Dan O’Bannon, 1946–2009


Re-release poster by Bemis Balkind.

Alien was a big deal for me when it appeared in late 1979, one of those films that seems to arrive at exactly the right moment. I’d just left school, I was eagerly reading reprints of French and Belgian comic strips in Heavy Metal magazine, and also paperback reprints of science fiction stories from New Worlds; I was listening to Hawkwind and becoming increasingly obsessed with HP Lovecraft. I was, in short, the target audience for a serious SF-themed horror film with contributions from major artists like HR Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud, and I went to see it three times in a row.

Watching Star Wars two years earlier (for which Dan O’Bannon created the computer displays), I’d enjoyed the special effects but been disappointed by its space-opera tone and dumb heroics. HR Giger’s large-format Necronomicon art book was published in the UK the same year and the sight of his work was a revelation for the way it pushed Dalí-esque Surrealism to a pitch of unprecedented mutation and malevolence. A year later his paintings were appearing in Omni magazine but it was Alien which exploded his popularity. Throughout 1979 you could hardly open a magazine or newspaper without finding a Giger interview or examples of his work. Alien benefited from the SF boom that Star Wars generated but Dan O’Bannon didn’t need George Lucas’s feeble mythology to point him towards science fiction, he’d already made one low-budget sf film, Dark Star, with John Carpenter, and was planning the effects for Jodorowsky’s ill-fated Dune project years before the world had heard of Luke Skywalker. Dune introduced him to Moebius, and the pair collaborated on an SF-noir strip, The Long Tomorrow, which was published in Heavy Metal in 1977. But it was Giger’s connection with the Dune project which proved crucial for Alien:

“(Dune) collapsed so badly,” O’Bannon says, “that I ended up in L.A. without any money, without an apartment, without a car, with half my belongings back in Paris and the other half in storage.”

He retreated to the sofa of a friend, screenwriter Ron Shusett, and didn’t leave it for a week. But depressed or not, O’Bannon knew he had to get back to work. He got his files and typewriter out of storage, and he and Shusett went to work on stacks and stacks of partially completed ideas.

“We pulled out one that I liked very much,” he says, “an old script called Memory that was half-finished and was basically what the first half of Alien is now. I told Ron I’d never been able to figure out the rest of the story. So he read it and said, ‘Well, you told me another idea you had once for a movie. It was the one where gremlins get onto a B-17 bomber during World War II and give the pilots a lot of trouble. So why don’t you make that the second half and put it on a spaceship?’

“That was a great idea, but then we had to figure out the monster. Well, I hadn’t been able to get Hans Rudi Giger off my mind since I left France. His paintings had a profound effect on me. I had never seen anything that was quite as horrible and at the same time as beautiful as his work. And so I ended up writing a script about a Giger monster.”

The working title was Star Beast. O’Bannon had a fortunate brainstorm late one night as he continued to write while Shusett slept. “I was writing dialogue and one of the characters said, ‘What are we going to do about the alien?’ The word came out of the page at me and I said, ‘Alien. It’s a noun and an adjective.’ So I went in the other room and shook Ron awake and told him and he said, ‘Yeah, OK,’ and went back to sleep. But I knew I had found a really hot title.”

The Book of Alien (1979) by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross

Lest we forget, it was O’Bannon who insisted that Ridley Scott look at Giger’s work during the production of the film after artist Ron Cobb failed to produce a sufficiently nightmarish creature. O’Bannon’s script was mauled by Walter Hill who removed sub-plots, and further scenes were trimmed to speed the pace, but Alien‘s unique atmosphere remains as potent today as it was in 1979. It’s ironic that O’Bannon died in the week that James Cameron’s Avatar (which happens to star Sigourney Weaver) is released. To watch all four Alien films in sequence is to witness progressively diminishing returns, and it was Cameron’s sequel which set the pattern for the later films by dropping the adjective part of the O’Bannon’s title in favour of the noun. There had been plenty of movie monsters before but it was the inhuman quality which we label “alien” that O’Bannon and Giger brought to SF cinema. It’s a quality that few have been able to deliver since, not least in Avatar which (from what I’ve seen) looks less alien than something Frank R Paul might have painted in the 1930s. O’Bannon did a lot more after Alien, of course, but it’s his first big success which will always mean the most to me. I recommend Ridley Scott’s director’s cut from 2003 which restored scenes and shots removed from the original release.

