Alien is a 1979 science fiction horror film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto. The film's title refers to its primary antagonist: a highly aggressive extraterrestrial creature which stalks and kills the crew of a spaceship. Dan O'Bannon wrote the screenplay from a story by him and Ronald Shusett, drawing influence from previous works of science fiction and horror. The film was produced through Brandywine Productions and distributed by 20th Century Fox, with producers David Giler and Walter Hill making significant revisions and additions to the script. The titular Alien and its accompanying elements were designed by Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger, while concept artists Ron Cobb and Chris Foss designed the human aspects of the film.
Alien garnered both critical acclaim and box office success, receiving an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, Saturn Awards for Best Science Fiction Film, Best Direction for Scott, and Best Supporting Actress for Cartwright, and a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, along with numerous other award nominations. It has remained highly praised in subsequent decades, being inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2002 for historical preservation as a film which is "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2008 it was ranked as the seventh-best film in the science fiction genre by the American Film Institute, and as the thirty-third greatest movie of all time by Empire magazine.
The success of Alien spawned a media franchise of novels, comic books, video games, and toys, as well as three sequel and two prequel films. It also launched Weaver's acting career by providing her with her first lead role, and the story of her character Ripley's encounters with the Alien creatures became the thematic thread that ran through the sequels Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992), and Alien Resurrection (1997). The subsequent prequels Alien vs. Predator (2004) and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007) abandoned this theme in favor of a crossover with the Predator franchise.
The commercial towing spaceship Nostromo is on a return trip from Thedus to Earth, hauling a refinery and twenty million tons of mineral ore, and carrying its seven-member crew in stasis. Upon receiving a transmission of unknown origin from a nearby planetoid, the ship's computer awakens the crew. Acting on standing orders from their corporate employers, the crew detaches the Nostromo from the refinery and lands on the planetoid, resulting in some damage to the ship. Captain Dallas, Executive Officer Kane, and Navigator Lambert set out to investigate the signal's source while Warrant Officer Ripley, Science Officer Ash, and Engineers Brett and Parker stay behind to monitor their progress and make repairs.
Dallas, Kane, and Lambert discover that the signal is coming from a derelict alien spacecraft. Inside it they find the remains of a large alien creature whose ribs appear to have been exploded outward from the inside. Meanwhile, the Nostromo's computer partially deciphers the signal transmission, which Ripley determines to be some type of warning. Kane discovers a vast chamber containing numerous eggs, one of which releases a creature that attaches itself to his face. Dallas and Lambert carry the unconscious Kane back to the Nostromo, where Ash allows them inside against Ripley's orders to follow the ship's quarantine protocol. They unsuccessfully attempt to remove the creature from Kane's face, discovering that its blood is an extremely corrosive acid. Eventually the creature detaches on its own and is found dead. With the ship repaired, the crew resume their trip back to Earth.
Kane awakens seemingly unharmed, but during a meal before re-entering stasis he begins to choke and convulse until an alien creature bursts from his chest, killing him and escaping into the ship. Lacking conventional weapons, the crew attempt to locate and capture the creature by fashioning motion trackers, electric prods, and flamethrowers. Brett follows the crew's cat into a large room where the now-fully-grown Alien attacks him and disappears with his body into the ship's air shafts. Dallas enters the shafts intending to force the Alien into an airlock where it can be expelled into space, but it ambushes him. Lambert implores the remaining crew members to escape in the ship's shuttle, but Ripley, now in command, explains that the shuttle will not support four people.
Accessing the ship's computer, Ripley discovers that Ash has been ordered to return the Alien to the Nostromo's corporate employers even at the expense of the crew's lives. Ash attacks her, but Parker intervenes and decapitates him with a blow from a fire extinguisher, revealing Ash to be an android. Before Parker incinerates him, Ash predicts that the other crew members will not survive. The remaining three crew members plan to arm the Nostromo's self-destruct mechanism and escape in the shuttle, but Parker and Lambert are killed by the Alien while gathering the necessary supplies. Ripley initiates the self-destruct sequence and heads for the shuttle with the cat, but finds the Alien blocking her way. She unsuccessfully attempts to abort the self-destruct, then returns to find the Alien gone and narrowly escapes in the shuttle as the Nostromo explodes.
As she prepares to enter stasis, Ripley discovers that the Alien is aboard the shuttle. She puts on a space suit and opens the hatch, causing explosive decompression which forces the Alien to the open doorway. She shoots it with a grappling gun which propels it out, but the gun is yanked from her hands and catches in the closing door, tethering the Alien to the shuttle. It attempts to crawl into one of the engines, but Ripley activates them and blasts the Alien into space. She then puts herself and the cat into stasis for the return trip to Earth.
