Review: Dark Star: H. R. Giger’s World

dark_star_posterlIf you’ve seen the extraordinary sci-fi / horror thriller Alien then you’ve encountered the world of surrealist artist H. R. Giger. In fact, he was part of the team that won an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for their work on the film. Sadly, Giger passed away a year ago, leaving a massive legacy of weird, twisted, surreal paintings, lithographs and sculpture both at his bizarre house in Zurich, Switzerland and at museums and galleries throughout the world.

But who was Hans Rudolf Giger and why was his entire artistic career focused on his dark, erotic visions of the inner world of our nightmares and greatest fears? Unfortunately and rather surprisingly, that isn’t really explored in this documentary by Belinda Sallin. It’s a documentary in the most literal sense in that it documents portions of Giger’s life, including interviews with many of the most important people in his world, but never gets below the surface, even when interviewing Giger himself.

What does come out is that Giger had a strange life, starting with the gift of a human skull from his father when he was but a six year old boy.  To show that he wasn’t afraid of death, he tied a string to it and dragged it around the streets. A few years later, his sister teased him for being frightening of a mummy at the museum, and in a reaction that hinted at his life obsession, he surreptitiously returned to the museum for weeks to overcome his fear.

Later, after nine years of marriage, his first wife committed suicide, something that profoundly affected him, though he was able to work through some of his emotional turmoil in his artwork. Many people have come in and out of his life, and it was interesting to see so much of his chaotic home. Highlights of Dark Star are the excellent archival footage of his earlier work during the 70’s “poster” phase and behind-the-scenes footage from Alien.

The artist Hans Giger surrounded by some of his surreal artwork, from "Dark Star: H. R. Giger's World"
The artist Hans Giger surrounded by some of his surreal artwork, from “Dark Star: H. R. Giger’s World”

Look more closely at his work, however, and you realize as the film proceeds that there was never any growth, any development or evolution of his style. HIs earliest works look like typical male adolescent sketches of the Heavy Metal variety: bondage gear, human/machine synthesis and lots of naked breasts. Look closely at his later work, however, and it’s clear that these themes never really leave Giger’s psyche, and that the great theme of all his work is the journey of birth > sexuality > death, often all represented in the very same work.

H.R. Giger’s work has had a profound impact on certain art, including tattoo design and horror films, and from that perspective Dark Star: H. R. Giger’s World is well worth watching. It’s astonishing just how prolific he was, and how frightening much of his imagery is. There were moments during the film where I couldn’t help think “this is the product of a really frightened man” even as I admired the technical proficiency of the work. Just don’t expect to gain any insight into the mind of H. R. Giger and the journey that left him with this as not just what he felt the drive to express but the obsession to stick with it throughout his life.

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