Alien (1979)

In its genre, Alien has rarely, if ever, been bettered. It's a very simple story of a terrifying monster let loose in a confined space, killing off the crew of a space ship one by one. Its greatness lies in its superb handling and in its extraordinary art direction.

The film begins with the mining ship Nostromo returning to Earth with a cargo of 20,000,000 tons of mineral ore. The ship is still a long way from home when its computer picks up a distress signal from a nearby planet. The ship's crew are automatically awakened from suspended animation and directed to the planet to investigate.

The ship has a crew of seven. There is the businesslike captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), curious and incautious Kane (John Hurt), nervy Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), suspicious science officer Ash (Ian Holm), tough but brittle Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and two grumbling mechanics from below decks, Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton).

Dallas, Kane and Lambert investigate the planet, where they find a strange alien structure, presumably a ship. On board are innumerable rows of giant fleshy eggs. When Kane investigates, he gets too close to one of the eggs and a creature leaps out and attaches itself to his head. The others rush him back to the ship and its medical lab.

Ripley has already discovered that the distress signal was more like a warning beacon, but it's now too late. Ash breaks the quarantine protocol and lets the others back on board, disobeying Ripley's instructions. But this is just the beginning of the frightening ordeal for the ship's crew as they learn more about each other, and a lot more about the creature and its horrifying life cycle.

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley wearing a space suit in Alien
Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien

Alien has a few obvious antecedents, particularly the 1951 film The Thing from Another World, about a strange alien discovered in a UFO crash at the North Pole. Some of its ancestors are more direct inspirations, including It! The Terror from Beyond Space, a 1958 sci-fi cheapie about an alien creature that comes aboard a space ship and, as in Alien, uses the ship's air ducts to move around and pick off the crew one by one.

Planet of the Vampires (1965), about a space ship lured to a deadly planet by a mysterious distress signal, could be another inspiration. As could the 1950 book The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A. E. Van Vogt, with the similarity apparently enough to prompt a lawsuit from the author. Possibly coincidentally, the premise of Alien also has a lot in common with a 1975 Doctor Who serial, The Ark in Space.

The script for Alien was originally the work of Dan O'Bannon, who admitted that in writing it he "stole from everybody". O'Bannon had previously co-written and appeared in Dark Star (1974), a cult sci-fi comedy also set on board a space ship. Dark Star was directed by John Carpenter and was originally a student film, before it morphed into a more ambitious effort for commercial release as a very low budget feature.

O'Bannon's story for Alien was obviously partly inspired by Dark Star, in particular the scenes featuring the ship's troublesome alien mascot, and probably by memories of The Thing from Another World and all those earlier sci-fi B movies as well. His starting point for the film was the idea of the crew of a spaceship being awakened from hyper sleep to answer a distress call from an alien planet. The original script was given the more pulpy title Star Beast, before O'Bannon settled instead on Alien.

O'Bannon worked on the idea with producer Ronald Shusett, whose idea it was that the alien should impregnate one of the ship's crew. The two men pitched the film as "Jaws in space" and were about to do a deal with Roger Corman to make it. The king of the American B movie, Corman was then the obvious home for a pulpy space horror story like this.

John Hurt as Kane with egg in Alien
Looks harmless enough: Kane (John Hurt) investigates the local flora and fauna

But the Alien script had also found its way to Brandywine, a production company run by Walter Hill, Gordon Carroll and David Giler. Brandywine took on the project instead and the script was reworked by Hill and Giler. This included changing all of the character names and turning one of them into an android, something that is initially kept a secret from the rest of the ship's crew.

The most important contribution of Brandywine was to raise the level of the production, taking the script not to Roger Corman, but to Twentieth Century Fox. Fox had just enjoyed a massive hit with Star Wars and the company was looking for more science fiction subjects. If it hadn't been for the sci-fi boom that followed that film, then it seems likely that Alien would have been made as a low budget effort for Roger Corman and would probably be remembered only as a cult space oddity.

