W-Y TRANSMITTAL PROTOCOL 1809246(09)/CE
>> BEGIN TRANSMISSION…
Cliff Erasmus is an artist, photographer, miniaturist, and film-maker whose works I’ve followed since discovering them a couple of years ago. His current projects include a short film entitled “Aftermath: A World In Decay” , and a magnificent studio-scale model of the Sulaco from Aliens. Cliff maintains a pro website at Erasmus Designs & Miniatures. He lives in Canada.
“In space no one can hear you scream”.
Summer of 1979 those words came across my television screen following a montage of terrifying images and sounds. I was 15 years old and today I remember very well the impact the imagery had on my young mind. Science fiction has always been a genre that I loved and followed since watching the Apollo missions. My fascination with astronomy, space exploration, the future and futuristic vehicles and technology was bound to turn this curious young fellow’s attention toward science fiction…and it did. But….and that is a Big But…Science Fiction/Horror/Terror…..I wasn’t ready for that!
Horror wasn’t something that I could handle very well back then. I was easily scared – even traumatized by certain things and beliefs – especially in the unknown, that was downright terrifying (yet I was fascinated by space and the universe). I eventually got over that…in large part due to ALIEN. However, I could not draw myself away from wanting to see ALIEN. I purchased Starlog and Fantastic Films magazines that featured the film; I immediately snagged “The Book of ALIEN” which showed and talked about how the film was made…I hadn’t even seen the film yet! Well, finally my uncle took me to see it…I figured with all I had read and seen prior to seeing the film I would be somewhat desensitized and could handle what good ol’ O’Bannon, Shusett, Ridley, Cobb, Rambaldi and Giger could throw at me.
What I will tell you now is that I was never ever the same again. Star Wars had a huge influence on me becoming an artist…but ALIEN, nothing comes close to the influence ALIEN (as well as another Ridley Scott film…but we aren’t talking about that one) had on me as an artist, a thinker and a man who deeply philosophizes about human behaviour and its sociological outcomes. Great films do this, they make the non-ignorant think…and ALIEN is one of those films.
I apologize for this long introduction into what is about to follow, but I felt it necessary for all who read this to have a bit of an understanding of me. Without any further ado please join me on my first and continuing trips on the USCSS Nostromo, number one on my top ten list of favourite space vehicles.
USCSS Nostromo: The other antagonist?
Commercial towing vehicle USCSS Nostromo 180924609, a character in its own right, is indifferent and foreboding to its crew and the audience. Nostromo’s design is uninviting from its lumbering, hulk-like exterior shape, to its claustrophobic yet cavernous interiors.
The Alien uses Nostromo to great efficiency. It adapted to the environs of the vessel, using it’s open mechanical corridors, landing gear bay, storage bays, and escape shuttle interior as camouflage for its biomechanoid nature. Nearly forty years later the Nostromo still stands the test of time as one of the most interesting space-going vessels in all of science fiction. Amongst fandom and model makers alike it resonates as an integral vehicle of the genre.
Nostromo’s appearance is utilitarian in design due to the nature of its purpose – an industrial mining vessel – dirty, well used, and appears to be old, brutish, and menacing with it’s mining cutters extended…it’s not a luxury liner. The film opens with Nostromo and her refinery of mined ore en route home. As the opening titles fade we’re taken inside, through the vessel’s corridors and rooms, the ship’s systems appear to be set on low or sleep mode…only a hum can be heard and a low pulsing in the corridors, like a heartbeat…the corridors are the arteries of the ship. We reach the bridge, a chair rotates and clunks to a stop, and does it again, papers flip from a draft as we pass the individual crew stations. Settling on a console and monitor. It’s blank. Suddenly and startlingly, it hums and switches on: lights, electronic sounds. It’s chattering away through diagnostics and signals, communicating an array of code. It squelches harshly, and then silence. This entire sequence sets the stage for an unnerving rollercoaster ride.
The ship’s main systems and computer are now awake from sleep mode, all automated as the crew is in cryosleep, and is being awoken by Nostromo’s computer called MU-TH-UR (affectionately pronounced ‘Mother’). We approach the cryo chamber and can hear Nostromo’s life support system breathing, the sound and movement of air…like life flowing from lungs. Inside the chamber Kane is waking. Nostromo’s life pulse for her crew can easily be heard…almost in an organic manner. Even in Mother’s chamber, which is rather womb-like, breathing can be heard. It makes for a very comforting, and yet…uneasy…feeling. What a contradiction!
Nostromo is a massive vessel for a meagre crew of seven. One thinks that it’s far too large for so few to man. Winding cramped corridors with grated flooring allowing light to pass through from above levels giving a cathedral like feel…another contradiction. Majority of rooms occupied by the crew are low-ceilinged and claustrophobic. The landing gear and storage bays are huge in stark contrast to the rest of the vessel’s compartments.
