Audiences were first introduced to the horrific, biomechanical Xenomorphs in this classic science-fiction horror film in which an unsuspecting cargo crew investigates a beacon on the barren world of LV-426 and, as a result, the 26th of April is widely celebrated as “Alien Day”, a day to celebrate one of the greatest sci-fi/horror franchises ever created.
Released: 31 October 2003
Originally Released: 25 May 1979
Director: Ridley Scott
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $11 million
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwright, Yaphett Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, and Bolaji Badejo
When the crew of deep space haulage vehicle the Nostromo are awoken from stasis to investigate a possible distress signal, they find themselves terrorised by a biomechanical lifeform (Badejo) that gestates inside a human host and emerges as the perfect killing machine!
Alien was the brainchild of writer Dan O’Bannon who, after working with director John Carpenter on the sci-fi/comedy Dark Star (Carpenter, 1974), desired to craft a more realistic and far more terrifying sci-fi horror that would be set entirely in space. O’Bannon’s work on Dark Star impressed fellow writer Ronald Shusett and the two collaborated on the project, which was initially titled Memory, then Starbeast, before Shusett suggested the simple and evocative title of Alien. Pitching the concept as “Jaws (Spielberg, 1975) in space”, the duo were inspired by the surreal and nightmarish work of Swiss artist H. R. Giger, who was later brought onboard to help design the Xenomorph’s various life cycles and the unsettling architecture of the alien spacecraft. Thanks to the success of Star Wars (Lucas, 1977), sci-fi was now a hot commodity in Hollywood and, eager to capitalise on that, 20th Century Fox greenlit the project and brought up-and-coming director Ridley Scott onboard (and even doubled the budget based on his storyboards alone).
O’Bannon and Shusett left the genders of the film’s characters intentionally vague and malleable and Scott sought to expand upon the “lived-in” nature of Star Wars by presenting the crew as “truckers in space”. He often filmed the cast’s rehearsals and pushed them to develop both a natural chemistry and a believable animosity towards each other to make their interactions more authentic, which ended up augmenting one of the film’s most gruesome scenes. Upon release, Alien was a commercial success; it made over $11 million at the box office but received somewhat mixed reviews at the time. Since then, of course, the film has not only inspired an entire series and sub-series of sequels and spin-offs but is widely regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time. In 2003, to commemorate the film’s release on DVD, Scott returned to the film, restoring previously excised scenes and digitally remastering it for this Director’s Cut version of Alien that is, for me, the quintessential version of this classic sci-fi horror.
Alien begins with the crew of the Nostromo being pulled out of stasis when their ship’s computer, Mother (Helen Horton), picks up a potential distress signal from a nearby planet, LV-426. Almost immediately, over something as simple as a meal, we’re introduced to the complex dynamic of the Nostromo’s crew, which is made up of a group of egos and conflicting personalities who are just about able to work together to keep things ticking along. We don’t really learn a huge amount about each of them beyond a few disparate pieces of dialogue but, through their individual and combined interactions, it’s immediately and abundantly clear that they’ve worked together for some time, certainly long enough for some friction to have developed between certain crewmembers. Captain Dallas (Skerritt) has very little actual authority on the ship; a jaded veteran of many long-haul trips, he begrudgingly goes along with any and all orders from the mysterious and shady “Company” even when they go against their standard protocol and what their ship is technically capable of.
While navigation officer Lambert (Cartwright) is sceptical of their new orders, Brett (Stanton) and Parker (Kotto), the Nostromo’s engineers, are concerned with more practical considerations; namely, compensation for their efforts. Feeling undervalued and underappreciated compared to the other members of the crew (especially as they are largely responsible for keeping the ship running), they attempt to weasel their way out of landing on LV-426 and it falls not to Dallas but to the Nostromo’s science officer, Ash (Holm), to point out that they (and the entire crew) are contractually obligated to investigate any distress calls and the potential of extraterrestrial life or forfeit their entire earnings. This does little to improve their already dour mood and brings them into further conflict with Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (Weaver), a by-the-numbers officer who likes to do things by the book. She also butts heads with Ash, who not only keeps her from following Dallas, Lambert, and Kane to the derelict alien spacecraft after she determines the distress call to be a warning but also breaks quarantine procedures by allowing the away team back onto the ship even though Kane (Hurt) has an unidentified alien parasite attached to his face.
This “Facehugger” attacks Kane when he discovers a cargo hold, of sorts, on the derelict craft that is full of ominous-looking eggs. Allowing his curiosity to get the better of him, Kane is left in a comatose state and the crew are left unable to help him since the Facehugger threatens to choke him to death or dissolve the Nostromo with its acidic blood. Dallas is left practically impotent in his helplessness, Ash becomes consumed with researching and investigating the parasite’s capabilities, and Lambert is left enraged that Ripley was willing to sacrifice them just to maintain protocol. The tension amongst the crew is momentarily alleviated, however, when the Facehugger simply falls off and dies and Kane seemingly makes a full recovery, only for him to unexpectedly and viciously explode at the dinner table when a ferocious little “Chestburster” forces its way out of his body, killing him in the process and fleeing into the darkest recesses of the ship.
