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What makes Alien the classic it is? Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley – one of the greatest kick-ass characters in all of sci-fi? H.R. Giger’s incredible creatures? Ridley Scott’s direction? The believable, relatable characters (brought to life by one of the best ensemble casts in either horror or sci-fi history)? In truth, it’s probably a combination of these elements meshing together to create something far greater than the sum of its parts.
But it could have been very, very different, and Alien: The Original Screenplay gives us a fascinating look at what might have been had the stars had not aligned the way they did.
The original screenplay, by Dan O’Bannon was missing many of the elements would that go on to make it a classic. There’s no Ripley, no Nostromo (instead we have the less-inspired Snark), no Dallas, Parker or any of the others, and the film’s minimalist script is even more bare-bones here. Add to that, the version presented here is pre either Scott or Giger’s involvement, and we have a very different version of a classic.
Gone are Giger’s grotesque other-worldly, phallic designs – and Scott’s beautiful capturing of them. Instead, we’re presented with different, earlier versions of the alien’s various incarnations, the space jockey and his derelict ship, as well as the characters and the world they inhabit. They’re equally elaborate, more colourful, but less awe-inspiring (and definitely less perverse) that Giger’s timeless designs.
Likewise, the familiar characters are replaced with a new set. And without great actors to breathe life into them, O’Bannon’s lightly sketched characters (which he deliberately left vague, so they could be tailored to the actors cast in the roles) feel lightweight and interchangeable, meaning when they’re inevitably dispatched in a variety of grisly ways, we feel nothing for them.
The story meanwhile will be at once familiar and strangely different to the one fans are familiar with, retracing many of the same story beats. Distress calls, derelict (non-fallopian tube-shaped) ships, rudely-interrupted meals, cats, flamethrowers and airlocks are all present and correct, as are the alien pyramid omitted – probably wisely – from the movie, and the cocooned crew members (another sensible omission, but you can see it in Scott’s director’s cut if you’re curious).
What’s noticeably absent are the additional threats the movie presents, leaving the alien as the sole source of terror. There are no androids, no ominous employer willing to sacrifice the crew for profit, no sinister computer, and the tensions between the crew are largely absent. And while it leaves for a more focussed script, the singular threat lessens the feeling of dread. In the movie, the crew are in an impossible situation – in a self-contained environment where everything is trying to kill them, from the xenomorph to one of their crew – the physical embodiment of their soleless employer.
It’s a far-lesser version of Alien than we’re used to, but far from devoid of merit. It’s still a great story, beautifully adapted by author Christano Seixas and artist Guilherme Balbi, as well as an indication of the sometimes-torturous process that a film can go through or the journey from script to screen. It’s a fascinating look at a what-might-have-been version of Alien, but ultimately, you feel the changes Ridley Scott made were very much for the best.