Remembering the late, great Dan O’Bannon
The first action heroine: Ellen Ripley and Alien, 30 years on

Previously on { feuilleton }
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune
The monstrous tome

6 thoughts on “Dan O’Bannon, 1946–2009”

  1. Bravo John for this shout for O’Bannon. Not a name the average cinema audience are likely to be familiar with. Given the influence the film has exerted on every ‘Monster in Space’ movie ever since… the bad as well as the good… it’s hard to imagine the direction the genre would have taken without him. Giger’s design was one of the most unique visions I’d ever seen committed to the screen when I sat riveted in a cinema in Leicester Square in 1979, and even when I catch it on T.V. three decades on it still makes the hair at the back of my neck rise up. And how weird that Giger’s unique vision has never since made it to the screen in any way that the artist would approve of.)

    Alien changed the way science fiction would be depicted on film thereafter. Quite an achievement. Who’s going to top that and with what? From what I’ve seen it’s not likely to be James Cameron with the much-hyped Avatar, though my dislike for the over-use of CGI is probably fuelling a prejudice here.

  2. Thanks Clive. Titan Books did a nice volume, HR Giger’s Film Design, which details all the films he’s worked on since Alien, large and small. The feature films are nearly all compromised by studio interference or arguments, with no one giving him free reign the way Ridley Scott did.

    Alien was a major feature but by today’s standards was quite small-scale in terms of production. Giger helped construct the sets, especially the Space Jockey (which he always complained was unfinished when they shot it), and this no doubt helped everyone maintain his vision. He was contracted to work on Alien 3 but fell out with the producers. That film could have been as good as Alien in its own way. The script director Vincent Ward wanted to direct would have featured an incredible wooden monastery world designed by architect Lebbeus Woods, as well as new Giger designs. But instead of getting something great, the producers and studio interfered to such an extent that they alienated (so to speak!) everyone involved, including director David Fincher who disowns the film.

    The Giger film I’d really love to see is Clair Noto’s The Tourist, a William Burroughs-like story of alien creatures living in New York and operating as sex workers. Unfortunately that film was also blighted by arguments.

    Avatar doesn’t interest me at all, I’m afraid. I’m sick of Cameron’s obsession with military hardware which gets into everything bar Titanic; he may claim to be pushing anti-war statements but he wrote Rambo before he made Aliens and he still loves playing with those planes and helicopters. I was pleased to see some comments on a review earlier today from people pointing out that not everyone can see 3D images. I can’t since my eyes are permanently misaligned and I have no stereoscopic vision. It doesn’t matter how great the depth of field is, I’ll never see it.

  3. I really liked O’ Bannon’s work. I even have a soft spot for that “Lifeforce” movie he wrote for Tobe Hooper, from a Colin Wilson book. It’s trashy but fun (the whole “naked space vampire” thing may have had something to do with it as well). “Total Recall” would have been unwatchable without the twists of the plot. And “The Long Tomorrow” is just beautiful. I hadn’t realised until now how much he had influenced my tastes in film. And then there’s Alien and Dark Star…

    Rest In Peace.

  4. Hi Dimitris. I quite enjoyed Lifeforce at the time, it had some of the berserk energy of the Quatermass films. I also enjoyed Return of the Living Dead which O’Bannon directed although I’m so sick of zombies now I’d have trouble watching it again.

  5. Oh yes, it did have a Quattermass/Doctor Who vibe. I saw from O’Bannon’s obituary that he had also directed a film called Dead And Buried that’s supposed to be good, along with an adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward (called The Ressurected). I intend to seek them out.

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