My third post about typography in sci-fi has been gestating for a while now. Indeed, it’s been slowly taking shape – you might say it’s been forming itself inside of me – for really quite some time.
I’m delighted to say that it is now ready to burst forth from my allegorical chest, and to spatter allegorical typographic blood all over your allegorical faces. Welcome to Typeset In The Future: The Alien Edition.
The opening credits for Alien are nothing short of a typographic masterpiece. You can watch them in their entirety on the Art Of The Title web site, but here’s the general gist: a slow, progressive disclosure of a disjointed, customized Futura reveals the movie’s central theme over 90 seconds of beautifully-spaced angular lettering.
UPDATE: Susan Bradley (and others) have pointed out that this is much more like Helvetica Black than Futura. I’d based my original claim on Art Of The Title’s interview with the creators, despite a mismatch when I checked it against Futura myself. However, after a detailed comparison with Helvetica Black, I tend to agree with Susan. Thank you for the correction!
(Before I show you how it looks, I should provide a sizable caveat: I got a lot of grief following my Moon article for spoiling that movie’s central twist. So, if you don’t want to know the extra-terrestrial nature of the central antagonist in Alien, close your eyes now.)
Here we go.
Can you tell what it is yet?
It’s looking pretty angular.
And beautifully mirrored, at least along the y-axis.
Well, that was unexpected. I’m still none the wiser, mind.
WAIT A MINUTE. I might have an idea where this is going.
WAIT ANOTHER MINUTE. Crop. Zoom. Enhance.
I hate to say it, but a little bit of the bar on this capital A (for it is he) has been allowed to bleed out into the unfolding titles. Talk about typographic spoilers. Look really closely and you’ll see what I mean:
That’s totally going to become a capital A, isn’t it? God, that’s ruined everything. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that this entire credits sequence is going to end up spelling the word ALIEN:
Right you are, then. Let’s get on with it. (For those of you with your eyes closed to avoid spoilers: you can open them again now.)
After all that Futura-ish beauty, it’s a little disappointing to see a follow-up card introduce commercial towing vehicle The Nostromo with some slightly fuzzy Helvetica:
This title card from Alien is an example – possibly the Ur Example – of a popular sci-fi trope, the Foreshadowing Inventory. Seven crew, you say? Hmm. Seven. Let’s hope nothing disastrous happens to them, one by one. And their course is set for a return to Earth, eh? Well, I’m sure that’s the likely outcome for this particular story.
The Foreshadowing Inventory crops up in other movies too, such as the opening card from Moon:
A crew of one, you say? And there for only three years? Interesting. I wonder if these facts will turn out to be significant to the plot?
A final point on Alien’s Foreshadowing Inventory: hmm. That’s a nice twenty million tons of mineral ore you’ve got there. It would be a shame if something were to… happen to it. (We do like a good bit of typographic foreshadowing here at TITF.)
Let’s take a look on board the Nostromo. The opening shots of the craft give some tantalizing glimpses of its wall-based iconography:
These icons are the work of cinematic design legend Ron Cobb. He named them the Semiotic Standard For All Commercial Trans-Stellar Utility Lifter And Heavy Element Transport Spacecraft. The production sketches below are from Cobb’s 1981 collected works, Colorvision:
My favorite is #23 – “COFFEE”:
“Semiotics”, of course, is “the study of signs and symbols, and their use or interpretation”. (I could just as easily have called this blog Semiotic-matic.)
You might have noticed that these icons bear a striking resemblance to the rounded rectangles used for modern app iconography. Indeed, design company The Iconfactory has recreated the Semiotic Standard as a beautiful set of iOS app icons. It could be argued that Cobb provided the inspiration for rounded-rectangle iconography some 28 years before Apple made it the standard on the iPhone. (Although tegestologists may well argue their case too.)
A quick glance back over the iconography of Moon shows that (like many sci-fi movies) it owes a large debt to the Semiotic Standard:
On the subject of iconography: the set of Alien was actually built as a single sprawling series of interconnected rooms, just like the set of Moon. Here we have the Nostromo‘s Control Room at the top of the photo, connected to the Central Corridor below:
I like to think that the Semiotic Standard served a practical purpose for the cast, helping them to navigate around the Nostromo as they made their way through filming.
