“I was only pleased with Alien,” said H.R. Giger. “The other things I was not very happy with.” Giger was 69 at the time, talking to Vice, throwing aside his entire career in movies. He had other careers. He was a painter, a sculptor, a man who built bars whose interiors resembled spinal cord wormholes into embryonic hellscapes. He did album covers, back when album covers were real things you could hold in your hand. He dabbled in videogames — and by “dabbled,” I mean “worked on a CD-ROM game that played on DOS, Amiga, and the Sega Saturn,” which are words barely anyone understood, even in 1992. He produced work steadily for decades.
Still, one imagines that Giger would not have been surprised by the fact that — after his death in Switzerland on Monday — the most common description of him was “the man who made the alien from Alien.” Not because the creature is the best thing Giger ever created. Far from it. It was just the one time that his utterly unique vision made it to the big screen.
Except that even Ridley Scott’s space-freakout body-horror classic didn’t quite get Giger. Not really. Giger’s work has been impossibly influential over the last four decades, partially because his imitators still haven’t quite plumbed his depths. Giger was influenced by the work of HP Lovecraft — all those formless demons with nightmare limbs and infinite tentacles — but where Lovecraft’s creations seemed conjured from some prehistoric consciousness, Giger’s work was also industrial, mechanical. The artist termed it “biomechanical,” and much of his artwork lives in a terror-nexus between cold plastic artificiality and hyper-detailed near-humanity. You could find his influences, if you wanted. He met Dalí. He met Timothy Leary, and he told Vice that he didn’t want to say on the record whether he did LSD with Timothy Leary, so draw your own conclusions.
However he got there, Giger’s best work was an innovative blending of future tech and ancient nightmare. Alien gave Giger his best showcase ever. The film’s characters are a crew of jobbing everyguys and everygals, unimpressed with the wonders of deep space. They’ve seen it all, they think. Then they land on a mysterious planetoid. They find…things. A ship. Walls made of metal that look like bone, or bone that looks like metal. A skeleton in a chair, unless the skeleton is a chair. And the eggs. Nothing is shaped the way it should be shaped. The ship is pronged, like a boomerang, or a grasping hand missing fingers, or a serpent with two heads. Everything is sexual, for reasons no one particularly wants to explain. All this before the alien.
The journey through the Derelict spaceship takes a long time in the movie — it’s the kind of long, quiet, moody scene that has basically disappeared from big-budget Hollywood genre movies — and you could argue that it represents the clearest distillation of Giger’s style onscreen, a terrifying tinted-window peek into some far-off plane of existence where humans evolved in every direction besides how we actually did. From the Derelict and from the alien it coughs up, you can follow Giger’s influence through the decades: Into other movies, into comic books, into the burgeoning videogame art form (which is biomechanical at its core, the human playing with the machine.)
But you could argue that Giger’s best work remains his original designs, for Alien and for so many other projects that barely scratched the surface of his bizarre genius. Look closely at those designs, and you see unfiltered Giger, Meth Giger, creations that could never survive beholden to the demands of narrative filmmaking. Look at his creations for the never-produced Dune, work that appeared in some forms in Alien and which was recently memorialized in the unmaking-of documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. Or look at Giger’s unproduced designs for Alien 3, which included an “erotic alien” with human female lips, and an alien which would have attacked victims by pushing its long tongue into a human and pulling out their interior organs. Or look at the Batmobile he designed for Batman Forever, a quadri-phallic mandible monstrosity which might have given the Joel Schumacher films some genuine kink underneath the camp bombast. Or consider the train hallucination from Species, a much-reduced version of a longer scene Giger had imagined, one of many moments in Giger’s filmography when a relatively straightforward movie seems suddenly possessed by a demonic spirit:
Or look, finally, at the concepts he created for Alien, which pulsate with a freaky life and an eerie sensuality that go beyond even what Scott achieved on the big screen. You get the sense that — even all these years later, even after the artist himself has lived a long productive life and passed on to a place beyond even his own wild visions — the movies never quite caught up to H.R. Giger. Hollywood’s visuals have trended more prosaic; the advent of digital effects has led to a new decadence almost completely opposed to Giger’s expressionistic, way-too-organic style. (Scott himself returned to the Derelict in Prometheus, a movie which functions variously as a Giger Greatest Hits album and a cut-rate Giger cover band, depending on the minute.)
So maybe Giger’s greatest legacy is that his work is still unfinished. That all along, he was looking ahead (and within) to some weird future beyond whole epochs of human and technological evolution — and that cinema, or videogames, or some new media or new art form will finally catch up to his imagination. His creations live on, immortal, unborn.