Forty years on from its original release, Alien and its iconic costume still inspires people in unexpected ways. A high school production recently made headlines, with star Sigourney Weaver even paying the kids a visit. Yet it could all have been very different if not for one man – legendary creature designer H.R. Giger.
A Swiss artist and true original, Giger was responsible for the bio-mechanical nightmare that stalked Weaver’s Ripley and crew about the spaceship Nostromo in 1979. Writer Dan O’Bannon met him in connection with a failed adaptation of Dune. Struck by his dark visions, he thought Giger should sit down with director Ridley Scott.
The movie was in need of Giger’s inspiration. Before Scott jumped aboard Robert Aldrich (Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?) was in the director’s chair. His proposed concept of a shaved orangutan to represent the alien hadn’t gone down well. What Giger brought to the table went beyond great design. It was transformative.
While the creature – or “xenomorph”, which would be used from the sequel Aliens onward – is now well-known, aspects of its design are less familiar. For example, the Alien is highly effective in claiming victims but it doesn’t have any eyes. How come?
“We came to the conclusion that a creature without eyes, driven by instinct alone, would be far more frightening,” the designer explained in documentary Giger’s Alien. If no-one knew what direction the Alien was looking in, the experience would be all the more terrifying.
Speaking of uncomfortable experiences, the Alien suit was an ordeal of sorts for Bolaji Badejo. He was a young Nigerian artist whose 7 ft frame and thin appearance proved perfect for the monstrous role. A stuntman handled the more dangerous shots but Badejo suffered breathing difficulties at times. He wasn’t even able to sit down in the restrictive get up, which cost a reported $250,000.
In a 1979 piece for Cinefantastique, it was described how “The ribcage was put on like a sweater, over the head… The tail was attached separately and operated by a series of wires… The head was placed on last. Bolaji likened wearing it to having your head stuck up the middle of a huge banana.”
Scott deliberately kept Badejo away from the cast for maximum impact. The performer commented: I remember having to kick Yaphet Kotto, throw him against the wall, and rush up to him. Veronica Cartwright was really terrified. After I fling Yaphet Kotto back with my tail, I turn to go after her, there’s blood in my mouth, and she was incredible. It wasn’t acting. She was scared.”
Giger was happy with the end result, despite his own demons. When O’Bannon first met him he reportedly took opium to dull the vivid images in his mind. During the shoot at Shepperton Studios, his presence was compared to that of a movie monster.
A 2014 Guardian article following his passing mentioned that “crew members were spooked on set by this softly spoken Swiss man, who dressed all in black and preferred to loiter, Dracula-like, in the shadows.”
The painter and sci-fi icon passed away after a fall in 2014 at the age of 74. Alien was his defining work in popular culture and became highly influential, though he did work on other high profile projects such as Species (1995). He nearly brought comic book fans a radical version of the Batmobile for Batman Forever the same year. However his work was ultimately rejected.
His dark visions fascinated and frightened viewers in equal measure. For Giger himself, maybe things weren’t as bleak they seemed.
A Buzzfeed retrospective of his Alien designs quoted him as saying, “Some people say my work is often depressing and pessimistic…With the emphasis on death, blood, overcrowding, strange beings and so on, but I don’t really think it is. There is hope and a kind of beauty in there somewhere, if you look for it.”
Try telling that to the Alien, whose lack of eyes did nothing to reduce its capacity for terror!