Despite the shock and terror of this sudden development, the crew scrambles to track down the Chestburster and are horrified to find that the creature has quickly gestated into a seven-foot alien killing machine! With no reliable means of tracking the Xenomorph, and being picked off one at a time, the crew struggles to unite against this common foe; tensions between Parker and Ripley escalate and things only become more complicated when Ash is revealed to be a life-like android placed on the ship by the Company to ensure the Xenomorph’s recovery. This revelation goes a long way to explaining Ash’s odd behaviour throughout the film; he willingly breaks protocol at every opportunity, which Ripley finds aggravating and suspicious since he is supposed to be the science officer, and seems morbidly obsessed with the alien life form in its various stages of life. When the Company’s true motivations are revealed, Ash drops all sense of subterfuge and attempts to kill Ripley; the ensuing melee reveals his true nature in a startlingly shocking scene that leaves him beheaded at Parker’s hands! He’s reactivated just long enough to deliver an ominous threat regarding the alien’s capabilities and to gleefully reveal that their lives are expandable compared to the alien’s acquisition, leaving the remaining survivors with no other choice than to try and evade the Xenomorph in order to set the Nostromo to self-destruct while they escape in the shuttle.
Undeniably, one aspect of Alien that remains intact and impressive to this day are the practical effects; model shots and miniatures do a wonderful job of conveying the weight and scale of the ships and space, and a fantastic use of lighting (particularly shadows), smoke, and flashgun lights help to increase the dread and allure of the titular alien. These are only further bolstered by the intricately-designed, heavily claustrophobic sets; clearly evoking a 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1969) aesthetic mixed with Star Wars’ more gritty set design, Alien definitely feels like a lived-in future where technology is as vaguely anachronistic and unreliable as it is advanced while also effectively coming across as a monster or slasher film in space thanks to the ship’s darker, grottier areas. Easily the most impressive set of the film, though, is the derelict spacecraft where Kane discovers the alien eggs; a combination of miniatures, model shots, and even children create a sense of awesome scale that is made only more foreboding by Giger’s disturbing set design and the presence of the half-fossilised “Space Jockey”.
One thing to note about Alien is that it was made at a very different time in cinema, a time when sci-fi and horror was a much more atmospheric affair and involved a lot of slow, ominous shots and tense, foreboding music all designed to build a sense of dread in the viewer. This is best evidenced in the movie’s overly long and slow-paced opening, which includes a full cast and credits and a deliberate tour of the Nostromo to help familiarise us with the ship’s aesthetic, narrow corridors, and the lived-in nature of the film’s sci-fi. Consequently, the film requires a certain mindset; rather than bombarding you with action, viscera, and loud explosions, it’s much more of a methodical exploration of the slow dissection of an already tumultuous group stuck at the mercy of a vicious creature.
The whole first act of the film is specifically designed to introduce us to the idea of the unknown, the dangerous and terrifying prospect of what may be lurking in the furthest reaches of deep space. It’s made abundantly clear by Parker and Brett that the Nostromo is not built, or properly equipped, to be investigating strange signals, much less landing on alien worlds, which proves to be true when the shuttle suffers severe damage simply by landing on LV-426. Of course, their concerns are either ignored or outright overruled simply by Company protocol, which dictates that “all other priorities are rescinded” when compared to the Xenomorph. At this point, the Xenomorph itself is a mystery al its own; the derelict spacecraft is beyond any sense of human understanding, to say nothing of the gigantic skeleton of the Space Jockey that serves as an ominous warning to deter the crew. Where did the eggs come from? What purpose did they serve? How did the Space Jockey get infected with a Chestburster? These are all questions the film purposely leaves unanswered and which only add to the sense of mystery and terror as the alien’s true origins and purpose are unknown and, ultimately, inconsequential since, once its aboard the Nostromo, all that matters is trying to survive rather than working out who created it and why.
The Xenomorph’s design, however, is no accident; consciously designed to evoke uncomfortable feelings of visceral terror, each stage of the creature’s life cycle resembles genitalia in some way and its threat is as sexual as it is physical. The Director’s Cut is notable for included a previously excised scene in which Dallas is revealed to not have been killed by the Xenomorph but, instead, is being transformed into one of the same eggs Kane discovered on the crashed ship. This would have suggested a complete, self-sustaining life cycle and only added to the mystery and horror of the alien; obviously, the sequel abandoned this in favour of an egg-laying Queen but I still feel like this concept works in the overall context as the extended Alien canon showed that the Xenomorphs were capable of undergoing further, life-sustaining transformations. Still, the Facehugger effectively rapes Kane, pouncing on him and impregnating him against his will and causing a phallic, carnivorous parasite to puncture its way from his chest. Even when fully grown, the Xenomorph remains disturbingly phallic in its design and the way it approaches and kills its prey; from its long, phallic head and tail to its dangerous retractable inner mouth, the creature stalks, overwhelms, and consumes its victims with a disturbingly serene grace that is punctuated by a sudden and brutal aggression.
