NB: The following contains major spoilers for Alien: Covenant.
If Prometheus strongly hinted at the fact, Alien: Covenant pretty much confirms it – Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels are primarily about David, the android played by Michael Fassbender. Introduced as the unblinking space butler to billionaire industrialist Peter Weyland, David proves to be Prometheus‘ mischievous catalyst and most charismatic character: obsessed with Lawrence Of Arabia, quietly resentful of the human crew, and wont to experiment on them using the black space goo (or pathogen) he finds on LV-223.
Alien: Covenant deepens David’s backstory a bit further, reintroducing the synthetic as an embittered genius with daddy issues and a god complex. Having spent all those lonely hours in space, watching over slumbering humans on ships and mulling over the meaning of the universe, David turns into something of a mad scientist: fiddling with Engineer goo and assorted animals, he’s intent on creating his own idea of a perfect life-form: the spiky, eyeless predator the crew of the Nostromo eventually encounter in the original Alien.
In Alien: Covenant, one of the film’s battiest and most incongruous images is that of David, with his long, lank hair, alone in his workshop of body parts and what appear to be charcoal sketches of unholy monsters. It’s like something out of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, certainly – one of Covenant’s many allusions to gothic and romantic literature – but it could also be viewed as an affectionate homage to the Alien‘s real creator: HR Giger.
In 1978, it was Giger playing the mad scientist. The Swiss artist had already achieved acclaim – and some notoriety – for his blackly surreal airbrushed paintings, which served as an exorcism for his nightmares. It was one of these images – entitled Necronom IV – that Scott had seen while he was trying to decide what the title monster in his film should look like. Taking one look at the creature in the painting, with its exposed ribs and elongated skull, Scott said, “That’s it”. Ridley had found his alien.
Over the course of a baking-hot summer, Giger worked on bringing to life Alien‘s most unsettling elements. Under the aegis of Scott and Dan O’Bannon – the sceenwriter and now Alien‘s art director – Giger helped design all kinds of unearthly set-pieces and props for the film. With an assortment of animal bones, spare parts from cars, clay and huge chunks of foam, Giger sculpted the surface of the haunted-looking planet LV-426, the horseshoe-shaped ship discovered there, and the dead pilot lying inside. He crafted those icky-looking eggs, whose tops open like the petals on some abominable flower. And, of course, he worked tirelessly on the Alien itself, with Italy’s Carlo Rambaldi (who’d later design the far cuddlier E.T.) coming up with the mechanism that worked its deadly inner jaws.
With his long-ish, lank hair, black clothes and leather jacket, Giger was regarded as something of an outsider on set. Giger worked away in a secluded corner at Shepperton Studios, surrounded by his bits of bone and scary drawings. One crewmember compared Giger to Peter Lorre; another thought he seemed like something out of a HP Lovecraft story, and that he kept his jacket on all the time because he wanted to hide the fact that he wasn’t really human.
Whether Ridley Scott consciously meant them or not, the parallels between David’s antics in Alien: Covenant and Giger at Shepperton in the late 70s are quite striking. Both alone in their cramped spaces, cluttered up with weird-looking drawings and oddments, crafting their hideous beasts. Even if Scott wasn’t consciously channelling the spirit of Giger, who sadly died in 2014, there are plenty of allusions elsewhere.
One shot on the planet Paradise, which arrives shortly after David makes his dramatic entrance, is a clear allusion to The Isle Of The Dead, painted by the Swiss painter Arnold Bocklin. Giger had painted his own homage to the painting in 1977, and Scott appears to be giving an affectionate nod to them in one brief shot, with its cypress trees looming up against a night sky.
Back inside David’s lab, we later discover the true fate of Elizabeth Shaw, the nominal protagonist from Prometheus who’s vanished between films. There, laid out on a table, internal organs ghoulishly laid bare, is Shaw – it’s a prosthetic rather than a thankless cameo from actress Noomi Rapace, but it’s clearly Shaw, alright. Our glimpse of this desecrated corpse is so brief that the Giger homage is easily missed; look again at the way the effects designers have arranged it – you can see it in these leaked set photos – and you’ll see that it’s an allusion to one of the artist’s most famous paintings.
Called Li 1, painted in 1974, it’s a portrait of Giger’s then-wife, the model and actress Li Tobler. Giger painted Tobler several times, both before and after her tragic death in 1975 at the age of 27. In his paintings, Giger imagined Li as a kind of dark goddess, bones and serpents draped around her head like some bio-mechanical crown. Maybe Giger would have smiled at one of his images being used in the midst of such a grotesque scene – Prometheus‘ heroine and her undignified end.
That the Alien, in all the forms of its life-cycle – egg, facehugger, chestburster, eight-foot demon – are back in Covenant could be seen as pandering to the hunger of the franchise’s loyal fans. Yet it could also be read as a testament to how important Giger’s work is to the whole series. While the artist wasn’t as directly involved with the sequels as he was on Alien, their strongest moments hew closely to Giger’s original work. The xenomorph nest in Aliens was conceived by James Cameron and his army of artists and designers, but its ribbed, suggestive forms could have sprung directly from a Giger painting.
It’s surely telling that, although Prometheus was notably light on Giger monsters, the most striking images were still taken from his art. Those domed buildings on LV-223, which appear to have a gigantic, weathered skull on top, were evidently inspired by Giger’s work on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune adaptation. The stunning relief mural within, depicting a xenomorph in a Christ-like pose, was sculpted by artist Steve Messing, but could easily have sprung from one of Giger’s nightmares.
Then there’s the springboard for what currently promises to be an entire series of Alien prequels: the once mysterious being dubbed the Space Jockey, tucked away in his horseshoe-shaped craft. Scott imagines that the Space Jockeys are actually Engineers; bald-headed, inscrutable extraterrestrials who hold the key of life. We can only wonder what the Space Jockey meant to Giger; like most of his artwork, it’s like something from a half-forgotten nightmare.
It’s that nightmarish quality that is still the Alien franchise’s lifeblood, even as it spirals off into other worlds and more eccentric arenas. The coldness, the uncaring universe of invasive lifeforms, the Lovecraft references – all of those things were in Giger’s art from the beginning.
Without Giger, the mad scientist who created the original perfect organism, the Alien franchise would have lost its potency long ago.