The story is simple and direct, one of the great virtues of the compact, suspenseful film. In deep space, the large tug Nostromo is returning to Earth carrying a cargo of mineral ore, its small crew in hypersleep chambers. Along the way, they are awakened by the ship's computer, "Mother," when it intercepts a nonhuman transmission from a planetoid, which they are required to investigate by lawful agreement among corporate interests operating in space. The crew consists of the captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), second-in-command Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), science officer Ash (Ian Holm), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Kane (John Hurt), Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), Parker (Yaphet Kotto), and Jones, a cat. A small team descends to the planet to discover a massive alien ship. The pilot of the craft is dead and the team discovers a chamber full of what appear to be eggs. Leaning over to investigate, Kane is attacked by a life form that springs from an egg, penetrates his helmet, and latches onto his face. The team evacuates Kane to the Nostromo for treatment, not realizing that they have allowed a fearsome Alien creature to play out its life cycle aboard their ship.
Alien had its beginnings when a major film project fell apart in France. Writer Dan O'Bannon had been working on designs for a big-budget adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune, to be directed by Alexandro Jodorowsky. The film never got off the ground and O'Bannon soon found himself sleeping on the couch of fellow writer Ron Shusett in Hollywood. O'Bannon dusted off an old script and with Shusett's help, wrote the story for Alien. One of the artists who was brought on to the ill-fated Dune project as a designer was a surrealist Swiss painter named H. R. Giger. O'Bannon later wrote, "...then we had to figure out the monster. Well, I hadn't been able to get Hans Rudi Giger off my mind since I left France. His paintings had a profound effect on me. I had never seen anything that was quite as horrible and at the same time as beautiful as his work. And so I ended up writing a script about a Giger monster."
O'Bannon envisioned the film resulting from his script to be a low-budget but efficient little thriller. He enlisted an illustrator friend, Ron Cobb, to do some preliminary paintings and drawings for the project and proceeded to shop the script around to studios. Many showed interest, but a production company called Brandywine (made up of producer Gordon Carroll and producer/ directors David Giler and Walter Hill) won out. Brandywine had a production agreement with Twentieth Century Fox, who set up a budget of eight million dollars, a much bigger budget than O'Bannon ever intended. Walter Hill would have helmed the movie but had to drop out due to another project. The producers instead hired Ridley Scott, who had helmed many high-profile commercials in England, but had only directed one prior feature, the critically-praised box-office disappointment The Duellists (1977). Walter Hill did a final rewrite on the script, which was shown to Scott, who later said, "I read it in forty minutes...and bang! The script was simple and direct; it was the reason why I did the film."
Design work on Alien proceeded; Chris Foss was brought in to do more concepts on spaceships, but work on the monster itself had yet to begin. O'Bannon finally brought in a book of H. R. Giger's paintings called Necronomicon to show to the director. "I looked down and saw this stunning picture," Scott later said. "I have never been so sure of something in all my life. And I said to Dan, 'Well, either my problems are over or they've just begun.'" Giger was hired for preproduction design work and given a studio space in which to work (the film would be shot largely at Shepperton Studios in England); he also promptly asked for an assortment of animal bones for his work materials. Giger painted a number of large canvases and using the bones as a base, he sculpted his ideas with Styrofoam. He had freedom to depict the life cycle of the Alien, and the stages called for different-looking creatures, dubbed by the crew the Face Hugger, the Chest Burster, and the Big Alien.
To portray the main creature, the filmmakers hired a six-foot-ten, 26-year old Nigerian named Bolaji Badejo, a design student in England. Giger made a cast of his body, and "as I do with all my work, I made the creature look biomechanical. Starting with the plaster core, I worked with Plasticine, rubber, bones, ribbed tubes, and different mechanical stuff like wires. The whole costume is translucent; the head is fiberglass." Scott was determined that the creature would look properly "alien" onscreen, so he opted to show it primarily in close-up views in quick cuts. Only once is the creature seen full-view.
The filmmakers of Alien, and Giger in particular, influenced the look and feel of science fiction films for several years to come. As Brooks Landon wrote in Cinefantastique from a 1988 vantage point, "[Alien] immersed us in a systematically alien environment, an entire implicit ecology, confronting us with a spaceship at once so vast and so strange looking that it subverted our comfortable distinctions between biology and machinery, our expectations of mechanical forms with implicitly clear functions, and with a creature that threatened us from without and from within." For better or worse, the dark, menacing, and erotic biomechanical combination of "circuitry and slime" became the default sensibility in films such as Saturn 3 (1980), Scared to Death (1981), Galaxy of Terror (1981), Lifeforce (1985), and the 1986 version of Invaders from Mars, among many others.
In the Los Angeles Times, Charles Champlin called Alien "preposterously scary and surpassingly well-done" and wrote that "not a frame... is flat or casual or perfunctory." Champlin also praised the production design and effects, concluding that "the effects are more persuasively out of this world than any I can remember. The sense of otherness the sense that this planet, this thing, this alien wreck of a ship derive from no previous models is very strong. What good is a fantasy that isn't fantastic? Eerie, this one is." On the other hand, Vincent Canby, writing in the New York Times, does not feel the film is different looking; he writes, "Alien is an extremely small, rather decent movie of its modest kind, set inside a large, extremely fancy physical production... It's an old-fashioned scare movie about something that is not only implacably evil but prone to jumping out at you when (the movie hopes) you least expect it. There was once a time when this sort of thing was set in an old dark house, on a moor, in a thunderstorm. Being trendy, Mr. Scott and his associates have sent it up in space."
Even though Alien was a violent, bloody film with a hard "R" rating, Twentieth Century Fox did not hesitate to license the film out for a number of commercial products and toys. (At the time, Fox's Star Wars had been in almost perpetual release for two years and was still enjoying huge merchandising sales). There were Alien books, records, shirts, iron-ons, puzzles, games, bubble-gum cards, a "Blaster Target Set," and most notoriously, a large 18-inch Alien Action Figure. The Alien Action Figure boasted "mechanically operated jaws" (as in the movie, a teeth-bearing tongue extended from the mouth) and "spring loaded arms to crush its victims!" Although commonplace today, this was the first kid's toy marketed from an R-rated film, and it garnered some controversy at the time.
Alien was a natural for a sequel, and seven years later Fox released Aliens (1986), written and directed by James Cameron. This film wisely did not try to duplicate the deliberate horror-suspense mood of Ridley Scott's effort; instead, Cameron presented a non-stop action picture and cleverly expanded on the Alien life cycle.
Producer: Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Dan O'Bannon (screenplay and story); Ronald Shusett (story)
Cinematography: Derek Vanlint
Art Direction: Roger Christian, Les Dilley
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Film Editing: Terry Rawlings, Peter Weatherley; David Crowther (director's cut)
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)
by John M. Miller
The Book of ALIEN, Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross, 1979, Simon and Schuster.
"Making ALIEN: Behind the Scenes" by Mark Patrick Carducci and Glenn Lovell, Cinefantastique Magazine, Volume 9 Number 1, 1979.
"Giger: Sliming Technology" by Brooks Landon, Cinefantastique Magazine, Volume 18 Number 4, 1988.