It probably also helped that the 1970s saw the unusual phenomenon of the blockbuster horror film, with examples including The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975), The Omen (1976) and Halloween (1978). The year after Alien was released, even Stanley Kubrick moved into this territory with The Shining (1980).

Part of the process of raising the standard of the production included finding a suitable director for Alien. Brandywine avoided genre directors - horror, thriller or sci-fi specialists - and instead looked for a director with stronger artistic sensibilities.

That meant approaching some big names with serious critical respectability. But, understandably, every A list director turned the story down as obvious B movie material. Eventually Brandywine found what they were looking for in Ridley Scott, an English film maker who had made more than a thousand commercials, and had recently made his first feature film, The Duellists (1977).

The astronauts on the planet surface in Alien
The crew explore the planet surface

Ridley Scott was one of a number of British directors at this time who had entered the film industry after making their names in advertising. Others included Alan Parker (Midnight ExpressMississippi BurningThe Commitments), Adrian Lyne (FlashdanceFatal Attraction), Hugh Hudson (Chariots of FireGreystoke), and Ridley's brother, Tony Scott (The HungerTop GunCrimson Tide).

Ridley Scott's debut feature, The Duellists, was a Napoleonic era period drama based on a short story by Joseph Conrad. The film featured two slightly incongruous American stars, Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine, as French officers whose continued rivalry and hostility extends far beyond the point where either can remember what they were originally fighting about. The Duellists was a project Scott had initiated himself, and it showed him to be a director with a strong visual sense and a firm grasp of period detail and atmosphere. David Puttnam, Scott's producer on The Duellists, described him as "a painter who happens to use film".

Scott was planning a film of Tristan and Isolde when he went to see Star Wars in Los Angeles with Puttnam. As Scott later told the Hollywood Reporter: "I looked at Star Wars and thought, ‘Why on earth am I even thinking about doing Tristan and Isolde when this guy is doing this kind of movie? And it literally stopped me in my tracks. I was depressed for three months - that’s my highest form of accolade - to get very depressed first, then get very competitive."

Scott agreed to take on Alien, and storyboarded the whole film himself. According to the director, this led to Fox doubling the budget from $4.2 million to $8.4 million, now that they could see the visual possibilities of the film. The storyboards suggested that Scott could turn Alien into something more ambitious. It was the larger budget and the recruitment of Ridley Scott that finally persuaded Tom Skerritt to accept the part of the ship's captain, Dallas.

It was Scott's idea to add the film's last act, a surprise coda on board the escape vessel, after the audience thinks it's safe to go home. He also gave the mining ship the name Nostromo, after the novel by Joseph Conrad. When James Cameron wrote and directed the film's first sequel, Aliens in 1986, he gave the colonial marines ship in that film the name Sulaco, after a town in the same book.

Ridley Scott also suggested ending the film by having the alien kill the last remaining crew member and then perfectly mimic the captain's voice to radio a message back home to Earth. So not all of Scott's suggestions were good ones, but luckily that didn't get any further than just being an idea.

Astronaut shines a torch onto the egg field in the derelict ship in Alien
The astronauts discover the egg field in the derelict ship

Alien would be made entirely in England at Shepperton Studios in London, with the miniature effects work created at Bray Studios in Berkshire. The film would be made through Fox's British arm Twentieth Century Fox Productions. The film had now come a long way from Star Beast and the Roger Corman cheapie that O'Bannon and Shusset had originally envisaged.

It was the choice of Ridley Scott to direct that was very likely the making of Alien. He was very far from an obvious choice for this material, but it was his sensibility and approach that helped to lift the B movie subject matter into something grander, more epic and more ambitious.

Scott brings a distinct and surprisingly elegant visual style to the film. Alien is very deliberately paced, quite slowly paced in fact for a film of its type, even in 1979. Scott relies on atmospherics and striking visuals, together with slow camera movements and tracking shots to create atmosphere and tension. The director has his camera almost become an additional, unseen crew member in the film, prowling the corridors and seeking out his characters. This is particularly pronounced in the film's opening scenes. After its subtly understated title sequence, the film begins with the camera slowly exploring the empty command chairs, consoles and corridors of the space ship Nostromo. The ship and its computer systems are gradually coming to life, in readiness for the crew and their imminent awakening from hyper sleep.