Casting calls and auditions for Alien were held in both New York and London. With only seven human characters in the story, Scott sought to hire strong actors so he could focus most of his energy on the film's visual style. He employed casting director Mary Selway, who had worked with him on The Duellists, to head the casting in the United Kingdom, while Mary Goldberg handled casting in the United States. In developing the story O'Bannon had focused on writing the Alien first, putting off developing the characters for a later draft. He and Shusett had therefore written all of the roles as generic males with a note in the script explicitly stating "The crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women." This left Scott, Selway, and Goldberg free to interpret the characters as they liked and to cast accordingly. They wanted the Nostromo's crew to resemble working astronauts in a realistic environment, a concept summed up as "truckers in space". According to Scott, this concept was inspired partly by Star Wars, which deviated from the pristine future often depicted in science fiction films of the time.
The principal cast members of Alien were:
- Bolaji Badejo as The Alien, the titular antagonist of the film. A Nigerian design student, Badejo was discovered in a bar by a member of the casting team, who put him in touch with Ridley Scott. Scott believed that Badejo, at 7'2" and with a slender frame, could portray the Alien and look as if his arms and legs were too long to be real, creating the illusion that there could not possibly be a human being inside the costume. Stuntmen Eddie Powell and Roy Scammell also portrayed the Alien in some scenes.
- Veronica Cartwright as Lambert, the Nostromo's navigator. Cartwright had previous experience in horror and science fiction films, having acted in The Birds (1963) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). She originally read for the role of Ripley, and was not informed that she had instead been cast as Lambert until she arrived in London for wardrobe. She disliked that the character seemed to be the weakest emotionally, but nevertheless accepted the role: "They convinced me that I was the audience's fears; I was a reflection of what the audience is feeling." Cartwright won a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.
- Ian Holm as Ash, the ship's Science Officer who is revealed to be an android under orders to bring the Alien back to the Nostromo's corporate employers. Holm, a character actor who in 1979 had already been in twenty films, was the most experienced actor cast for Alien.
- John Hurt as Kane, the Executive Officer who becomes the host for the Alien. Hurt was Scott's first choice for the role but was contracted on a film in South Africa during Alien's filming dates, so Jon Finch was cast as Kane instead. However, Finch became ill during the first day of shooting and was diagnosed with severe diabetes, which had also exacerbated a case of bronchitis. By this point, Hurt was in London, his South African project having fallen through, and he quickly replaced Finch. His performance earned him a nomination for a BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
- Yaphet Kotto as Parker, the Chief Engineer. Kotto was chosen partly to add diversity to the cast and give the Nostromo crew an international flavor.
- Tom Skerritt as Dallas, the Captain of the Nostromo. Skerritt had been approached early in the film's development but declined as it did not yet have a director and had a very low budget. Later, when Scott was attached as director and the budget had been doubled, Skerritt accepted the role of Dallas.
- Harry Dean Stanton as Brett, the Engineering Technician. Stanton's first words to Scott during his audition were "I don't like sci fi or monster movies." Scott was amused and convinced Stanton to take the role after reassuring him that Alien would actually be a thriller more akin to Ten Little Indians.
- Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the Warrant Officer onboard the Nostromo and chief protagonist of the film. The decision to make the lead character a woman was made by Giler and Hill, who felt that this would help Alien stand out in the otherwise male-dominated genre of science fiction. Weaver, who had Broadway experience but was relatively unknown in film, impressed Scott, Giler, and Hill with her audition. She was the last actor to be cast for the film, and performed most of her screen tests in-studio as the sets were being built. The role of Ripley was Weaver's first leading role in a motion picture, and earned her nominations for a Saturn Award for Best Actress and a BAFTA award for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Role.
To assist the actors in preparing for their roles, Ridley Scott wrote several pages of backstory for each character explaining their histories. He filmed many of their rehearsals in order to capture spontaneity and improvisation, and tensions between some of the cast members, particularly towards the less-experienced Weaver, translated convincingly on film as tension between their respective characters.
Film critic Roger Ebert notes that the actors in Alien were older than was typical in thriller films at the time, which helped make the characters more convincing:
- [N]one of them were particularly young. Tom Skerritt, the captain, was 46, Hurt was 39 but looked older, Holm was 48, Harry Dean Stanton was 53, Yaphet Kotto was 42, and only Veronica Cartwright at 29 and Weaver at 30 were in the age range of the usual thriller cast. Many recent action pictures have improbably young actors cast as key roles or sidekicks, but by skewing older, Alien achieves a certain texture without even making a point of it: These are not adventurers but workers, hired by a company to return 20 million tons of ore to Earth.
David McIntee, author of Beautiful Monsters: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Alien and Predator Films, notes that part of the film's effectiveness in frightening viewers "comes from the fact that the audience can all identify with the characters...Everyone aboard the Nostromo is a normal, everyday, working Joe just like the rest of us. They just happen to live and work in the future."
