“Alien” and its many sequels and prequels have always been about transformation. The creature itself is constantly changing, as are those unfortunate enough to encounter it. As you celebrate Alien Day — observed on April 26 because the original film is set on the planet LV-426 — take a moment to revisit the many forms Sigourney Weaver’s greatest screen partner has taken on in the nearly 40 years since H.R. Giger and Ridley Scott first introduced us to it.
The facehugger (“Alien”)
Our first exposure to the otherworldly creature known among fans as the xenomorph remains the most quietly unsettling. “It’s got a wonderful defense mechanism,” Parker (Yaphet Kotto) says after noticing the facehugger’s acidic blood: “You don’t dare kill it.”
Almost reminiscent of a scorpion in its appearance, the facehugger was initially intended by Giger to be larger and possess eyes; screenwriter Dan O’Bannon had imagined it as an octopus-like being with tentacles. Five were built by special-effects creators Roger Dicken and Ron Cobb, and the initial scene of the parasite attaching itself to Kane’s (John Hurt) helmet was filmed backwards and reversed in editing.
In space, no one can hear you scream — especially when one of these is wrapped around your throat.
The chestburster (“Alien”)
Kane, we hardly knew ye. Nothing speaks to the xenomorph’s visceral terror quite like the fact that this stage of its life cycle — which, true to its name, finds the creature literally bursting through its host’s ribcage — isn’t even its final form. For every alien that is born, another being (usually a human) is violently killed. And there’s a reason the other actors look utterly terrified by what’s happening in that infamous scene: Scott intentionally withheld key details from them in order to elicit genuine reactions.
Giger took a cue from Francis Bacon’s painting “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” for visual inspiration, but his original design was poorly received — Dicken said it looked like “some kind of plucked, demented turkey.” He designed the final chestburster, which is like an exclamation point that doesn’t end the sentence — there’s always more horror to come.
The xenomorph (“Alien”)
“The perfect organism,” as Ash (Ian Holm) describes it. Giger’s iconic design is, like the rest of his “Alien” work, both biomechanical and uncomfortably sexual — unsurprising given that the film is often interpreted as being about rape. Portrayed by the 6’10” visual artist and actor Bolaji Badejo, the original xenomorph is still the most terrifying. Agile, intelligent and occasionally aquatic, cinema’s most unnerving extraterrestrial can down an entire ship full of the species that considers itself the top of the food chain all on its lonesome. Unfortunately for us, there appears to be an endless supply of them.
The queen (“Aliens”)
Mama grizzlies ain’t got nothin’ on this matriarch. We learn in “Aliens” that the xenomorphs emanate from bee-like hives whose underlings exist primarily to impregnate new hosts and, frequently at the cost of their own lives, protect their queen. James Cameron designed this massive mother for his action-oriented sequel, which includes one of the series’ most gruesome(ly awesome) set pieces: the Queen tearing Bishop in half after first impaling him with her tail.
Notably, Giger had nothing to do with the Queen’s creation: His direct involvement was limited to the original film and “Alien 3.”
The doggomorph (“Alien 3″)
Man’s best friend this is not. Proving that xenomorphs take on characteristics of their host (a key element of the “Alien vs. Predator” mythos), this forgotten variant emerges from a rottweiler during a eulogy at the beginning of “Alien 3”: “For within each seed, there is the promise of a flower. And within each death, no matter how big or small, there’s always a new life. A new beginning.”
At the same time, we also get our first clue that Ripley has herself been impregnated with an alien embryo. The first fully CG xenomorph, the doggomorph was also designed by Giger. (If you watch the Assembly Cut of David Fincher’s underrated threequel, the host is an ox rather than a dog.) “I had special ideas to make it more interesting,” Giger said of his canine creation. “I designed a new creature, which was much more elegant and beastly, compared to my original. It was a four-legged alien, more like a lethal feline — a panther or something.”
The newborn (“Alien: Resurrection”)
Easily the strangest, most pitiable form we ever see the xenomorph take on, this lab-created abomination is born of both xenomorph and human DNA. The latter is extracted from Ripley after her death on Fury-161 at the end of “Alien 3,” and it’s why the maternal feelings she first displays for Newt in “Aliens” extend to this hybrid — it is, in a manner of speaking, her child. She’s never sadder to kill an alien than she is here, especially given the ghastly nature of its departure.
Originally, the newborn was meant to look quite different. Joss Whedon’s script called for an eyeless beast with six limbs that would have been nearly as large as the Queen; director Jean-Pierre Jeunet wanted it to lean closer toward the human end of the spectrum. (He also wanted it to have both male and female genitalia, an idea that Giger likely would have approved of but that eventually got scrapped.) The animatronic model seen in “Resurrection” was said to be hugely complex and required nine different puppeteers to operate.
The deacon (“Prometheus”)
We’re only offered the briefest glimpse of this proto-xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s 2012 prequel, and it comes in the film’s last few seconds. Now fully CGI, this iteration of the alien takes its name from the shape of its head. Though the newest variant, the deacon is also the first: “Prometheus” takes place hundreds of years before “Alien,” which makes this a forerunner to the lovable creature we know and love today.
The neomorph (“Alien: Covenant”)
All we know about the neomorph is what we’ve seen in the trailers for “Alien: Covenant,” which is to say: not much. What little information is available doesn’t inspire much confidence in the crew of the Covenant, who have to contend with this thing: It can emerge from its hosts’ backs, not just their stomachs, and sports pale skin and a deacon-like head. Most terrifying of all, it appears to be infect/impregnate people via an airborne pathogen. In the immortal words of Bill Paxton, “Game over, man!”