In addition to the Semiotic Standard, Cobb was also responsible for the final design of the Nostromo itself. Let’s continue on our tour of his creation.
The crew are noticeable by their absence at the start of the movie, as reinforced by this Helvetica-monikered EMERGENCY HELMET:
(At least, I say it’s Helvetica – the G is dead cert, but the second M looks more like Futura. Either way, let’s hope there’ll be no need for emergency helmets.)
The Nostromo‘s computers blip into life unexpectedly. You can tell they are the Nostromo‘s computers, because they say Nostromo 180924609 on their boot screen. On this occasion, I don’t recognize the font:
The ship’s registration number is contracted on the next on-screen display:
This screen lists the ship as the Weylan Yutani Nostromo 180246. (Eagle-eyed viewers will have spotted that subsequent Alien films name the company Weyland Yutani, not Weylan Yutani.)
Furthermore, this screenshot shows that the Nostromo has a refinement capacity of “200,000,000 tonnes”, and not the “20,000,000 tons” mentioned in the Foreshadowing Inventory. That’s not just a factor of ten out – it’s also an entirely different unit of measurement.
UPDATE: Several commenters have noted that potential cargo capacity isn’t the same as current cargo, and that the refinery might just be mostly empty. A confession: I realized that myself when writing the article, and was rather hoping that no-one would pull me up for it. Given the audience for this blog, I really should have known better. There’s still the more fundamental problem of tons vs tonnes, however, as I go on to explain…
If you’re familiar with units of weight, you’ll know that a ton is 2,000 pounds if you’re American (known as a “short ton”), or 2,240 pounds if you’re British (known as a “long ton”). Conversely, a tonne (also known as a “metric ton”) is precisely 1,000 kilograms, which is roughly 2,205 pounds.
At this point, you might be thinking: “Wait – why are we talking about units of measurement? Why should I, Joe or Jane Blog-Reader, care about a typographic anomaly in the measurement units of a space-based computer?”
You really should know the answer to that by now. Typography is always important.
Here’s a map of all of the countries in the world that still use pounds as their primary unit of weight:
And here’s a map of all of the countries that don’t:
And here’s why you should care. In September 1999, NASA lost its Mars Climate Orbiter craft, ruining a mission that cost over 655 million dollars. The reason for this loss? One part of the Orbiter calculated propulsion in the Imperial system of pound-seconds of thrust, whereas another part used the international standard metric system of newton-seconds of thrust. This caused the Orbiter to gradually deviate from its intended trajectory, and disintegrate in the Mars atmosphere. (And the bit that worked in pound-seconds wasn’t made in Liberia or Myanmar.)
An aside for future-thinking Alien fans: should you ever need to nuke a planet from orbit – it’s the only way to be sure, after all – then don’t worry yourself about the number of megatonnes that your nuke’s detonation will create. Megatonnes aren’t based on any of the units mentioned above.
But enough about massive nuclear explosions – we won’t be needing any of those. Let’s get back to the Nostromo.
The ship’s crew awake from hypersleep, only to discover that they’re not on course for Earth after all. (Damn you, Foreshadowing Inventory!) Star charts are consulted, as they try to work out what’s going on:
This screenshot contains not one but four details of note. The first is some random text on the right-hand monitor screen:
Well, I say random… it may be significant that the text includes the phrase D GILER. (That name might sound familiar.)
The second item of interest is that packet of cigarettes:
Although it’s less clear-cut than D GILER, it’s significant that the actor who played the alien in Alien was none other than 6′10″ Nigerian design student Bolaji Badejo. The similarity of name may just be coincidence, however.
The third item of note is a coffee mug bearing the Weylan-Yutani winged logo:
This logo appears everywhere onboard the ship. Indeed, the Balaji Imperial cigarettes are about the only items that are not corporately branded. Clothing, containers, mugs, even cat dishes all display the corporate logo…
…as do bowls, storage drawers, and water dispensers:
Hell, even the beer is branded:
That’s a 440ml can of Original And Genuine Extra Strong Weylan Yutani Aspen Beer. One thing’s for sure – the Weylan-Yutani Corporation has employee wellbeing as their primary concern. (Yes, just like Lunar Industries.)
The fourth item of note in that screenshot from earlier is the monitor screen itself. A perennial challenge for any sci-fi film is to find a visual style that remains futuristic as technology marches on. The Nostromo‘s production design is a perfect example of used future chic, but shows the challenge of using physical display technology from the 1970s alongside film-based special effects.