Set design and filming
Alien was filmed over fourteen weeks from July 5 to October 21, 1978. Principal photography took place at Shepperton Studios in London, while model and miniature filming was done at Bray Studios in Water Oakley. Production time was short due to the film's low budget and pressure from 20th Century Fox to finish on schedule. A crew of over 200 workmen and technicians constructed the three principal sets: The surface of the alien planetoid and the interiors of the Nostromo and derelict spacecraft. Art Director Les Dilley created 1/24th scale miniatures of the planetoid's surface and derelict spacecraft based on Giger's designs, then made moulds and casts and scaled them up as diagrams for the wood and fiberglass forms of the sets. Tons of sand, plaster, fiberglass, rock, and gravel were shipped into the studio to sculpt a desert landscape for the planetoid's surface, which the actors would walk across wearing space suit costumes. The suits themselves were thick, bulky, and lined with nylon, had no cooling systems and, initially, no venting for their exhaled carbon dioxide to escape. Combined with a heat wave, these conditions nearly caused the actors to pass out and nurses had to be kept on-hand with oxygen tanks to help keep them going. For scenes showing the exterior of the Nostromo a 58-foot (18 m) landing leg was constructed to give a sense of the ship's size. Ridley Scott still did not think that it looked large enough, so he had his two sons and the son of one of the cameramen stand in for the regular actors, wearing smaller space suits to make the set pieces seem larger. The same technique was used for the scene in which the crew members encounter the dead alien creature in the derelict spacecraft. The children nearly collapsed due to the heat of the suits, and eventually oxygen systems were added to assist the actors in breathing.
The sets of the Nostromo's three decks were each created almost entirely in one piece, with each deck occupying a separate stage and the various rooms connected via corridors. To move around the sets the actors had to navigate through the hallways of the ship, adding to the film's sense of claustrophobia and realism. The sets used large transistors and low-resolution computer screens to give the ship a "used", industrial look and make it appear as though it was constructed of "retrofitted old technology". Ron Cobb created industrial-style symbols and color-coded signs for various areas and aspects of the ship. The company that owns the Nostromo is not named in the film, and is referred to by the characters as "the company". However, the name and logo of "Weylan-Yutani" appears on several set pieces and props such as computer monitors and beer cans. Cobb created the name to imply a business alliance between Britain and Japan, deriving "Weylan" from the British Leyland Motor Corporation and "Yutani" from the name of his Japanese neighbor. The 1986 sequel Aliens named the company as "Weyland-Yutani", and it has remained a central aspect of the film franchise.
Art Director Roger Christian used scrap metal and parts to create set pieces and props to save money, a technique he employed while working on Star Wars. Some of the Nostromo's corridors were created from portions of scrapped bomber aircraft, and a mirror was used to create the illusion of longer corridors in the below-deck area. Special effects supervisors Brian Johnson and Nick Allder made many of the set pieces and props function, including moving chairs, computer monitors, motion trackers, and flamethrowers. Four identical cats were used to portray Jones, the Nostromo crew's pet. During filming Sigourney Weaver discovered that she was allergic to the combination of cat hair and the glycerin placed on the actors' skin to make them appear sweaty. By removing the glycerin she was able to continue working with the cats.
H. R. Giger designed and worked on all of the alien aspects of the film, which he designed to appear organic and biomechanical in contrast to the industrial look of the Nostromo and its human elements. For the interior of the derelict spacecraft and egg chamber he used dried bones together with plaster to sculpt much of the scenery and elements. Veronica Cartwright described Giger's sets as "so erotic...it's big vaginas and penises...the whole thing is like you're going inside of some sort of womb or whatever...it's sort of visceral". The set with the deceased alien creature, which the production team nicknamed the "space jockey", proved problematic as 20th Century Fox did not want to spend the money for such an expensive set that would only be used for one scene. Ridley Scott described the set as the cockpit or driving deck of the mysterious ship, and the production team was able to convince the studio that the scene was important to impress the audience and make them aware that this was not a B movie. To save money only one wall of the set was created, and the "space jockey" sat atop a disc that could be rotated to facilitate shots from different angles in relation to the actors. Giger airbrushed the entire set and the "space jockey" by hand.
The origin of the jockey creature was not explored in the film, but Scott later theorized that it might have been the ship's pilot, and that the ship might have been a weapons carrier capable of dropping Alien eggs onto a planet so that the Aliens could use the local lifeforms as hosts. In early versions of the script the eggs were to be located in a separate pyramid structure which would be found later by the Nostromo crew and would contain statues and hieroglyphs depicting the Alien reproductive cycle, offering a contrast of the human, Alien, and space jockey cultures. Cobb, Foss, and Giger each created concept artwork for these sequences, but they were eventually discarded due to budgetary concerns and the need to trim the length of the film. Instead the egg chamber was set inside the derelict ship and was filmed on the same set as the space jockey scene; the entire disc piece supporting the jockey and its chair were removed and the set was redressed to create the egg chamber. Light effects in the egg chamber were created by lasers borrowed from English rock band The Who. The band was testing the lasers for use in their stage show in the sound stage next door.
