Book Review: ‘Alien Vault’

Arriving in an attractively sturdy cardboard slipcase that safeguards a 176-page hardcover book, ‘Alien Vault: The Definitive Story of the Making of the Film’ is true to its name. The book allows readers to dig through a treasure-trove of information, photos, concept art, storyboards and firsthand accounts of the production of Ridley Scott’s seminal vision of sci-fi terror, ‘Alien’.

Taking a short break from his editorial and review duties at Empire magazine, Ian Nathan gives fans and neophytes alike the definitive making-of story behind of one of the greatest horror films ever made. He approaches the exhaustive wealth of material in a friendly and easily-accessible narrative form, recounting small, individual events as if they happened just recently. He tells the history of the production as a significant event that will be with us forever.

The various pictures and original artwork on each page reinforce this thought. ‘Alien‘ made film history not just at the box office or in popular appeal. The 1979 movie changed how we look at film, pushing the symbolic potential of what can be done with imagery, no matter how grotesque or monstrous. It also introduced audiences to cinema’s first fully-developed, independent female action hero. Nathan explores some of these areas and offers plenty of interesting analysis, most of which can be found in the closing chapter, aptly named “Legacy.”

The book is an intimately-detailed and comprehensive account of how the film came to be, and how close it came to never being made at all. Understandably, it commences with Dan O’Bannon, who was frustrated by the demise of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt at filming Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’. Completely broke and sleeping on Ron Shusett’s couch, O’Bannon struggled with a screenplay idea then-titled ‘Memory’. He was stuck on one scene where an alien creature bursts through the chest of a human crewmember aboard a spaceship. After meeting artists H.R. Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud on Jodorowsky’s set, O’Bannon was inspired to complete his script with Shusett’s help. Of course, they had to wait until the enormous success of ‘Star Wars’ before their film could finally be greenlit.

The following chapters then trace the rewrites, which disappointed O’Bannon and Shusett, and Ridley Scott’s eventual involvement after several other filmmakers turned down the assignment. Scott was the only director to see the story’s potential beyond its B-movie trappings. He had endless battles on set with producers over budget concerns and fears of the film’s freakishly perverse imagery, especially when Giger was tasked with designing the alien and the crashed derelict spacecraft. The chapter on production design is probably one of the more fascinating sections of the book. It reveals to fans just how incredibly supportive Scott was of Giger’s intended imagery. The book also has a section dedicated to Sigourney Weaver and her iconic portrayal of Ripley.

Some of the best aspects of this handsome book – aside from Nathan’s telling of the film’s production, of course – are the wonderful on-set stills and artwork reproductions, including detailed schematics of the Nostromo and Scott’s storyboards, which were famously dubbed “Ridleygrams.” These come in separate, envelope-type pages with brief descriptions. They make an excellent addition to any fan’s collection. In fact, the hardcover alone is a must-own for collectors of film memorabilia and those fascinated by film history. It stands proudly alongside several other detailed books about movies in my library. It’s a definite keeper, and one of the best accounts I’ve read concerning Ridley Scott sci-fi horror masterpiece.

[Purchase at Amazon today.]

14 comments

  1. Jane Morgan

    Did anyone see ‘Alien’ in the theaters when it first came out?

    Did it feel as iconic as it does now?

    Will any of the movies of 2011 someday deserve a book like this?

    • EM

      I’m not sure you’re going to get a lot of original-run viewers here; I’m older than I think the posting readership tends to skew, and I was too young and tender to see Alien first-run (I probably would have dropped—or burst—dead right in the theater). But I do remember the hype and word of mouth, and I think it’s safe to say that Alien was a genuine Event.

      As for today’s movies deserving similar books, I’m not aware of any. The only 2011 film I’ve seen that I’m still excited about is Super 8, and I recognize that it’s highly derivative. Maybe you could make a book like this about that flick, but I doubt I’d make a priority of buying it. I’d rather see vault book on some of Super 8’s sources, like E.T. or Gremlins.

      • Jane Morgan

        Sometimes I wish I was born in Paris, 1953.

        To experience ‘A Clockwork Orange’ at 18 when it first hit theaters.

        To follow cinema, like a critic, going into every movie blind.

        I think I would have loved to have experienced ‘Alien’ that way.

  2. i was 6 when it came out and i remember the egg commercials and the alien toy on Saturday mornings but i dont remember it at the theater and my older brother and sister were never into alien to take me. 🙁

    • M. Enois Duarte
      Author

      That’s Giger for ya. Most all his artwork contains strong phallic and yonic visuals, which explains the frequently discussed sexual imagery and overtones of the ‘Alien’ film.

      I chose that particularly picture because it’s the one that Scott saw and pointed to when he explained to Giger how he wanted the alien creature to look — from one of Giger’s books of art, the piece is called ‘Necronomicon IV.’ Only, without the eyes.

      • EM

        This morning, after I posted above, I was going to make a second post here but got derailed by a power outage. Essentially, I was going to thank E. for covering this book; I’d seen it on Amazon and was curious about it. But now I have another, far more important reason to thank E.

        Thank you, thank you, thank you, E., for introducing me to the word yonic and, by extension, the noun form yoni. I’ve needed these words for ages. Thank you for helping me map them onto my conceptual space.

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