In space no one can hear you scream.
Originally conceived simply as a monster movie set in space, Alien could have ended up as just another forgettable B-level affair, and in fact it almost it almost become one of Roger Corman’s productions. Luckily, the stars aligned and a diverse team with strong artistic ideas came together to produce one of the most celebrated films in history.
Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon first conceived the story for Alien after being disappointed by the performance of his first feature film, the sci-fi comedy Dark Star. He then decided to take the same concept: a space crew trapped in space with an alien being, but this time replace the comedy with horror and deliver a believable monster for once.
O’Bannon had to put a pause on the project though, after being recruited by Alejandro Jodorowsky as part of an impressive team assembled for the ill-fated film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The failure of the project left O’Bannon broke, depressed and sleeping in his friend’s Ronald Shusett sofa, but it also gave him two key things: the determination to finish the script for his then titled “Star Beast” and turn it into a movie, and introduced him to Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger whose style would define the film (and the franchise) itself.
Impressed by Giger’s disturbing but beautiful work, O’Bannon was convinced that should he design a movie monster, it would be something audiences had never seen. When producers Walter Hill and David Giler came on board and offered the project to emerging director Ridley Scott, O’Bannon was quick to lend a copy of Giger’s Necronomicon into the filmmaker’s hands. Scott was attracted in particular to one of the paintings, Necronom IV, and despite some resistance from the studio, Giger was brought on board to design the creature and the alien world.
Ron Cobb and Chris Foss, who had worked with O’Bannon before, joined the team to design the human side of the film, creating a perfect contrast with the dark bio-mechanics of Giger’s creations and grounding the film in reality as much as possible.
A big part of what made Alien so special is how everyone involved attempted the elevate the story from its simple premise. Despite initially dismissing it and without any knowledge of science fiction, Hill and Giler recognized the potential in Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s script but polished the dialogue, changed the character’s names to something more conventional, and introduced some elements while removing others. Perhaps their greatest addition was turning Ash into a droid. Of course this didn’t set well with O’Bannon and his partner, but nevertheless Scott was able to balance both sides of the aisle into one cohesive world.
While the script didn’t do much to develop its characters, going as far a O’Bannon leaving the choice for their genders up to the director and producers, the casting decisions were what gave them life, helped in a big way by the idea of portraying them simply as “truckers in space,” people who aren’t looking for adventure and don’t care that much for each other and whose only wish is to get the job done, come back to Earth and get paid.
Each of the actors shine in their roles and their performances are natural and distinctive, with mild-mannered captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and second in command Kane (John Hurt) content with simply do what the company orders, much to the dismay of warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) who’s adamant of doing things by-the-book. Maintenance engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) constantly rambling about how much they’re underpaid, the shadowy science officer Ash (Ian Holm), and navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) who perhaps better reflects the audiences natural response to the events unfolding.
What Dallas, Kane and Lambert find in that deserted moon is a world entirely born from Giger’s imagination, with its biomechanic design and sexualized shapes. The crew finds a derelict ship and go inside through one of its vagina shaped doors and after walking through its bone covered corridors they find a dead pilot tied to its chair whose chest seems to have exploded from the inside.
In retrospective, it’s curious to think that the impressive scene depicting what has been known as the Space Jokey almost wasn’t made because the studio was worried about the budget and the fact that the scene didn’t directly contributed to the plot. But it did raise questions and hinted at a larger world that was further explored in Scott’s own Prometheus over three decades later.
Ignoring all signals pointing to something horrible having took place long ago, they continue exploring the ship, and Kane’s own curiosity causes him to be the victim of what is now known as a facehugger. Suddenly the camera lingering on Kane at the start of the film has a new meaning.
Despite Ripley’s insistence in following the rules, Kane is allowed back into the ship, sealing the fate of everyone on board. After the infamous dinner scene in which the alien bursts through Kane’s chest, marked by its gore and the real shock of the cast around what was happening, the creature proceeds to quickly grow and take the crew members one by one.
With Kane and later Dallas gone, Ripley takes charge, trying to control the situation, but she finally breaks after she discovers Ash was in fact a droid put on board by the company to ensure the creature’s survival and labeling the crew as “expendable.” Ash himself seems mystified by the alien’s existence, the perfect organism according to him.
Though it is assumed that the alien is killing its victims, only Parker and Lambert are actually shown to die on screen. Lambert’s death is particularly disturbing because much of what is happening is left to our imagination combining the little we are shown with her screams and moans. Originally cut from the theatrical release, Ripley discovers yet another disturbing fact, the alien is mutating Dallas and Brett into eggs to ensure the survival of its species.
While the pace of the film up to this point had been purposely slow, perhaps too slow for today’s audiences, the final moments are pulse pounding and loud as Ripley tries to escape the doomed ship, and for a while there’s a sense of relief after we see the Nostromo explode in spectacular fashion.
It’s in this final moments that Ripley, originally written as a man and devoid of sexuality throughout the film, is allowed to show some of her femininity, unknowingly undressing for the creature lurking in her ship, and screaming in terror and hiding once she discovers it. Her resolve, however, is stronger and she manages to dispatch the alien and go into hypersleep with her cat Jonesy, hoping the nightmare is over and she’ll be able to return home.
Ridley Scott combined the diverse talents of his crew and delivered a visually captivating world that it was gritty a,d dirty and that felt real. He recognized the budget and technological limitations he had and used them to his advantage showing only glimpses of the alien world and the creature itself, enough to let our imagination fly and guess and be frightened by what we didn’t know.
The alien itself is a work of beauty with its eyeless head hiding a human skull barely visible beneath its dome, its mouth revealing metallic teeth with a phallic tongue acting as an inner mouth used to “penetrate” its victims. and the added horror of its acid blood, a feature the screenwriters created to solve the problem of why the crew couldn’t just shoot the creature. O’Bannon had made the conscious decision to play with man’s fear of rape by making Kane the victim of an oral assault and later giving birth through his chest.
Then there’s the music score by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith. Like everyone else working on the film, it was Goldsmith’s desire to push the envelope, experiment with the music and deliver a combination of romantic melodies and out-of-this-world sounds. He delivered in spades, but then his music was edited out of their intended scenes and he was asked to re-score parts of the film while cues from his score for Freud were used for a couple of scenes.
Listening to any of the score albums from the film released just makes you wonder how the film would have turned had Goldsmith had his way. On one hand I think the Freud cues distracting from the scenes they play out: the acid blood scene and Dallas going into the airshaft. On the other hand I think the more mysterious cue that opens the film works better than the originally intended and more melodic piece. Either way, Alien is definitely one of Jerry Goldsmith’s finest works.
Alien redefined horror and sci-fi forever, and no matter how many copycats appeared in the aftermath, they were never able to reach the same level of brilliance Ridley Scott and his crew achieved. Visually and thematically there was nothing like it, and it gave birth to perhaps the most original and bold film franchise in the history of cinema. It also introduced us to Ellen Ripley, a character that would become synonym with the series, and that would break from her non-gender character turned final girl origins into one of the most celebrated female characters on film.