Alien originally was to conclude with the destruction of the Nostromo while Ripley escapes in the shuttle Narcissus. However, Ridley Scott conceived of a "fourth act" to the film in which the Alien appears on the shuttle and Ripley is forced to confront it. He pitched the idea to 20th Century Fox and negotiated an increase in the budget to film the scene over several extra days. Scott had wanted the Alien to bite off Ripley's head and then make the final log entry in her voice, but the producers vetoed this idea as they believed that the Alien had to die at the end of the film.
Special effects and creature design
Spaceships and planets
The spaceships and planets for the film were shot using models and miniatures. These included models of the Nostromo, its attached mineral refinery, the escape shuttle Narcissus, the alien planetoid, and the exterior and interior of the derelict spacecraft. Visual Effects Supervisor Brian Johnson, supervising modelmaker Martin Bower, and their team worked at Bray Studios, roughly 30 miles (48 km) from Shepperton Studios where principal filming was taking place. The designs of the Nostromo and its attachments were based on combinations of Ridley Scott's storyboards and Ron Cobb's conceptual drawings. The basic outlines of the models were made of wood and plastic, and most of the fine details were added from model kits of battleships, tanks, and World War II bombers. Three models of the Nostromo were made: a 12-inch (30 cm) version for medium and long shots, a 4-foot (1.2 m) version for rear shots, and a 12-foot (3.7 m), 7-short-ton (6.4 t) rig for the undocking and planetoid surface sequences. Scott insisted on numerous changes to the models even as filming was taking place, leading to conflicts with the modeling and filming teams. The Nostromo was originally yellow, and the team filmed shots of the models for six weeks before Johnson left to work on The Empire Strikes Back. Scott then ordered it changed to gray, and the team had to begin shooting again from scratch. He ordered more and more pieces added to the model until the final large version with the refinery required a metal framework so that it could be lifted by a forklift. He also took a hammer and chisel to sections of the refinery, knocking off many of its spires which Bower had spent weeks creating. Scott also had disagreements with lighting technician Denny Ayling over how to light the models.
A separate model, approximately 40 feet (12 m) long, was created for the Nostromo's underside from which the Narcissus would detach and from which Kane's body would be launched during the funeral scene. Bower carved Kane's burial shroud out of wood and it was launched through the hatch using a small catapult and filmed at high speed, then slowed down in editing. Only one shot was filmed using blue screen compositing: that of the shuttle racing past the Nostromo. The other shots were simply filmed against black backdrops, with stars added via double exposure. Though motion control photography technology was available at the time, the film's budget would not allow for it. The team therefore used a camera with wide-angle lenses mounted on a drive mechanism to make slow passes over and around the models filming at 2½ per second, giving them the appearance of motion. Scott added smoke and wind effects to enhance the illusion. For the scene in which the Nostromo detaches from the refinery, a 30-foot (9.1 m) docking arm was created using pieces from model railway kits. The Nostromo was pushed away from the refinery by the forklift, which was covered in black velvet, causing the arm to extend out from the refinery. This created the illusion that the arm was pushing the ship forward. Shots from outside the ship in which the characters are seen through windows moving around inside were filmed using larger models which contained projection screens showing pre-recorded footage.
A separate model was created for the exterior of the derelict alien spacecraft. Matte paintings were used to fill in areas of the ship's interior as well as exterior shots of the planetoid's surface. The surface as seen from space during the landing sequence was created by painting a globe white, then mixing chemicals and dyes onto transparencies and projecting them onto it. The planetoid was not named in the film, but some drafts of the script gave it the name Acheron after the river which in Greek mythology is described as the "stream of woe", a branch of the river Styx, and which forms the border of Hell in Dante's Inferno. The 1986 sequel Aliens named the planetoid as "LV-426", and both names have been used for it in subsequent expanded universe media such as comic books and video games. In Alien the planetoid is said to be located somewhere in the Zeta2 Reticuli system.
Egg and facehugger
The scene of Kane inspecting the egg was shot during post-production. A fiberglass egg was used so that actor John Hurt could shine his light on it and see movement inside, which was provided by Ridley Scott fluttering his hands inside the egg while wearing rubber gloves. The top of the egg opened via hydraulics, and the innards were made of a cow's stomach and tripe. Initial test shots of the eggs were filmed using hen's eggs, and this footage was used in early teaser trailers. For this reason a hen's egg was used as the primary image for the film's advertising poster, and became a lasting image for the series as a whole rather than the Alien egg that actually appears in the film.
