It began simply. “In space no one can hear you scream”, cautioned the posters. There were no name actors, no fanfare, no star-laden premieres. Just a tale of seven people, all but one of whom dies at the hands of a seemingly invincible alien life form. Simple, but brilliantly radical, Alien was the grubby flipside of George Lucas’ fairytale utopia, a future where humanity was losing the war with technology and where exploitation and boredom prevailed. Alien was the heaven-sent antidote to the vacant escapism Star Wars’ success had borne in Hollywood, and an anomalous reminder of the power of cinema to terrorise and disturb. The film was conceived by Dan O’Bannon in 1976 but it was only a few years later, with the twin successes of Star Wars and horror films like The Exorcist, The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, that Hollywood saw the opportunity to combine the two most profitable genres of the time in one movie. Even so, Alien was a massive risk at the time, especially since the director, Ridley Scott, had only one film under his belt when he came on board. This decision, risky as it may have seemed back then, proved to be a masterstroke as Scott stamped his unique vision on Alien with the memorable quote “To me, it was more than a horror film. It was a film about terror.” Now that the saga of Alien has come full circle with the recent release of Prometheus, it is perhaps the perfect time to look at how the original film came to define the genre of sci-fi horror.
In addition to the involvement of Scott, another important creative decision, which was to prove crucial for the creepy look and feel of Alien, was the hiring of the visionary sci-fi artist H R Giger. Dark and fantastical, Giger’s work brought something truly unique to Alien. With the eponymous alien he designed an acid-bleeding, biomechanical creature that was perversely both terrifying and fascinating. Silent, ruthless, driven by instinct, and with its sleek black frame glistening with viscous fluids, nothing like it had ever been seen before. Neither the being nor its species is ever named – Ash, the android, refers to it simply as “the perfect organism”. Like in Spielberg’s Jaws, the audience has to wait until around 45 minutes into the film before the creature is unveiled, and even then Scott suggests it by use of shadows, quick movement and reaction shots. When we see the alien for the first time, as it leisurely unfolds itself from a ducting to stand in front of an awestruck Lambert and Parker, it is like watching some malevolent demi-god or demon manifesting itself before a pair of human sacrifices. Giger’s alien was a wake up call to humanity, a creature that is constantly referred to as ‘superior in every sense’.
Of the human cast, it was Scott who re-gendered and placed Ellen Ripley’s character at the centre of the film. A virtual unknown back in the late seventies, Sigourney Weaver’s memorable portrayal of a tough, yet feminine, officer has since become iconic. The spacecraft Nostromo and its ragtag crew are anything but Star Trek in their look and feel. Scott’s grimy, documentary naturalism gave the by now established sci-fi film genre a new vocabulary by coining the phrase ‘used future’. Alien was about people who had become isolated from human contact, which makes the subtle suggestion of Ripley’s attraction to the alien more plausible. Scott was interested in the way people might be affected by claustrophobia and melancholy. For example, he excised a sex scene between Ripley and the captain, Dallas, as he felt that he contradicted his basic theme of spatial loneliness and alienation. Scott chose to shoot the film chronologically, to maintain the sense of realism for the actors. Early on in the production, none of the actors knew if their characters would live or die, as Scott demanded the script be given to them on a day-to-day basis and on a need-to-know rule. This cranked up the tension on an already cramped and claustrophobic set.
In the now-infamous scene where the infant alien bursts from John Hurt’s chest, Scott devised it so that none of the cast would know exactly what was going to happen – when Veronica Cartwright screams at that point, it’s real! Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Scott’s approach, the atmosphere on set was frequently strained. Weaver has been quoted as saying that Scott neglected his actors. Yaphet Kotto, a dedicated method actor, developed a strong antipathy towards the actor who played the alien, a 6ft 7in African student Scott had met in a London bar named Bolaji Badejo, and a fight almost broke out between them at one point during shooting. Fortunately, none of this affected the film’s reception when it was released in 1979. Alien opened to good reviews and raked in $38 million dollars worldwide, making it the fourth biggest grosser of the year, and it won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. It also established a franchise, with four sequels and prequels to date (I’m not counting the ghastly Alien v Predator films). Of the sequels, James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) truly stands out. Rejecting Scott’s tempered minimalism in favour of all-out action, Cameron’s high-octane follow-up takes its cue, not from the horror genre, but from war films. Set 57 years after the events of Alien, Ripley is woken from hyper-sleep to discover that the planet on which the Nostromo crew discovered the alien eggs has been colonised, and, accompanied by the usual motley selection of Marine types, goes in to investigate. Cameron’s relentless assault on the senses may not be as insidiously haunting as Scott’s understated template, but it is a masterful reinvention of the franchise.
I also have a special place in my heart for David Fincher’s much-maligned Alien 3 (1992). Unfairly dismissed by those expecting another Cameron-esque shoot-em-up, Alien 3 plunges Ripley’s character even deeper into her own private hell. The film’s dour, grungy medievalism draws its inspiration more from British kitchen sink dramas in the Ken Loach mould than any antecedents within the sci-fi or horror genres. It may be an acquired taste, but it is resolutely the most un-Hollywood of the franchise. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the travesty that is Alien Resurrection (1997). Despite the intriguing premise, that Ripley is cloned 200 years on from human and alien DNA, Alien Resurrection is a vapid greatest hits package, assembled with little sense of invention or understanding of terror. It was easily the weakest of the sequels – at least until the AVP movies came along (the less said about which the better). Having long lamented the sad fate of the Alien saga after its lofty beginnings, I am pleased to say that Prometheus, although not officially an addition to this series, certainly represents a return to form. Unique, unpredictable, genre-defying, thought-provoking and, above all, scary, one can only hope that Prometheus, like its seventies’ predecessor, represents the start of another golden age in sci-fi/horror cinema.