Academy Award wins: Best Visual Effects
Inducted into the National Film Registry: 2002
“In space, nobody can hear you scream”. It’s one of the most iconic taglines in cinema history— an exercise in pulpy brilliance that perfectly encapsulates the movie it accompanies. That movie is, of course, the 1979 science fiction classic ALIEN. ALIEN needs little more introduction than that, having since become the foundation of a high-profile film franchise that actively pumps out new installments to this day (the latest, ALIEN: COVENANT was released in mid-2017). Both were directed by Sir Ridley Scott, a development notable for its sheer rarity; very few filmmakers would make a return to the franchise they helped create several decades ago… especially one that had been essentially left for dead like the ALIEN franchise had been, withering on life support after a slew of poorly-received sequels. Of course, ALIEN: COVENANT had more than its fair share of detractors too, but something about the world of ALIEN still beckoned to Scott, long after the initial film’s success kicked his career into overdrive and turned him into one of the biggest filmmakers in the world. He’s returned twice, actually, (2012’s PROMETHEUS endeavored to reboot the franchise with a new spin on its mythology), and is even promising/threatening to make more. All of this is to say that Scott is clearly fascinated by the cinematic possibilities of the ALIEN universe, and those that might be inclined to cynically ask “why” need only look at the 1979 original: a minimalist suspense picture with a sweeping mythology that ably evokes the unspeakable horrors waiting for us out there in the Great Unknown.
Upon first watch of the film, one might be inclined to ask: “what kind of sick, twisted person would ever dream this up?”. The answer is screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, an eccentric character to say the least. He had been unhappy with his previous stab at the science fiction genre— his screenplay, DARK STAR, had been made as a comedy by director John Carpenter (four years before his own breakout, HALLOWEEN), and notoriously featured a spray-painted beach ball as an antagonistic alien (1). He longed to combine science fiction with the horror genre, with an otherworldly monster that would actually terrify audiences rather than induce them to laughter. Working in collaboration with Ron Shussett, O’Bannon subsequently reworked the plot and tone of DARK STAR into what would become the first draft of the ALIEN screenplay. Even at this earliest of stages, the moments that would make the finished film so iconic were already in place— the “truckers in space” attitude of the characters, the horrifying reproduction methods of the alien creature, and, of course, the show-stopping chestburster scene. While producers found O’Bannon’s screenplay to be of poor quality from a craft perspective, they nevertheless couldn’t deny the horrific power of these moments, and subsequently snapped up the rights in good faith that a proper rewrite would patch up the problem areas. For quite some time, director Walter Hill was attached to helm the project, but after catching Scott’s THE DUELLISTS in the wake of its impressive debut at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, he and fellow producers Gordon Carroll & David Giler collectively agreed that Scott had the proper directorial chops to elevate ALIEN beyond its schlocky b-movie trappings.
It’s easy to forget that, despite landmark science fiction works like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in 1968 and Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS in 1972, the genre was regarded rather distastefully by studios in those decades. It wasn’t until the seismic, runaway success of George Lucas’ STAR WARS in 1977 that the tide began to turn. Anxious to capitalize off audiences’ newfound appreciation for sci-fi, executives at Twentieth Century Fox turned to ALIEN, the only genre-appropriate script they had on their desk at the time. Indeed, the success of STAR WARS can be seen as directly responsible for Fox’s subsequent greenlighting of ALIEN, despite the radical differences in story & tone. Walter, Carroll & Giler’s gut feelings about Scott’s abilities proved fruitful before production even began, when the director’s detailed storyboards (affectionately referred to by his collaborators as “Ridleygrams”) impressed Fox so much that their initial $4 million budget was doubled. This anecdote illustrates a key aspect of Scott’s artistic identity, one that is directly responsible for his continued relevancy and success within the industry. The importance of proper prep work before shooting is hammered into the mindsets of all directors, but surprisingly, few actually take the sentiment to heart. Scott’s productivity and the relatively consistent quality of the product itself is due in no small part to the importance he places on prep and pre-production. One needs only to look at any one of his countless number of signature Ridleygrams to see that the man views prep work as equal to, if not more important than, the work of shooting itself.
