Memories of Nostromo: John’s story

 


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John R. Mullaney is an accomplished artist and architectural illustrator. We first met at the intersection of his cutaway artwork and his music. In his essay, John gives context that explains how he so capably handles the subjects to which he puts his hand, whether they be computer-aided drawings or flanged guitar licks. John lives in the UK.

 

Nostromo Sapiens

At the heart of a film entitled Alien is the implication that this is a story about something inhuman. So much of the film’s impact consequently derives from how well the film-makers define the characters’ humanity – the horror wouldn’t be as affecting if we didn’t relate to those seven characters… and one pussycat. Cinema succeeds most at portraying humanity when it conveys a powerful sense of reality – we forget we’re watching actors and are sucked into believing in a fictional construct. And in the case of Alien, the stage for that human construct is the Nostromo.

 

Real Gone Kid

Science fiction movies were in my blood from an early age – surprising when I tell you that my parents didn’t have a TV in the house until I was 16.

 

 

I grew up in Reading, England in the late seventies and eighties. My folks, who had come from a teaching background, had set up their own family run bookshop and my elderly grandmother used to live in the flat they owned above the shop. After she died, my folks held onto the flat, and with it my grandmother’s TV. We didn’t have a TV at home and my folks wanted to keep it that way, resulting in the ritual that in order to watch TV, my parents and I would get in the car and drive the five minutes to the flat to do so. Mostly this was a Sunday evening routine and a picnic would be packed so that we could watch The World At War – narrated by Lawrence Olivier, The Jewel In The Crown – an eighties drama starring Charles Dance – and various other programmes that didn’t really have six year old boys in mind as their core audience ( though I did love Carl Davis’s sombre World At War theme tune ). In hindsight it’s quaint and bizarre that we went out to watch telly, but your childhood is your normality, and actually it made the experience of watching anything on TV that much more special.

 

 

Things got a lot more special when the programming improved. BBC 2 ran a science fiction B-movie season and just my dad and I would go to the flat on a schoolnight, always with a takeaway meal to catch this series of films. Over a period of several months we watched loads of classic early sci-fi B-movies, many of which were films my dad had grown up with as a boy himself in the 1950’s. And so began my introduction to sci-fi cinema, in particular the flying saucer movie: The Day The Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, This Island Earth & War of The Worlds all had me hooked. I was haunted by their Theremin scores, ethereal vibe and other-worldliness.

Then there was Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running. The characters that stuck with me most were all machines: the ship ‘The Valley Forge’, essentially the Eden Project in space, and the ship’s droids – Huey, Dewey and Louie. Those little dudes broke my young heart; Louie’s demise during a storm, the irrevocable damage to Huey and the final shot of the lone Dewey tenderly watering a plant as Joan Baez soundtracked the ship’s solitary ongoing voyage, had me in tears. They still do.

 

 

The combination of time at the flat and at friends’ houses meant I still saw plenty of eighties TV. Terrahawks continued Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds legacy with its beautiful miniatures and I would often tune in to Space: 1999 to marvel at the all too brief sfx sequences featuring the Eagle ships landing on the moonbase.

Top of the pile though was Knight Rider’s airborn cousin, Airwolf. I adored that show. Like Space: 1999 it contained interminable scenes of dull dialogue punctuated by occasional action sequences of intoxicating excitement as Stringfellow Hawke piloted his sleek black futuristic chopper – aka ‘the Lady’ – to victory . Crucial to the adrenaline rush I felt with its every appearance, were two key ingredients: the sound that helicopter made – a kind of cool whistling wind effect , and the music… the Airwolf theme tune still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I was beginning to unconsciously appreciate just how much the visual effect is enhanced by music and sound design.

 

 

 

Hardware and sci-fi tech were beginning to really float my boat and with no TV at home to distract me, I would channel the buzz with Lego, in particular the Space Lego range which I avidly collected. In just a few years my bedroom floor was transformed into a fully functioning moonbase populated by vehicles, ships and astronauts ( aka Benny in The Lego Movie ). The ‘Galaxy Explorer’ was the jewel in the fleet, and boasting a ramp-deployed RV moon buggy, it pre-dated the Aliens dropship by 7 years, whilst the wedge shaped influence of an Imperial Star Destroyer was clear to see. And of course once I’d built the kits and lived with them for a while they’d get broken up and I’d build my own designs – just as my own children do now. Like theirs, my creations would be mostly flying machines – and the inclusion of fully functioning retractable landing gear became a personal holy grail for me.

