”Alien” DNA – By Philip Smolen

In the fall of 1977, 20th Century Fox Studio found itself in a quandary. It had been ruling the worldwide box office since May with the release of George Lucas’s sensational epic “Star Wars”, but the film’s tremendous success now demanded that the studio produce another science fiction blockbuster. And it would be at least a couple of years before the next “Star Wars” installment would be ready.

The Fox executives dug through their extensive inventory of developmental screenplays, but they found only one that was science fiction. They had purchased the screenplay from a new production company named Brandywine, and the project was now languishing in development hell. It was a small, low budget tale of a group of commercial astronauts that are awakened from hyper-sleep to investigate an acoustical beacon emanating from a primordial planet. There, they find terror and death at the hands of an unknown life form that lays an egg inside one of them, bloodily bursts forth once they’re back on their ship, mutates into a dragon-like monstrosity, and is impossible to kill. The film was simply titled “Alien.”

Fox rolled the dice by letting this new production company produce its first film based on a script by a first-time writer (the late Dan O’Bannon). It would be helmed by a director of TV commercials with only one feature film credit (Ridley Scott) and feature a cast of no name actors. But perhaps the biggest gamble for the company was green lighting the designer for the film’s title creature. He was a bizarre Swiss artist named H.R. Giger, who fused the look of living things and machines together in all his paintings and sculptures. Giger liked to call this look “biomechanical.” He promised that the creature he designed for “Alien” would be like no other. He was right.

“Alien” (1979) was a true leap forward in sci-fi filmmaking. It was forged by a young, strong and innovative group that had a specific vision for the movie. The main creative forces (O’Bannon, Scott, Giger, and producers Walter Hill, David Giler and Gordon Carroll) stamped the film with their own imprint and wound up creating a true film classic. From the film’s look (including the lived-in grungy décor of the Nostromo), to its claustrophobic feel, to the unpredictable deaths of the cast, to the inclusion of graphic horror movie style scenes, to the unprecedented biology of its titular menace– “Alien” changed sci-fi movies forever. Audiences weren’t prepared; in fact, there were reports that many movie patrons fled the theaters during the famous “chest burster” scene. “Alien” was a terrifying (and sometimes grueling) movie experience.

After its successful theatrical run, cheap “Alien” rip-offs began to show up. One of the first was a low-budget Italian film called “Alien Contamination” (1981). This film’s producers were so anxious to associate themselves with the original, that they actually had the audacity to initially distribute the film as “Alien 2” even though the films had nothing in common. However, a lawsuit by 20th Century Fox put an end to that deception and the producers were forced to change the title. And over the last 30 years, the homages and the rip-offs of “Alien” (not including the official sequels) have continued unabated. So first let’s take a look at an earlier film that may have helped influence Dan O’Bannon and the entire “Alien” creative team. Then we’ll looks at some “Alien”-themed incarnations and see if they were new and unusual or if they were just attempts to cash in on the original’s success.

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1. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (American International, 1965) – Director: Mario Bava

Two spaceships, the Argus and the Galeat, are sent to investigate a strange signal emanating from the planet Aura. The Argus is led by Captain Mark Markary (TV veteran Barry Sullivan). As the ships approach Aura, a strange gravitational field takes over and draws both crafts towards it. The crews black out, and when they awaken, they begin to attack each other. Only Markary is immune, since he managed to remain conscious throughout the descent. He quickly restores his crew to their senses and they begin searching for the Galeat. When they find it, all but two of the crew are dead; victims of the same violent behavior that enveloped the Argus. But after burying their fellow explorers, more strange events happen. Mark and several of his crew discover the remains of a derelict spaceship complete with several giant alien skeletons. Then, astronauts from the Argus begin seeing the dead crewmembers walking around. It turns out that Aura is not a barren planet, but is inhabited by disembodied parasitic creatures that need a host body in order to survive. The aliens begin to infiltrate the dead humans and plan to take off in the Argus. Markary and his crew fight back, but soon they are outnumbered and must resort to a drastic plan to ensure human (and their own) survival.

