Dystopic Future: The Set Design of Alien

By Kevin McCorry




A Twentieth Century Fox Release on May 25, 1979.
Directed by Ridley Scott.
Produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill.
Screenplay by Dan O'Bannon.
Starring Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, and Yaphet Kotto.
Music by Jerry Goldsmith.

Alien, a dark thriller overlapping the science fiction and horror genres, was one of the top science fiction films of 1979, a year when audiences were filling theatres to view such Star Wars-inspired action-fantasy films as Moonraker, The Black Hole, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and Superman. Suspenseful and shocking rather than action-driven, Alien arrived with much advance publicity, speculation on the look of the title creature, and rumour about its macabre way of procreating.

This Ridley Scott-directed opus boasts high production values channelled not into space battle scenes and flashy explosions, but into set designs and detailed model spaceships, intended for slow camera pans to show the intricacy of futuristic architecture and the horrible irony by which a beastly creature easily makes this technological layout its own and stalks a seven-person crew. It kills them one-by-one, before the last remaining crew member, Sigourney Weaver's courageous Ripley, manages to dispatch the alien into space, after having destroyed her crew's mothership, the Nostromo, and its cargo in her earlier attempt to neutralise the creature.

The story of Alien is not original. The notion of a malevolent, devouring, otherworldly creature is common to the science fiction genre, and comparisons to the events in Alien can be found in the Japanese camp classic, The Green Slime, and such television series as Space: 1999 and Doctor Who. A Space: 1999 episode involving a tentacled alien monster invading a deep-space probeship and ingesting one-by-one the hapless crew, leaving only one survivor to return to Earth and a sceptical public, bears striking similarity to the story plot of Alien and the opening of its sequel, Aliens. Space: 1999 and Alien were both filmed in Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, England, and models and visual effects for Alien were provided by such people as Brian Johnson, Nick Allder, and Martin Bower, three key contributors to the aesthetic of Space: 1999.

The detachable, modular design of the Eagle spaceships in Space: 1999 was a precursor to the appealing realism of the modular Nostromo, whose detachable lander and escape shuttle give the impression of a spaceship tractable to human activity and diverse conditions. Unlike the sleek, fixed shell of the bulky Starship Enterprise in Star Trek, models in both Space: 1999 and Alien are detailed, with many projections and indentations, and separable, like an organism that can detach and reassemble its component parts, or "organs", when circumstances dictate. This motif of the "organic" spaceship is vital to the narrative of Alien, allowing the Nostromo to shed its bulky cargo and land on a hostile planet, and permitting escape in a small shuttle when a desperate Ripley decides to detonate the Nostromo in hope of destroying the creature in the explosion.

Alien's unique appeal lies in the stylish design of these models and the equal intricacy in the construction of interior sets. Technology, with abundant computer panels, consoles, and power system circuitry, is blended with human comfort, for which the ship is fitted with plastic, cushioned seats and bulkheads and adorned with hanging collages of jingly crystal and girly pictures from magazines, yielding a "trash-culture-of-the future" motif that Scott would later use for his 1982 opus, Blade Runner.

In opposition to the future proposed by Stanley Kubrick's 2001- A Space Odyssey or by Space: 1999's immaculate, bright, and purely scientific Moonbase Alpha, Alien proposes a dystopia, rather like that of Blade Runner, where migration into space is not motivated by exploration for furtherance of knowledge, but by the eternal profit margin. The Nostromo crew are mercenaries, paid cogs in a machine of economic power. Individuality is tolerated to some extent, as seen in the casual, personalised garments, for example, crewman Brett's Hawaiian shirt. To perhaps foreshadow the revelation of his android nature and coincide with his strict adherence to corporate directives, Science Officer Ash's costume is the most official-looking and uniform-like. Still, Company badges are on garments worn by all of the crew, signifying a technological capitalism whose quest for gain has been extended into interstellar space and left its "mark" on all of them, a capitalism that despite its futuristic aspects, continues to encourage decadent consumption, hence the trash-culture evident on the ship.

