Is Ridley Scott’s initial tussle with the Alien still a sci-fi masterpiece?

Who made it?: Ridley Scott (Director), Dan O’Bannon (Writer), Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill (Producers), 20th Century Fox.

Who’s in it?: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright.

Tagline: “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream.”

IMDb rating: 8.5/10 (Top 250 #42).

Space had seldom seemed dangerous before Ridley Scott applied his no-nonsense approach to this most celebrated of creature features. And dangerous it most certainly is; its darkest reaches are unfathomable and its scope reminds us that our place in the universe is small. What lies ahead for us to discover, and will we be happy when we get there?

Alien might have the visual splendour of 2001 (1968), but it is leagues removed from the giddy exploration of space that Stanley Kubrick’s sterile classic largely provided. Scott’s world is formed in reality; a grimy, hostile existence. The travellers here don’t go on a pleasant adventure like the fairytale of Star Wars (1977), and they find no enrichment in the discovery of other life-forms like the crew of the Enterprise. The comparison is rammed home in a seemingly simple sequence where the inhabitants of the film’s primary vessel, the battered tug Nostromo, land on that fateful planetoid. They don’t fly in gracefully like a hundred other sci-fi films. The descent is difficult and fraught with problems. Who knew that internal logic such as this would transform what was to be a Roger Corman-produced B-movie into one of the greatest genre pictures ever released?

Alien burst to life when down-on-his-luck screenwriter Dan O’Bannon decided to make a “nasty” version of his cult 1974 film Dark Star (reportedly co-directed by himself and John Carpenter, who took sole credit). The infamously ambitious film school project grew so large that it became a theatrical release. It failed with audiences but has left a lasting mark on SF writers, even helping to inspire genre parody Red Dwarf. With help from his writing partner, Ronald Shusett, O’Bannon hatched the plot of his extraterrestrial opus. Seven astronauts, or “truckers in space,” are reawakened from hypersleep on the long voyage back to Earth by a distress beacon of unknown origin. On Company orders, they land on the inhospitable LV-426 (named in the sequel) to check it out. They come across a derelict alien craft, and an otherworldly killing machine manages to stowaway on the ship.

At this point, O’ Bannon was stuck. He had no novel idea for how the alien would board the Nostromo. It was actually Shusett who suggested that one of the crewmembers be impregnated by a parasite and “give birth” to a razor-toothed predator when the ship was in orbit. This one idea is what made Alien a revolutionary spin on the tired monster movie formula. It was what also attracted producers Gordon Carroll, David Giler and Walter Hill, who recognised the scene’s power right then and there. Giler and Hill completely retooled the script, of course, taking it from exploitation schlock to studio bait in the wake of Star Wars. To this day, their involvement in the film can’t be underestimated, especially when they had the foresight to choose a British helmer of commercials to direct the film.

Scott is largely regarded as a visually-oriented filmmaker, but he understood the importance of casting a picture correctly. It’s easy to forget how great the Alien ensemble is, given the peerless production work on show. Tom Skerritt, as the Nostromo’s detached Captain Dallas, should be the film’s lead by default but is killed off long before the film ends. Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) are disgruntled engineers who we miss when their time comes. Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) is a nervous wreck and therefore the audience’s reflection. Kane (John Hurt) is the unlucky host to the titular beast. Ash (Ian Holm) is the twitchy science officer obsessed with their discovery. And Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is the tough, resourceful survivor who became an icon by virtue of the fact she was a female in a male-dominated genre (although, there were definitely precedents before this). The casting is perfect and helped to give the project some credibility. These people feel like Average Joes tossed into a situation they can’t hope to comprehend.

The beauty of Ripley being the icon of the series is the fact that she isn’t the central character of Alien. None of them are, really. The events of the film help shape her into the woman we ultimately know in the sequels, but we don’t follow her until the climax. Scott is also clever in the way he introduces his characters. When they awake early in the film, the doomed Kane is the first to rise from his slumber; the camera seems to favour him over the others, suggesting that he is the protagonist. But no – he’s the first to wake, and the first to die. We only assume the Captain will take command, but Dallas isn’t made for the job. Maybe the strong-willed Parker will suffice? Or the know-it-all Ash, who at least seems to understand the alien better than anyone else? Again, audiences were wrong. Instead, Ash turns out to be an antagonistic android, a “plant” by the Company to ensure that the Nostromo brought an alien specimen home. This rather prescient take on evil corporations protecting their interests is brilliant, and provided a plot thread for the sequels to chew on (as well as robot prep for the director’s follow-up, Blade Runner). It allows Scott to create an inescapable feeling of claustrophobia – if the alien is worrying, what about the threat that awaits them when they get home? The unnamed corporation, later christened Weyland-Yutani, hangs over the narrative like a spectre.

