Updated: Nov 1, 2019
From the chest exploding monstrosity of Alien (1979) to the amiable master warrior, Yoda of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), from the quirky cuteness of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) to the exquisitely modelled column of water in The Abyss (1989), from the invisible stalker up in the trees in Predator (1987) to the wonderfully hypnotic mutant leader Kuato of Total Recall (1990), from the whacky creatures of Mars Attacks! (1996) to the outrageously funny extraterrestrials of Men in Black (1997), from the shape-changing automatons of Transformers (2007) to the tall, blue-skinned, Na'vi tribe of Avatar (2009), alien creatures have tended to bring out the very best from the special effects department.
Digital technology clearly played a significant part in taking these creatures from latex puppets with awkward movements to the incredibly hyper-real CGI creations that they are today. But more fascinating has been the creativity of designers in conceiving and bringing to life these creatures from beyond.
Admittedly, some alien creature conceptions were widely derided or outright dismissed (think Jar Jar Binks in ‘Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace’ (1999)), while others left viewers undecided (think the awkward giant tripods of ‘War of the Worlds’ (2005)). But when inspiration and technology found that perfect intersection, the results were breathtaking. And arguably, the most iconic and the most celebrated amongst such creations amplifies this point emphatically:
The path-breaking conception of the creature in ‘Alien’ (1979) came from a design by Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger, with animatronics by Carlo Rambaldi. That it had some semblance to a human, but on a much larger scale, made it frightful. That it had no eyes on an elongated skull made it extremely menacing. That it had a second inner set of jaws made it positively terrifying. That it had an agile and powerful tongue-like proboscis for attack made it a moving nightmare. That it could crawl along ceilings and impale its victims with its tail made it unstoppable. That it was a dark, seething, dripping and morbid fusion of the organic and the mechanical made it unlike anything movie-goers had seen till that time.
That it had no eyes on an elongated skull made it extremely menacing. That it had a second inner set of jaws made it positively terrifying. That it had an agile and powerful tongue-like proboscis for attack made it a moving nightmare.
Ultimately, the success or failure of alien creature effects comes down to striking the right balance between personifying a strange being (so that viewers can relate to it using known symbols and codes) and playing with all the amazing possibilities of a clean slate (after all, alien life has no need to reference humans in any shape or form). Those who managed to achieve this balance have not only struck gold at the box office or won visual effects awards, but have also engraved their fantastic creations into popular culture as unforgettable icons of the silver screen.