Scott's previous feature The Duellists had probably taken some visual inspiration from Stanley Kubrick's 1975 film Barry Lyndon, so it's perhaps not surprising that the strongest visual influence on Alien appears to be Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), another deep space epic with an all encompassing sense of mystery and of the unknown. Here, though, that sense of mystery, awe and wonder is combined with a palpable sense of unease and dread.

The film's opening shots, showing the vast expanse of space, its silence and coldness, set the tone for the film. This is not a universe of wonder, but one of barely suppressed fear, hostility and menace. A universe of dangerous creations - alien, technological and corporate.

Corridor of the Nostromo space ship in Alien
A functional, industrial look for the corridors of the Nostromo

The treatment given by Scott and his team, particularly his cinematographer Derek Vanlint and his designers (more on them later), turn Alien from a pulpy B movie horror into a surprisingly classy proposition. Scott's elegant but restrained visual style is one of the reasons that the film works so well, and prevent it from becoming the schlock fest it could easily have descended into in lesser hands. The film takes its time to slowly develop an eerie, unsettling atmosphere. Although Alien certainly does work in jump scares and shock moments, these are more effective because the style elsewhere is so restrained.

The opening title sets the tone as the word ALIEN is created piece by piece against a backdrop of stars and planets and set to Jerry Goldsmith's creepy, eerie music. A cruder idea, of having the onscreen title composed of bits of flesh and bone, was wisely dropped.

Scott obviously decided that a story as bizarre and outlandish as Alien required a realistic visual style to allow the audience to accept it. And that means a convincing physical representation of the space ship and restrained, believable characterisations of the crew.

The film presents a relatively grounded depiction of the ship and its workings and the people who inhabit it. The film's science fiction milieu seems and feels realistic, or relatively realistic. It isn't, of course, but it feels that way because its depiction of the ship and the crew are recognisably based on the real world. The Nostromo looks creaking and industrial, not sleek and gleaming, more like an oil rig than a futuristic space ship. To create the interiors the designers combed scrap yards for salvaged aircraft and scrapped vehicle parts to give it this look.

Star Wars had burst onto the scene two years before Alien was released, and had not only popularised science fiction in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but had also helped to create the "used future" look. Alien took this one step further with a more gritty and grungy-looking space ship, giving a foretaste of the grimy, industrialised future of Scott's next film Blade Runner (1982). Although, looked at now, you have to admit that Alien's inclusion of chunky computer monitors and girlie magazines was probably not the most prescient vision of how the future would look.

Computer readout reflected in a space helmet in Alien
The computer systems on the Nostromo come to life

The important thing, though, is that the ship seems plausible and physically grounded. Not only that, but the characters seem drawn from the real world too. The characters are sketched rather than explored, but their interactions are believable. They display that mixture of the awkwardness of work colleagues, the camaraderie of shipmates and the frustrations of people forced to live together for months on end far from the comforts of home.

The makers later referred to this approach as "truckers in space", ordinary people doing a dull, routine job that happens to be on a space ship. Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) are constantly arguing over their pay and bonuses. They're not intrepid explorers and astronauts, but disgruntled employees in this situation strictly for the money. The depiction of these two characters as slightly bolshie workers seems like a particularly 1970s touch.

And the crew aren't working for a pioneering space agency, but for an untrustworthy corporation concerned only with profits. The crew even learn later that the company has decided that their lives are less important than its desire to bring back an alien specimen. The Machiavellian conglomerate would become a recurrent sci-fi theme in the 1980s and the corporation in Alien would have a more prominent role later in the series.

The progressive breakdown of the crew members is also convincingly portrayed, with the characters reacting significantly differently under pressure. Lambert becomes hysterical, Parker bullish and aggressive and Ripley sullen but eerily calm. Ash is even more eerily calm, but there's a good reason for that.