If there’s a reason to admire Alien, it is for the incredible photography by Derek Vanlint rather than the story and characters per se. The visuals are still breathtaking, with some of the finest art direction ever seen in a science fiction film. That’s down to Scott’s amazing eye for detail and the still first-rate designs by Ron Cobb and H.R. Giger. The former would give an authenticity to the Nostromo, a ship constructed in real-world logic, whilst the Swiss surrealist would make the alien surroundings as nightmarish as possible. Giger’s design of the creature could be the greatest monster in Hollywood’s considerable canon. The “xenomorph” is as beautiful as it is frightening; a biomechanoid vision of hell. The alien has never been scarier out of Scott’s hands, often shot in darkness and glimpsed in piecemeal to hide the “man in suit” effect. So much of the creature’s intensity is created in our minds.

Scott winds up the tension and paranoia to bursting point, leading to a final twenty minutes of sweat-soaked delirium as Ripley fights for her survival, the last occupant of the Nostromo. When she dispatches the beast and succumbs to hypersleep, little does she know that her reprieve will be temporary (say, 57 years). As the credits roll, we’re both exhausted and excited by the possibilities. Alien is a film that leaves you with questions. So many questions. Where did the alien craft come from? It wasn’t indigenous to LV-426. Who was the fossilised “Space Jockey” left to die at the derelict’s controls? And just what is the xenomorph? Scott attempted to answer some of these questions in the notoriously troubled Prometheus, but I’m kind of hoping the upcoming Alien: Covenant is more definitive in telling an origin for the entire Alien cycle.

Are there flaws to a film as majestic as Alien? If one were to pick at it, you could say the pace is languid to modern eyes, but the slow crawl is justified given the power of the pay-off. It also doesn’t shock the same way it used to, having been diluted by a hundred imitators. But the original still manages to unsettle; the one great innovation at its core, that explosion of entrails, is an evergreen. Not only that, but nearly forty years later, very little about it has dated – the sign of a true masterpiece.

Best Scene

What else would it be but the chest-bursting? The moment that got the film made is one of the finest gore sequences ever. It doesn’t matter how many times you see it, the suspense building up to Kane’s birth still makes for squeamish viewing. This is old school make-up effects at their finest and most innovative.

Keep an eye on Ash – does he know what’s coming?

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • 20th Century Fox doubled the budget from $4.2 million to $8.4 million on the strength of seeing Ridley Scott’s storyboards.
  • All of the names of the main characters were changed by Walter Hill and David Giler during the revision of the original script by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. The script by O’Bannon and Shusett also had a clause indicating that all of the characters are “unisex,” meaning they could be cast with male or female actors. However, Shusett and O’Bannon never thought of casting Ripley as a female character.
  • H.R. Giger’s designs were changed several times because of their blatant sexuality.
  • Much of the dialogue was developed through improvisation.
  • The rumor that the cast, except for John Hurt, did not know what would happen during the chest-burster scene is partly true. The scene had been explained for them, but they did not know specifics. For instance, Veronica Cartwright did not expect to be sprayed with blood.
  • Hurt would reprise his role in Mel Brooks’ sci-fi parody Spaceballs.
  • It was conceptual artist Ron Cobb who came up with the idea that the alien should bleed acid. This came about when O’Bannon couldn’t find a reason why the Nostromo crew just wouldn’t shoot the alien with a gun.
  • The blue laser lights that were used in the alien ship’s egg chamber were borrowed from The Who. The band was testing out the lasers for their stage show in the soundstage next door.
  • In the wide shots of the Space Jockey prop, Scott used his two sons to make the prop seem bigger. The Jockey was 26 feet tall.
  • Bolaji Badejo who plays the alien in the movie was a graphic artist who was discovered at a pub by one of the casting directors. He was about 7 feet tall with thin arms – just what they needed to fit into the alien costume. He was sent for Tai Chi and Mime classes to learn how to slow down his movements. A special swing had to be constructed for him to sit down during filming as he could not sit down on a regular chair once he was suited up because of the alien’s tail.

Checkout our related Alien/Predator podcast:

Or our Predator video tribute:

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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