Meanwhile Caversham Bookshop wasn’t my family’s only source of access to film. Because my parents advertised the shop in the local Odeon cinema’s monthly programme, we got free cinema tickets. So trips to ‘the pictures’ were reasonably frequent, and although I was too young to catch the original Star Wars at the cinema, I remember watching The Empire Strikes Back on the big screen, in particular the Hoth sequence with the iconic AT-ATs. I loved the look of them, and more than that, their movement. My love of Stop and Go-motion animation began right there – alongside of course Ray Harryhausen’s Argonauts movies. Some years later Phil Tippett, the animator behind the AT-ATs, would again blow me away with Robocop’s iconic ED-209.

By my teens, I was taking an interest in the art of special effects, buying books about ILM and learning about analogue optical compositing processes and matte painting techniques. A lot of the methods were beyond my comprehension, but the matte paintings I got and they fascinated me. I loved to study how just a few skilled impressionistic brushstrokes could trick the eye into believing you were looking at something photographic and real. I would pore over these many images often familiarising myself with scenes that I would only watch within the context of their actual films some years later.

One such making-of book was Titan’s release for Terminator 2: Judgement Day, a slice of Blockbuster sci-fi which had a huge influence on me at the cinema, even more so than the original. Cameron’s story and punchy direction married with the astonishing effects and Brad Fiedel’s elegiac score made their mark on me for life and I channelled my passion for the franchise into my nascent artistic creations, be they artworks or handicam-filmed endeavours made with the help of my sixth form school mates ( the results were for the most part hilarious and takes would invariably grind to a halt due to uncontrollable laughter from actors and crew ).

 

 

All of the above was the context within which I then watched the movie that was to have such a significant impact on my life. No, not Howard the Duck.  I’d already seen that at the cinema with my dad.

The film was Alien. I vividly remember recall the first time I saw it. It was 1992 and I was babysitting for my uncle and aunt. They had a VCR, which in itself was exciting, as we didn’t have one at home ( though my grandmother’s old telly had now been installed in our house ). So I opened a video store account and rented the movie. Even the distinct typography of the film’s title on the cassette had me intrigued, and a few hours later, once my cousins were in bed, I slotted it into the Phillips VCR and pressed play.

The two hours that followed stuck with me for days. Which turned into weeks, then months… then years… and now some 25 years later, Alien continues to fascinate me. Why?

 

Real World

Alien was the first slice of science fiction I’d seen that looked and sounded utterly real. Palpable. At the heart of the film and its sense of realism was the Nostromo and her crew. This was an environment, a world, that seemed recognisable, real-world and true. So how does the film achieve this?

As the extensive belly of the Nostromo passes overhead, the introduction of the Nostromo’s exterior is a flat-out homage to Episode IV’s opening. Star Wars was after all the film that inspired Scott to tackle science fiction. To generate the illusion of ships with vast scale, ILM’s model-makers had constructed George Lucas’s vision of space hardware from bespoke-built wooden frames covered with miniature plastic mouldings and Airfix kit components ( another staple toy of my childhood ). The craftsmen at Bray Studios used the same modelling techniques to construct a vast miniature, though at seven foot long, it was anything but minute. The combination of beautiful cinematography and dynamic lighting then conspire to trick your eyes into believing that you are looking at a ship with vast scale and detail.

 

 

 

Were the Nostromo equipped with a hyperdrive, it would – with its utilitarian geometry and heavily greebled surfaces –  fit quite happily within the production design of the Star Wars universe. Look closely and I’m told you’ll find Tie-fighter components on the Nostromo’s hull. Indeed Brian Johnson’s team of talented sfx technicians, went straight from working on Alien to then being part of The Empire Strikes Back’s crew. ( In 2015, I had the good fortune to meet three of those craftsmen –  Dennis Lowe, Ron Hone, Roger Nichols – after they kindly accepted my invitation to come along to the screening of my APC Cutaway film. They were everything you would hope for as special guests – genial, articulate and fascinating ).

But it is how Scott chooses to depict spaceflight that differentiates Alien from Lucas’s concept of space travel. Unlike the effortless and graceful landing sequences that we see in Star Wars, landing a megaton vessel like the Nostromo on a planet is shown to be a violent and dangerous experience. The limitations of the ship’s enormous scale and hardware are shown in real physical terms.