In the Xenomorph, the crew are faced with the threat of the unknown in physical form; thanks to the network of air ducts, the abundance of shadows, and its sheer tremendous ferocity, the crew are effectively powerless against its will. It’s not even as though they can rely on any futuristic technology to assist them as the Nostromo has very little in the way of armaments; all they’re left with is a crude motion tracker and the one piece of technology they do have (Ash) ultimately proves to be just as dangerous as the Xenomorph itself. Thanks to the class-based tensions that already existed at the start of the film (particularly between Parker and Ripley) and the sheer terror of the situation (primarily embodied in Lambert), the survivors are unable to properly get their shit together fight the creature. The Xenomorph itself remains mostly hidden in shadows and tantalisingly kept off-screen for large portions of the film to only increase its shock value and horror when it does appear; appearing as little more than a living shadow of talons and teeth, when it is seen, it is an incredibly impressive piece of practical work that remains as terrifying now as it was back then.
What make Ripley such an effective protagonist is the way in which she embodies all of the traits of the different crew members and balances them out so that no one emotion or personality overwhelms her. She starts the film very much a semi-stuck-up stickler for the rules (though it must be said that she was right all along and Ash never should be broken the quarantine procedure); like Dallas, she is used to simply following orders but, while he boldly chooses to lead team to the crashed ship and venture into the ducts in some foolhardy attempt at heroics, she opts to follow protocols designed to keep them alive. Kane’s sense of curiosity is also present in Ripley, but it’s tempered with a caution that she is level-headed enough to keep from spilling over into aggression like Parker. As we see in the sequel, the entire experience scars her enough to leave her disillusioned with the Company, similar to Brett and, while Lambert is basically reduced to a quivering wreck when faced with the Xenomorph, Ripley (despite clearly being terrified out of her mind) is able to hold herself together enough (and be adaptable enough) to find ways to stave off and, ultimately, kill the creature. Consequently, Ripley encompasses the traits of each member in the perfect storm of survival, turning her into an independent and forthright heroine. Adaptable and desperate, she is not only able to naturally assume command of her more emotionally unstable crewmates but also temper her fear with a determination that makes her as relentless as the alien, meaning that she is fully capable of holding her own against the Xenomorph’s vaguely androgynous horror despite being more reactive than her more proactive characterisation in the sequels.
Alien is a thrilling and exhausting experience; thanks to a masterful, deliberate pace, the film masterfully builds a sense of dread and tension through some long, lingering shots and a fantastic use of lighting and ominous, understated music. The characters are all fantastically realised; speaking over each other and full of conflicting egos and personalities, there’s a sense of familiarity and tension that really helps to make the entire film believable and the characters immediately relatable even though we don’t learn a whole hell of a lot about them. Similar to the alien, what we learn of the characters is told throughout the film and the way they act, and interact, with each other and the escalating horror they find themselves facing. The vast expanse of the unknown is given tangible, disturbing form in the Xenomorph, which attacks and brutalises its prey through means as uncomfortable as they are ferocious and, in many ways, the entire film is an allegory of the dangers of the unknown and sexual assault. At its core, the film is about a group of working-class Joes forced into a nightmarish situation and their ability (or inability, in many cases) to adapt and react to this threat determines who lives and dies.
Ripley, as the only one capable and adaptable enough to balance emotions and characteristics that otherwise overwhelm her crewmates, is left the sole survivor but the cost of her victory is high as it is only through the sacrifice of everything and everyone she knows that she is able to triumph. In many ways, Alien was incredibly ahead of its time; it’s easy to almost forget that it’s a science-fiction film since, fundamentally, Alien is a twist on the classic slasher or haunted house formula and technology plays a very small role in battling the Xenomorph. Thanks to the efforts of Ridley Scott, and his cast and crew, one of the most terrifying monsters in all of cinema was effectively realised and while subsequent sequels somewhat diminished the Xenomorph’s ominous threat and menace, that doesn’t take away from this more terrifying and deliberately-paced first film in the series, which has stood the test of time and remains, despite some outdated onscreen technology, a timeless classic.
Are you a fan of Alien? What did you think to the additional scenes added to the Director’s Cut? Which member of the crew was your favourite and why? What did you think was the backstory of the Xenomorph and the Space Jockey at the time? Did you guess that Ash was an android? Did you expect Ripley to end up as the sole survivor and, if not, who did you think would make it out alive? Which of the Alien movies is your favourite and why and how are you celebrating Alien Day this year? Whatever your thoughts, stay frosty and drop a comment below!