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HR Giger: The man who changed our view of aliens

About the author

Described by the Times as “the world’s most enthusiastic man” and the Daily Mail as someone whose “wit and enthusiasm can enliven the dullest of topics”,  Quentin is a broadcaster, film critic and author best known for presenting the UK's most listened to science programme, The Material World on BBC Radio 4 . It’s “quite the best thing on radio”, according to Bill Bryson. You can find him on Twitter at @materialworld

  • Revolutionary design
    HR Giger’s concept for Ridley Scott’s film Alien is one of the most influential in moviemaking, creating an alien with few humanoid features (AFP/Getty Images)
  • Mechanical animals
    Giger described his unsettling style as biomechanical, and attributed its cold look to his suffering of night terrors. He also cited Salvador Dali as an influence. (AP)
  • Image of man
    Up until Alien many visions of extraterrestrials looked like us; bipedal figures with a head and body shape much like a human's. (Science Photo Library)
  • Doctor’s nemesis
    The Daleks in Doctor Who were an early attempt to create something as inhuman as possible; the mutated creature inside protected by an armoured shell. (BBC)
  • Universal family
    The pantheon of humanoids in the Star Trek TV series and films were explained as all being descendents of the same humanoid race. (Getty Images)
  • Intergalactic visitors
    Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the aliens’ basic physical similarity to humanity helps underline their peaceful nature. (Rex Features)
  • Sentient sea
    Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem’s imagined an alien that was an intelligent ocean, inhabiting the far-off planet of Solaris. (20th Century Fox)
  • Alien apartheid
    Advances in computer-generated imagery (CGI) allowed films like District 9 to create more lifelike – and alien – entities, but many still echo the human form. (Tristar Pictures)
The Swiss artist and designer rewrote the rules on movie monsters, which makes Quentin Cooper wonder why we’ve always thought aliens look like humans?

Surrealist, sculptor and set designer HR Giger has died. He’s best remembered for stretching our minds with his stretched-head design for the creature in 1979’s original – very original – Alien.

35 years and many spin-offs later, Giger’s “xenomorph” creation has become so familiar, it’s hard to remember how unnervingly disturbing it was when first glimpsed through the murk and shadows in Ridley Scott’s film (see video below). It rewrote the rules on movie monsters – presenting something metallic and phallic, sinuous and skeletal, insectoid and reptilian. Although it quite deliberately still had some human characteristics, it was deeply scary and genuinely, unprecedentedly, alien.

Before Giger’s creature, most extra-terrestrials on screen looked more or less the same as we do. Maybe bigger or smaller, perhaps a different colour or with some features extended or borrowed from another animal. But essentially human. And it wasn’t just on screen they shared so much with us: right across art and science-fiction stories and even comic books, life from beyond Earth usually appeared uncannily like life on Earth.

Why? Is there a reason we tend to think of Little Green Men from Mars rather than Big Eyed Beans from Venus? Part of the explanation is straightforward. For film and TV-makers without computer generated imagery it was a problem creating believable aliens, and near impossible without having an actor dressed up to look “other worldly”. So although Earth faced endless cinematic invasions from other planets, out of sheer necessity almost every close encounter was with someone – or some thing – who seemed closely related.

Often it would just be taken as read that we are what intelligent life looks right across the Universe, as typified in classic movies like The Day The Earth Stood Still. Or there would be some added extras to flag up that although humanoid, a character was still not quite human. Being long running TV sci-fi series, the various versions of Star Trek and Doctor Who have often pushed their designers to their limits and beyond in attempting to find new combinations of prosthetics and make-up to give their many aliens a distinctive look. After over 25 years of the Enterprise bumping into different permutations of pointy-eared, bulging-brained, corrugated-forehead humanoids with extreme skin disorders, an episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation (The Chase) tried to explain the similarities – by having all of them stemming from the same ancient alien race that long ago seeded life across the galaxy.

There are honourable exceptions: when the Daleks first appeared on Doctor Who in 1963 they managed to be menacingly unlike anything anyone had ever seen (and still do as the video below shows). Several movies and shows from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to V neatly side-stepped the problem by featuring aliens who only appear like us in order to not arouse suspicion as they go about taking over the world. Which only served to reinforce the implicit political point they were making about the enemy within.

In the age of CGI, such subterfuge is unnecessary – at least in TV and film. You can have as many heads, eyes and tentacles as you want without blowing your budget or creating something that looks horribly fake. We’re rapidly growing accustomed to seeing fabulously outlandish life forms in films like Men in Black, Starship Troopers, District 9 and of course the Star Wars series. With the only limit now being people’s powers of invention, such extra-terrestrial weirdness will only multiply.

It still doesn’t explain why humanoid aliens have dominated science fiction stories and comic books for so long – when there never were budgetary or technical limitations? When your mind’s eye can picture anything, why have so many writers, artists and others stuck so close to home?

From the dawn of time to the present day what we conjure up as supposedly alien is very often ourselves in a fairground mirror. Regardless of the line in Genesis that “God created man in his own image”, there’s ample evidence to support what the Greek philosopher Xenophanes observed 2,500 years ago, that “Men always make gods in their own image”. Not only deities but practically the entire mythical pantheon. Giants, dwarves, cloven-footed demons, centaurs, fairies and the rest: it’s just us, size-adjusted and crossed with a goat, horse, butterfly or whatever else our mix-and-match imaginations came up with.

No wonder writers and artists habitually populate the galaxy with anthropocentric entities. Again, there are exceptions like the sentient ocean in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, or HP Lovecraft’s cosmic monstrosity the Cthulhu, with its “octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings”. It’s not mere coincidence another of Lovecraft’s creations, the Necronomicon, was taken by Giger as the title of his first collection of images – and it was after seeing it Ridley Scott hired him to work on Alien.

Most of us are not blessed, or cursed, with such an unfettered imagination as Lovecraft’s or Giger’s. We rehash and recycle drawing heavily on ourselves. But when Giger presented his dark and completely alien vision of alien life, he changed our perceptions in a single swoop. He made us believe in beings that really do look and sound like they’re from another world.

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