Review by C.J. Bunce
Roger Christian’s success is a testament to the idea of thinking outside the box. If you stop in the middle of age-old processes, no matter what you’re doing and what field you’re in, and consider trying a different method, you may trigger something special. In Roger Christian’s new memoir Cinema Alchemist: Designing Star Wars and Alien, it is the old Hollywood method of making movies that is the villain of sorts, with Christian coming to the rescue as the hero with a new way of creating movie magic for audiences in 1977. And it just so happens he came to the rescue of George Lucas and landed a gig making of one of the greatest science fiction fantasy of all time, the original Star Wars, and the greatest sci-fi horror film of all time, Alien.
In Cinema Alchemist you learn Christian’s modern method of set decoration and design perfected in Star Wars, a method copied by many, that he would soon use again for Alien. Ridley Scott specifically chose Christian to create the same look he came up with for the Millennium Falcon in his new ship the Nostromo and other sets.
In any memoir you can expect some amount of hyperbole, although Christian likely deserves a pass simply because the Academy Awards endorsed his work as set decorator of Star Wars with an Oscar. So he is certainly the real deal. Countless Star Wars fans have spent years re-creating his original design for the lightsaber, tracking down the original camera parts he used, as well as re-creating all the rifles and pistols used in the film. Christian had his hands in the creation of R2-D2, C-3PO, the landspeeder, the Sandcrawler, Luke’s Tatooine homestead, the Millennium Falcon, the giant dinosaur skeleton in the desert sand, Mos Eisley and the Cantina, and set after set created for the film.
The value of the book is in Christian’s accounts of prop making, set design, and using found objects like old airplane scrap metal to create a “real world, lived-in” feel on Star Wars and Alien in light of severe time and money constraints, plus Christian’s personal recollections of conversations and observations with George Lucas on Star Wars and Ridley Scott, H.R. Giger, and Moebius on Alien, and his play-by-play of the filming of the Alien chest-buster scene, arguably the most famous horror scene of modern cinema. After reading Cinema Alchemist, you will absolutely watch Star Wars and Alien differently, and notice details of the film you haven’t seen in your previous 300 viewings of the films. That is quite a feat.
What most will overlook is the repetition in the book. We understand the author’s loyalty to George Lucas, yet he repeats this ad nauseam. Many jobs have monotony, and much of his recollections recount that monotony, but much of that could have been edited away. No doubt many diehard fans will be looking to the book for more specifics on parts used for props and sets, but this comes in only small doses. The book also seems to be Christian’s response to other unspecified accounts of Star Wars creators and a defense of others’ actions. This kind of discussion of office politics seems petty and unnecessarily portrays Christian as a bit defensive. Christian’s honest recollections are what readers are after, and an edit down to a “just the facts, ma’am” approach could have resulted in a better tribute to the author’s legacy.
Finally, one question many have had about Christian is why he seems to have stopped after Star Wars and Alien. Only more recently we know he has rekindled his directing work, but he doesn’t address that even in a footnote. He does offer some chapters to his work on Lucky Lady, The Last Remake of Beau Geste, Life of Brian, and his short film Black Angel. We know he was a second unit director on Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, and director of Battlefield Earth. That is all skipped over. Ultimately this account of his life’s work is pared down to just before Star Wars and ends in 1979. What else has the moviemaker been working on over the years?
Originally written more than five years ago, Cinema Alchemist has finally made it to bookstores with this first edition through Titan Books. Pick up your copy of Cinema Alchemist now here from Amazon, recommended for fans of Star Wars, Life of Brian, and Alien, moviemaking enthusiasts, Star Wars replica propmakers, and anyone interested in a career in set design.