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Scott Middlebrook and I explored the universe of Alien through our respective websites back in the 90s with only email (gasp!) to communicate across the klicks. His website, The Alien Universe Timeline has survived the decades and he is widely sought after for his encyclopedic knowledge of the franchise. Scott lives in Australia.
I was born a few weeks before men walked on the moon for the last time, and the space vehicles of Apollo wouldn’t grab my attention until I was a lot older. The real life space ships of my childhood were Skylab and the Space Shuttle. The make believe ones were the Thunderbirds, the Eagles of Moonbase Alpha, and the USS Enterprise. On re-runs.
Then Star Wars happened.
It’s oft been said, but before Star Wars, space travel was very sterile. Everything was neat and tidy, everyone had crisp uniforms, everything looked suitably ‘spacey’. In Star Wars the Millennium Falcon looked old and clunky and like it might fall apart (and often did), but it looked way more realistic than anything that had come before it: grubby and lived in.
Ridley Scott took the next logical step with Alien, but my first exposure to the Nostromo was via Richard Anobile’s photonovel (why don’t they still make those? I’ve got Close Encounters and Wrath of Khan lying around somewhere at home, too). It was in my Year 8 Geography teacher’s class and we’d flip through it straight to the chestburster or Parker’s brain’s getting ripped out and paid little mind to the glory of the ship.
Then I read the novelization, then I read The Book of Alien, then I read the Mad Magazine parody, and it wasn’t till maybe 1987 – a year after seeing Aliens at the cinema – that I finally watched the movie when I taped if off TV.
There’s really very little else that can do the Nostromo justice. It took clunky to a whole new level. From the first time you see it, it’s hard to tell where it stops and the refinery begins. Is that flying industrial cathedral the whole ship or what? There’s more protrusions and greeblies than your average Star Destroyer, as well as antennas and radar dishes.
But the main thing the film gives you about the Nostromo over anything else, is how it’s a living environment. Thanks to Jimmy Shields (sound editor), the ship breathes, which is at once both comforting and disturbing. It’s a mix of cosy and claustrophobic. We see Lambert and Ripley just hanging around on the bridge, chilling out. The chairs look comfy – but at the same time there’s monitors right over their heads, impinging their personal space. The couch areas in the galley look relaxing – somewhere the crew can have a beer and smoke, hang up a centerfold and put their feet up.
Yet this is also where a good deal of the film’s violence takes place; Kane’s death, Ash attacking Ripley, Ash’s beheading and incineration.
Conversely on C deck, there’s lots of space – but with space comes a need provide light and when you don’t have enough, you’re left with shadows. Lots and lots of shadows, with lots of places to hide – even if it’s just the cat. It’s dirty, there’s leaking oil, probably not the safest working environment. But it all somehow makes sense.
It’s a big ship, but not like the Enterprise or a Star Destroyer with dozens of decks. It’s got just 3 – not enough to risk spilling the acid blood of an Alien if you want to get home in one piece. You can’t just activate a magnetic field to stop a hull breach. And the Nostromo doesn’t soar like the Falcon. It’s very slow and deliberate – just like its contemporary tug counterparts. There’s no constantly-lit thrusters while it flies down to LV-426. It fires them once and that’s enough momentum to get them on the right path, with slow graceful turns to get them on the right trajectory.
Despite the fact they have artificial gravity – there’s no antigravity. X-Wings have vertical take off and landing with no thrusters to guide them. The Nostromo is constantly firing retros as it comes in to land (originally scripted as tractor beams fulfilling the same purpose). It’s much like landing on the moon. You can’t just float down or you’ll crash, and also like landing on the moon, you hover on those rockets just above the surface and when you turn them off you hit the ground with an unceremonious thud.
It became such a fixture that I sought out Joseph Conrad books. ‘Nostromo’ itself was a slog. I prefer ‘Heart Of Darkness’. I started ‘Lord Jim’, but never got round to finishing it. Conversely it seemed to find me as well via music. Narcissus is referenced is Genesis’ epic ode to Armageddon ‘Supper’s Ready’. And decades later when Graham Langridge produced his blueprints of the ship, the second unseen shuttle was christened Salmacis. I don’t know if Graham was also a fan of early 70s British prog rock and another Genesis song, ‘The Fountain of Salmacis’, or it owes more to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (I supect the latter, but prefer the former.)
It was difficult to get more information on the ship for a long time. The Book of Alien had publicity stills, but the technical drawings and the brilliant art of Ron Cobb and Chris Foss was renderings of the earlier designs such as the Snark or the Leviathan. In the days before DVD and Blu-ray extras we had grainy VHS that had been watched a hundred times (Laserdiscs were never popular in Australia). However with the advent of the DVD also came the advent of the world wide web.
Around the time of the first DVD release in 1999, Fox Home Entertainment released a pretty comprehensive website with all sorts of behind the scenes images – including blueprints and floorplans for the Nostromo. You could really start to get a sense of the geography of the ship as well as how certain floorplans matched – like how Engineering had the same layout as the infirmary. And of course with the advent of the internet – well, here we are. My old friend Darrell’s home of everything M-class.
Too often when it comes to design, the Alien conversation is dominated by H. R. Giger. His work, deservedly, left a lasting impact, but it’s interesting to note that for a film that runs for 111 minutes, we’re only exposed to Giger’s planet and Derelict for about 10 of those minutes, and the appearances of the Alien are often glimpses. Every other scene takes place on the Nostromo (or the Narcissus at the end).
So while Giger took care of the haunting monster, it was people like Cobb, Michael Seymour, Les Dilley, effects artists like Brian Johnson and Martin Bower and numerous others – including Ridley Scott himself – who gave the monster somewhere to haunt. Not only was Giger’s creature ripped off for years to come – so was the design aesthetic of the Nostromo; an aesthetic that was, as I mentioned above, widely believed to have had it’s origins in Star Wars – but actually owed more to the Alien creator himself, Dan O’Bannon with the film Dark Star which he made with John Carpenter.
With the film mimicked from everything from Peter Hyams’ beaten down and weathered Outland to Edgar Wright’s slow pans around the pub in Shaun of the Dead, film owes a great debt to Alien and the Nostromo.
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