STAR WARS may have pioneered the idea of a “worn & dirty” future, but even then its story is concerned with governmental bureaucracies and elite class systems—empires, princesses, Jedi “knights”, and so on. ALIEN endeavors to democratize the realm of science fiction with characters that Middle America can relate to, basing the foundation of its characters off the conceit of “truckers in space”. As such, the story concerns the small, tight-knit crew of the Nostromo, the space age equivalent of a massive commercial freighter truck, who have just been awakened from cryosleep long before they were scheduled to. The ship’s onboard computer, M.U.T.H.U.R., has detected a distress signal coming from the nearby, unexplored planet of LV-426, and company protocol dictates that any distress signals detected in deep space must be adequately investigated. Despite their own internal misgivings, the crew, headed up by their even-keel captain, Dallas (played by Tom Skerritt) lands on the windswept, stormy planet and discover the wreckage of a massive alien ship containing a room full of living eggs. This being a horror film too, we know the score— one of the crew members is going to ignore all common sense and get a little too close to those eggs. This honor befalls executive officer Kane, played memorably by the late, beloved character actor Sir John Hurt. When he tries to get a closer look at one of the eggs, a hideous palm-shaped creature leaps up from it and attaches itself to his face. The crew members bring the comatose Kane back onboard (with the facehugger still attached) and jet back off into space, where the meat of ALIEN’s story truly lies. Kane eventually wakes up, even feeling perfectly healthy— that is, until a phallus-shaped baby xenomoprh erupts from his chest in a gruesome fountain of blood during an otherwise uneventful dinner. With the rapidly-growing alien now loose aboard the ship, the crew fights to survive as they’re picked off one by one. The story structure affords each performer their own moment to shine, whether its Harry Dean Stanton’s weary engineer, Brett, Veronica Cartwright’s meek audience-avatar, Lambert, Yaphet Kotto’s money-obsessed chief engineer, Parker, or Ian Holm’s coldly clinical science officer, Ash. Of course, ALIEN’s true showcase performance lies in Sigourney Weaver, then a relative unknown whose tough, resilient femininity as the now-iconic character of Ripley made her a star. The memorable performances provided by Scott’s cast add significant value to what otherwise could have easily been a schlocky B-movie, with a disposable set of cardboard-cutout characters offered up as sacrifice to a hungry, attention-sucking beast.
THE DUELLISTS established Scott as a supremely gifted visualist, but it’s admittedly easy to make the rolling French countryside, castle ruins, and golden sunlight look beautiful on film. ALIEN possesses a stark, horrific beauty all its own, cementing Scott’s reputation as a visual storyteller even as he endeavors to repulse us with cramped, rundown spaceships and slimy, jet-black extraterrestrials. Working with cinematographer Derek Vanlint, Scott shoots ALIEN on 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio— an expected, conventional choice on its face, but one that becomes rather intriguing when considering that Scott is using a wide aspect ratio typically employed for expansive vistas to frame a claustrophobic labyrinth of corridors and dark corners. Indeed, the 2.35:1 aspect ratio works counter to its conventional intentions so as to heighten our sense of tension and dread, evoking the Nostromo’s low ceilings by compressing the vertical axis of the frame. Scott and Vanlint give ALIEN a metallic, industrial color palette accentuated by cold tones and grungy textures, while large, impenetrable shadows and silhouettes add a foreboding depth indicative of ALIEN’s aspirations as a work of horror. An emphasis on atmospheric lighting is one of the hallmarks of Scott’s aesthetic, established in THE DUELLISTS with his evocative use of natural light to portray a pre-industrial, pre-electrified society. ALIEN builds on this aspect of Scott’s artistry by swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction, employing a wide mix of artificial light sources like overhead fluorescents, strobes, halogen lens flares, and even lasers that simultaneously blend and clash; the effect is a frigid, oscillating color temperature that bolsters ALIEN’s striking sense of isolation and remoteness. Scott’s camerawork favors a mix of objective and subjective perspectives, employing classical dolly moves and pans at the outset only to give way to the controlled chaos of handheld camerawork as the claustrophobic tension mounts. Having previously served as Scott’s sound editor on THE DUELLISTS, Terry Rawlings returns here as the head of the entire editorial department, reinforcing Vanlint’s probing cinematography with a patient, calculating pace that knows exactly when to draw out the suspense and when to strike with flashes of otherworldly horror.
Having been trained as an art director himself, Scott naturally places the utmost value on his films’ production design (arguably more so than most of his contemporaries). And rightly so— ALIEN’s cinematography and editing, terrifyingly effective as they are, would be nothing without compelling content within the frame itself. For that reason alone, one can make the argument that Michael Seymour’s Oscar-nominated production design is second only to Scott’s confident direction when taking stock of the film’s legacy. From an art design standpoint, ALIEN hinges on the interplay of industrial and organic textures to better reinforce the clash between Man and Xenomorph. The “truckers in space” conceit dominates the design of the Nostromo and the crew’s costumes & equipment, conjuring a grimy, utilitarian future where a given vessel’s ability to sustain human life is an afterthought; a distant second to its commercial value. One need only look at the design of the Nostromo itself, which Scott showcases lovingly throughout the film in lingering shots cleverly framed to imbue huge scale in what is actually an extremely detailed miniature. There’s no sleek or aerodynamic design to the ship— rather, it is bulky and squat, with huge exhaust vents for an engine that no doubts needs to work overtime as it tugs a massive, city-sized refinery complex through deep space. The interiors of the Nostromo echo the exterior design, featuring a vast underbelly of labyrinthine maintenance tunnels that open up into large, cathedral-like rooms for oversized mechanic equipment, while the ship’s living quarters are cramped, spartan, and colorless. Naturally, all of this stands in stark contrast to the organic elements at play, which subverts this industrial, spacefaring future with an emphasis on designs that speak to our primal, unconscious need to eat and reproduce. Swiss artist H.R. Giger bears chief responsibility for the overall design of the Xenomorph and its surrounding elements, drawing from his own nightmares to create an iconic alien design that’s simultaneously repulsive yet elegant; even beautiful. Giger’s work is famous for blending the organic with the industrial, imbuing everything with a weird sexual energy that works on an unconscious level. Indeed, part of what makes the Xenomorph so terrifying to us is how it evokes deeply-seated sexual fears and fascinations: the alien’s head resembles a phallus, while its starships beckon us inside their dark, damp corridors with vaginal portals. Its reproduction cycle is designed to evoke the horror of rape, in that a facehugger “impregnates” its host by forcefully penetrating it and planting its seed. ALIEN’s focus on primal, organic designs with highly sexual connotations speaks to universal, timeless fears that need no translation or existing phobias to be communicated.
