The Outer Space Horror That Launched A Thousand Screams
Tripwire’s contributing writer Stephen Dalton takes a look at the 40th anniversary of Ridley Scott’s seminal Alien…
A deep-space nightmare that refuses to die, Ridley Scott’s Alien arrived in U.S. cinemas 40 years ago this month. A surprise critical and commercial success, this sci-fi horror masterpiece became an instant cult classic, transcending genre labels and spawning an ever-growing canon of sequels, prequels, spin-offs and copycats. It also created a new kind of female action hero, raised the bar in creature design, and served as a career launchpad for a raft of future heavyweight screen talents. The legacy of the Alien franchise continues to resonate today, through cinema and beyond.
Initially titled Star Beast by screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett, the Alien script was first pitched as a pulpy “Jaws in space” thriller to Roger Corman’s fabled exploitation house New World Pictures. But the project eventually landed at 20th Century Fox, who suddenly found themselves hungry for ready-made space stories to capitalise on the runaway success of Star Wars. When the fairly inexperienced Scott came on board, he sized up the screenplay as “a very well-written B-movie” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre of science fiction”.
Rewatching Alien today, four decades late, these pulp slasher elements are undoubtedly present but largely incidental to the overall mood of creeping dread. Notorious scenes of gory violence, which earned the film an X certificate on its initial British release, now seem strikingly minimal and over in split seconds. Scott’s blend of suspenseful pacing, naturalistic dialogue and grungy production design still feel remarkably timeless, with a clear art-house sensibility at work.
The Nostromo ship’s grubby “truckers in space” aesthetic looks more steampunk than cyberpunk nowadays – indeed, Scott fills it with random blasts of steam as the cat-and-mouse battle between humans and alien escalates. The shadowy bowels of the spaceship, and the cursed primordial hellscape of the planet where the astronauts first discover alien eggs, are modern twists on classic haunted-house horror tropes. Only the comically dated computer technology and clunky LED screen graphics betray the film’s late 1970s origins. That and the chain-smoking crew, of course.
Of course, another key reason why the Alien films have endured is because they feature probably the most brilliantly realised and scarily plausible monster in movie history. The Oscar-winning creature designs by visionary Swiss artist H.R. Giger are all-time classics of bio-mechanical body-horror, particularly the fully-grown “xenomorph” with its swollen penile head and thrusting, drooling, rail-gun inner jaws. Part Dracula, part Godzilla, part Jaws. Pure killing machine.
Throughout the series the xenomorph has proved remarkably adaptable, evolving from parasitic space lizard into Lovecraftian demon, scorned queen, lethal stormtrooper for corporate capitalism, metaphor for AIDS, apocalyptic super-weapon, cautionary warning about genetic engineering, creature from the black lagoon of Freudian sexual neurosis, and more. It truly is the metaphorically rich gift that keeps on giving.
The sexual politics of Alien has only grown more timely and prescient over the decades, lending it a fresh feminist edge that still resonates today. O’Bannon wrote the characters as gender-neutral, but made sure the main victims of the invasive face-hugger and chest-burster were male. This was a kind of symbolic payback for all the sexually vulnerable women terrorised and violated by men in more conventional slasher movies.
In the 2002 documentary Alien Saga, O’Bannon recalled how he chose “every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number.” Writing in the New Statesman earlier this year, Imogen West-Knights noted how this theme feels more urgent in our post #MeToo climate. “Scott’s film evokes primal horror of violation and sexual perversion,” she says. “It’s no accident that the alien itself is so phallic.”
The Alien films also gave cinema a durable new kind of feminist screen icon in Ellen Ripley. Sigourney Weaver’s career-making role arguably paved the way for Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss in the Hunger Games series, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Daisy Ridley’s’ Rey in Star Wars, and many more female-driven sci-fi stories from Contact to Gravity, Avatar to Annihilation. Noomi Rapace’s Shaw and Katherine Waterson’s Daniels in Scott’s prequels, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, are clear descendants of Ripley too.