The film suggests that, in a cold and hostile universe, humans can only survive by acting inhumanely. The alien would never have got on board the ship if strict quarantine procedures had been followed, as Ripley had ordered. Although, presumably, this would have meant the others having to watch the deaths of Kane, Dallas and Lambert without intervening. Ash appears to act more humanely by letting the others back on board, but that's only because he has his own agenda. Later on, when Parker has the opportunity to kill the alien with the flame thrower, he fails because he doesn't want to hurt Lambert in the process.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Dallas (Tom Skerritt)
They just wanted a nice, quiet meal: Ripley (Sigourney Weaver),
Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Dallas (Tom Skerritt)

The characters are not that strongly drawn on the page, so they were all essentially made in the film's casting. Scott deliberately chose character actors who could flesh out their roles without needing too much input from the director, allowing him to concentrate on the visuals and the effects.

It helps too that the actors were mostly familiar without being famous. John Hurt was one of the best known actors in the film, but he was not part of the original crew. His part was originally played by another British actor, Jon Finch, who had starred in Roman Polanski's MacBeth (1971), Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972) and the cult sci-fi The Final Programme (1973). Finch became seriously ill on set, the result of diabetes, and had to be rushed to hospital. Scott sought John Hurt as a replacement and, luckily, he was able to step in and start filming almost immediately.

Sigourney Weaver, the actress now most associated with the series, was one of the least known and least experienced in film. Weaver was mostly a stage actress and had never had a significant film role. Her only credited role was a small part in Woody Allen's film Annie Hall (1977). She was enough of an unknown quantity that Scott filmed a special screen test for her at Shepperton Studios on the film's sets as they were being built.

All the characters were deliberately written to be interchangeable and the decision was made to make Ripley into a woman mainly as a way to inject some interest into an otherwise slightly underwhelming role. Weaver's uncertainty and awkwardness gels surprisingly well with the tough, rather one-dimensional, character that O'Bannon has written, giving Ripley an additional character layer that probably wouldn't have been there otherwise.

The writing and direction don't foreground any particular character in the film's establishing scenes, meaning that the identity of the survivors is not telegraphed in advance. And the fact that the actors weren't that famous also helps to disguise which characters will survive and which won't. To modern audiences this will be obvious, because there have been several sequels to Alien. But in 1979 there was just no way of guessing, because there were no real stars here.

Harry Dean Stanton as Brett and Alien hand
Brett discovers that the alien has grown a bit ...

It's notable though that there's no sexual tension or interest among the crew. They're just out in deep space doin' a job, keeping their minds on their work. But the paradox of Alien is that it's a film with no sex in it, but it's all about reproduction. The sexual elements of Alien are one of the reasons the film has retained its power and, together with its related production design, are probably the main reason why the film has been the subject of so many books, articles, videos and analyses over the years.

The film is essentially about the horror of becoming an unwilling and unwitting part of another species' reproductive strategy. And in the development of that premise, the film contains all sorts of disturbing sexual imagery and metaphors.

The impregnation of Kane with the alien's offspring is certainly a type of rape, something that many of the lesser rip-offs of Alien would treat more crudely and literally. Alien also didn't take the obvious option, as many of its imitators would, and make the impregnated victim a woman. Instead, it makes its first victim one of the male crew members. And when the alien emerges from its unwitting host, it's like the most horrific possible interpretation of birth trauma. Ash, a little insensitively, even calls the alien creature "Kane's son".

The sexual elements of Alien are signposted early on by H. R. Giger's designs, when the astronauts land on the mystery planet. The giant orifices they use to enter the crashed ship are certainly reminiscent of something that's giving birth. And when we first see the pink, newly hatched alien, it does look a bit phallic. Whether the head of the full sized alien is meant to be is debatable, although it is more obviously so in the original Giger painting.

Maybe it's also significant that the creature's method of attack is essentially penetrative. Its jaws gape open to reveal an inner secondary set of teeth that puncture the victim's flesh. And when Ash attacks Ripley it's with a pornographic magazine, which he then shoves into her mouth, in case we didn't get the message. There's much more potentially sexual imagery in the film if you really want to look for it, some of it debatable, but most of it no doubt deliberate.

