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Why H.R. Giger’s Alien design is still iconic decades later

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When Alien arrived in theaters in May 1979, it introduced us to a horror icon: the predatory Xenomorph. In his latest video, Kristian Williams takes a look at H.R. Geiger’s infamous design and investigates how and why it has resonated over decades.

Williams typically focuses on animation for his video essays. Fittingly, he takes a close look at one of the things that really makes the original Alien so good: H.R. Giger’s incredible artwork.

Giger was a Swiss artist who had studied architecture and industrial design and produced surreal, gothic artwork. Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon had met Giger while the two had been involved with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed Dune movie, and he recommended that the artist be brought on to Alien help inspire the look of the film’s titular antagonist. Director Ridley Scott was taken with Giger’s work, and ultimately pulled the creature directly from one of his illustrations.

Giger noted that he wanted it to be beautiful and graceful

Williams points to a couple of things that make the Xenomorph such a lasting icon, and how that fed into the story itself. The creature is deeply unsettling, a weird mash-up of human and alien that departs from what film has typically used for creatures to that point. Giger noted that he wanted it to be beautiful and graceful, rather than something that’s gross or disgusting. It’s "a distorted, biomechanical reflection of man," Williams explains, and its terrifying nature comes down to its simplicity. It is the perfect killing machine, which is reflected in its violent physiology, something that ultimately drives the plot of the film.

Giger’s aesthetic informed the broader production design for the movie. Williams notes that the artist had been brought on to "shape the entirety of LV-426," the film’s central setting, to keep that disturbing look and feel, while another artist created all of the human-created environments. It was "two separate brains working on two different worlds," Ridley Scott says. Giger helped design many of the sets and costumes, including the Xenomorph — which included a real human skull. Williams goes on to say that because Giger was coming in from outside of the film industry, he was able to bring some real originality to the production design.

Williams notes that the Xenomorph has no equal in film, and he’s completely right: there are few icons that come anywhere close to matching the horrifying nature of Giger’s creation, and it’s likely to stay that way.