Book Review: “Alien Vault” Cracks the Egg on 40 Years of Xenomorphs

Book Review: “Alien Vault” Cracks the Egg on 40 Years of Xenomorphs

Fans of science fiction movies already revere the name of Alan Ladd Jr., the 20th Century Fox president who took a chance on George Lucas and made sure Star Wars got the funding it needed. Ian Nathan’s new book Alien Vault explains that Ladd had another pivotal role in SF film history: he asked the producers of Alien to write Ripley, the hero, as a woman rather than a man. “I have a feeling that this is going to make this unique,” he said.

He was right, of course, but it wasn’t just Sigourney Weaver’s instantly iconic performance that made Alien one of the century’s most distinctive movies, bar none. While Nathan may be going too far in suggesting that “Alien’s influence on filmmaking is arguably greater than that of Star Wars” — Lucas’s high-tech update on classic serials reshaped its genre so pervasively that its impact can now be hard to make out — the 1979 film’s stature seems certain only to grow as it passes its 40th anniversary and heads for the half-century mark.

While Alien Vault isn’t quite as lavish as Taschen’s supersize Archives series, publisher Epic Ink has put together a nice package with an alien-egg slipcover containing a square 191-page book with pockets inside both front and back covers. The pockets contain pull-out elements including some of Ridley Scott’s hand-drawn storyboards, replicas of H.R. Giger’s concept art, and even a schematic of the Nostromo. At $45, you definitely get more bang for your buck than with the Taschen books, some of which come with $200 price tags.

Nathan’s history helps make sense of the tangled web of Alien’s gestation: it started as a gleam in the eye of early John Carpenter collaborator Dan O’Bannon, who enlisted screenwriter Ron Shusett and, later, the visionary Giger. That Swiss surrealist would design the “alien” components of the film, while artist Ron Cobb would create the look of the Nostromo and its gritty crew. The production company Brandywine, which still runs the franchise, signed on in 1977; they tapped Fox, and Fox tapped Scott.

While Scott took a firm hand in crafting a coherent, chilling film — including literally wafting haze by hand to achieve precisely the atmosphere he needed — the fact that Alien was never an auteur endeavor accounts for its incredible richness. It’s a monster movie, yes, but it’s also a visionary science fiction film stocked with unforgettable character actors (“truck drivers in space,” one producer called them), jaw-dropping set pieces, and a compelling but mysterious back story. When Ripley, “last survivor of the Nostromo,” goes into hibernation with her cat, we’re dazzled, exhausted, and intrigued.

With behind-the-scenes photos, production art, and text that draws on interviews with principals including Weaver and Scott, Alien Vault details the collaborative creation of a masterpiece. Images in the book include continuity Polaroids of the Nostromo galley table after the chest-burster makes its bloody debut; an exterior shot of the immersive ship’s set; Tom Skeritt and Veronica Cartwright taking a smoke break in their spacesuits; and a sequence showing how Scott used his children as body doubles to enhance the apparent scale of the deceased “space jockey” pilot on the ship holding the alien eggs. (That prop, built at enormous expense, looks much less imposing in a photo of its appearance in a promotional installation where prospective ticket-buyers could walk right up and touch it.)

The depth of the Alien universe has inspired a range of sequels and ancillary stories including Aliens, Ripley’s classic 1986 return under the direction of James Cameron; and Scott’s own sequels Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017). Nathan walks through those movies as well in a thoughtful epilogue that explores the ways Scott challenged fans with his xenomorph-free prequel. He also describes deleted scenes from the original, including a Ripley-Dallas romance that provides poignant context for the cocoon scene restored to the director’s cut.

If there’s an Alien fan on your holiday shopping list, check ’em off and wrap a copy of Alien Vault to put under the tree. For once, finding a facehugger will be a pleasant surprise.

Jay Gabler