Back in 1992, I was perhaps also subliminally registering the hand that Chris Foss’s concept art had played in the Nostromo’s design. His art famously adorned many of Isaac Asimov’s novels and back at Caversham Bookshop the alphabetical start of the fiction section was right next to the sales desk, meaning that I had spent many hours admiring those beautiful and evocative artworks. That and the shared Star Wars DNA almost certainly played a hand in making the Nostromo’s exterior appearance somehow familiar to me.

The sense of identifiable scale was further achieved with simple but effective analogue techniques – mounting tv monitors displaying footage of the actors on set within the miniatures was a technique used both by Scott and then by Cameron too in the sequel. It typifies the inventiveness of the pre-digital era of analogue special effects work and I know I belong to a generation that will always swear by the realism and heft that miniature effects possess, as opposed to the weightlessness that so often hinders contemporary computer generated effects.

 

 

Alongside the physicality of the Nostromo’s hardware, lie the ship’s software and small scale equipment which is presented as sketchy and unreliable. As the Nostromo’s explorers make their way across LV426 towards the derelict, the sense of realism is deepened by the glitchy imperfections of the spacesuit cameras’ transmissions . Before I’d seen Alien, transmitted video feeds or messages in science fiction films would be relayed to the bridge on a massive screen in what appeared to be crystal clear 4K.

But Alien presented a world I could identify with – where technology and comms don’t bloody work properly. You didn’t have to grow up during Alien’s analogue era to relate to that truth… in spite of the quantum leaps that technology has taken since the film’s release, the concept of a bad signal is as recognisable now as it was in 1979. The Nostromo’s creators nailed that crappy tech aesthetic and even when the ship’s IT systems are working, you can literally hear the hard-drives’ 2 bit processors clunking along with all the elegance of a dial-up modem from 1997.  Compare that to Independence Day where Jeff Goldblum effortlessly uploads a malware virus to an alien space ship’s operating system without so much as an  ‘ Error Code 15: The system cannot find the drive specified. [ERROR_INVALID_DRIVE (0xF)] ‘

 

 

Perhaps the reason that I never caught the Star Trek bug is because that world just didn’t look real to me – the identical spandex uniforms and the brightly lit spotless ship interiors didn’t convince me ; I knew I was looking at a set ( with all due apologies to Trekkies – obviously there’s a whole lot more to the show than its appearance ).

Whereas the moodily lit interior sets of the Nostromo were dressed with real world elements – many from aviation scrapyards. You can instantly tell when you’re looking at something with real world application, versus something that’s been entirely fabricated by an art department. The Nostromo’s real world elements texture every frame with detail and give the ship a sense of the familiar and of consequent plausibility.

And beneath the set dressing sits Ron Cobb’s elegant geometry made real by Michael Seymour’s production design. Again inspired by Star Wars’ used future aesthetic, the Nostromo’s corridors are murky and dirty – you can almost smell the grease. These spaces are the antithesis to the Enterprise’s sterile sets or the polished interiors of any B-movie’s flying saucer interior.

In a real world, form follows function and the Nostromo’s sets are designed with recognisable human purpose in mind. The bridge includes actual pilot seats and commercial airline overhead panels and switches, whilst the size and round shape of the mess hall’s low-lit dining table makes it both functional and aesthetic  – it could almost be a private dining room in a contemporary designer London restaurant. The cryosleep chamber and the med-bay come closest to traditional science–fiction set designs, but their sterility is legitimised by their function.

Meanwhile there’s a clear delineation between the more comfortable human quarters and the  engineering decks which continue Scott’s fascination with the Nostromo’s scale and the ship’s interior size. It wasn’t until I could see the film on a large screen that I noticed that the space in which Brett meets his maker houses the ship’s enormous landing gear. When you reconcile this with the exterior model shots this again links the sets with the miniature and builds a sense of convincing scale – a scale that was augmented by Scott’s decision to have his own children  wear the explorers’ pressurised suits to make the landing gear set appear even bigger.

 

 

It must have been tempting for the film-makers to consider the possibility of arming the Nostromo’s intrepid explorers as they made their way across an alien landscape. Yet Scott eschewed any such notion and maintained a world within which characters could arm themselves only with fire and a rudimentary cattle prod. Although the marines in the sequel inherently needed guns, the Nostromo had established a future environment where weaponry is confined to real-world tech and where far-fetched laser-guns are absent – a trope maintained by all the franchise’s subsequent outings.

