I thought I had the job and that Woodruff and Gillis would work from my plans. On their side, they were convinced that it was their job and accepted my ‘suggestions’ with pleasure. They believed that all my effort was based on a huge love for the matter, because I worked hard even after my contract was over.”
Giger was clearly upset as he refused to give an interview for the behind the scenes documentary for Alien 3 until Fox reimbursed him. But he can rest assured that when people see the Xenomorph, it is Giger they associate with it and not anyone else.
Giger’s unused four legged Xenomorph for Alien 3
So to what extent is Giger involved in Prometheus? Ridley Scott brought Giger on board early and showed him his plans for the film. Scott said;
”I brought him in, I showed him what we were doing, showed him the story and he liked it a lot. So he’s doing a little bit of work for me. He’s been doing some murals, big murals, which we’ll see in almost one of the first chambers we encounter when we land where we’re gonna go.”
Some eagle eyed fans believe they have spotted Giger’s ”Harkonnen Castle” design that went unused in the aborted Dune project. It appears on the planet surface in the trailer for Prometheus.
But dont expect to see the Xenomorph in Prometheus as its acceptance into popular culture appears to have turned Scott off;
”No. Absolutely not. They squeezed it dry. He (the Xenomorph) did very well. (He laughs) He survived, he’s now in Disneyland in Orlando, and no way am I going back there. How did he end up in Disneyland? I saw him in Disneyland, Jesus Christ!”
Scott involving Giger in Prometheus is a very clever move as it not only gives the film a uniquely dark edge that only Giger can bring to the table but it also gives the film a visual link with the Alien universe. Its also a testament to how closely linked Giger is with the Alien franchise and if you want to make a credible film in that world, you cant do it without involving the architect who envisioned it.
The Xenomorph will always be one of cinema’s ultimate predators simply because it is so threatening and hard to stop. It has suffered from over exposure as of late, mainly due to Paul W.S Anderson and the dreadful Alive V’s Predator movie series. In those films you are introduced to more variations of the Xenomorph including the ”Predalien” which is a combination of the Xenomorph and Predator. They seem to forgot that ‘less is more’ and if you want a creature to remain a thing to fear, you have to demonstrate a degree of restraint and not desensitize the audience. The AVP films are largely ignored by most serious fans and for good reason.
But thankfully as soon as you rewatch Alien you immediately see that the Xenomorph still has the power to scare and shock you. And it will always be H.R Giger’s crowning achievement.