Jerry Goldsmith’s score subtly reinforces ALIEN’s core dynamic, delivering a multi-faceted suite of cues that are at once both lush and unexpectedly romantic in an old-school Hollywood way, yet bolstered by eerie ambient textures that drum up tension. Scott’s subsequent handling of Goldsmith’s score brings validation to some collaborators’ claims that he is difficult to work for— coldly pragmatic at best, tyrannical at worst. In the wake of the film’s release, Goldsmith criticized the manner in which his work was used, claiming Scott had butchered his score by using several cues from the composer’s prior projects instead of the original tracks he provided. Regardless of the bad blood between them, ALIEN’s score is rightfully celebrated as one of the key aspects of the film’s lasting appeal.
ALIEN establishes a key theme that pops up again throughout Scott’s filmography, especially within his three entries in the franchise: the philosophical quandaries of artificial intelligence. The whole of the Nostromo is governed not by human hands, but by a seemingly omniscient computer system named M.U.T.H.U.R. By relinquishing control of large swaths of the ship to computational autonomy, the crew is able to focus better on the work at hand— the tradeoff, however, is an increased vulnerability in critical scenarios. The film’s subplot with Ian Holm’s’ Ash character also touches on this topic, with the stunning midpoint revelation that he is actually a sentient android. Scott cleverly stages the surprise to shock us as much as it does the crew— with Yaphet Kotto bashing Holm’s head clean off, spewing forth a milky substance and mechanical parts instead of blood and viscera. The most experienced member of the cast at the time, Holm sells the deception with a subtle nuance that evidences just how advanced the androids of the ALIEN universe are. Scott’s overall treatment of the character suggests a wariness, or discerning caution, towards machine sentience; indeed, the whole film serves as something of a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked scientific curiosity, and how easily mankind can unleash something so devastating to its very existence without fully understanding the danger it poses.
As his first big Hollywood film, ALIEN provided Scott with the platform to reach a wide audience and make his name as a feature filmmaker— and reach them he did, if firsthand accounts of people running, screaming, passing out, and barfing are to be believed. Even smaller reactions, like people moving from the front row to the in order to distance themselves from the screen itself, prove that ALIEN’s efforts to probe mankind’s most unconscious fears and desires was almost too effective. These stories, of course, are the stuff of box office gold, and the film’s performance suggests a macabre crossover appeal that attracted audiences who weren’t particularly predisposed to sci-fi or horror but nonetheless wanted to take part in the pop culture conversation around it. It would take time for the critical reviews to match up with the numbers— initial notices were indicative of the genre’s poor regard with critics, but critical appreciation grew steadily over the ensuing years as ALIEN’s timeless qualities emerged. Indeed, the passing of time hasn’t dulled ALIEN’s bite; it’s still as shocking and horrific as it was in 1979. The Library of Congress inducted the film into its national registry in 2002, deeming ALIEN’s artistic and cultural merits worthy of historical preservation. The following year, Fox collaborated with Scott on the assembly of an alternate “Director’s Cut” of the film. It should be noted that Scott has always been happy with the 1979 theatrical cut, but agreed to tinker with the film for marketing purposes — and even managed to shave off a minute from the overall runtime, whereas most director’s cuts tend to run longer. The two cuts are, for all intents and purposes, the same, with the only notable difference being the inclusion of a previously-deleted scene towards the end where Ripley obliges a dying Dallas’ request to finish him off with her blowtorch. Today, ALIEN isn’t just remembered as the foundation of a sprawling pop culture franchise, although it most certainly is— it’s widely regarded as a bonafide classic, an unimpeachable touchstone of both the science fiction and horror genres, and the first salvo in Scott’s campaign to conquer the film industry and remake it in his image.
ALIEN is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox.
Produced by: Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill
Written by: Dan O’Bannon
Director of Photography: Derek Vanlint
Production Designer: Michael Seymour
Edited by: Terry Rawlings
Opening Titles by: Saul Bass (uncredited)
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
- Via Wikipedia: “Star Beast: Developing the Story”, The Beast Within: The Making of Alien.