The "facehugger" and its proboscis, which was made of a sheep's intestine, were shot out of the egg using high-pressure air hoses. The shot was acted out and filmed in reverse, then reversed and slowed down in editing to prolong the effect and show more detail. The facehugger itself was the first creature that Giger designed for the film, going through several versions in different sizes before deciding on a small creature with humanlike fingers and a long tail. Dan O'Bannon drew his own version based on Giger's design, with help from Ron Cobb, which became the final version. Cobb came up with the idea that the creature could have a powerful acid for blood, a characteristic that would carry over to the adult Alien and would make it impossible for the crew to kill it by conventional means such as guns or explosives, since the acid would burn through the ship's hull. For the scene in which the dead facehugger is examined, Scott used pieces of fish and shellfish to create its viscera.
The design of the "chestburster" was inspired by Francis Bacon's 1944 painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Giger's original design resembled a plucked chicken, which was redesigned and refined into the final version seen onscreen. For the filming of the chestburster scene the cast members knew that the creature would be bursting out of Hurt, and had seen the chestburster puppet, but they had not been told that fake blood would also be bursting out in every direction from high-pressure pumps and squibs. The scene was shot in one take using an artificial torso filled with blood and viscera, with Hurt's head and arms coming up from underneath the table. The chestburster was shoved up through the torso by a puppeteer who held it on a stick. When the creature burst through the chest a stream of blood shot directly at Veronica Cartwright, shocking her enough that she fell over and went into hysterics. According to Tom Skerritt: "What you saw on camera was the real response. She had no idea what the hell happened. All of a sudden this thing just came up." The creature then runs off-camera, an effect accomplished by cutting a slit in the table for the puppeteer's stick to go through and passing an air hose through the puppet's tail to make it whip about.
The real-life surprise of the actors gave the scene an intense sense of realism and made it one of the film's most memorable moments. During preview screenings the crew noticed that some viewers would move towards the back of the theater so as not to be too close to the screen during the sequence. In subsequent years the chestburster scene has often been voted as one of the most memorable moments in film. In 2007 the British film magazine Empire named it as the greatest 18-rated moment in film as part of its "18th birthday" issue, ranking it above the decapitation scene in The Omen (1976) and the transformation sequence in An American Werewolf in London (1981).
Giger made several conceptual paintings of the adult Alien before crafting the final version. He sculpted the creature's body using plasticine, incorporating pieces such as vertebrae from snakes and cooling tubes from a Rolls-Royce. The creature's head was manufactured separately by Carlo Rambaldi, who had worked on the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Rambaldi followed Giger's designs closely, making some modifications in order to incorporate the moving parts which would animate the jaw and inner mouth. A system of hinges and cables was used to operate the creature's rigid tongue, which protruded from the main mouth and had a second mouth at the tip of it with its own set of movable teeth. The final head had about nine hundred moving parts and points of articulation. Part of a human skull was used as the "face", and was hidden under the smooth, translucent cover of the head. Rambaldi's original Alien jaw is now on display in the Smithsonian Institution, while in April 2007 the original Alien suit was sold at auction. Copious amounts of K-Y Jelly were used to simulate saliva and to give the Alien an overall slimy appearance. The creature's vocalizations were provided by Percy Edwards, a voice artist famous for providing bird sounds for British television throughout the 1960s and 1970s as well as the whale sounds for Orca: Killer Whale (1977).
For most of the film's scenes the Alien was portrayed by Bolaji Badejo, a Nigerian design student. A latex costume was specifically made to fit Badejo's 7-foot-2-inch (218 cm) slender frame, made by taking a full-body plaster cast of him. Scott later commented that "It's a man in a suit, but then it would be, wouldn't it? It takes on elements of the host – in this case, a man." Badejo attended t'ai chi and mime classes in order to create convincing movements for the Alien. For some scenes, such as when the Alien lowers itself from the ceiling to kill Brett, the creature was portrayed by stuntmen Eddie Powell and Roy Scammell; in that scene a costumed Powell was suspended on wires and then lowered in an unfurling motion.
"I've never liked horror films before, because in the end it's always been a man in a rubber suit. Well, there's one way to deal with that. The most important thing in a film of this type is not what you see, but the effect of what you think you saw."
Scott chose not to show the Alien in full through most of the film, showing only pieces of it while keeping most of its body in shadow in order to heighten the sense of terror and suspense. The audience could thus project their own fears into imagining what the rest of the creature might look like: "Every movement is going to be very slow, very graceful, and the Alien will alter shape so you never really know exactly what he looks like." The Alien has been referred to as "one of the most iconic movie monsters in film history" in the decades since the film's release, being noted for its biomechanical appearance and sexual overtones. Roger Ebert has remarked that "Alien uses a tricky device to keep the alien fresh throughout the movie: It evolves the nature and appearance of the creature, so we never know quite what it looks like or what it can do...The first time we get a good look at the alien, as it bursts from the chest of poor Kane (John Hurt). It is unmistakably phallic in shape, and the critic Tim Dirks mentions its 'open, dripping vaginal mouth.'"