Decadence is most evident in the crew's smoking and sloven eating habits. A haze of cigarette smoke that hovers over the crew as they confer in their all-in-one lounge, dining, and briefing room, is a seeming symbol for the industrial pollution of Earth, also alluded to by the towering factory imagery of the Nostromo's cargo. Vice, smut, and greed have not been transcended in this capitalist future. The human race is still spiritually immature, and the Nostromo is an apropos reflection of man's immaturity, representing a technology that has not spiritually liberated the race from its primitive tendencies.

Unlike the aglow hull of Star Trek's U.S.S. Enterprise, the Nostromo's exterior body is dimly lit. Its dank and dark interior has a post-modern industrial factory look, most notably in the lower decks. In contrast to the sleek, clean engineering room of the Enterprise, the Nostromo's is laden with grime, steamy, and wet. Effluent pours down from unseen pipes, effluent which Harry Dean Stanton's Brett character uses to cool his brow as he searches for Jones the Cat and is targeted by the alien as next to die. And the computer room has an un-glossy, seemingly impure, dark white look. Even the supposedly immaculate whites in the cryogenic chamber and infirmary and on the diaper-like garments worn by the crew while in cryogenic sleep, all have a gloomy aspect which seems to accord with the residue-laden, dark aesthetic of the other areas of the ship, suggesting a future technology tied to man's frailties, a dirtying of technology, a turning of it into little more than a mechanical "bimbo" to "reproduce" the monetary "progeny" of his unbounded materialism.

Technology has been the spawn of man's limitless quest for material profit, while man is a child of his technology, as suggested in the diaper-like garments worn by the crew while under the care of their maternal spaceship, whose computer is named Mother. Technology has become part of a reproductive process, and people are assets begotten from it. It is the matriarch of this future world.

The mise-en-scene of the Nostromo, of the planet on which it lands, and of the alien ship where the Nostromo crew finds the eggs that spawn the creature, are best credited to production designer H. R. Giger, whose bio-mechanical motif likening the alien and technology (in the Nostromo) accounts for much of the aesthetic appeal of this film. In essence, the bio-mechanical motif broaches two corresponding ideas: organic machinery and mechanical organisms. The former idea is exemplified by the fact that Ash, one of the crew, looks human and organic, but is actually a machine, quite like the mechanical Nostromo having the look of a living thing. The other notion of a mechanical organism is manifest in the unrelentingly efficient, machine-like reproductive system of the alien creature.

The Nostromo corridors, similar to those of the alien craft where the crew finds the incubation area for the alien eggs, have scaly projections and indentations similar to the physiology of the alien organism, and the tunnel motif of the corridors likens them to the tubes inside a mother's belly. Pipes are situated on the corridors like blood vessels along the walls of a Fallopian tube, establishing a visual correspondence, a birthing motif, between the set design of the Nostromo and that of the alien craft. And so too is the ghastly, perverted reproduction of the alien aesthetically connected through set design to technology, which in this film, is depicted as an extension of mankind's "other", "alien", less-than-noble side of nature.

Ships of sail have frequently been given a female gender by travellers who wish a nurturing, protecting sense of security on the high seas. The Nostromo computer is given the designation of "Mother", "soul" of the ship, powerful maintainer or "giver" of life to its dependent crew. Indeed, the Nostromo sets have the look of the interior of a woman birthing, or in an obscure sense re-birthing, with her diapered adult occupants. Such imagery brings to mind a notion of regression by return to a womb. To not ascend or improve. To instead be as close as possible to the place of conception. To relive either the irresponsible childhood of an individual or that of the human race. Infantile primitivism.

Such a desire, for an adult male, is as perverse as the desire of an adult female to dominate a man, to be like an insect queen, with male progenitors entirely under her will. These are aspects of the "alien" other side of the human spirit, contrary to what is considered normal. And the concept that technology, as represented in this film, is becoming an extension and thus a part of man's darker side quite understandably gives apt rise to a fear of machines, upon which man is more and more dependent, becoming a replacement for the mother in the male id's regressive urge above described- and becoming akin to the monstrous, phallic female, or on another tangent to the same idea, phallic female organisms with mechanical ruthlessness. The alien in the film would appear to symbolise the darker side of the wild libido, from which man's ego has in the future still not liberated him, taken to its most twisted extreme.