The landing cycle was more than a bit rough and many things failed and broke down. Does this always happen, or was it particular to Acheron (LV-426)? All these elements aren’t conducive to human comfort and can harm their emotional well-being. Nostromo fights us; “yet keeps us alive…now what the hell is that”?
With the quarantine regulations being broken and the infected Kane brought into the Nostromo infirmary, the parasitic Alien’s first incarnation deposits its embryo, falls off and disappears into one of the many nooks and crannies of the infirmary. The next incarnation bursts from Kane and scurries off into the bowels of the ship – easily finding a place to hide…and grow! Brett in frustration and apprehension pursues the ship’s mascot, “Jones the Cat”, into the storage and landing gear bays. He finds Jones and encounters the adult Alien, which was hanging hidden up amongst chains of the landing gear…blending in completely with Nostromo’s equipment.
The biomechanical nature of the Alien allows it to camouflage itself amongst the industrial workings of Nostromo, the majority of which isn’t concealed behind panels. It’s mostly exposed and runs along corridor frame work, grating and racking…very much like an oil refinery. Only a couple of the rooms and corridor junctions are covered in walls and panels and are more brightly lit and coloured. The creature seems to steer clear of these areas and prefers the air ducts and open machinery man ways.
Again, man’s utilitarian design of Nostromo works against him, albeit unwillingly: what designer could have known an alien species would be able to use the vessel against its human occupants?
The remainder of the ship’s interior colouration – the blacks, greys, gunmetal and silver, dark military interior green, rust, dripping lubricants and moisture give it a glistening finish – just like the creature’s. Nostromo’s dimly and uniquely lit corridors and bays, as well as the sounds of the ship, aid in hiding the beast. Whilst awaiting its second victim it hangs from the dangling landing gear chains, condensation raining down, the humming of the engines and life support, clinking metal from the chains, light moving and bouncing off surfaces. It actually takes multiple viewings of the film to see that the Alien is hanging in amongst the landing gear. When we see it’s tail roll down from its hiding place we finally get a glimpse of the monstrosity the beast has become as it stands fully erect to take Brett.
Captain Dallas’s attempt in the shaft proves pointless. The creature even evades the sensor Ash created by blending in perfectly with the shaft’s environment. It was there, the tracker said it was, but Dallas couldn’t see it till it moved and attacked. The creature’s physiology blends with Nostromo brilliantly: its size, speed, hostility and what appears to be an intelligence of sorts make it no match for the poor crew. Only outwitting it will prove to be the solution.
Nostromo is a vehicle for storytelling, and does it so brilliantly; but to science fiction and model-making enthusiasts she is a space vehicle, an ugly, utilitarian monstrosity…with a beauty only a fan and hardware junky can admire. The whole design is weird with strange angles of blocky protrusions, hexagonal and round nozzle engines with smaller circular thrusters inside each.
Long, spindly objects projecting from various points on the hull, tonnes and tonnes of panels, piping and geometric shapes making up the skin of the vessel…it’s a complete design contradiction. The filming model is very close to Ron Cobb’s final design of Nostromo, which went through many variations.
Now, getting a brick to fly through space…no problem…but, planet fall…”RIGHT”!!! The solution…THRUST, lots and lots of thrust…hence the massive angled square engines. What an incredible scene the landing sequence was. You truly got a sense of the scale of this ship and what it would take to land it. It’s like a small child riding a full-grown bull for the full time without getting thrown.
Nostromo fights her crew, the planetoid’s atmosphere and finally the terrain as one of her landing legs crushes a giant stone formation causing shorts, buckling and small ruptures in her systems and body…she’s damaged. How often does Nostromo go through this…every planet fall?
Her design is contradictory towards this kind of activity. Yet as techies we can’t get enough of her. We draw and make models of her interiors, we make elevational schematics of her exterior, we build models and vignettes of Nostromo for display in our homes and offices. Her enduring nature is something that goes deep into the subconscious, and means something different to all of us.
For myself I look at Nostromo like I do a person, layers and multifaceted, she’s centre stage of the film and the integral character to the story. She’s as likeable and dislikable as any human member of the crew. She frustrates us with her design in aiding the Alien, and oddly enough…we sympathize with her malfunctions and eventual demise. Everything from her complete physical design is a study in geometry and artistic fusion.
Nearly four decades ago, moviegoers were given a fright like nothing since The Exorcist. Alien hit the theatres with a scream. The cast who made up the crew, a creature like none other, and a setting… a commercial towing space vehicle “The Nostromo”, all left audiences in shock, terror and lingering thoughts of what they had witnessed for days after.
Of course she is indifferent to her crew, it’s a machine…yet through human design it can work against us as much as keep us alive. It’s an industrial ship, cold like outer space and is more suited to the creature’s comforts. Nostromo’s artisans created an icon of design and filmography. She’s as indelible as the Alien itself, two of the greatest film characters of the twentieth century.
TRANSMITTAL PROTOCOL 1809246(09)/CE
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