Weyland Yutani Corporation may own the strapline, but it was this analogue generation of film-makers who reinvented the look of science fiction cinema by building better worlds.

 

Real Life

Scott and other contributors to the DVD commentary point out that it was the realism of the sets which helped the actors raise their game. This is another layer that builds the Nostromo’s realism – the  naturalistic performances and characters’ appearance convey real-world people… space truckers who smoke and wear their own choice of grubby-looking clothes rather than a clean-pressed regimented uniform. These are characters who famously bitch about their pay, whose dialogue is not always clear and who talk or shout over each other in conversation ( one such moment was engineered by Scott when he conspired with Yaphet Kotto to wind up Weaver, encouraging him to talk over her and provoke that sudden angry outburst ). At the other extreme, the scenes of relaxed mealtime conviviality that precede the Chestburster scene provide a levity that heightens the horror of Kane’s experience – the scene would not have quite the same impact were it not juxtaposed with such relaxed naturalistic performances beforehand.

And then there’s Jonesy. What a beautifully human touch to have a ship’s cat. I’d never seen such a recognisably domestic ingredient within a science-fiction film. The fact that Ripley goes back for the cat deepens her humanity, and it’s another layer that enhances the ship’s plausibility. The shot of Jones’s reaction to the Alien, cleverly but simply achieved by removing a screen and exposing the cat to a leashed Labrador, generates an unmistakable performance of primal terror from the animal ( I can’t tell you the kick I got the day that my brother brought his Beagle to our house and we inadvertently provoked the same ears-pricked-up hissy reaction from our puss ). By comparison Harry Dean Stanton readily admitted that at the time he didn’t know how to fully articulate terror, though his reaction to the creature about to kill him is compelling nevertheless.

 

 

The recognisable humanity of the Nostromo and all life aboard it makes the Derelict ship, the Space Jockey and all parts of the Xeonomorph lifecycle that much more alien by contrast. Whilst we have Hans Rudi Giger to thank for the alien’s ground-breaking design, some of the creature’s most convincing lifecycle detail was achieved by Scott’s clever use of real-world biological organs from the natural world: the lining of a cow’s stomach ( aka ‘Nottingham Lace’ or ‘Caul Fat’ ) was employed for the Alien egg’s interior membrane, whilst the underside appearance of the Facehugger was achieved by the careful placement of oysters, mussels and other seafood delicacies within the moulded prop.

These touches look utterly convincing and organic – the same effect could never have been achieved by attempting to manufacture such a detail.

 

 

Real Moody

Like any seventeen year old, music played a huge part in defining my identity and I was predominantly listening to a lot of eighties and early nineties indie rock , especially grunge and shoegaze bands. Sugar, The Smashing Pumpkins, Adorable ( look them up ) and so many more all sountracked the sense of anticipation and excitement I felt for what the rest of my life could bring… a sense of limitless possibility and wonder.

Perhaps the band that I identified with most were The Cure – I’d been listening to their records since I was 14. I didn’t have the goth haircut ( probably for the best ) nor did I dress like one. But I loved their dark and moody sensibility – tracks like A Forest, Prayers For Rain and To Wish Impossible Things were seductive and conditioned me to recognise that a sense of comfort and wonder can be derived from not just uplifting music but also from the darker corners. You can have a happy disposition, yet love music that is haunting and atmospheric.

Intrinsic to the sonic atmosphere of The Cure’s records was Robert Smith’s use of delay and reverb guitar effects, especially on their masterpiece Disintegration LP ( My personal connection to that album was galvanised when many years later I  discovered that the album was recorded a stone’s throw from my school whilst I was there…  I used to go for cross country runs right past the gates of Hookend Recording Studios , entirely oblivious to what was taking place within). As I learnt to play guitar myself and develop a style, digital delay came to be my favourite effect – playing a note and having it repeat multiple times creates an immediate complexity of sound, turning a minimalist melody into something detailed and hypnotic. A sort of audio mantra.