The deliberate directorial style of Alien contrasts sharply with that of James Cameron's fast-and-furious sequel, Aliens. In both Alien and Blade Runner, Ridley Scott uses tension punctuated by brief but extreme bursts of violence and demonstrates a British preference for long, specular moments. Alien opens with an extended camera pan around the Nostromo's empty decks and tunnel-like corridors, so that the viewer is something of a voyeur prior to the coming-on-the-scene of the seven human characters. As they emerge from their cryogenic torpor, the first to rise is Kane, who ironically is also the first to die in the perverse birthing of the alien. Slow dissolves of Kane rising and adjusting himself suggest a time lapse of indeterminate length, an ersatz growth process inside the technological "womb", of which Kane's chest will be a macabre, biological extension for incubating the alien organism.

 

Scott's most provocative image, noted by many appreciators of the film's visual style, involves a pulling back of the film frame to show Kane, Captain Dallas, and Lambert venturing inside the alien ship through a vagina-shaped entry port between its "legs" as though they were three sperm, and finding themselves in a labyrinthine series of darkened tunnels leading to a womb-like egg hatchery where the fatally curious Kane finds the otherworldly extension of humanity's darker side taken to its most extreme. It turns the reproductive process onto this man, making him the carrier of an embryo, forcefully "ejaculated" into him by the alien "face hugger", an alien organism that may be a representation of the phallic female, the dark, negative side of feminist power, the female "animus", while Ripley's heroism will represent a rather more positive aspect of the dominant female.

The alien seems to be the biological extension of human technology, which has been given a seemingly feminine power over humans as suggested in the imagery of the Nostromo and in the "Mother" designation for the ship's computer. The alien is deemed the "perfect organism", like a fool-proof machine grimly carrying out its assigned task, violently using humans as pawns in an inhuman and ghastly life cycle. The bio-mechanically designed alien is an entity devoid of pity or of "delusions of morality", quite like the robot Ash or like the computer, Mother, who is impassive to Ripley's pleas when Ripley tries to stop a preassigned self-destruct of the ship. The technology, the ship, and the alien organism are projections of an otherness within the human psyche, the dark beast of instinct that future man, in his less-than-virtuous, mercenary, seedy, and coarsely sexual lifestyle, has not transcended. Its ruthless life cycle is regarded by a corporation on Earth to have a commodity value rather like that of the rest of their technology, including the ships.

This notion is greatly enhanced by depiction of the alien coming out from inside a man and blending in with the technological surroundings, camouflaging itself in the cavernous tunnels of the ship. It seems very resembling of the technology, and aptly so. The set design of Alien suggests symbolic association between the alien and the Nostromo, projections of human vice, regressive mother fixations, and perverse feminine power.

In summary, the mise-en-scene of Alien proposes a dystopic future in which the flaws in human nature are brought with man as he moves into space for mercenary, gratifying purposes and is dependent upon technology such that the ship's computer- and by extension the ship itself- is designated as "Mother". Alien establishes a bio-mechanical motif to connect the ruthless alien organism to technology and to the spacecraft Nostromo, which, in its dark, grimy look, reflects the continued decadence of man. Spawned from the darker part of the imagination, it is the antithesis to what is considered normal for both sexes, evoking fear of the abnormal, of the dangers, both literal and psychological, of technology becoming tied to man's darker side- out-of-control, decadent capitalism and out-of-control id-release. It is the monster within the collective immature human psyche, which is manifested as a devouring beast. By playing to the almost primordial fascination with and fear of "the other" within the human psyche, Alien has achieved popularity and re-transformed science fiction's monster-from-another-world sub-genre.

Sources

Jung, Carl G., Henderson, Joseph L., et al.. Man and His Symbols. Doubleday and Company, Garden City, New York, 1964.

"The Making of Alien". Starlog # 23. Starlog Press, June, 1979.


All images (c) Twentieth Century Fox
Textual content (c) Kevin McCorry, with all rights reserved
This article, the observations, the interpretations, and the ideas therein are the intellectual property of the author unless otherwise noted and may not be reproduced and then altered in any way without the express written consent of the author, and any scholarly quoting, paraphrasing, or other repetition of them MUST be accompanied by full stated credit to the author, with failure to do so possibly exposing an individual or group to litigation and possible civil or criminal penalty


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