Passing Out Became A Regular Occurrence On Set Of Alien

One of the more appealing details of Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi film "Alien" is that it looks weirdly down-to-earth. It takes place centuries in the future and is set mostly on board a massive spacecraft, but the characters all wear common white t-shirts and cotton undergarments and speak like ordinary working-class miners. This is not the stuffy, formal world of "Star Trek." This is a future world of grunts, laborers, and normies. "Alien" is one of the few sci-fi movies that feels legitimately lived in. 

But, since it was still a space-bound sci-fi adventure film, space suits were still going to be necessary. The crew of the Nostromo occasionally left their craft and explored planets that have unbreathable atmospheres, requiring them to suit up like ordinary 20th-century Earth astronauts. The film's space suits were designed by John Mollo, and they rested on an aesthetic matrix that included the drawings of artist Jean Giraud (aka Mœbius), 1979 NASA, and centuries-old samurai armor. The suits are not slick or sexy, coming across instead as plain and utilitarian. They only look cool in how tactile and functional they are. 

They also weren't comfortable. Actors Veronica Cartwright and Tom Skerritt talked about the suits for a making-of documentary called "Fear of the Unknown," and they mentioned how a simple design flaw — an outlet for their breath — caused the already hot suits to heat up even further and nearly suffocate the wearer. It seems that throughout the process of shooting the spacesuit scenes, several actors passed out. Eventually, a nurse had to be brought in with an oxygen tank to make sure the actors could breathe. 

A massive bowl of sweat

"Alien" shot at Shepperton Studios in England from early July to mid-October 1978, a total of 14 weeks. This was, of course, in the middle of the summer, which made the sound stages only that much hotter. Surely there were fans and air conditioners, but how effective they were one can only guess. Cartwright remembers the heat, and the suffocation, saying: 

"There was a heat wave. It was a heat wave. it was a 115 [degrees Fahrenheit]. Our suits had been lined with nylon, which makes you sweat anyway. We wore, sort of like little leotards underneath the whole thing and then we'd get into this suit, and then off we go. Well, they had forgotten to put in any sort of escape for our breath. Well, if you're in there for any length or period of time you start breathing carbon dioxide." 

Skerritt noted that he nearly passed out a few times because the spacesuits were untested; the actors were essentially guinea pigs. Cartwright remembers, though, that: 

"We were passing out like flies! I mean it was I mean it was unbelievable. Poor John [Hurt], by the time he gets to the other end, they had to have a nurse there with an oxygen tank. [H]e would sweat so profusely in there he couldn't even see! It would just be one big massive bowl of sweat!"

For the scene in question, Skerritt, Cartwright, and John Hurt had to traverse a large alien landscape, walking very slowly, exploring a strange unknown world. It seems that the spacesuit stroll required enough takes for the actors to get light-headed. Luckily for everyone, that opening spacesuit scene was only a small portion of the film. 

The kids aren't all right

Sigourney Weaver noted in a 2014 interview that Skerritt's son and Scott's two young boys were also used as doubles for some of the wider shots. This was done because the kids were a little shorter than the adult actors, and their size made the alien planet look that much larger. It seems that in addition to the heat, as Weaver recalled, the filmmakers also burned copious amounts of incense on set as well. The smoke in the air and the odors from the burning likely only made the air more acrid and difficult to breathe. Cartwright also remembers the days when the kids were on set, and how the actors' problems weren't addressed until the children, too, began fainting. She said: 

"They couldn't see a problem until it came to the distance shot where, to make the set look bigger, they had kids. And two of the kids were Ridley's kids. And they both passed out in those little suits. So then, obviously, there must have been something that was going on. So they gave us air. That was nice of them."

Very occasionally the suits used on camera in "Alien" will turn up at memorabilia auctions, and wealthy fans can purchase them at their opulent leisure. However, since the suits are nearly 45 years old, I wouldn't recommend getting into one and trying to recreate the cast's experience yourself. Not only is the above post about near suffocation, but there's every reason to believe the materials in the suit have begun to break down and it would be difficult to determine how toxic they are now. 

As Woodsy the Owl always said: If you buy a second-hand space suit, don't put it on.