For the scene in which Ash is revealed to be an android and has his head knocked off, a puppet was created of the character's torso and upper body which was operated from underneath by a small puppeteer. During a preview screening of the film this scene caused a female usher to faint. In the following scene Ash's head is placed on a table and re-activated; for portions of this scene an animatronic head was made using a face cast of actor Ian Holm. However the latex of the head shrank while drying and the result was not entirely convincing. For the bulk of the scene Holm knelt under the table with his head coming up through a hole and milk, caviar, pasta, and glass marbles were used to show the android's inner workings and fluids.
The musical score for Alien was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, conducted by Lionel Newman, and performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra. Ridley Scott had originally wanted the film to be scored by Isao Tomita, but 20th Century Fox wanted a more familiar composer and Goldsmith was recommended by then-President of Fox Alan Ladd, Jr. Goldsmith wanted to create a sense of romanticism and lyrical mystery in the film's opening scenes, which would build throughout the film to suspense and fear. Scott did not like Goldsmith's original main title piece, however, so Goldsmith rewrote it as "the obvious thing: weird and strange, and which everybody loved." Another source of tension was editor Terry Rawlings' choice to use pieces of Goldsmith's music from previous films, including a piece from Freud: The Secret Passion, and to use an excerpt from Howard Hanson's Symphony No.2 ("Romantic") for the end credits.
Scott and Rawlings had also become attached to several of the musical cues they had used for the temporary score while editing the film, and re-edited some of Goldsmith's cues and re-scored several sequences to match these cues and even left the temporary score in place in some parts of the finished film. Goldsmith later remarked that "you can see that I was sort of like going at opposite ends of the pole with the filmmakers of the picture." Nevertheless, Scott praised Goldsmith's score as "full of dark beauty" and "seriously threatening, but beautiful." It was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, a Grammy Award for Best Soundtrack Album, and a BAFTA Award for Best Film Music. The score has been released as a soundtrack album in several versions with different tracks and sequences.
Editing and post-production work on Alien took roughly twenty weeks to complete. Terry Rawlings served as Editor, having previously worked with Scott on editing sound for The Duellists. Scott and Rawlings edited much of the film to have a slow pace to build suspense for the more tense and frightening moments. According to Rawlings: "I think the way we did get it right was by keeping it slow, funny enough, which is completely different from what they do today. And I think the slowness of it made the moments that you wanted people to be sort of scared...then we could go as fast as we liked because you've sucked people into a corner and then attacked them, so to speak. And I think that's how it worked." The first cut of the film was over three hours long; further editing trimmed the final version to just under two hours.
One scene that was cut from the film occurred during Ripley's final escape from the Nostromo: she encounters Dallas and Brett who have been partially cocooned by the Alien. O'Bannon had intended the scene to indicate that Brett was becoming an Alien egg while Dallas was held nearby to be implanted by the resulting facehugger. Production Designer Michael Seymour later suggested that Dallas had "become sort of food for the alien creature", while Ivor Powell suggested that "Dallas is found in the ship as an egg, still alive." Scott remarked that "they're morphing, metamorphosing, they are changing into...being consumed, I guess, by whatever the Alien's organism is...into an egg." The scene was cut partly because it did not look realistic enough and partly because it slowed the pace of the escape sequence. Tom Skerritt remarked that "The picture had to have that pace. Her trying to get the hell out of there, we're all rooting for her to get out of there, and for her to slow up and have a conversation with Dallas was not appropriate." The footage was included amongst other deleted scenes as a special feature on the Laserdisc release of Alien, and a shortened version of it was re-inserted into the 2003 "Director's Cut" which was re-released in theaters and on DVD.
Release and reception
"It was the most incredible preview I've ever been in. I mean, people were screaming and running out of the theater."
–Editor Terry Rawlings describing the film's screening in Dallas.
An initial screening of Alien for 20th Century Fox representatives in St. Louis suffered from poor sound in the theater. A subsequent screening in a newer theater in Dallas went significantly better, eliciting genuine fright from the audience. Two theatrical trailers were shown to the public. The first consisted of rapidly changing still images set to some of Jerry Goldsmith's electronic music from Logan's Run. The second used test footage of a hen's egg set to part of Goldsmith's Alien score. The film was previewed in various American cities in the spring of 1979 and was promoted by the tagline "In space no one can hear you scream."
Alien opened in theaters on May 25, 1979. It was rated "R" in the United States, "X" in the United Kingdom, and "M" in Australia. The film had no official premier in the United States, yet moviegoers lined up for blocks to see it at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood where a number of models, sets, and props were displayed outside to promote it during its first run. Religious zealots set fire to the model of the space jockey, believing it to be the work of the devil. Alien did have a formal premiere in the United Kingdom at the Odeon Leicester Square on September 6, 1979, but it did not open widely in Britain until January 13, 1980.