There are some general plot similarities between “Planet of the Vampires” and “Alien”: the group of astronauts that investigate a strange signal, the primordial geography of Aura, the huge skeletons that reside in the derelict spaceship, and the idea of an alien using a human being as a host. But beyond these plot similarities, there are also many design elements that both films share. The landing legs of the Aura are similar to those on the Nostromo’s shuttle. The hatch openings on the Aura look like the organic Giger-designed orifices of the derelict ship in “Alien.” But perhaps the greatest similarity for me is that “Planet of the Vampires” works on the same emotional level of apprehension and fear as “Alien.” In the supplemental material of the superb “Alien Quadrilogy” DVD set, screenwriter Dan O’Bannon makes the astonishing admission that he took the scene of the giant skeleton directly from “Planet of the Vampires”; and that he did indeed run the Bava film for Ridley Scott (O’Bannon says that Scott didn’t like it). He also states that he wanted to make a scary version of his earlier “Dark Star” (1975). Nevertheless, I wonder if the Bava film worked on a subconscious level with the “Alien” creative team. As with the best Mario Bava films, the great Italian director uses lighting to effectively establish an intense feeling of foreboding, a feat Scott also succeeded in accomplishing for “Alien.” “Planet of the Vampires” is a strange, eerie film that was years ahead of its time. It is not a perfect film; the leather costumes and skullcaps of the Argos crew make it seem as if they are on their way to an S&M bondage party, and some of the movie’s special effects are pretty chintzy. But despite this, “Planet of the Vampires” is still a film that deserves to be rediscovered. Its similarities to “Alien” (at least in terms of design and spirit) are astonishing.

Note: For more on the similarities of “Alien” and “Planet of the Vampires”, please read Scott Ashlin’s (aka “El Santo”) outstanding review at: http://www.1000misspenthours.com/reviews/reviewsn-z/planetofthevampires.htm

Quotable Movie Line:

“A captain should not be afraid, and I confess now to whoever may hear this that today, now, I am experiencing fear.”

2. Galaxy of Terror (New World, 1981) – Director: B.D. Clark

When a spaceship and its crew are lost on the hostile planet of Morganthus, the shadowy Planet Master of Xerses sends a rescue ship with a hand-selected crew of 10 to investigate. Once the ship approaches Morganthus, a powerful magnetic field pulls it towards the surface of the planet. It takes all the skills of Captain Trantor (Grace Zabriskie) to land safely. When the crew discovers the lost spaceship, it is occupied only by dead bodies. But psychically sensitive Alluma (Erin Moran) feels something else – a powerful foreboding presence. The presence is tracked to a huge ancient pyramid. However, once the crew enters the structure, monsters of every shape and size begin killing the astronauts one by one. Unable to return home, the survivors, including Cabren (Edward Albert), are forced to return to the strange monolith and face their destiny. After more deaths (including Alluma), only crewman Ranger (Robert Englund) and cook Kore (Ray Walston) grasp the secret of the pyramid. Now Cabren must also gain this knowledge or face the same horrible death as the rest of his comrades.

Throughout his illustrious film career, low budget wunderkind Roger Corman instinctively knew what audiences wanted. When “Alien” proved a box-office success in 1979, Corman understood that graphic sci-fi/horror was now the order of the day. And he delivered in spades with “Galaxy of Terror.” What could possibly top John Hurt’s death scene in “Alien?” How about Taaffe O’Connell’s graphic rape/death at the tentacles of the giant worm-maggot? And if that’s not enough to make you run from the theater, Corman includes a scene where Erin Moran’s head explodes. Gory scenes like these make “Galaxy of Terror” a lively and nasty “Alien” rip-off. The use of the isolated location as well as the film’s creepy set design (courtesy of a young James Cameron), echo “Alien”, and producer Corman drives home this connection. The other traditional idea that this movie rips off is the great Agatha Christie’s classic “Ten Little Indians” as the astronauts are picked off one-by-one. “Galaxy of Terror” winds up being a hodgepodge of classic film ideas shaken up and blended together in a sci-fi package. And the great exploitation cast (including Sig Haig, Ray Walston, and Robert Englund) give the film some added power. “Galaxy of Terror” is unique enough to have remained popular with movie audiences for over 30 years. As far as rip-offs go, it is one of the best.

Quotable Movie Line:

“This pyramid is an ancient toy – a brilliant, initiatory toy for the children of a vanished race to see their deepest fears and learn to control them.”

