Alien Wouldn’t Exist Without This John Carpenter Film

The beloved Xenomorph sprang not from an egg or from John Hurt's chest, but rather a student movie made with John Carpenter.

Xenomorph in Alien 1979
Photo: Disney / 20th Century Studios

The so-called Xenomorph is one of the greatest monsters in movie history. The brainchild of Swiss artist H.R. Giger, the Star Beast combines biological and mechanical elements, blending genders in a way that underscores the themes of pregnancy and violation in Alien.

But before Giger and director Ridley Scott brought the Xenomorph to life in 1979, the alien had a very different trial run. Before crafting the initial treatment and script that would become the basis of Alien, writer Dan O’Bannon worked on another sci-fi project, alongside a fellow student at the University of Southern California film school. That student was John Carpenter, and while he and O’Bannon would go on to make some of the most influential horror films of all time, their first movie Dark Star has a very different monster.

In fact, rather than a sleek black beast with a retractable mouth, Dark Star‘s group of stoned space travelers battled… a beach ball. With feet.

Dark Star Dawning

Dan O’Bannon was born in 1946, the son of a St. Louis carpenter. Although his childhood love of horror and sci-fi remained strong, he floundered in college, attending various schools while dabbling in writing, stand-up comedy, and art. Upon deciding to become a director, O’Bannon enrolled in the film school at the University of Southern California where he formed a friendship with fellow student John Carpenter. Together the two of them collaborated on a project that would become their debut feature, Dark Star.

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Anyone who knows the later work of Carpenter or O’Bannon will do well to remember the “student” part in Dark Star‘s student film origins. The movie follows a group of space travelers in the 22nd century who have grown very bored with their mission. After 20 years in space, the Dark Star has started to fall apart and acting captain Dolittle (Brian Narelle) and his crew try to pass the time any way they can.

Most of the movie’s run-time follows Dolittle, Pinback (O’Bannon), Boiler (Cal Kuniholm), and Talby (Dre Pahich, dubbed by Carpenter) as they play pranks, get high, and have conversations about existence. Defenders of Dark Star point to these scenes as the best in the movie, which capture a sort of nihilism involved in deep space and failing missions. For others, these scenes are interminable, unfunny, and unprovocative.

Along the way, the crew must deal with an alien that freed itself from the storage room. The alien doesn’t do much and gets killed off fairly easily. However, it does manage to loosen a bomb which, along with deep-space radiation, gains sentience. The crew tries to stop the bomb by engaging in a philosophical discussion with it. But when the bomb accepts that it exists only to explode, it fulfills its purpose and the destroys the ship.

Dark Star Falling

O’Bannon and Carpenter first made Dark Star between 1970 and 1972, and gained financing to shoot enough material to make it feature length in 1973. With the help of future director John Landis, O’Bannon gained support from B-movie producer Jack H. Harris, who ordered cuts to tighten the movie and give it a G rating. The finished film debuted in 1974 and then had a larger run in 1975 where it was met with critical praise and audience apathy.

However, as both O’Bannon and Carpenter became bigger names, Dark Star‘s following grew. It became a home video staple and is now considered a cult classic, in part for the way it presages the chief creatives’ later careers.

Carpenter has always resisted the idea that he’s a filmmaker who deals in heavy themes and big ideas, so it’s easy to guess that the philosophical mumbo-jumbo comes from O’Bannon. However, the cynical worldview does match the perspective that Carpenter would bring to movies such as Escape from New York and They Live. Furthermore, one of Pinback’s practical jokes involves him trying to convince everyone that the real Pinback killed himself years ago, and that he is an imposter. It’s played for laughs here, but one cannot help but think of the paranoia of The Thing.

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But outside of the John Carpenter score, the most influential part of Dark Star involves the alien, which O’Bannon would revisit in a far better movie.

From Beach Ball to Star Beast

The idea of an alien terrorizing a bunch of space travelers stuck with O’Bannon, and he wanted to explore it from a less comedic angle. Along with screenwriter Ronald Shusett, O’Bannon began working a project dubbed Star Beast.

By his own admission, Star Beast not only picked up on concepts from Dark Star but also integrated themes from other sci-fi films that he loved, including The Thing from Another World and the little-seen 1965 film, Planet of the Vampires. Speaking with David A. McIntee, author of Beautiful Monsters: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Alien and Predator Films, O’Bannon enthused, “I didn’t steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody.”

Once they had about 80 pages, O’Bannon and Shusset took their project to various studios, pitching it as “Jaws in Space.” Finally, they sold the project to Brandywine, a production company created by Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and filmmaker Walter Hill (The Warriors, 48 Hrs.). Brandywine promptly began making changes to the script, much to O’Bannon’s dismay, adding elements such as the duplicitous android Ash.

In the end, O’Bannon retained screenplay credit, and a story by credit with Shuster. But the script that director Ridley Scott used for Alien came from Hill and Giler.

Alien Resurrection

Things got worse for O’Bannon when he learned that 20th Century Fox did not want him to direct his own material. Instead the studio asked Hill to take the lead, who in turn recruited Ridley Scott. And yet, O’Bannon remained a constant during production, and in fact had a hand in the most important part of the story. For it was O’Bannon who knew the work of H.R. Giger and showed Scott the painting Necronom IV. Scott agreed that Giger’s designs should be integrated into the film. So the next time that Fox tried to assert its will over the production, Scott and Hill backed up O’Bannon, fighting against the studio’s concerns that Giger’s work would be too disturbing for general audiences.

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While Scott flew to Switzerland to work directly with Giger, O’Bannon stayed in the U.S., drawing his own version of the figure in Necronom IV, which became the Xenomorph. According to the book Shock Horror by Jason Zinoman, O’Bannon also claims to have designed the facehugger, citing his experiences with Crohn’s disease, but that part’s up for debate.

Whatever exaggerations might be in O’Bannon’s account, the fact remains that he played a key part in bringing the Xenomorph to screen, even if it didn’t happen in the way he would have preferred.

After Alien

Although Hill and Brandywine went on to be the stewards of the Alien franchise, O’Bannon remained a force in genre film. O’Bannon wrote and directed the 1985 classic Return of the Living Dead, and worked on the screenplays for Lifeforce and Total Recall. Moreover, he remained a key personality in the genre film scenes, offering stories and advice for anyone who wanted it until his death in 2009.

Not bad a bad career from a movie about a scary beach ball.