Both female crew member's final encounters with the alien are also heavily sexualised. When the full sized alien corners Lambert, its tail creeps horribly suggestively around her leg and up and along her body, as if it's having a good feel. This has led to some fevered speculation as to what exactly happens to Lambert when she's at the mercy of the alien.

When Ripley has her final showdown with the creature, it's just after she's stripped down to her scanties, ready for bed and/or sex. Or perhaps symbolic impregnation. Ripley is at her most vulnerable and at a time, when she's preparing for sleep, when she should feel at her safest. The sexual suggestiveness is heightened by the fact that Weaver's tiny panties seem to be barely adequate for the job of covering her rear, meaning that she is showing an alarming amount of ass crack in this scene. Maybe it's the sight of Ripley bending over the ship's console that finally stirs the alien creature into action.

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in underwear in Alien
Safe at last: It doesn't look like there are any aliens around here ...

For the rest of the film, the two female characters are de-sexualised, treated as no different from the male crew. Lambert is de-feminised by her masculine hairstyle and Ripley by her attempts to act tough and play the hero. Both are rendered as unfeminine by their plain workwear-style clothing. Only in their encounters with the alien do we see the two women as sexual beings as their female identities are reasserted and they become the victims of an aggressive, implicitly sexual threat.

More reassuringly, the ship's computer is actually called Mother (spelled MU/TH/ER, fancruft online informs me) and it's housed in a warm, comforting little compartment, the mother's womb. We also first see the crew when they are awakened from hyper sleep, itself representing a kind of birth, one instigated by Mother. But this is birth represented as an asexual, antiseptic and strictly technological procedure, one humans are no longer required to perform themselves.

But if the ship's computer is the "mother", then who is the "father"? Is it the scheming corporation? If so, then neither parent can be trusted, as both are willing to sacrifice their offspring in return for a specimen of the alien. The alien is a more dangerous and effective killing machine and therefore, presumably, seen as a greater evolutionary success.

It's also noticeable that none of the crew members seems to show any sexual or romantic interest in any other crew member, despite their long periods spent together in deep space. The android's attack on Ripley has a sexual element, but this is almost a sad parody of a human sexual encounter, with a porno magazine acting as a substitute for the sexual organs that the android is presumably lacking.

Male and female crew members on the ship are treated equally and interchangeably, perhaps at the behest of the corporation. This seems like a surprisingly prescient touch, the "woke" corporation that parades its virtue through its insistence on equality among its employees, while all the time exploiting those employees and treating them as expendable objects.

The alien stowaway on board the ship is dangerous and disruptive therefore, not only because it brings violence and death, but because it brings sex and sexual reproduction into the asexual corporate-controlled environment of the Nostromo, where those instincts seem to be repressed. The alien represents an existential threat because it ruthlessly pursues its own reproductive needs, while humans seem to have sublimated or subordinated theirs or passed them on to technology.

Dallas (Tom Skerritt) sitting at the ships computer, Mother, in Alien
Dallas (Tom Skerritt) consults Mother

Alien suggests then that a human race that allows control of its destiny to pass to computers and to faceless corporations might find itself supplanted, if those technological and corporate interests decide to attach themselves to a more ruthless species. It's significant that the android's sympathies lie more with the alien than with its human crew mates, perhaps giving a foretaste of things to come.

Alien has proved surprisingly fertile ground for film analysis in the years since its release. That's partly because of its rich and disturbing imagery, but also because it lacks specificity or context. So little is known about the characters and their world that it becomes easier to map our own interpretations onto the film's version of the future.

Given the identity of the sole survivor (and, in view of all the sequels and her association with the role, I don't think that it's much of a spoiler to give this away), it's obviously tempting to project a quasi-feminist interpretation onto the film. But while the identity of the survivor would probably have surprised audiences in 1979, and the association of this series with a single heroine is notable, Ripley should also be seen within the context of the "final girl" trope of 1970s and '80s horror. Viewed from that perspective, her character is not quite so surprising or remarkable. It wasn't until Aliens in 1986 that James Cameron turned Ripley into an action heroine.