 

 

So by the time I watched Alien for the first time, I had a definite soft spot for any soundscape featuring delay to convey mood and atmosphere. Something inside me clicked when I first saw John Hurt enter the Derelict’s main chamber, and a delay-processed percussive sound heralded the camera’s reveal of the Space Jockey. As much as I adored Silent Running, this was what I wanted science fiction to sound like – muscular, eerie and intense. Not Joan Baez.

And at the heart of Jerry Goldsmith’s score is that iconic two-note theme played on a flute, across a succession of different musical keys. Performed rather than audio-processed, this haunting echo-like motif reproduces the delay effect by repeating its two notes with diminishing volume. It’s the Nostromo’s heartbeat and our introduction to the ship’s interior whilst the crew sleep. As the camera cautiously explores the craft’s corridors and spaces, Goldsmith’s elegant theme sets the tone for not just the rest of the film, but for the franchise itself, evoking dread and wonder in equal measure – the Nostromo’s theme taps into the dark corners of our nightmares.

But like the gothic mood of the Cure’s darker records, I’ve always found that sense of dark wonder which Goldsmith’s Nostromo’s theme conjures and inspires, to be comforting and irresistible… like lying in bed at night whilst heavy rain beats against your window. To quote the Verve’s Nick McCabe, a master exponent of delay-processed sound and a personal guitar-hero of mine: “ You put all your darkness into your art and then you live a nice life around it. ” I think that sentiment applies just as much to experiencing art, as creating it.

 

 

It was about a year after I first saw Alien, that I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film which of course set many of its sequences to classical music – although it was only the audience who experienced this soundtrack ( poor old Dave Bowman had to make do with HAL’s murderous take on Bicycle Made For Two ). The musical revelation to me watching Alien for the first time was that characters in the future aboard a spaceship would listen to Mozart. After the horrors experienced aboard the Derelict, Dallas’s retreat to the cosy snug of the Narcissus and Romance Andante is another moment of humanity that sells the reality of how people might try to decompress following a traumatic event. That reality is amplified by anchoring the fiction within our own shared human universe and having Dallas enjoy a moment of culture that’s familiar to virtually every audience member who’s ever watched the film – we can believe that we are forefathers to the film’s events . Compare and contrast that to the alien Cantina Band playing fictional jazz on made-up instruments a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away.

James Cameron once asserted that sound is 75% of the visual. In the case of Alien, music & sound are as inseparable from the Nostromo’s character as the crew, MU TH UR and Jonesy – its sound constitutes the very soul of the film. Just imagine how different the ship would have felt with a score by Joni Mitchell.

 

Real Feel

It was Joseph Conrad, the author of the novel after which Alien’s towing vessel is named, who in his autobiographical work A Personal Record, wrote

“What is a novel if not a conviction of our fellow-men’s existence strong enough to take upon itself a form of imagined life clearer than reality and whose accumulated verisimilitude of selected episodes puts to shame the pride of documentary history?”

Initially named Snark and then Leviathan, it’s a curious coincidence that the Nostromo’s eventual name was originally created – as a character rather than a vessel – by an author whose autobiography is notorious for playing fast and loose with the facts. Because beneath the  plausible reality constructed by the film-makers lurks a reliance on verisimilitude of which Conrad would be proud. This is a sci-fi movie that embraces the marriage of science with fiction.

As the ship’s science officer, Ash gives us dialogue which often sounds scientifically plausible – to the layman at least. He explains to Ripley that the motion tracker keys off “ micro changes in air density “ and when she earlier enquires about the Facehugger on Kane’s face, he answers,

“ I have confrmed that he has an outer layer of protein polysachyrates and has a funny habit of shedding his cells and replacing them with polarised silicon, giving him a prolonged resistance to adverse environmental conditions “ Sounds nice and sciencey doesn’t it.

Ripley says, “ What does it mean ?”  Ash’s response is deliberately humanising and provides Ripley and the audience with the layman’s translation,

“ Well it’s an interesting combination of elements making him a tough little son of a bitch. “

I have no idea whether any of this stuff is based on real science, and in all honesty I don’t really care. But it sounds real.

 

 

On the other hand, Scott isn’t shy to point out the rogue physics at play in the film. In his commentary he points out how in the opening minutes – when the camera leads us through the cryo chamber’s opening doors – there’s no actual scientific reason why there would be a change in cabin pressure that causes the white robes to flutter. It just feels right.

“ Little details like this where you get negative air as that door opens which is protecting them inside from bacteria… it’s not scientifically thought through, it’s viscerally thought through.”

