Remembering H.R. Giger and His Disturbing Visions
H.R. Giger, the visionary who designed the sets and eponymous monster from the classic film Alien, died yesterday at the age of 74. He made Hollywood bend to accommodate, if not necessarily accept his unique style vision. Giger took an ontological approach to the fantastical — using the surreal, or the unreal to dig at at a greater, ineffable truth. Like David Cronenberg, Giger viewed the human body as a canvas, and his mutilations are at once disturbing and profound. The inherently violent nature of birth is captured with discomforting immediacy in The Birth Machine, a sculpture that channels Lovecraft in its lurid aesthetics as well as its deeper, deliberate ponderings, and his collection Necronomicron is suffused with a painful, barbaeric lust.
Giger sustained a brooding and enigmatic atmosphere about his public persona that only heightened the awe of his work. Working only at night and tapping into the (apparently horrific) images swirling in his dreams, the Swiss artist conjured visions of humans and machines synthesized into hellish hybrids — flesh fused with metal, nightmares rendered visceral, artifice made frighteningly real.
He first started painting for art therapy before enrolling at the School of Applied Sciences in Zurich. In 1973, his cover art for Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s album Brain Salad Surgery (a far less abrasive album that its title insinuates), brought him greater recognition, and he soon became a consultant and designer for films.
Giger’s iconic design for Ridley Scott’s Alien remains his calling card, and with good reason. The film, one of the scariest ever made and one of two masterpieces helmed by Scott (along with Blade Runner), unfolds at a deliberate pace. Scott, still a patient and articulate filmmaker back then, lets the camera linger in the aphotic confines of the industrial spaceship, its walls ribbed with pipes and wires and tendrils that act as a foil to the interior of the derelict alien spaceship. The alien ship on LV-46 is a monolithic mass of indecipherable secretes, replete with apparatuses that seem to blur the line between organic and artificial. At once vast and claustrophobic, the world of Alien looks like nothing else that came before it and, save for James Cameron’s sequel, nothing else that came after it.
Giger’s sets, which he hand painted, give Scott the room — literally and metaphorically — to set his tone. The Xenomorph, which wasn’t explicitly named until Cameron’s film in 1986, is Giger’s most famous achievement, but his sets are integral to the look and feel of Alien.
Giger said that he was influenced by Dalí, but it’s hard to see any resemblance between the two. Dalí worked in nebulous shapes — things melting and dropping, devoid of structure. Giger, on the other hand, worked in hard, tangible materials, his nightmares manifested as corporeal. You see Dalí’s work in your dreams, and you wake up to face Giger’s in reality.
Giger’s Alien, adapted from his own lithograph called Necronom IV, was bipedal but slow, a creeping menace that lurked in the shadows whose movement we never really saw. When one unfortunate character encounters the creature in the tight corridors of the ship’s air ducts, the creature thrusts out its arms, fingers splayed, like a spider waiting for its prey and then snatching it. Cameron’s creatures in Aliens are more insectoid, with hard ridges adorning their long head, a bigger blade replacing the tiny barb on the tip of their tail, and a queen with long, spindly legs who runs after her prey.
Cameron famously wrote Giger a letter saying that he, Cameron, was going to eschew Giger’s designs and create his own in order to distance his film from Scott’s, though Giger’s influence is obvious. Cameron replaces the greenish hue of Alien with a militant blue, and injects a dose of adrenaline to the material, but Giger’s DNA seeps into every set piece, every creature design.
H.R. Giger’s meretricious imagery in Alien ushered in a new wave of science fiction films that stood in bold-faced contrast to Star Wars and its space opera spawn. The progenitor of cyberpunk William Gibson has stated that Giger was a big influence on his vision of the future, and Ridley Scott brought the claustrophobic sprawl of a massive world collapsing to Blade Runner. Giger’s distinct hint of algolagnia, or a sort of sexual pleasure derived from pain, remains brazen and upsetting 40 years later.
Here’s a fascinating look behind the scenes of Alien with Giger.