In the memorable term coined by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Ripley is a “final girl”, the last surviving female character left to confront the killer alone. But some of these feminist-friendly decisions were more accident than design. The first draft of the Alien screenplay ended with a male crew member surviving. Scott also pitched a final battle in which the xenomorph bites Ripley’s head clean off. Thankfully, calmer voices prevailed and a ground-breaking female screen icon was born.
Crucially, Ripley is depicted as tough and smart without ever falling into the cliched trope of over-sexualised male-fantasy action-babe. She is human, not superhuman. “It was ahead of its time,” Weaver told me when we discussed the sexual politics of Alien a decade ago. “But I think now it’s an accurate reflection. It’s not accurate in terms of the movies. In the movies, men still dominate in the leadership roles, and audiences perhaps prefer that. But I think for women action heroes, there’s now an expectation that they have to look glamorous all the time, even while they’re saving the world. That’s fine, but I think there should be more of a range.”
The ever-expanding Alien canon now includes the original quadrilogy plus Scott’s recent prequels. Although the later sequels are less well regarded than the first two films, they at least showed the versatility of the concept. Indeed, James Cameron’s terrific girl-on-girl death match Aliens (1986) strikes a very different tone to Scott’s gothic-horror blueprint, adding to the franchise’s longevity.
David Fincher’s purgatorial passion play Alien3 (1992) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s darkly funny comic-book bloodbath Alien 4 (1997) are generally seen as inferior misfires, but both have their flawed charms and strong visual elements. Even the lowbrow Alien Vs. Predator cash-in crossover movies, a Tin Machine-style detour from the official canon, both still turned a hefty profit. Weaver told me she purposely did not see this cheesy franchise mash-up because “it looked stupid” and, more importantly, because “I heard the Predator wins.”
Beyond the films, the Alien universe continues to expand through a growing subculture of novels, comic books, computer games, online memes, spoofs and homages. In March this year, Fox released six new shorts rooted in the aesthetic of Scott’s original, each one a snappy shock-horror vignette. Also in March, an ambitious amateur stage production of Alien by students at North Bergen High School in New Jersey became a viral sensation, earning a surprise visit from Sigourney Weaver herself. The legacy continues to expand in surprising ways.
The original Alien movie transcended genre, but it inspired a subgenre of its own, spawning dozens of sci-fi slasher-horror thrillers about extra-terrestrial serial killers stalking human astronauts in deep space. It casts a long shadow from Galaxy of Terror (1981) to Event Horizon (1997), Pitch Black (2000), Ghosts of Mars (2001), Sunshine (2007), Life (2017) and beyond. The French art-house director Clair Denis’ latest film High Life (2018), about convicts floating through space in the rusting hulk of an experimental prison ship, has a twist of Alien DNA in it too.
For decades, the original Alien creators have shunned lucrative temptation to add to the legacy themselves. “There are aspects of the character that I miss playing because she was so down to earth and straightforward, and we don’t see too many women characters like that,” Sigourney Weaver told me a decade ago. “But all of us who participated have gotten so busy doing other things I kind of doubt we’ll go back into space. But you never know.”
Fast forward to 2015, however, and Weaver was reportedly on board for a fifth Alien film, with District 9 director Neil Blomkamp behind the camera. However, that project now seems to have been shelved after Ridley Scott himself finally returned to enrich the Alien gene pool with his blockbuster origin-story prequels Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Both are visually ravishing, but hobbled by strained attempts at philosophical depth, lumbering under the weight of their heavy-handed allusions to Greek mythology, Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Book of Genesis.
With their focus on Michael Fassbender’s Machiavellian replicant character Walter/David, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant are clearly more interested in the existential struggle between man and machine than between human and alien. Indeed, these films almost feel more like stealth sequels to Scott’s other great sci-fi classic, Blade Runner, than full-blooded additions to the Alien canon. All the same, Scott’s autumnal ruminations on immortality and artificial intelligence add fresh layers of mythology to cinema’s greatest sci-fi horror legend. The veteran director is reportedly now working on a third prequel film, proving once more the power and durability of the initial Alien concept. Forty years later, the star beast from the black lagoon has grown in stature into an evolutionary threat to all mankind, a weapon of mass extinction, a nightmare that never ends.
Here’s that classic chestburster scene, much parodied since