Likewise he happily admits that there’s no physical explanation for why there would be so much – if any – condensation present in the landing gear chamber , nor any discernible reason to have chains hanging throughout that space.

“ Why the water, I say why not? Why the chains? Well… I had the chains dressed because the room looked a bit blank and I needed the movement in there. How’s it moving? I don’t care”

And you don’t have to be Brian Cox to know that In the vacuum of space, no one can hear you scream. Yet despite the film’s strapline, you can definitely hear a thermo-nuclear explosion – three times.

Scott’s achievement with the film is to know which reality buttons need to be pushed, and which realities can be manipulated in favour of the more pressing task of sustaining his cinematic grammar. Brett’s famous close up of the water dripping on his face and cap would be a more static experience, were it not for Scott’s instinct to know that the room needed water and chains to create sufficient movement and hence tension within the scene. Similarly the noise of the Nostromo’s detonation provides a catharsis for the audience, an emotional release that silence would not have provided.

On the subject of cryosleep, Scott is himself cynical

“ I’m too much of a logician, that’s the problem and I have never quite yet bought into the notion of cryogenics.. if you think about it carefully it doesn’t make sense, but I think we got away with it. “

Whilst the concept of suspended animation goes back in literature several centuries, Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey established cryosleep as a scientifically unexplained yet plausibly presented reality within sci-fi cinema. By having crew members refer to their cryogenic chambers as Freezerino’s, the film-makers give this far-fetched piece of tech a sense of the every day, and despite Scott’s cynicism about its science, it remains a signature device for the franchise.

Unlike Kubrick’s film, there are realities inherent to spaceflight that Scott chooses simply not to deal with – gravity being the zero G elephant in the room. But as an audience buying into the film’s sense of reality , we can happily presume that the Nostromo and all subsequent ships within the franchise are equipped with artificial gravity generators.

Verisimilitude is a significant factor aboard the Nostromo and Scott’s judicious use and manipulation of scientific truths has set a precedent across the sequels. Cameron’s understanding of how to tell a gripping story within the sci-fi war genre means that by the end of Aliens, we don’t question Ripley’s survival of the climactic sequence within the Sulaco’s airlock. As Bishop and Newt are sucked out of the ship, helplessly sailing past Ripley in ‘How Aliens Should Have Ended‘, Weaver’s parody character succinctly screams:

“ I’M SORRY NEWT, I THOUGHT MY ARM COULD WITHSTAND THE ENTIRE VACUUM OF SPAAAACE !! “

 

 

 

Real Estate

So much audience dissatisfaction with the franchise’s more recent movies stems from their lack of logic. Why don’t the expedition crew of the Prometheus carry weapons? Why don’t its crew and the Covenant’s planetary explorers run atmosphere tests before risking contamination by not wearing helmets? How is Shaw able to leap about minutes after receiving major abdominal surgery? Why does David kill Shaw? Hell, why doesn’t Charlize Theron run sideways? I could go on.

But what is it about the original films that means they get such a free pass from audiences about their details that equally don’t hold up under scrutiny?

It’s simple. As Cameron concludes on his commentary of Aliens

“ It’s about the relationships and the characters.”

These are the hallmarks of the events portrayed in those films and even Alien 3 has an emotional core and characters you care about. Without characters to root for and whose survival creates the stakes for generating a sense of jeopardy, no amount of real world looking environment will feel real. The Covenant and Prometheus are beautifully designed ships and whilst obviously heavily inspired by the Nostromo, their production design is on a par with Scott’s original creation. But without a crew you truly believe in, it’s all just window dressing.

When characters are properly established and a sense of reality is conveyed, you overlook the details that don’t actually hang together under scrutinising analysis. But it seems that Scott has become so preoccupied with the synthetic David and explaining the origins of the xenomorph that he has lost sight of what made the original films great; it’s not about the aliens, it’s about the humans. No matter how clever it tries to be, an origins story simply will not work without an emphasis on the relationships between the human characters. It’s telling that perhaps Covenent’s best scene – the Last Supper – is neither in the film, nor directed by Scott. Directed instead by his son Luke, the sequence contains more humanity and crucial levity than the rest of Covenant put together. Without the light, you can’t truly feel the dark and it was the Nostromo that set the template for this equation.

