With Alien Vault, Ian Nathan has created the book of the year for film fans, one they will revisit in their library many times over, as I know I will, because of the outstanding job he has done compiling the history of Ridley Scott’s Alien. Starting from its origins as Dan O’Bannon’s incomplete story called Memory, Nathan is extremely thorough detailing the film’s creation, its enduring legacy, and the franchise that was spawned.
The book opens on the set as the cast and crew filmed the film’s most iconic moment when the title character literally burst onto the scene. Interviews and still photos from the set help bring the moment to life. Nathan then takes us all the way back to the beginning when O’Bannon was inspired to create his own project after his collaboration with fellow USC classmate John Carpenter ended when O’Bannon didn’t get all the credit he felt he deserved on the sci fi comedy Dark Star. For those who don’t know it, the premise will sound very familiar to Alien fans, as Nathan describes it as “the story of four seedy astronauts on a cramped spaceship assailed by an alien.”
Demonstrating that others can dictate one’s fate, Alien’s creation was due to the failure of one project and the success of another. O’Bannon was called in to help develop special effects for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s vision of Frank Herbert’s Dune before there was a completed script. The funding never came through, but O’Bannon would meet artists Moebius and H.R. Giger, who made valuable contributions to the look of Alien. Thanks to the great success of George Lucas’ Star Wars, every studio was looking for a science fiction film, and O’Bannon reveals “the only script [20th Century Fox] had was Alien, so they greenlit it.”
Through his reporting and participant interviews, Nathan guides the reader through the substantial, though uncredited, changes to the original script by producers David Giler and Walter Hill; the challenges director Ridley Scott dealt with in making what would be his breakout film; the second test screening in Dallas; the Academy Awards won (Best Visual Effects) and lost (Best Art Direction went to All That Jazz); the Director’s Cut in connection to the film’s 25th anniversary; and even the sequels, comics, and video games.
Alien Vault is filled with great behind-the-scenes photos, the ones from the set are especially impressive; many pictures by the talented artists involved; script pages with handwritten notes; and early mock-ups of posters that pale in comparison to the iconic egg cracking open. Housed in wax-paper envelopes are Enclosures, items to be taken out and examined, giving the book a Griffin and Sabine quality. There are recreations of Ridleygrams (Scott’s storyboards), Nostromo schematics, Giger paintings, a sticker of Rob Cobb’s Nostromo rainbow emblem, a script page with Polaroids, and Ridley’s notes, tiny promotional posters. The most mind-bending element of all is seeing Kenyan actor Bolaji Badejo wearing just the legs and tail of his alien costume.
Ian Nathan has set a high standard for making-of film books with the amazing Alien Vault, correctly subtitled as “the definitive story of the making of the film,” that even he might have trouble topping it, but I certainly want him to try because all films, particularly the classics, deserve to have their story preserved this well.