The fleshy insect wraps its long legs around the sides of the astronaut’s head, pulling its thorax tighter to the open mouth below. The creature’s tail coils around the human’s neck, staking its real estate. The doctor attempts to pull one appendage from his co-worker’s face and slices through its knuckle. Green blood spurts forth and sizzles upon the floor penetrating the deck below, then the deck below that one, and so forth. The tail grows more taught. The astronaut can only lie back and think of England.
The biology of Alien is wild, uncomfortable, and emotionally logical if not scientifically sound. Acid for blood? Originally screenwriter Dan O’Bannon couldn’t make sense of it intellectually, but he absolutely understood the queasy sensation the concept percolated beneath his skin. The idea was not his. One-time Disney inbetweener animator Ron Cobb, who joined the project to supply 10 conceptual paintings in an effort to gain investors in 1976, suggested the gory detail. Not only would their monster be a mess of claws and teeth, but the beast would be nearly invulnerable since a spray of bullets or the Ginsu approach would only cause more problems for the protagonists.
Forty years after it’s release, Ridley Scott‘s sci-fi slasher spin on the “old dark house” narrative is a well-established masterpiece. We’ve thought about the film a lot, and most of us probably believe we already know all there is to discern about the Xenomorph. The film is a snowball launched down a mountain by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, absorbing the rewrites of Walter Hill and David Giler, and solidifying under the art direction of European geniuses H.R. Giger and Moebius. Those are the molecules are the most celebrated, but you can’t dismiss the significance of a cast-off thought from Cobb.
J.W. Rinzler built his career around highlighting the smaller consequential contributions of legendary productions. The author constructs massive doorstop tomes around classic film franchises like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Planet of the Apes. He, of course, leans into the myths providing context surrounding the hallmark moments of your favorite films, but it’s his ability to sift through the traditional lore and elevate the noteworthy elements left behind in the typical DVD extras (ah, remember those?) that make his books stand above the rest. Cobb, the man who went from Sleeping Beauty to Famous Monsters of Filmland to Xenomorph acid blood, deserves your recognition, and Rinzler’s The Making of Alien is chockablock with similar tales of essential micro achievements.
You do not know Alien, and what a gift it is to have Rinzler unveiling new avenues for us to commemorate. The book is broken down by the chronology of creation; beginning in May of 1968 when Ridley Scott went strolling for a sandwich only to stumble into a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey and ending in April of 1980 when Alien took home a little gold man during the 52nd Academy Awards. During each chunk of the book, Rinzler dives in and out of perspectives. We hear the saga from the above-the-line talent, experiencing the anxieties of the cast wound tight by Scott so that the director could achieve the routine tension of a cooped up blue-collar crew. Again, though, the real morsels reside within the below-the-line folks trudging to attain the explosive meat of the chestburster sequence or the even more mundane details of the corporate sigils that pockmark the Nostromo. The nameless inputs are where the reader’s eyes will widen.
Stretching beyond three hundred coffee table-sized pages, The Making of Alien is a black hole of minutia. The cast-and-crew stories are seemingly endless, and you’ll find yourself needing a break from the myriad points of view. Take a deep breath; blitz through the pages and marvel at the equally infinite number of concept drawings, storyboards, production stills, and poster art. Some you will recognize, but others will hit with a shock.
In one image that lands nearly in the middle of the book, we see Giger tinkering on the Xenomorph’s hand as it’s outstretched to the camera. For the first time in my life, I notice how the pinky and thumb of the Star Beast appear to be reflections of each other. The tiny caption reads, “Giger said that O’Bannon had the ‘great idea’ of adding an opposing thumb.” Whoa. Similar to the passing thought from Cobb regarding the possibilities of acidic blood, another minor proposition goes a long way in fabricating a fantastic reality. Alien was not born whole cloth from the madness of Giger, Scott, or O’Bannon but through a collection of “what-ifs” filtered through his special blend of perversion.
Most of us skip out when the end credits roll because they’re too damn long and boring. Such a brushoff is a kind of acknowledgment of the absurdly large gathering of minds required to push one movie into reality, but we owe more to the Ron Cobbs of this world. When the VOD releases start to come around, and the occasional behind-the-scenes feature creeps before our eyes, we give love to the auteurs and the stars. The films that last four decades even find ways to celebrate the composers, the cinematographers, the editors, the production designers, and the costume designers. The Making of Alien certainly gives those artists their spotlight but finds its true ceremonial blowout with the talent often left hanging by the sidelines. To ignore any one of them would be to obliterate the crucial biology of our favorite monster. Thank the makers that we have Rinzler to keep us fanatics honest and to excavate new idols to worship.
The Making of Alien is now available wherever fine books are sold.