3. OUTLAND (20th Century Fox, 1981) – Director: Peter Hyams

In the near future man has colonized the planets and now operates a mining colony on Io (Jupiter’s third moon). But there are an unusually high number of suicides on Io. Miners walk out onto the planet’s surface without their environment suits, while others go mad and threaten to kill anyone who comes near them. New Marshall William O’Neil (Sean Connery) starts an investigation into this phenomena and is immediately plunged into a battle with Mining Chief Mark Sheppard (the late Peter Boyle). It turns out that Sheppard has been supplying his workers with poly-dichloric-euphenol (I hope I don’t get that one on the next spelling bee!), a powerful amphetamine that makes people work harder than ever, but slowly fries their brains. O’Neil finds himself alone in his fight with Sheppard, with no one to count on but a crotchety wreck of a doctor (the great Frances Sternhagen). What’s worse is that Sheppard has hired hit men to eliminate O’Neil, and they’ll arrive on the next shuttle. With few allies and little time, O’Neil has to think fast in order to stay one step ahead of the hit men and bring Sheppard’s evil operation crumbling down.

Despite its lack of a monster, “Outland” is an “Alien” clone. Produced by the same studio, the film shares a few common themes with the O’Bannon-Scott classic including evil corporations and outer space as the laborer’s new everyday working environment. The production design by Philip Harrison was influenced by “Alien”, and it takes the working man’s grunginess from that film and raises it to the next level. And Jerry Goldsmith’s score frequently touches on some of his similar melodic motifs from “Alien.” What “Outland” does have (that “Alien” didn’t) is a great charismatic performance by Sean Connery. He imbues O’Neil with all the proper bluster, but also brooding self doubt as well. Peter Boyle is wasted as the evil Sheppard, but Frances Sternhagen steals the movie as the crusty Dr. Lazarus, adding just the right amount of vinegar to her character. With great model work and visual effects, “Outland” was an early version of the sci-fi western. While it casts a reasonably solid shadow, it’s also caught in the much larger shadow of an earlier genre great.

Quotable Movie Line:

“I would like a report of all of these incidences that have happened during the past six months. And I’d like it really soon, or I might just kick your nasty ass all over this room. That’s a Marshall joke.”

4. LEVIATHAN (MGM/UA, 1989) – Director: George P. Cosmatos

Tri-Oceanic Mining Corporation has hit it big. They run an underwater mining operation for mineral ore in the Atlantic Ocean that has been going like gangbusters. Currently, the operation is being run by geologist Steven Beck (Peter Weller) and his crew is almost at the end of their 90 day tour. While working at the crushing depths of the ocean, one of the miners, the eternally horny “Six-Pack” (Daniel Stern), briefly loses his bearings and stumbles upon a sunken Russian naval vessel called “Leviathan.” Six-Pack brings a box of documents from the ship back to the mining shack where the team examines the contents. They include death certificates for many of the crew along with some contraband vodka. Six-Pack steals some of the vodka and later that night celebrates with Bowman (Lisa Eilbacher). But the next day both Six-Pack and Bowman become seriously ill and die quite suddenly. Beck and the crew’s doctor (Richard Crenna) are stumped. They investigate the Russian material further and discover that the ship was conducting experiments in human genetics. The Soviets were trying to alter a human’s ability to live on land, but the experiment created horrifying monsters instead, forcing the Russian Navy to sink the ship. Now realizing that the bodies of Six-Pack and Bowman are rapidly mutating, the remaining crew must fight for survival. However, the steadily evolving creature is extremely cunning and waits for the perfect time to strike.

With the exception of the underwater mining concept, “Leviathan” is almost a note-for-note remake of “Alien.” It has all the required elements, including the evil corporation, isolated location, and the rapidly mutating creature. Plus, the film uses some of the talents of the “Alien” creative team, including production design by Ron Cobb and music by (who else?) Jerry Goldsmith. The main problem with “Leviathan” is its predictability. After about 20 minutes, you pretty much know what’s going to happen. Another problem is the creature itself. It’s not quick and agile like “Alien.” Instead, it’s slow and lumbering and not very scary, which is a great shame because it looks pretty cool. There’s a great cast here who show some good chemistry, but even their talents are wasted. “Leviathan” is one of those movies that look great when you see the trailer, but ultimately is a disappointing copycat.

