Dir: Ridley scott
Gen: from war to peace: Aliens in the last 50 years of cinema
Alien is a film that requires very little introduction, having since provided the canvas for innumerable other great films and ripoffs as well as being the first in a series of six, spanning four decades and launching the career of one of the greatest heroes to grace space - Sigourney Weaver as the irreplaceable Ellen Ripley.
Marketing itself on the tagline “In space no one can hear you scream”, the premise was very simple. Aboard a carrier ship returning to earth, the crew of 7 are awoken early to investigate a transmission of “unknown origin” on a local planet. Contact in this instance isn’t nearly as positive as Close Encounters or E.T. - quite the opposite, as an alien parasite finds its way aboard the ship and wreaks havoc.
Alien is unique within this series for being the only film set in space, on the claustrophobic Nostromo, a setting of great importance signified by the opening shot; a slow, full tour of the ship before we see any cast. On such a small vessel the sense of urgency and danger is substantial, where the only thing more deadly than a maniacal alien is the alternative - the vacuum of space.
Alien is well remembered for its atmospheric style, but more significantly so for its iconic aliens with the facehugger, chestburster and xenomorph all designed by famous Swiss artist H.R. Giger. Featuring teeth inside of teeth and a mouth that makes a shark’s dentition look positively inviting, Giger changed the history of the genre together with Ridley Scott and laid down the very stylised fabric on which the franchise still bases itself today.
The alien works as a sounding board for the different characters’ personalities. The engineers, the captain, the executive officer, the navigator and the calculated android - a cross section of society, who all react differently to the intense situation. Simply put, there are those for the preservation of the alien and those for its destruction. Most significantly of whom being warrant officer Ripley, whose headstrong actions would see her become the star of the film and franchise, in an unusually prominent female role in the genre despite Weaver’s limited movie experience.
There is a substantial amount of gender subversion in Alien. Ripley is the most pragmatic and capable of the crew, quite unusual for a time when most contemporary horrors featured women exclusively scantily-clad and often the first to die. The alien itself is somewhat sexually ambiguous. Born from an egg of mysterious origin, it physically evolves as the film does, but at no point does it exhibit overly male or female qualities, just savage power. In earlier drafts of the screenplay, the cast were actually written to be gender interchangeable, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that Ripley became one of the greatest characters in science fiction as a consequence of gender blind writing. Meanwhile, the success of the film showed that the world and industry were more than ready to see women get shit done in space.
The large, iconic alien costume was designed by Giger to fit 6ft 10” Bojali Badejo, an art student from Nigeria, who was found by a casting agent in a bar in London. The complex facial mechanics of the costume were built by Carlo Rambaldi (Close Encounters, E.T.) and were designed with the rest of the suit to be gangly and unsettling. Working with almost entirely practical effects meant so much reliance was placed on in-camera work, so the costume was mostly shown through jump shots and darkness. The ship and alien were actually designed in tandem so that it would blend in well with the black, tubular electronics and life support systems. This suited the mid-budget production well as a man in a costume, while innovative at the time, would need all the help possible to get an alien element across.
For all its ingenuity Alien does stick with a lot of genre conventions, especially those from contemporary horror. With much in common with the likes of Halloween (1978) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), comparisons Scott himself would make - a small ensemble cast picked off one by one, bucketloads of expository dialogue, jump scares, close calls, characters for comic relief etc. Alien did so well because of the innovative work from industry veterans like Rambaldi and composer Jerry Goldsmith, as well as future stars Ridley Scott and Sigourney Weaver willing to go the extra mile in their early careers.
It stands on its own terms for adding much to the canon of cinema, including the famous chestburster scene which Empire named the greatest 18+ moment in cinema in a 2007 issue. It has influenced many films since, including similar classics like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which doubled down on the psychological element partially explored by Scott. The psychological twists and turns in Alien, including the idea of an android onboard provided an extra air of eeriness that you would never get in a terrestrial horror. It didn’t push the idea nearly as far as the likes of Blade Runner would a few years later, but showed that they weren’t just going for run of the mill, there was a lot more thought to it and Ridley Scott was a director who had very grand ideas going around his head.
As the first in a long-running series, Alien is a true horror and science fiction classic, and with films such as Life (2017), and Underwater (2020) still riffing on the same idea, as well as another film in the franchise currently in production, it seems that a simple but well executed concept 40 years ago still has some real life in it yet.
Badejo tries on the Xenomorph headpiece as H.R. Giger (fourth from right) assists
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Euan is the editor of Wrap Party Media, contributor at Discovery Music, freelance writer, and popular on instagram as @cinematographersparty. He’s examining alien cinema for his love of science fiction and to track the innovation of the last 50 years within the genre. His other writings can be found at https://wrappartymedia.com/author/euanfoley/
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.