Critical reaction to the film was initially mixed. Some critics who were not usually favorable towards science fiction, such as Barry Norman of the BBC's Film series, were positive about the film's merits. Others, however, were not: Reviews by Variety, Sight and Sound, Vincent Canby and Leonard Maltin were mixed or negative. A review by Time Out said the film was an "empty bag of tricks whose production values and expensive trickery cannot disguise imaginative poverty". H. R. Giger later commented that Alien was a third-rate film, and said that he was secretly glad that he didn't "get a fair mention in the screen credits."
The film was a commercial success, making $78,900,000 in the United States and £7,886,000 in the United Kingdom during its first run. It ultimately grossed $80,931,801 in the United States and $24,000,000 internationally, bringing its total worldwide gross to $104,931,801.
Alien won the 1979 Academy Award for Visual Effects and was also nominated for Best Art Direction (for Michael Seymour, Leslie Dilley, Roger Christian, and Ian Whittaker). It won Saturn Awards for Best Science Fiction Film, Best Direction for Ridley Scott, and Best Supporting Actress for Veronica Cartwright, and was also nominated in the categories of Best Actress for Sigourney Weaver, Best Make-up for Pat Hay, Best Special Effects for Brian Johnson and Nick Allder, and Best Writing for Dan O'Bannon. It was also nominated for British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards for Best Costume Design for John Mollo, Best Editing for Terry Rawlings, Best Supporting Actor for John Hurt, and Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Role for Sigourney Weaver. It also won a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and was nominated for a British Society of Cinematographers award for Best Cinematography for Derek Vanlint, as well as a Silver Seashell award for Best Cinematography and Special Effects at the San Sebastián International Film Festival. Jerry Goldsmith's score received nominations for the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, the Grammy Award for Best Soundtrack Album, and a BAFTA Award for Best Film Music.
Around and shortly after Alien's release in theaters, a number of merchandise items and media were released and sold to coincide with the film. These included a novelization by Alan Dean Foster, in both adult and "junior" versions, which was adapted from the film's shooting script. Heavy Metal magazine published a comic strip adaptation of the film entitled Alien: The Illustrated Story, as well as a 1980 Alien calendar. Two behind-the-scenes books were released in 1979 to accompany the film: The Book of Alien contained many production photographs and details on the making of the film, while Giger's Alien contained much of H. R. Giger's concept artwork for the movie. A soundtrack album was released as an LP featuring selections of Goldsmith's score, and a single of the main theme was released in 1980. A twelve-inch tall model kit of the Alien was released by the Model Products Corporation in the United States and by Airfix in the United Kingdom. Kenner also produced a larger-scale Alien action figure, as well as a board game in which players raced to be first to reach the shuttle pod while Aliens roamed the Nostromo's corridors and air shafts. Official Halloween costumes of the Alien were released for October 1979. Several computer games based on the film were released, but not until several years after its theatrical run.
The success of Alien led 20th Century Fox to finance three direct sequels over the next eighteen years, each by different writers and directors. Sigourney Weaver remained the only recurring actor through all four films, and the story of her character Ripley's encounters with the Aliens became the thematic thread running through the series. James Cameron's Aliens (1986) focused more on action and involved Ripley returning to the planetoid accompanied by marines to confront hordes of Aliens. David Fincher's Alien 3 (1992) had nihilistic tones and found her on a prison planet battling another Alien, ultimately sacrificing herself to prevent her employers from acquiring the creatures. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Alien Resurrection (1997) saw Ripley resurrected through cloning to battle more Aliens even further in the future.
The success of the film series resulted in the creation of a media franchise with numerous novels, comic books, video games, toys, and other media and merchandise appearing over the years. A number of these began appearing under the Alien vs. Predator crossover imprint, which brought the Alien creatures together with the titular Predators of the Predator franchise. The film series eventually followed suit, with Paul W. S. Anderson's Alien vs. Predator (2004) and Colin and Greg Strause's Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007) abandoning the Ripley character in favor of prequel stories set in the 2000s.
Despite not appearing in either prequel, Sigourney Weaver has expressed interest in reuniting with Ridley Scott to revive her character for another Alien film. In the 2003 commentary track for the Alien DVD included in the Alien Quadrilogy set, she and Scott both speculated on the possibility, with Weaver stating: "There is an appetite for a fifth one, which is something I never expected...it's really hard to come up with a fifth story that's new and fresh...but I have wanted to go back into space...I think outer space adventure is a good thing for us right now, 'cause Earth is so grim...so we've been talking about it, but very generally." Scott remarked that, if the series were to continue, the most logical course would be to explore the origins of the space jockey and the Aliens. Weaver supported this idea, stating that "I think it would be great to go back, because I'm asked that question so many times: 'Where did the Alien come from?' People really want to know in a very visceral way." David Giler stated that he, Walter Hill, and Gordon Carroll, the producers of the first five films in the series, would not be willing to produce another unless it was about the Aliens' homeworld and Weaver was on board (although Hill did return to produce Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem). Weaver, in turn, indicated that she would only return to the franchise if either Scott or James Cameron were directing. Cameron had been working on a story for a fifth Alien film which would explore the origins of the creatures, but ceased work on it when he learned that Fox was pursuing Alien vs. Predator, which he felt would "kill the validity of the franchise". Weaver has continued to express interest in another installment, stating in 2008 that "I would definitely do another if I had a director like Ridley Scott and we had a good idea. Ridley is enthusiastic about it."
