Lurking in the dark, murky corners of the ship, in the pipelines and beneath the floors, Ridley Scott’s alien ‘Xenomorph’ has the potential to be anywhere, suffocating the crew on-board the spaceship ‘Nostromo’.
Prowling the industrious deck of the ship, it’s never quite clear what we’re looking for, or even looking at. Keeping most of the Xenomorph’s body in mysterious shadow, Scott creates a heightened sense of terror, asking the audience to sculpt their own image of the titular alien. As the director later stated: “The most important thing in a film of this type is not what you see, but the effect of what you think you saw”.
Initially believed by 20th Century Fox to be “too ghastly” for audiences, Giger’s designs for the alien spaceship and the monster itself are the sole reason for the film’s long-lasting legacy. Where previously alien beings had been overly exaggerated – or simply humanoid – Giger’s fleshy phallic imagery well contextualised the Xenomorph in recognisable human biology. From the alien’s first phallic form when it bursts out of John Hurt’s android chest, to the walls of the extraterrestrial spacecraft which were sculpted using dried bones and plaster, Giger’s vision of otherworldly life is a nightmarish malfunction of our own.
As described by actress Veronica Cartwright in a 2003 documentary, Giger’s sets were “so erotic… it’s big vaginas and penises…the whole thing is like you’re going inside of some sort of womb or whatever… it’s sort of visceral”. The artist’s desire was to make the spaceship seem organic, living and biochemical, acting in direct contrast to the technological Nostromo, proving a particular challenge when it came to the ‘space jockey’ scene aboard the alien ship.
The size of the empty shell of the ship’s cockpit is grand, though producers were apprehensive about spending the money for what would only be used for one scene. Ridley Scott and the production team managed to reach an ultimatum that saw them building just one wall of the set, with the alien jockey in the middle of the room on a rotatable disc so that the scenery could facilitate multiple different angles. Fascinatingly Giger airbrushed the entire set, including the ‘space jockey’ by hand.
Due to budgetary constraints, the same set was used to film the iconic egg chamber scene, with the entire rotating disc supporting the ‘space jockey’ removed and redressed to suit the aesthetic of the egg chamber. As John Hurt’s Kane enters this vast, smoky incubation room housing hundreds of alien eggs, a shroud of blue light covers sits just above their surface. This was created using lasers provided by Roger Daltrey and The Who, who were rehearsing their laser show on a soundstage next door to Ridley Scott’s set.
Looking back at the scene, the influence of the rock band seems a little more obvious with the aesthetic echoing the bizarre mood of a music video or vast live performance. Such simply forms part of the lasting mythos of Ridley Scott’s iconic horror film.