Quotable Movie Line:

“And one more thing. I think if I hear you call me ‘Becky’ one more time Six-Pack, I’m gonna pop your tops- all six of them.”

5. SUPERNOVA (MGM/UA, 2000) – Director: Thomas Lee (Walter Hill), Jack Sholder (uncredited), Francis Ford Coppola (uncredited)

The medical ship Nightingale is patrolling deep space when it receives an emergency distress message from a mining colony. The ship goes into dimensional jump, but loses its captain (Robert Forster) when it disengages back to normal speed. Command of the ship then goes to Jack Vanzant (James Spader), a recovering drug addict. The ship picks up one survivor from the colony, the sinister Karl Larson (Peter Facinelli). Inspecting Larson’s shuttle, crewman Yersey (Lou Diamond Phillips) discovers a pulsating oval-shaped object that according to Dr. Kaela Evers (the always amazing Angela Bassett) contains “9th dimension matter.” While Vanzant is exploring the mining colony for needed extra fuel, Larson begins decimating Nightingale’s crew. He is quite attached to the dimensional matter object; it has already genetically altered him, making him younger, stronger, and impervious to injury. Remotely retrieving Vanzant’s shuttle (without Vanzant of course), Larson plans on dimensionally jumping back to Earth with the new matter. He thinks Earth is just the place to release this material.

In the “Alien Quadrilogy” DVD set, screenwriter Dan O’Bannon talks about the time Brandywine producer/director Walter Hill told the “Alien” team that what he (Hill) brings to the project is that he doesn’t know anything about science fiction and that he doesn’t like it (Hill was already a successful director of action films). It’s prophetic then that when Hill finally directs a sci-fi movie, he brings in two additional uncredited directors (Jack Sholder and Francis Ford Coppola [!]) to assist him, but ultimately takes his name off of the credits. “Supernova” starts out promising enough, but quickly gets bogged down with the Nightingale crew’s personal lives. There’s very little time to establish Larson’s true intent. As soon as Spader jets off to the mining colony, Larson begins killing the crew, so they won’t fool around with his dimensional object (which Hill treats like a McGuffin). There’s a good cast here (I especially love James Spader channeling his innermost Snake Plissken) and the Nightingale itself is a very cool piece of sci-fi hardware. To me, though, it seems like Hill really wanted to make the anti-“Alien” movie; one that would have the same level of excitement and thrills but without resorting to a slimy shape-changing creature. However, all of the effort that went into “Supernova” merely makes the original shine brighter than ever.

Quotable Movie Line:

“Our universe is expanding, but the matter in it is finite. This thing is designed to fix that problem. It creates new matter to keep the universe young, until you get it home. Then it burns your planet, super nova’s your sun, and evaporates your solar system. It’s a way to replenish the universe and also eliminate any competition; all the basic principles of Darwinian evolution. Any species that’s advanced enough to travel into deep space picks it up and takes it home. Then there’s one less advanced species in the universe.”

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Of course, we’ve barely touched the surface of movies that have “Alien” DNA (see below for additional entries). And I’m sure that the future holds many more movies with the same genetic imprint. After all, imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery.

Additional “Alien” DNA Films

1. Aliens (1986)
2. Alien3 (1992)
3. Alien Contamination (1981)
4. Alien Predator (1987)
5. Alien Resurrection (1997)
6. Alien vs. Predator (2004)
7. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
8. Biohazard (1984)
9. Creature (1985)
10. The Creature Wasn’t Nice (1985)
11. Dark Star (1974)
12. Forbidden World (1982)
13. Inseminoid aka Horror Planet (1980)
14. The Intruder Within (TV Movie, 1981)
15. Nightflyers (1987)
16. Pitch Black (2000)
17. Scared to Death (1980)

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Selected References

Heard, Christopher. Dreaming Aloud: The Life and Films of James Cameron. Toronto, Ontario: Doubleday Canada Limited. 1997.

IMDB.com. – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0134983. Accessed September 29, 2011.

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films of the 1970s (Volume 2). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2002.

Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1992.

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Alien Quadrilogy [DVD]; Disc 2. 2003

Weldon, Michael. The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. New York, New York. Ballantine Books. 1983.