Alien is also not alone in having a final "shock" epilogue, just when the audience thinks it's safe to go home. This kind of scene, sometimes in the form of a dream sequence, is another occasional feature of horror films around this time, notably Carrie (1976).

It's also significant that the film begins with the awakening of the Nostromo's crew from hyper sleep and ends with the sole survivor settling down to sleep again. This means that the film is bookended by scenes of waking and sleeping, almost as if the story is a kind of dream, or a nightmare.

And the alien itself is deliberately designed to look like something out of a nightmare, rather than a biologically plausible life form. The creature was designed by Swiss artist H. R. Giger. Dan O'Bannon had recruited him to the project after seeing his work while working on Alejandro Jodorowsky's aborted film of Frank Herbert's novel Dune. The alien was not designed specifically for the film, but was drawn from an existing 1976 painting by Giger, Necronom IV.

What's notable about the alien is just how alien it looks. Giger gives us a nightmarish, biomechanical creature, looking like a cross between a giant insect, a strange machine and a mass of gleaming bones. He also decided not to give the creature any visible eyes, making it essentially inscrutable and unknowable, and thus difficult to humanise or anthropomorphise. An earlier version of the alien did have a face, but this was dropped in favour of the shiny domed head. Various people have seen more sexual elements in the creature's mouth, in particular the suggestion of a vagina dentata, although the extending, penetrating jaw seems more obviously suggestive. But the most important thing about its mouth is that it's full of scary, slimy teeth. Lots of them.

The unexpected nature of the creature's life cycle also helps to generate suspense and to keep the audience in a state of uncertainty. The initial fear is over what the crew might find on the mystery planet, and then over what might be lurking in the derelict ship. Later it's concern about what has happened to Kane, and then over the fate of the arachnid that attached itself to him.

Alien in ships corridor in silhouette in Alien 1979
OK, so occasionally the alien does look a bit like a man in a suit

The scuttling "face hugger" arachnid is unpleasant, particularly for arachnophobes, but things get much worse as the creature grows bigger and bigger. The alien (later referred to as a "xenomorph" in related media) makes its first appearance in a famously gory "birth" scene that was, according to the cast, much bloodier than they had been led to expect, which led to some genuinely shocked and horrified faces from the actors.

After that, it seems to be a search for a vicious little alien hiding somewhere in the shadows. But the crew don't yet know that the alien is growing rapidly, something first hinted at when Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) finds a discarded outer layer of skin that has been shed by the creature.

Perhaps inevitably, the ship's corridors are often bathed in darkness, making it hard to tell if the alien is lurking there or not. But this mass of metal bars and pipework also serves to blur the line between creature and machine, between the predator and its lair. Did we just see another mass of industrial pipes in the gloom, or was it a glimpse of the bony structure of the alien's exoskeleton? In one famous moment in the film, this ambiguity and uncertainty allows the alien to hide from the crew in plain sight.

Ridley Scott wisely keeps the alien out of view or in shadow for most of the film, and it's almost never seen all that clearly, something that adds to the sense of uncertainty and threat. Instead the alien is seen in glimpses here and there, never quite given a full reveal, shown instead as a melange of hideous teeth, skeletal tail and massive head. And, for almost all of the film's running time, Scott does an excellent job at hiding what the alien really is, which is, of course, a man in a cumbersome suit. The alien's head effects were created by the Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who later designed the friendlier alien in Spielberg's E. T. (1982).

Design is one of the outstanding elements of Alien, and the film cleverly uses different designers for the human and the alien worlds. H. R. Giger was given the task of creating the alien elements, not only the different creatures for the various stages of the alien's life cycle, but also the crashed ship that the Nostromo crew explore on the mystery planet. Michael Seymour was the production designer for the human space ship, although the interiors drew inspiration from concept art by Ron Cobb and Chris Foss.

