Book Review – The Book of Alien


It’s no secret that we here at Nerdlocker are very excited about Prometheus. With the film opening so near-at-hand, we each have our own way of getting ready. A few of us are repeatedly watching Alien and Aliens, some of us are sleeping with our plush poseable facehuggers and chestbursters, and others are getting in the mood by reading Alien related books. One such book, The Book of Alien, was originally published in 1979 to accompany the release of the first film and is meant to take you behind the scenes to see how the ground-breaking film went from idea, to script, to drawings, to film. While it’s difficult to not love a book with pictures and stories about the making of Alien, this one does leave a lot to be desired.

The beginning of this book sheds some light on how the script for Alien came about. Dan O’Bannon had just returned from France where he, H.R. Giger, and a few others were working on a film version of Frank Herbert’s Dune. After that fell through, O’Bannon returned to Los Angeles and crashed on the sofa of his friend, Ron Shusett. Being that both of them were screenwriters, they decided to work on a project together and ended up combining one part of an earlier script they had, one part from a gremlins on a WWII bomber script, and threw in a horrible monster. Ridley Scott climbed on board as director, and when O’Bannon showed him Necronomicon, a collection of Giger’s drawings, they knew they’d found their monster artist.

The book helps you realize truly what a perfect combination of talent this project had. It’s rare to pull an awesome movie from a bad or an okay script, so the value of O’Bannon and Shusett is highlighted justly. Scott, who doesn’t use script readers as he prefers to read every thing he’s handed, read the script in forty minutes and immediately fell in love with how simple and direct it was. And of course a great director needs to not only have an excellent vision for a project, but he also needs to know when it’s best to use someone else’s vision. The decision to bring in Giger for the visual design was arguably the one that took this film over the top.

Early spaceship design.
From the beginning, Scott had said that he doesn’t want this film to be your typical “man in a rubber suit” horror movie. While the design of the creature(s) was important, this book helps highlight all of the other choices that made this film such a success. Pages and pages of pictures show a very small subset of the thousands of drawings made for the Nostromo (the spaceship that hauls a mineral refinery), the planetoid (referred to as “LV-426” in Aliens) and the derelict spaceship. When you look at some of the drawings and compare them to the actual look of the film, it’s amazing to think how different the movie would have been.

Perhaps the hardest part of science-fiction films is making the science part more real and believable so that the fictional elements can seem plausible. Looking at the pictures and reading about the way the sets were designed and all the tiny, minute details that were added, you really gain an understanding of the level of realism the crew was trying to achieve. The interiors of the spaceships needed to create a realistic background that fit the time period and the function of that environment, but they needed to remain simply backgrounds. It’s a hard line to walk, but in the end it’s obvious that the perfect choices were made so that the characters and everything they were experiencing were more real to the audience.

Filming the Nostromo model.
These insights into the small decisions, and even some big ones, really helped to make this book enjoyable. As big of an Alien fan as I am, I never knew that most of the controls/buttons in the bridge actually functioned. It helped the actors get into their roles and also made all of their actions look more realistic, so instead of fiddling with “dummy controls” the actors had to essentially learn how to control their environment. Of course any pyro would be more interested in the fact that the flamethrowers were real and functional. There’s even a picture of Sigourney Weaver (Ripley) practicing shooting one outside the studio.

Though there are some interesting facts here-and-there, the real gold in this book lies with the pictures. I loved seeing all the different designs for the Nostromo and the refinery that were never used. Then you have some turned-down (thankfully) examples of what the alien creatures could look like, before Giger came on board. The great thing about Giger being attached to the project is he did more than just draw – he helped sculpt, build and paint whatever he could. So there are some cool pictures of models and aliens in different states of completion. In seeing the different concept drawings for the planetoid, the space jockey and aliens, and the derelict craft and then comparing to what actually made it into the film, you really gain an understanding of how Giger’s vision helped elevate this film and separate it from previous sci-fi standards. The impact and horror of this film would never have been able to be achieved without his unique and, well, “alien” designs.

On top of what information this book offers in relation to Alien, it is interesting to read about certain subplots and scenes that were cut from the original film but seemed to have made their way into Prometheus. Yes, I’ve seen the film, and no, I won’t tell you how it was quite yet. But I will say, as I’ve been saying since I saw the first trailer, that Prometheus and Alien are definitely linked. I understand why Ridley Scott would want to tell people that this isn’t a prequel for the original film, but the connection is so obvious that he just needs to let it go and embrace it. Even some of the original concept drawings you’ll find in the book can be seen in the upcoming film, so it was fun to read through it and pick out all the different elements that were recently given life.

Giger hieroglyphics detailing the Alien's reproductive cycle on the walls of the derelict ship for a scene that was eventually dropped from the final script.
When it comes down to it, the only thing that makes this book enjoyable is the subject matter. As I stated before, you just can’t go wrong with behind-the-scenes pictures and anecdotes from the making of Alien. Yet if feels as though this book was hastily put together. There are pictures that span two pages and where the meat of the picture falls is right on the fold, so the picture is pretty much ruined. Then you have some pictures that take up a whole page though there is no need for them too, and then other pictures that are far more interesting and full of more details are small. I understand that these pictures were taken in the late ’70s, but if you can enhance the film and re-release it on blu-ray, you can enhance the photos when re-publishing this book.

I also had a problem with the structure of this book. The introduction was great and was a beautiful way to suck you into the magic of creating such a masterpiece, but then each section of text seems disjointed from the others, and it seems that whole parts of the process are either glossed over or simply left out. I would have preferred that the book been split up into more sensible and clear sections. So you could start with pre-production and cover the writing of the script and getting everyone on board. Then you would move on to production, which this book tends to concentrate on but fails to provide desired information about the human characters/actors. You should then cover some post-production details, such as the editing of the film and the musical score. These two elements are huge reasons that the film was so successful and engrossing, so the fact that the book doesn’t even talk about them at all really disappointed me.

Lastly, a good book for me will have a nice conclusion/summation. I understand that when this book was first published, it was to coincide with the film release, so it would be hard to touch on the critical response to the film. However when this book was republished, there’s no reason not to have added a section discussing how the film was received or even the filmmakers’ own reactions to the final product. Stepping outside of my Alien fandom, this book just doesn’t cover enough, and all the information and pictures seem thrown together haphazardly. But from a fan standpoint, who cares? It’s a book about one of my favorite movies of all time! For everything it lacked, The Book of Alien still managed to be enjoyable and interesting, so I give it 3 out of 5 Nerdskulls.

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Anarchy Jones