Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Dan O’Bannon, based on an original story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shussett
Starring; Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, John Hurt
In space no one can hear you scream.
Released in the summer of 1979, director Ridley Scott’s Alien is the most effective blend of science fiction and horror since Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951). Set almost entirely aboard a commercial space tug owned by “the Company.” Alien borrows effectively from Hawks’ chiller about a Cold War era military-science team’s fight against a parasitic alien and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Its leisurely pace, laser-like focus on characterization, and Scott’s unerring instinct for creating rising tension help earn Alien its status as one of the greatest films ever made.
As envisioned by Ronald Shussett and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, Alien takes place in a future where faster-than-light travel has made interstellar flight possible. Unlike the hyperspace engines of Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon or Star Trek’s warp drives, the space tug Nostromo’s FTL engines propel the seven member crew at relativistic speeds.
As Alien begins, the Nostromo is on its way back to Earth with the crew in hyper-sleep chambers. Suddenly, the ship’s computer – nicknamed “Mother” – picks up a stray transmission from a planetoid in the Zeta 2 Reticuli system. Per the Company’s protocols, Mother pulls the Nostromo out of light speed and wakes the crew.
Brett: [realizing Nostromo has changed its course and they have to investigate] Well, so what?
Kane: Well, we are obligated under section eight…
Parker: I hate to bring this up but, uh, this a commercial ship, not a rescue ship…
Parker: …and it’s not in my contract to do this kind of duty. Now what about the money? If you wanna give me some money to do it, I’ll be happy to, uh, t-to, you know, oblige.
Brett: The man’s right.
Parker: Let’s go over the bonus situation. We haven’t – Can we just talk about the bonus situation?
Ash: I’m sorry. Can I say something?
Parker: Let’s talk about the bonus more.
Ash: There is a clause in the contract which specifically states any systematized transmission indicating a possible intelligent origin must be investigated.
Most of the Nostromo’s “space truck drivers” – Capt. Dallas (Skerritt), Exec Kane (Hurt), Third Officer Ripley (Weaver), Navigator Lambert (Wright), Engineer Parker (Kotto), and Engineer’s Mate Brett (Stanton) – are not thrilled about this diversion from the flight plan. Only the ship’s cold and aloof science officer, Ash (Holm) seems untroubled by the Company’s orders to investigate the mysterious signal.
After a rough flight through the planetoid’s inhospitable atmosphere, the slightly damaged Nostromo lands on the surface not far from the mysterious transmission. Dallas, Kane, and Lambert form a landing party to investigate, while the other four crewmembers work on repairing the ship and monitor the situation.
The landing party eventually finds that the transmission is coming from the wreck of a huge alien spacecraft. When the three reluctant explorers reach the ship’s bridge, they discover the fossilized corpse of a huge humanoid whose ribcage appears to have exploded from the inside.
Meanwhile, Ripley, in temporary command of the Nostromo, believes that the mysterious transmission from the alien ship is not an SOS but a forewarning. Incredibly, Ash disputes this and urges Dallas, Kane, and Lambert to continue the investigation.
Aboard the crashed derelict, fate takes a dreadful turn when Kane discovers thousands of leathery eggs in a cavernous cargo hold. When he rashly investigates one, it hatches, and a weird hand-like creature attaches itself to Kane’s face. Dallas and Lambert carry him back to the Nostromo, but Ripley follows the Company’s strict quarantine rules and refuses to let them board the ship.
Once again, Ash refuses to go along with Ripley and decides to violate the safety protocols. He opens the ship’s airlock to let the landing party back aboard the Nostromo
Dallas and Ash attempt to remove the alien creature from Kane’s face, but without success. The thing has acid for blood, so they can’t cut it off without destroying their own ship. In addition, the alien’s “fingers” and tail have too strong a hold on Kane; any attempt to remove the alien by force will result in their crew mate’s death.
Seemingly stranded on a hostile world thousands of light years from home with a mysterious – and deadly – hitch-hiker aboard, the crew of the Nostromo will soon experience a close encounter of the worst kind.
Ripley: How do we kill it, Ash? There’s gotta be a way of killing it. How? How do we do it?
Ash: You can’t.
Parker: That’s bulls–t.
Ash: You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.
Lambert: You admire it.
Ash: I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.
Nearly 40 years after its theatrical release, Ridley Scott’s Alien continues to be a nearly perfect mix of suspenseful pacing, superb writing, solid acting, and stunning visual effects that have stood the test of time. Its noteworthy “chest-bursting” scene still sends shivers down a viewer’s spine, and the titular alien antagonist is one of cinema’s scariest creations.