The miniature effects work on Alien is also excellent. The Nostromo is deliberately not the most glamorous or exciting space ship, but the film inevitably opens with a shot of it rumbling past the camera. Star Wars had opened with a famous attention-grabbing scene of an enormous star ship hurtling over the heads of the audience, so it was now a sci-fi thing to begin your film with a shot of a nice big space ship trundling past.

The alien and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright)
The alien meets Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) and she's not at all happy about it

To make the landing ship look bigger in the scenes on the planet's surface, the shot of the three astronauts outside used three children in scaled down space suits, instead of the adult actors, to play the crew members. Two of these were Ridley Scott's children and the other the cameraman's child. A very simple, but effective, trick.

One effect that doesn't work so well is the fake android head. It's OK seen in isolation, but the transition between the fake head and the real actor's head is all too obvious. Scott has said that the fake head shrank, and that they didn't have the resources to create a new one. But I think he could have worked around this more and certainly not cut directly from the fake head to the real one, because it makes it too easy for the audience to see the difference.

One other strong element of Alien is Jerry Goldsmith's score. The music works well throughout the film, adding suspense, creepy atmospherics and a sense of foreboding. Goldsmith was understandably unsatisfied though, as his ideas were very different to Scott's. The director asked him to re-write some of the music, downplaying any sense of adventure and emphasising the sinister. Some bits from Goldsmith's earlier scores were also edited into the soundtrack and Goldsmith's end title music was replaced by the adagio from Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 2 (Romantic) from 1930.

If there's one clear message in Alien, then it would surely be "Curiosity killed the cat". Or if not the cat, then everyone else. The crew of the Nostromo are obliged to investigate the warning beacon they pick up, but Kane pushes it much further than he needs to. There's no reason for him to descend to the lower levels to explore the rows of alien eggs lying dormant in the crashed ship. Nor is there any need for him to get up close to one and have a look inside. His incautious actions have disastrous consequences for him and for the rest of the crew.

On a side note, that cat really does look scared, doesn't it? It looks genuinely worried when the crew try to coax it from its hiding place, looking left and right for the alien before venturing out. How did Ridley Scott get such a convincingly scared performance from that cat? Maybe he threatened to have it neutered.

One of the appealing aspects of Alien is its boundless sense of mystery and the unknown. Nothing is spelled out. We don't know anything about the planet the crew are called to, or what the structure they find is or why the alien eggs are there. It's since been established that it's a crashed ship they find but, again, I don't think that's immediately obvious. It's never even certain in the first film if encounters with alien life forms are a common thing or not. We have to assume that this doesn't represent first contact with an alien species, but it's never entirely clear exactly what humans have previously discovered out in the cosmos.

Fans often think they want to know the answers to these mysteries. Who is the pilot of the crashed ship? How did it get there? Where did the aliens originate from? This, though, is a common fan mistake. None of those things are important in themselves. But they serve to add to the film's sense of mystery, of the unknown and perhaps the unknowable. Everything is alien in Alien. This is one reason why the sequels have been disappointing fans ever since Alien 3 in 1992. The mystery is part of the film's appeal, but the actual answers to the questions are unimportant. Every sequel adds more information and more information just means less mystery and more disappointment.

The astronauts with the "Space Jockey" in Alien
The astronauts with the "Space Jockey"

At the time of the film's original release, the critics were a little sniffy, and the reviews were decidedly mixed. Most reviewers noticed that its plotting was essentially that of a B movie, underneath the expensive production. The film was praised for its design and effects though, and won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and was nominated for its art direction, losing to All That Jazz. It also won the BAFTA Award for Best Production Design and Best Sound and was nominated for music, editing, costume design, supporting actor (John Hurt) and for Sigourney Weaver as most promising newcomer.