 

 

So where to from here? Once Scott has concluded his prequels, I still hold out that Fox will give Blomkamp the opportunity to tell the alternate third instalment. Despite its narrative flaws, I love Alien 3 for its beautifully seductive gothic tone and Goldenthal’s score is as much a hard-wired part of my DNA as Vangelis’s Bladerunner soundtrack. It was my first Alien film at the cinema and like so many fans at the time I grieved for the demise of not just Ripley and her nuclear family, but for the franchise itself and its then marred credibility with critics. Twenty plus years later it’s heartening to see the film re-appraised and celebrated, even if it falls short of Scott and Cameron’s respective masterpieces.

But as Cameron is doing with the Terminator series, I don’t see the harm in ret-conning and reimagining an alternative timeline to follow the events of Aliens. I want to see what an auteur with passion for the original films can do with those characters within the Weyland Yutani universe and deliver the film that fans wanted to see at the time ; the principal reason Fincher’s downbeat  film wasn’t well received was because it didn’t continue Ripley’s story with those characters. If Blomkamp fails to deliver we’ll always have the tidy close of Ripley’s narrative arc that Fincher gave us, but I’d equally be up for seeing the dice rolled and the potential catharsis of seeing Ripley’s nightmare end with a notion of hope.

And apart from the underwater sequence, let’s just pretend Resurrection never happened.

In the meantime for most fans, the material to which we will always gravitate are those original films and there are many ways to channel the love : online community discussion, gaming, collectibles, conventions, creating art, writing and many more.

Plus there’s always the thrill of vicariously re-experiencing movies for the first time by showing them to your kids. Back in 1992 having just seen Alien for the first time, I was desperate to share my excitement and explained the plot to my seven year old brother… he had nightmares from that alone and I got into big trouble from my parents. In hindsight, and now a parent to two boys Luke ( 7 ) and Jamie ( 5 ), I don’t know what I was thinking…  talk about plot spoilers! Okay, yes – it would give them nightmares too.

 

Real Time

My own professional ambition is to continue the journey I began fifteen years ago by exploring the ships and locations of the original saga within the medium of cutaway art. I’ve been lucky enough to illustrate much of the film’s hardware as part of the 2015 book Alien: The Weyland-Yutani Report, but so far my cross-section art of the franchise’s hardware extends only to the Dropship and the APC.

 

click to enlarge

 

These two cutaway artworks are the tip of the iceberg and there is so much territory that remains to be explored using the medium. How do the corridors and spaces of the Nostromo inter-connect and relate to one another ? What’s the layout of Hadley’s Hope, where do favourite scenes occur and what route do all the vehicles and characters take within that location? What do the inside of the Power Loader, Sulaco and Atmosphere Processor look like when the layers are cutaway from an overview angle ?

No matter what the subject, I believe there’s an inherent human desire to be able to pull back from something and understand the bigger picture. Cutaway art affords this possibility and I think there’s an as yet untapped satisfaction for fans of these films to be derived from showing the geographical relationship of one location to another and understanding the relative spatial context between the many scenes we know so well. By peeling back the layers to reveal the technical and architectural composition of these vehicles and locations, I want my contribution to the Alien universe to further deepen the reality conjured by the film-makers.

 

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It takes so much time to research and produce art of this kind, ensuring that the art is accurate and true to what we see on screen and reconciling the myriad of inevitable inconsistencies that are revealed when the geography is placed under the microscope. Financing this research and production time remains my biggest obstacle but I’m playing the long game and continue to find ways of realising my ambition. The accuracy of my work is improved and enhanced by the skills of 2D artist Graham J. Langridge with whom I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate and whose painstaking research into the detail of the franchise’s locations and hardware is second to none.

I also want to find ways of again presenting new art through film-making – the experience of editing and composing the music for my APC Cutaway film was one of my most enjoyable creative experiences, and with the help of my Last Picture Show bandmates, I hope that we can produce new soundscapes to soundtrack future cutaway art endeavours.

Ultimately my passion for the franchise and this project is a way of staying young, inspired and happy. I’m a nostalgic at heart and of all the times in what has been a fulfilled life, those formative years as a teenager have perhaps left the deepest impression. Alien was the film that ignited a spark in me back then, and I’ll always be driven by the sense of wonder it conveyed to me as a teenager, and which I can still feel to this day.

 

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TRANSMITTAL PROTOCOL 1809246(09)/JRM
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