Early in the film, we cut from a blurry, low-res shot of an Elite-like descent trajectory:
…to a hi-res animated display of the same descent:
Similarly, when Dallas (the ship’s captain) visits the Nostromo’s master computer (known as “MU/TH/UR”) to find out what’s going on, we cut from a low-res 4:3 CRT display:
…to a hi-res 16:9 text animation more reminiscent of The Matrix:
However, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not the disconnect between these displays that’s at fault. Rather, it’s the presence of those cathode ray tube displays at all:
That curved screen shape immediately shouts “legacy technology”. In 2014, seeing a curved CRT display in a futuristic spacecraft, rather than the ubiquitous flat LCD screens of today, feels somewhat archaic. This was a deliberate choice by the movie’s design team at the time – they chose everyday CRT screens rather than high-tech flat screen displays, to match the rest of the Nostromo’s beaten-up kit – but it dates the movie with hindsight.
Ironically, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was made 11 years before Alien, and yet has screen technology that looks substantially more futuristic. In the late 1960s, when A Space Odyssey was made, computer graphics simply weren’t good enough to generate the on-screen imagery needed for the Jupiter mission. As a result, all of the screen imagery was hand-animated, and projected onto flat surfaces:
The presence of flat screen displays throughout the Jupiter craft fits 2001‘s polished aesthetic perfectly, and makes the HAL 9000 displays feel futuristic even today.
(Interestingly, the makers of 2014’s Alien: Isolation video game actually reverted to 1970’s video technology to make the game feel more like the original movie. The game’s menu screens were first rendered in software, then recorded on to VHS video tapes, played on a CRT display, filmed, and imported back into the game.)
One final typographic point of note: the on-screen display font for MU/TH/UR appears to be an optically stretched version of City Light:
This is most unusual, if only for being a serif (rather than sans-serif) on-screen computer font in a sci-fi movie.
As the movie unfolds, MU/TH/UR’s behavior reinforces the TITF trend for untrustworthy space-based computers. We discover that MU/TH/UR is a Series 6000:
Later in the movie, Ripley interrogates MU/TH/UR to find out the truth about the alien. MU/TH/UR’s response is predictably chilling:
Damn you, untrustworthy space-based computers!
(A final bit of MU/TH/UR trivia: following my Moon post, conceptual designer Gavin Rothery told me that Moon‘s master computer was named “Old Man” – British slang for “father” – as a sneaky tribute to Alien. Nicely done, sir.)
In addition to the CRT displays, there’s a second aspect of Alien’s design that clearly dates the movie to the 70s. For the most part, the movie’s costume design displays a timeless aesthetic for a working interstellar haulage crew:
The exception is Captain Dallas’s jacket, which has the word “NOSTROMO” written on the back in Pump Demi:
Pump Demi was recently voted “Most 70s Font Of All Time” by the International Font Council. That’s not actually true, but it might as well be. It goes to show that it’s very hard to know which aspects of a design will still look futuristic in the future.
Pump Demi is also seen on the crew’s nameplates in the main Nostromo cabin. You can recognize it from its freaky capital Y, even when blurry:
But enough about Pump. We saw earlier how an international mishap with measurement units cost NASA $655m. Alien goes one step further, with possibly the most expensive on-screen localisation error in the history of science fiction.
You’d think that the Weylan(d)-Yutani Corporation, as a large British / Japanese conglomerate, would be familiar with the need for precise translation and localization. However, you would be wrong, sir or madam. Very wrong indeed.
Let’s rejoin Ripley onboard the Nostromo. As the last of her crew-mates are slain by the lurking xenomorph, Ripley realizes that the only option is an Emergency Systems Override to self-destruct the ship. She presses the EMERGENCY button marked PUSH…
…pulls the EMERGENCY lever marked PULL…
…unscrews the EMERGENCY screw…
…unscrews the other EMERGENCY screw…
…pulls two EMERGENCY levers, usefully marked ONE and TWO…
…and finally open the EMERGENCY hatch. (I’m not sure why there are four pulled levers in the background of this shot; Ripley only actually pulls two of them.)
