Nearly 40 years after its release in 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien remains an utterly captivating experience whatever mood or company it’s viewed in. It only seems to get better with each screening.
Following his 1977 debut The Duellists, Scott’s second film is a masterpiece of sci-fi horror that plays on three of our primal fears. The claustrophobia is almost palpable as tensions aboard the mining ship Nostromo become increasingly strained after the crew pick up an unwanted and deadly passenger. As for nyctophobia, the film toys with our fear of the dark as we witness crew members being preyed upon by a monstrous killer alien in a series of pitch-black tunnels and ill-lit storage bays. While for any viewers suffering parasitophobia, the thought of a phallic xenomorph bursting through your chest is surely the stuff of recurring nightmares.
Juxtaposed with the terror of what Scott wanted to be “the Texas Chain Saw Massacre of science fiction” is scene after scene of staggering beauty and composition. Each shot of Alien would make a fine photograph. Some of Scott’s cast complained they were given too little guidance during production while he focused so intently on the film’s visuals. He reasoned that having the best actors he could find would make his life easier: the less time he had to spend debating motivation and such thespian trifles, the more time he could spend making the film look as breathtaking as it ended up.
To achieve results that belied the film’s modest $8.4m budget, Scott marshalled a team including cinematographer Derek Vanlint, conceptual artist Ron Cobb, production designer Michael Seymour (who won a BAFTA for best art direction for his work on the film) and H.R. Giger (who shared the Oscar the film received for best visual effects with Carlo Rambaldi, Brian Johnson, Nick Allder and Dennis Ayling).
Swiss iconoclast Giger had first met Alien writer Dan O’Bannon while working in Paris on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s abortive Dune project (the story of which was later made into a documentary by Frank Pavich). O’Bannon claims Giger offered him opium upon meeting, while the artist’s sinister look later scared many away on the Alien set. However, at least this gave him space to design the titular monster at each stage of its life and its habitat. His creations, which veer from frightening to eerie and are often sexual in nature, have become classics of cinematic design.
While its non-human antagonist is once seen never forgotten, the film also introduces one of cinema’s greatest human sci-fi characters: Ellen Ripley. None of the parts in the original script were assigned to a specific gender, leaving casting choices open to interpretation. This didn’t matter to Sigourney Weaver, though, who turned up late to her audition having gone to the wrong hotel. When she did finally arrive in the right place, she made such an impression on Scott that he knew he’d found his lead the moment he saw her.
Weaver’s Ripley is a brilliant creation and something of a role model. She’s tough, smart and calm under extreme pressure. She’s resolute but a savvy enough diplomat to know when to compromise and when to exert pressure of her own. She’s vulnerable but quick to adapt to a changing hostile environment. Above all, she’s a compelling and genuine character that wins viewers over time and time again.
The other six speaking parts are filled with great actors on top form. Tom Skerritt plays the Nostromo’s captain, Dallas, with a combination of weariness and wariness. Veronica Cartwright is the ‘fear of the audience’ as the often-hysterical Lambert, and John Hurt is excellent as Kane, the alien’s unwitting host. Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton, two fine character actors deserving of a place in any top-rate film, are hilarious and sarcastic as two cynical, moaning engineers. Ian Holm rounds off the cast as Ash, the ship’s quiet, studious and secretive science officer, who may not be all he seems.
For all its fantastic post-2001 design, terrifying close encounters and likeable, interesting characters, underneath Alien is a remarkably straightforward story. It’s a haunted house story set in space with big scares and big surprises. It took ideas Dan O’Bannon developed with John Carpenter for spaced-out sci-fi Dark Star (1974) and pursued them with a big budget, cracking cast and unshakeable determination. It’s been imitated many times but the copyists should give up: to better Ridley Scott’s achievements at Shepperton Studios would take a director with more resolve than Ripley herself.