Alien has firmly established itself as a classic in its genre in the years since its release and was inducted into the U.S. National Film Registry in 2002. The film was influential on the sci-fi genre in its industrial future aesthetic, and its visual influence can be seen in many sci-fi films from Event Horizon (1997) to Sunshine (2007). It also led to many low budget rip-offs, almost all best forgotten, including Inseminoid (1980), Creature (1985) and, appropriately enough, a Roger Corman schlock-fest Galaxy of Terror (1981). There was also Alien 2: On Earth, a low budget knock-off posing as a sequel. This was inevitably the work of Italian producers, never ones to be too concerned by trifling matters like someone else's copyright. Alien was also spoofed in The Ice Pirates (1984) and the Mel Brooks comedy Spaceballs (1987), among others, the latter featuring John Hurt sending up his role in Alien.

Alien also led to a number of official sequels and spin-offs as well as a mass of associated merchandising, from books to computer games and even toys. The xenomorphs returned to the big screen in a strong sequel seven years later, the more action oriented Aliens (1986), written and directed by James Cameron. David Fincher made his directorial debut with the flawed but fascinating Alien 3 in 1992, a film plagued by production difficulties and indecision over what its storyline was actually going to be. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of Delicatessen (1991), took over for a misfiring blackly comic take on the theme in Alien Resurrection in 1997.

Ridley Scott then unexpectedly returned to the Alien universe for two prequels, the slightly limp Prometheus (2012) and Alien Covenant (2017), two films that sought to answer questions from Alien that most people hadn't thought to ask. Or if they had, then they didn't much like the answers. There were also two spin-off Alien vs Predator films, AVP: Alien vs Predator (2004) and AVPR: Aliens vs Predator - Requiem (2007), although two of these was enough for anyone.

When the Alien Quadrilogy DVD box set was produced in 2003, it was decided to include alternative versions of the first four Alien films, probably influenced by the fact that there was already a longer Special Edition version of Aliens released on home video. So Ridley Scott was asked if he would prepare an alternative cut of Alien as well.

This version of Alien includes a few minor extra bits, like Lambert attacking Ripley after she refuses to break quarantine to let the others back on board the ship. It also includes a scene where Ripley finds a couple of her crew mates, the alien's victims, cocooned in the bowels of the ship and not quite dead. This was originally cut as Scott thought (correctly) that it slowed down the pacing of the latter part of the film and defused the suspense. Despite these extra scenes, this version of the film had a shorter running time, as Scott made some very slight trims elsewhere.

The alternative version of Alien was called, erroneously, the "Director's Cut", even though Scott himself was satisfied with the original. Presumably this was because Twentieth Century Fox thought that "Alien: The Director's Cut" was a more saleable title than "Alien: The Version the Director Doesn't Like as Much Because He Prefers the Original". The alternative version is of slight interest to die hard Alien fans, but everyone else should stick to the original.


Year: 1979
Genre: Sci-fi, Horror, Thriller
Country: UK / USA
Director: Ridley Scott

Cast Tom Skerritt (Dallas), Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Veronica Cartwright (Lambert), Harry Dean Stanton (Brett), John Hurt (Kane), Ian Holm (Ash), Yaphet Kotto (Parker), Bolaji Badejo (Alien), Helen Horton (Voice of Mother)

Screenplay Dan O'Bannon  story Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett  Producers Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill  Cinematography Derek Vanlint  Production designer Michael Seymour  Alien designs  H. R. Giger  Art directors Roger Christian, Les Dilley  Editor Terry Rawlings  Music Jerry Goldsmith  Costume designer John Mollo

Running time 117 mins / 116 mins  ("Director's Cut" version)  Colour Eastmancolour  Widescreen Panavision

Production company Brandywine / Twentieth Century Fox Productions  Distributor Twentieth Century Fox


  1. What a fantastic review of a classic movie! While I prefer the sequel, the first movie is absolutely brilliant. And, I agree, the slightly longer cut isn't as good as the theatrical version.

    1. Thanks Eric.

      The "directors cut" version of Alien is actually slightly shorter, oddly enough. I really like Ridley Scott's longer versions of Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, so I think a slightly longer version of Alien with the additional scenes might have been interesting. But maybe he felt the pace would then be too slow for a modern audience.


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