This hatch gives access to the Emergency Destruction System:
Let’s straighten up the screen to make it a bit more readable:
This beautiful (and by the looks of things, hand-painted) display contains yet more typographic foreshadowing. We learn that on activation, the ship will detonate in T minus 10 minutes. Moreover, the Failsafe Cut-Off System will not operate after T minus 5 minutes.
With those surely insignificant facts typographically established, let’s take a look at the scuttle procedure itself. (For the uninitiated, “scuttling” is the nautical procedure of deliberately sinking one’s own ship.)
Perhaps unexpectedly, the Scuttle Procedure instructions are presented in both English and French versions. Being American, Ripley naturally follows the English version. Here we see her tracing the English instructions with her finger:
Let’s take a look at those English instructions in detail:
- Punch NUCLEAR BOLT CODE No 1
- Verify BOLT CLAMP release
- Perform INSERTION of BOLT No 1 to HOLD No 1
- Remove NUCLEAR HEAD
- Activate PUSH BUTTON SWITCH
- Replace NUCLEAR HEAD
- Verify SECURED
- Verify DETONATION ACTIVATED
- Repeat for HOLDS 2, 3 & 4
Ripley wastes no time in punching NUCLEAR BOLT CODE No 1:
…and INSERTing each NUCLEAR BOLT into its corresponding HOLD:
(Okay, so she skips the “verify” steps. But, y’know: lurking xenomorph.)
After the fourth NUCLEAR BOLT enters the fourth HOLD, an Ominous Clock starts counting down to T minus ten minutes:
The Ominous Clock is accompanied by an Ominous Voice, which reminds us that “the option to override automatic detonation expires in T minus five minutes.” Let’s see how that one plays out.
During the next five minutes or so, Ripley heads towards the Nostromo’s shuttle to make her escape, with her cat, Jonesy, in a handy industrial cat box. Somewhere along the way, Ripley encounters the alien, directly between her and the escape shuttle she’s trying to reach:
There’s clearly no way through, and the ship is about to detonate. In her panic, she drops Jonesy, leaving him to his alien fate:
Ripley dashes back to the Emergency Destruction Room, desperately trying to stop the self-destruct process and give herself chance to escape. As she arrives at the Emergency Destruction Room, the Ominous Voice counts down the final seconds to inevitable failsafe cutoff.
Let’s pause that countdown temporarily, and take a moment to put ourselves in Ripley’s situation. There’s an alien xenomorph with acid for blood running around a dimly-lit spacecraft, picking off your co-workers one by one. You’re the sole remaining survivor. Your only form of defense is a single-canister flamethrower. You have thirty seconds to halt the self-destruct sequence for your spacecraft – and you’ve just gone and lost your cat.
I think it’s fair to say that this is a stressful scenario.
Perhaps this is why, on arriving back at the ship-scuttling instructions, Ripley follows the French instructions with her finger, not the English ones from before:
And this is where it all goes horribly wrong.
Let’s take a look at those French instructions in more detail:
- Poussez le NUCLEAR BOLT CODE No 1
- Vérifier CRAMPON de L’ACHEMENT
- Exécutez INSERTION/BOULON No 1 a la cale No 1
- Vérifier SÉCURITÉ du SOMMET NUCLEAR
- Vérifier SÉCURITÉ du SOMMET NUCLEAR
- Vérifier la DETONATION ACTIVE
Hmm… something something “NUCLEAR BOLT”… something something “SÉCURITÉ”… it certainly sounds plausible. But how do these compare to the English instructions we verified the efficacy of earlier?
For the first three steps, all is bon. But from instruction four onwards, things take a definite turn for the worse. The French instructions don’t mention anything about removing the NUCLEAR HEAD, activating the PUSH BUTTON SWITCH, or replacing the NUCLEAR HEAD. All three of which seemed pretty damn important when Ripley was doing them earlier.
The French instructions do at least remind us to check that things are secured. Indeed, just for good measure, they remind us to check them twice. This is commendable belt-and-braces stuff on an average day, but it’s not really what you want when you’ve got thirty seconds left before inexorable destruction.
In a further example of the famous French passion for safety, the instructions also ask us to verify that the detonation is active (which it won’t be, because we forgot to activate the push button switch). However, they completely neglect to mention that the process needs to be repeated for the other three holds.
In short: this is a localization disaster. I mean, it would be bad at the best of times – but we’ve just lost our cat to a xenomorph. We’re in no fit state to cope with dodgy French.
