Swiss artist H. R. Giger, who has died at the age of 74, was known for biomechanical visions replete with horror and strange beauty. Few designers with an eye for all that is strange and spectacular in sci-fi have remained uninfluenced by his remarkable work. Empire's Ian Nathan, author of Alien Vault: The Definitive Story Behind The Film, pays tribute.
H. R. Giger was, of course, involved in Alien long before Ridley Scott. The mercurial Swiss artist, who had pursued a unique style he described as “biomechanical”, was part of the team of artists and eccentrics (including Salvador Dali) assembled to envisage Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted adaptation of Dune, and had been retained by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon to visualise the eggs and facehugger for his B-movie concept Starbeast. The film that would eventually evolve into Scott’s science-fiction masterpiece.
But before Scott was hired, Alien producer Gordon Carroll was so appalled by what he saw, he declared Giger to be “sick” and had Fox dispense with his services. When Scott, possessed of one of the greatest directorial eyes in the business, was growing increasingly frustrated over the reams conventional alien designs he was given — tentacled ‘Martians’ straight out of The War Of The Worlds —O’Bannon placed Giger’s Necronomicon (a best-selling collection of his biomechanical visions) into his hands. Scott was enthralled by what he saw, and got on the first plane to Zurich. Giger would be responsible for everything “alien” in the film: planet, spacecraft, eggs, facehugger, chestburster and the unforgettable xenomorph.
Hans Rudolf Giger was born in Chur, Switzerland in 1940, and grew up in a house with “few windows”. He claimed to have been tormented by nightmares from an early age, visions of great machines, enveloped in piping, and somehow coated in layers of skin complete with suppurating wounds. Inspired by the likes of Hieronymus Bosch and Dali, he channelled his torments into art. Paintings he later described as “self psychiatry”. In film terms, only David Lynch has come close to replicating such a primal mix of biology, mechanism, and psychotrauma, And yet Scott was drawn to his “realism.” It felt real. It felt alive.
Scott would have him build sets, sculpting the interior of the alien craft (the “derelict”) into something “with the biomechanical character of a spaceship built by non-humans.” The results were like nothing cinema had seen before — a genuinely alien vision. “You’re not even sure it’s even there,” marvelled Scott at how the division between machine and lifeform had been so completely blurred. An extraordinary enveloping aesthetic that would not only define the Alien franchise, but reshape science fiction, stalled in the clean lines of Kubrick’s 2001 and Lucas’ Star Wars. Even Carroll was won around. “It began to get to you,” he admitted.
On set Giger proved quite the character.
Despite the blistering summer temperatures, he would always be dressed head-to-toe in black leather. The crew nicknamed him “Count Dracula”. John Hurt was reminded of Harold Pinter. He was forever squabbling with the studio about money, and never took criticism well. He was fired and rehired again. Although, he would later ask his fellow crewmembers to forgive him “for his outbreaks of rage.”
Above all, Giger was one of nature’s great provocateurs. And, much to Scott’s delight, he still had Fox terrified. A first design of the Alien egg featured what could only be construed as a Catholic cross-shaped opening. A second was plainly a vagina. “I had lovingly endowed this egg with an inner and outer vulva,” the artist reported. The final design, which peeled open in response to Kane’s touch, was slightly more flower-like. When Giger came to designing the entrance to the derelict, he got his way. Look again, Kane climbs inside through a fifteen-foot vagina.