Designing an alien is a tricky business. On the one hand, you want to unhinge your imagination and craft something that is truly foreign and unexpected. On the other hand, if you make the design too damn weird then people will be scratching their heads and wondering what the hell you were thinking.
A good movie alien takes balance – some familiar features but mixed in a novel way and with a little bit of wild card ideas thrown in. These design principles gave us awesome aliens like E.T., Yoda, and the Xenomorphs.
Coming up with these sorts of ideas takes creativity, planning, and effort. Here are some the designs that instead decided, “eh, f*** it.”
Direhorse – Avatar
It’s a horse but, uh, blue. And with extra legs. And a finhead. Did I mention the blueness?
Sure, Cameron’s design crew came up with enough reasons to set this animal apart visually at first glance, but when you see the things in motion they’re horses, without question. All of their movements and behavior are the exact same, as is their use in battle. According to the video above, they even had to work really hard around the stupid extra legs to preserve the horsey-ness.
Worst of all, the design crew couldn’t even be bothered to come up with a creative name. Maybe they had called them Bluehorses but were in dire need of a replacement! Wakka wakka!
Catullans – Star Trek: The Original Series
Yes, one time Star Trek put a dog in a pink suit and gave it a horn. In fact, that thought process was far more lazy than space hippies, but at least they took the time to make the dog a suit, dammit.
The Catullans, on the other hand, look and dress exactly like hippies …but in space. A set of blue eyebrows here, prosthetic ears there, and a fried egg brooch to top it off doesn’t change the fact that these guy’s MO consists entirely of being lazy, entitled, and completely not self-aware.
In the episode “The Way to Eden,” a cadre of Catullans beg Kirk for a free ride to their idealized hippie paradise, where their naivete promptly causes them to eat poisonous fruit and die. They also play badly-dubbed music and dance around like idiots. One of the ladies even tries seducing Sulu at about 3:56 in the above video. Man, was she barking up the wrong tree!
In the Catullan’s defense, they did have one exceptionally cute blonde named Mavig amongst them who absolutely killed it with her pretty harmonies during the songs. She was played by Deborah Downey,who actually co-wrote the music for the episode and ended up releasing a version of “Heading to Eden” from it on a later album.
Taresians/Krenim – Star Trek: Voyager
Star Trek has had a host of humanoid aliens with tacked-on foreheads or ears, but these two species seem like the worst offenders of this trend. It’s like someone screamed at the make-up crew “Hey! We need some aliens pronto!” and they were haphazardly like “Uhh, ok. Here’s some forehead dots. But not too many forehead dots.”
The Krenim were particularly lackluster because they were supposed to be consistent villains until the producers realized no one gave a shit. It’s pretty sad when Red Foreman isn’t enough to make your race intimidating.
Yarn People from Planet Nylar – Futurama
Futurama was a fan of cribbing from Star Trek, so there’s no shortage of aliens in black and white face makeup or who are gas clouds. The Yarn People, though, were just designed as a visual gag to accompany a throwaway Zapp Brannigan joke. The art department probably got the script and had to wing it.
Actually, I take it back. The fact that Futurama went through the effort of making up an alien race as a punchline is admirable. Plus, Zapp’s quip as a response to Leela being impatient was priceless. Maybe I should have picked the Space Bees instead?
Frank the Pug – Men in Black
I’ll freely admit that Frank was a charming gag in the first Men in Black – a great example of setting up expectations then going for the unexpected joke.
But we get it now. He’s a dog …but he talks. It’s the same tripe that commercials have been giving us nowadays. A baby who talks about investing?!?! It’s not ironic after the millionth time.
After a while, Frank the Pug seemed to be hitting the same notes every appearance and I kind of started to wish someone had fed him a couple pounds of chocolate fudge to shut him up permanently.
Giant Maggots – Dr. Who, 3rd Doctor
These maggots are just big maggots. No frills here. The puppets look good at a glance, but once they start wriggling around it quickly gets absurd. No amount of forced perspective shots, mattes, or models would make them more intimidating. In a long-standing series of bad designs that includes a man in spray-painted bubble wrap, the giant maggots still take the cake.
I confess they may not actually be aliens, but I picked them as an excuse to show the above clip. I love the Brigadier’s face when his shot misses. It’s one of the most British things ever. Pish posh!
Kryptonians – Superman
I may get crucified for this, but of all the strictly humanoid aliens in fiction, I feel like Superman’s design has the most untapped potential. Sure, tons of aliens look exactly like humans including Mork, Klaatu, the Plan 9 aliens, and the hot chick from Farscape, but Superman has so many amazing abilities that appearing human should have been among them.
For all his superpowers, Superman’s appearance just seems too human, and when other Kryptonians show up the awkwardness starts to feel even more obvious. You never really get a complete sense that they were alien, even despite the weird set designs and costumes – Jor El’s behavior always comes across as Shakesperean rather than extra-terrestrial. The only thing really other-worldly has been the stiff performances that most recent Supermans have delivered. Ba-dum tish!
I feel like Superman should have pulled a Stitch where he had a bunch of weird shit that he had to somehow conceal in order to make him seem more earth-like. Doing so would have at the very least made his Clark Kent disguise seem less condescendingly douchey.
Darth Maul – Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
Yes, Darth Maul actually looks pretty cool. But “cool” is as far as they got in the design stage. Lucas clearly wanted something that a nine year-old boy would find scary but still fascinating, so they painted a dude like a tribal version of Satan and added some tiny horns.
Lucas either thinks his audience is a bunch of dribbling morons or happens to be one himself to follow the line of logic that dictates “Bad alien? Make it the devil!” Again, Darth Maul isn’t one of the stupider-looking costume designs ever made, but compared to most of the aliens in Star Wars, even including the prequels, he stands out as unfinished and uninspired.
Ro-Man – Robot Monster
Picking on Ro-Man feels like forcibly entering a quadriplegic into a luge contest. The budget was estimated at $16,000 and the majority of the film was shot in four days mostly around Bronson Canyon – aka the Bat Cave entrance.
According to legend, the whole point of the production was so director and producer Phil Tucker could commission a wicked-cool robot costume. He apparently wanted something that would push forward the cutting edge of movie effects and scare the bejeesus out of audiences.
Unfortunately, his estimated budget completely fell through. Instead of a jaw-dropping monster, Tucker hired his friend George Barrows, mostly because Barrows could bring along his already-made gorilla suit free-of-charge. Tucker took off the mask, popped on a quick-and-dirty helmet that looked like a diver mask with antennae and voila! We now have a movie in the annals of cultural history where people wander around aimlessly between stock footage and talk to bubble machines.
Did I forget some really awful aliens? Let me know what you would have added in the comments below!
Jarrod Lipshy is a UGA English Alumni and a freelance content writer. He enjoys collecting old video games and poking fun of misguided production designers.