Thanks to this truly awful piece of translation, Ripley fails to abort the detonation process in time, and the five-minute countdown to total detonation continues:
Although we do cut briefly to a screen that still shows a countdown of over ten minutes:
The five minutes to destruction are typographically uninteresting. Ripley makes it to the escape shuttle with no sign of the alien. She even finds her not-dead cat along the way. With seconds remaining, her shuttle detaches from the Nostromo, blasting away just before either 20 (or 200) million tons (or tonnes) of mineral ore explode into tiny fragments:
Just before the explosion, we see a brief ENVIRON CTR PURGE display onboard the shuttle:
This screen might be familiar to fans of Ridley Scott’s other classic sci-fi movie, Blade Runner, which has a remarkably similar screen onboard a flying police vehicle:
There’s one more typographic anomaly to be found during the self-destruct sequence. Remember when Ripley was punching NUCLEAR BOLT CODE No 1 into that funny-looking keyboard? Well, it turns out to be a very strange keyboard indeed. Here’s the central panel for your closer inspection. I’ve Photoshopped a composite image from several frames, to make it easier to see all of the keys without Ripley getting her hand in the way:
The first key of note is “PRANIC LIFT 777”:
Prana is the Sanskrit word for “life force”. It’s a cosmic energy believed to come from the sun, and to connect the elements of the universe.
We also have “PADME”, a possible variant of Padma, Sanskrit for “lotus flower”:
Lingha is balanced by “YONI”, Sanskrit for “womb”:
Yoni is a symbol for the Hindu Divine Mother, an embodiment of Shakti, the concept of divine feminine creative power. This might explain why we also have a “SHAKTI EXCESS” button on the keyboard:
But perhaps the oddest key on the keyboard is this one in the top right hand corner – “AGARIC FLY”:
Now, Agaric Fly – or Fly Agaric, as it’s more commonly known – is a mushroom and psychoactive fungus known for triggering a hallucinogenic experience:
You might think this is an odd thing to be written on the keyboard of an emergency destruction system. You would be correct.
This might also explain why the key to the left of “AGARIC FLY” is labelled, simply, “TRIP”:
So why are all of these strange references on the Nostromo’s emergency destruct keyboard? Well, according to the Alien Explorations blog, designer Simon Deering needed some complex-sounding labels for the keyboard at short notice. He was reading The Secret Doctrine by Helena Blavatsky, a Russian philosopher and occultist, at the time of filming. Blavatsky’s book attempts to explain the origin and evolution of the universe in terms derived from the Hindu concept of cyclical development. Deering found his inspiration in its pages, and the Nostromo‘s odd keyboard was born.
Back to the action. Ripley is safely on board the shuttle, with no sign of the alien. But wait – just when we think all is rosy, it turns out that the damned thing has also stowed away on the shuttle. Gah!
Thankfully, this shuttle comes equipped with a system that pipes highly toxic and flammable SPECIAL GASES into the main cockpit at the press of a button:
It’s not immediately clear why this is a particularly useful or safe feature to have in a shuttle. Nonetheless, it certainly comes in handy when there’s an alien hiding in the wall.
According to Wikipedia, Nitrosyl Chloride is “very toxic and irritating to the lungs, eyes, and skin”. I don’t know whether the alien actually has any of these organs, but he definitely doesn’t like Nitrosyl Chloride one bit, and starts squealing like a frog in a roomful of cats:
(I’m going to ignore the fact that Nitrosyl Chloride gas is actually yellow. It’s working, and that’s all that matters.)
The gas finally forces the alien out into the open. A forward-thinking Ripley (who’s already strapped herself into a chair) opens the shuttle’s exterior door, and blasts the alien into space. Go Ripley!
In her final recorded message before hypersleep, Ripley notes that she is the sole survivor of the Nostromo. What she forgets to mention is that she has not once in the past two hours encountered any Eurostile Bold Extended.
We shouldn’t let this worry us as she settles down to sleep, however. There’s a ton of Eurostile in Aliens, so all will be made right. But that, my friends, is a story for another day.
For now: goodnight!
FUN FACT: An expanded version of this article will appear in the Typeset in the Future book, available in fall 2018. Sign up for the book’s mailing list to receive occasional updates about its design, pre-order date, and release.