Alien’s phenomenal success – it has spun off a franchise with three direct sequels, a prequel (Prometheus), and the semi-canonical Alien v. Predator series – is a result of its elegantly simple premise: there are monsters in the dark, and they can be deadly. This theme worked well for Howard Hawks in The Thing from Another World and for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, two movies from which Ridley Scott drew inspiration. (Scott was also inspired by George Lucas’s Star Wars; the lived-in, worn-out looking interiors of the Nostromo are visually reminiscent of Lucas’s beat-up, battle scarred spaceships. Star Wars fans will also recognize Alien’s slow reveal of the space tug and its huge cargo pods as a tip of the hat to the opening sequence of A New Hope.)
In Alien, Scott proved to be a master of suspenseful story-telling as well as a canny filmmaker. He refuses, for instance, to rush the story through the exposition and “get to the good bits” quickly. His camera movements are often slow and deliberate, as is the film’s pacing.
Scott also uses the life stage changes of the alien to the film’s advantage. Each phase of the xenomorph’s lifespan (colloquially known by fans as the face-hugger, the chest-burster, and the Star Beast) is horrifying in its own way. The alien’s ability to change forms as it grows from larva to adult also allows Scott to not fully show the man-in-the-suit monster. Again, this is reminiscent of how Spielberg used the visual absence of the shark in Jaws to heighten the audience’s terror. Both filmmakers adhere to Hitchcock’s time bomb analogy: if the bomb goes off, you end up with an action movie. If it fails to explode, you have a suspense thriller.
Scott’s handling of his Anglo-American cast was a key element in Alien’s critical and popular success. In contrast to Star Wars’ mostly-young leads, the crew of the Nostromo is made up of by people in their 40s and late 30s. The presence of veteran actors like Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, and the underrated Yaphet Kotto gives the Nostromo’s space truckers a world-weariness and working stiff sensibility that is 180 degrees away from 2001’s NASA-like astronauts or Star Trek’s heroic deep-space Starfleet explorers.
Alien was Sigourney Weaver’s first major motion picture role. It made her a well-known star nearly overnight and earned her the reputation of being a Hollywood rarity: a female actor who could carry an action picture.
Of course, Alien is a horror-science fiction classic because Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shussett crafted a strong, streamlined story that is all narrative muscle, with no flabby extraneous subplots to complicate matters. Alien’s seven characters are identified only by their last names and their onboard jobs. We, the viewers, don’t know much about their lives before their fateful cruise to the stars. But we do know their personalities: the working class captain, the competent exec, the overwrought navigator, the gripe-and-moan duo of engineers, the cold, calculating science officer, and the stalwart resilient third officer. We aren’t privy to their past aspirations, but they are recognizable and believable characters. To use a war movie cliché: these are ordinary men and women plunged into an extraordinary situation.
O’Bannon’s screenplay is also a riff on the fears that most people – especially men – have about sex. It’s not an accident, for instance, that the film focuses on the alien’s life cycle, particularly its reproductive process. Male viewers tend to be uneasy about the face-hugger because it is a none-too-subtle allusion to oral rape. The chest-bursting scene is also a grisly riff on fears about childbirth and reproduction. In addition, the late H.R. Giger, the film’s Swiss conceptual designer and creator of the alien xenomorph, includes extremely sexual imagery in his designs for the derelict alien ship (look at the shape of the vessel’s access hatchways and tell me what they remind you of) and the alien larva that emerges from a doomed Nostromo crew member.
Though some of the film’s high-tech gadgets look dated, especially the ship’s late 1970s computer monitors and work stations, Alien’s visuals still pass muster 36 years after its release. Visual designer Ron Cobb (who focused on the Nostromo’s realistic future look) and H.R. Giger’s creepy, otherworldly concepts blend seamlessly to create a believable universe.
Other films, including James Cameron’s superb sequel Aliens and Scott’s own prequel Prometheus have channeled Alien’s mix of commercial appeal and intelligent craftsmanship, but none have eclipsed the 1979 original.
- 1979 Theatrical Version
- 2003 Director’s Cut with Ridley Scott Introduction
- Audio Commentary by Director Ridley Scott, Writer Dan O’Bannon, Executive Producer Ronald Shusett, Editor Terry Rawlings, Actors Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton and John Hurt
- Audio Commentary (for Theatrical Cut only) by Ridley Scott
- Final Theatrical Isolated Score by Jerry Goldsmith
- Composer’s Original Isolated Score by Jerry Goldsmith
- Deleted and Extended Scenes
- · Codec: MPEG-4 AVC (26.00 Mbps)
- · Resolution: 1080p
- · Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
- · Original aspect ratio: 2.39:1
- · English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit)
- · French: DTS 5.1
- · Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1
- · Portuguese: Dolby Digital 5.1
- · English: Dolby Digital 4.1
- · English Dolby Digital 2.0
- · German DTS 5.1
- · English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish
- · 50GB Blu-ray Disc
- · Single disc (1 BD)
- · Slipcover in original pressing
- · Region A/1
- Rated: R (Restricted)
- Studio: 20th Century Fox
- Blu-ray Release Date: May 10, 2011
- Run Time: 116 minutes