Ridley Scott just presented “Prometheus” to Hall H fans at Comic-Con, and that has Finland’s Juhani Nurmi, a journalist and devoted fan of “Alien,” looking back in horror — and appreciation.
“In space, no one can hear you scream.” That’s the best movie slogan I know, and in my book, nothing else comes even close. Ditto for the poster (designed by legendary graphic artist Bill Gold), which is sinister yet elegant in its minimalism. It depicts a luminescent egg floating in a dark void, above a grate. Obviously, we’re talking about Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” This year marks the movie’s 32nd anniversary and more than that, the movie is back in the pop culture conversation with new urgency as Ridley Scott toils in Iceland on “Prometheus,” the 2012 release that began life as a straight prequel but has now reportedly morphed into something else.
I was 13 years old in 1979 when I first saw the trailer for “Alien” on a television show about film. The pounding temp track, the ominous sound effects and the psychosexual imagery relating to that signature image — the egg-like spore — spooked me to the core, to say the least. If I thought the trailer was tough, the movie took it to a whole other wrenching level. From those classic opening titles onward, I and the rest of the audience were in for one hell of a ride — if we even made it to the end of the movie. Thinking back, there was only one other thriller in the 1970s which could compete, and that was William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” (1972). Friedkin’s seminal thriller about demonic possession took a similarly relentless attitude to psychological suspense and visceral, venereal horror. Suffice to say, neither movie pulled any punches.
“Alien” certainly wasn’t in the same tonal galaxies as “Star Wars” (1977), “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) or “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). This was something altogether more terrifying and primordial. “Alien” was a haunted house experience camouflaged as a sci-fi movie and no equal has been seen since. Despite its obvious B-movie roots, there was an astounding level of film craft on display, from Ridley Scott’s own mobile camera work to the late, great Jerry Goldsmith’s eerily atonal score and the formidable, shape-shifting critter conceived by Swiss designer H.R. Giger.
The original story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett had been rewritten by producers David Giler and Walter Hill to amplify the flow of the narrative, but alas, the shooting draft diminished details about the alien’s culture. All of us wanted to know more about the enigmatic Space Jockey, found in the alien derelict. However, Giler and Hill changed the script’s main hero to a heroine, Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley — played very convincingly by a silver-screen novice named Sigourney Weaver. A female hero in a major Hollywood movie was a biggie in those days, and it only underlined further the importance of “Alien” as a masterpiece.
Those first scenes, where a dormant spaceship, USS Nostromo, prepares to awaken its unsuspecting crew of seven astronauts from hyper-sleep, were both enigmatic and riveting. I truly believed that I was aboard Nostromo. Not that I necessarily wanted to be. Nostromo, with its shadowy, stylized corridors and cramped living quarters, was a very scary place to inhabit. It was obvious that Scott and concept designer Ron Cobb had watched Kubrick’s “2001” very closely. However, their agenda in designing Nostromo’s look and feel was revolutionary in late 1970s cinema — they made that old tow ship gritty, rusty and leaking! Nostromo was downright funky, and nothing proves this funkiness more vividly than an absolutely nerve-wracking scene in the movie, where Engineering Technician Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) goes to an immense storage room, trying to find the ship’s feline pet, Jones. The creeping claustrophobia in “Alien” was evidenced by the scene in which a panicky, sweaty Capt. Dallas (Tom Skerritt) is crawling through Nostromo’s ventilation shafts in search of the alien, equipped with a flamethrower. This scene is another masterful example of how Scott cranks up cinematic tension to an almost intolerable level. Ultimately Dallas can no longer contain the fear and panic he’s feeling. A captain must always show courage to his crew in the face of mortal danger, but defiance alone isn’t enough to escape the claws of the alien.
I mentioned earlier that all audience members didn’t make it to the end of the movie. In sneak previews, some audience members bolted for the lobby — or the bathroom. Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt) — who was attacked by an alien face-hugger on the planetoid LV-426 — quickly became an unwilling host for the parasitic organism, whose voracious spawn ate through his chest in the climax of a seemingly mundane meal scene.
In summer 1990, when the Internet didn’t yet exist, I sent Giger’s management a bunch of letters in the hope of meeting and interviewing the reclusive genius. I very nearly gave up. One day I received a letter in the mail. It invited me to come to Zurich, Switzerland, where Giger lives. I didn’t hesitate for a moment.
The visit itself was at times an overwhelming experience. I didn’t know what to expect. I guess I somehow expected Giger to be a slightly scary and introverted person. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Giger, who always prefers to be dressed in black, is the most cordial and generous man I’ve ever met — a perfect host. Giger’s laugh is boyish and mischievous and he likes to laugh a lot. We talked for hours in that incomparable manse of his, situated near Zurich’s international airport. Even today, Giger’s house is filled with huge airbrushed paintings, real human skulls, skeletons and impressive sculptures.
Although I’m allergic to cats, I couldn’t resist Giger’s beloved pet felines, as they purred in my lap while we talked in English and German. There have been many more interviews since then. We keep in touch, and also meet every now and then. H.R. Giger has no illusions about the true nature of the alien — “it exists to kill, and kills to exist” — and he’s justifiably proud of his Oscar-winning creation. Giger feels that his biomechanical alien is a very beautiful and elegant killing machine. Here’s how the treacherous Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) described the alien in the movie: “Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. A survivor … unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.” It’s also important to note that H.R. Giger’s space monster has been copied endlessly — and shamelessly — in countless movies. His museum in Gruyères, Switzerland, is a must visit.
Giger is part of the “Prometheus” team, which for us hardcore “Alien” fans is dizzying news. Maybe we’ll finally get more answers about the mysterious space race, too, represented by the Space Jockey and the Derelict. And, just maybe, some day very soon I will be watching a trailer and a film that will take me back to that dark stretch of cold space where screams are silent but somehow echo for decades.
— Juhani Nurmi
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