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Alien: The Complete Illustrated Screenplay
script by Dan O'Bannon, foreword by Ridley Scott, edited and introduced by Paul M. Sammon
Orion, 192 pages

Alien: The Complete Illustrated Screenplay
Dan O'Bannon
Dan O'Bannon was born in 1946 in St. Louis, Missouri. His movie writing includes Dark Star (1973), Alien (1979), Lifeforce (1985), Total Recall (1990) and Screamers (1996). He worked on computer automation and graphic displays for Star Wars (1977) and directed Return of the Living Dead (1985).

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A review by Marc Goldstein

It's not news to science fiction fans that Ridley Scott's Alien was a smash hit. The film yielded three sequels and has been adapted countless times in the form of novels, comic books, computer games, and RPGs. Like the best sci-fi stories, it spawned a culture: a loyal base of fans eager to revisit the gritty, surreal blend of technology and horror that the film pioneered. It's a bit surprising, then, that the publication of Alien: The Illustrated Screenplay marks the first time that the script has been made commercially available to the public. The wait was worth it.

The book itself is quite handsome, a sleek hardcover with slick pages and lots of great colour stills from the film. Even better, editor Paul M. Sammon (author of the upcoming The Complete Aliens) demonstrates strong insider knowledge (he's been friends with Ridley Scott for 20 years) and meticulous attention to detail. The results of his work represent as definitive a version of the Alien screenplay as we are ever likely to see, including an appendix of scenes that didn't make the final cut.

Sammon's excellent introduction chronicles the history of the screenplay, from its genesis with Dan O'Bannon and Ron Shusett, through the later revisions by producers Walter Hill and David Giler. Sammon recognizes O'Bannon for devising the core plot, and credits Shusett for imagining the infamous chest-bursting scene. At risk of revealing the depths of my ignorance, I'll admit I didn't know that Walter Hill, best known for action flicks like 48 Hours and Trespass, had a hand in revising the script. While the final screenwriting credit went to O'Bannon, Sammon asserts that Hill and writing partner Giler rewrote at least 60% of O'Bannon's original draft. Hill and Giler's changes included renaming all of the characters, rewriting all of the dialogue, the creation of science officer Ash, and deciding to feature the ship's female Warrant Officer, Ripley, as the heroine and sole survivor. The introduction provides an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at the Hollywood process, and enumerates the innovative elements of the script and the film that spawned the Alien phenomenon.

I must confess that I have a prejudice against screenplays. I just don't think they make for good reading. The few that I have read reinforced my presumption that if the writers were any good, they'd be writing novels. That said, I have to admit that the Alien screenplay is actually a really engrossing read. During their revision, Hill and Giler reshaped the prose, making it lean and terse. The style works well with the story's dark subject matter and brisk pace. It's such a jarring change from traditional prose, that I had to include a sample:


Explosion of escaping gas.
The lid on a freezer pops open.
Slowly, groggily, KANE sits up.
Rubs the sleep from his eyes.
Looks around.
Looks at the other freezer compartments.
Moves off.
When stories become ingrained in our culture, it's easy to take them for granted and forget what it was about them that made them so memorable. For me, the most lasting impact of reading Alien: The Illustrated Screenplay was experiencing the story in an unfamiliar format. By stripping away the layers of familiarity, it somehow helps capture the feeling of seeing the film for the first time and reminds you how revolutionary Alien was when it premiered more than 20 years ago. The film's avant-garde art design -- including H.R. Giger's bio-mechanical alien -- the shocking chest-bursting sequence, and the bold decision to feature a female hero all marked defining moments in film history. Together, they created such a lasting impression that the story continues to resonate in pop culture. Since reading the script I have already noticed Alien references in an episode of The Simpsons and in the Disney film Toy Story (remember the "Whack an Alien" game at Pizza Planet?).

Fans of the Alien saga will find Alien: The Illustrated Screenplay indispensable. Aspiring screenwriters can also learn a thing or two from the script's tight prose and the introduction's behind-the-scenes look at the production of the screenplay. But even casual fans will be surprised by the readability and power of the script, and will find this colourful book a handsome addition to their collection.

Copyright © 2001 Marc Goldstein

Marc is the SF Site Games Editor and the principal contributor to the SF Site's Role Playing Department. Marc lives in Santa Ana, California with his wife, Sabrina and cat, Onion.

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