In July 2009 20th Century Fox announced that Jon Spaihts had been hired to write a prequel to Alien, with Scott attached to direct. The script was subsequently re-worked by Scott and Damon Lindelof. Titled Prometheus, it went into production in May 2011, scheduled for theatrical release in June 2012. Scott released a statement: "While Alien was indeed the jumping-off point for this project, out of the creative process evolved a new, grand mythology and universe in which this original story takes place. The keen fan will recognize strands of Alien's DNA, so to speak, but the ideas tackled in this film are unique, large and provocative."
Home video releases
Alien has been released in many home video formats and packages over the years. The first of these was a seventeen-minute Super-8 version for home projectionists. It was also released on both VHS and Betamax for rental, which grossed it an additional $40,300,000 in the United States alone. Several VHS releases were subsequently sold both singly and as boxed sets. Laserdisc and Videodisc versions followed, including deleted scenes and director commentary as bonus features. A VHS box set containing Alien and the sequels Aliens and Alien 3 was released in facehugger-shaped boxes, including some of the deleted scenes from the Laserdisc editions. When Alien Resurrection premiered in theaters, another set of the first three films was released including a Making of Alien Resurrection tape. A few months later the set was re-released with the full version of Alien Resurrection taking the place of the making-of video. Alien was released on DVD in 1999, both singly and packaged with Aliens and Alien 3 as The Alien Legacy. This set was also released in a VHS version and included a commentary track by Ridley Scott. The first three films of the series have also been packaged as the Alien Triple Pack.
2003 Director's Cut
"The traditional definition of the term "Director's Cut" suggests the restoration of a director's original vision, free of any creative limitations. It suggests that the filmmaker has finally overcome the interference of heavy-handed studio executives, and that the film has been restored to its original, untampered form. Such is not the case with Alien: The Director's Cut. It's a completely different beast."
In 2003 20th Century Fox was preparing the Alien Quadrilogy DVD box set, which would include Alien and its three sequels. In addition, the set would also include alternate versions of all four films in the form of "special editions" and "director's cuts". Fox approached Ridley Scott to digitally restore and remaster Alien, and to restore several scenes which had been cut during the editing process for inclusion in an expanded version of the film. Upon viewing the expanded version, Scott felt that it was too long and chose to recut it into a more streamlined alternate version:
- Upon viewing the proposed expanded version of the film, I felt that the cut was simply too long and the pacing completely thrown off. After all, I cut those scenes out for a reason back in 1979. However, in the interest of giving the fans a new experience with Alien, I figured there had to be an appropriate middle ground. I chose to go in and recut that proposed long version into a more streamlined and polished alternate version of the film. For marketing purposes, this version is being called "The Director's Cut."
The "Director's Cut" restored roughly four minutes of deleted footage while cutting about five minutes of other material, leaving it about a minute shorter than the theatrical cut. Many of the changes were minor, such as altered sound effects, while the restored footage included the scene in which Ripley discovers the cocooned Dallas and Brett during her escape of the Nostromo. Fox decided to release the Director's Cut in theaters, and it premiered on October 31, 2003. The Alien Quadrilogy box set was released December 2, 2003, with both versions of the film included along with a new commentary track featuring many of the film's actors, writers, and production staff, as well as other special features and a documentary entitled The Beast Within: The Making of Alien. Each film was also released separately as a DVD with both versions of the film included. Scott noted that he was very pleased with the original theatrical cut of Alien, saying that "For all intents and purposes, I felt that the original cut of Alien was perfect. I still feel that way", and that the original 1979 theatrical version "remains my version of choice". He has since stated that he considers both versions "director's cuts", as he feels that the 1979 version was the best he could possibly have made it at the time.
The Alien Quadrilogy set earned Alien a number of new awards and nominations. It won DVDX Exclusive Awards for Best Audio Commentary and Best Overall DVD, Classic Movie, and was also nominated for Best Behind-the-Scenes Program and Best Menu Design. It also won a Sierra Award for Best DVD, and was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best DVD Collection and Golden Satellite Awards for Best DVD Extras and Best Overall DVD. In 2010 both the theatrical version and Director's Cut of Alien were released on Blu-ray Disc as part of the Alien Anthology set.
Impact and analysis
"The 1979 Alien is a much more cerebral movie than its sequels, with the characters (and the audience) genuinely engaged in curiosity about this weirdest of lifeforms...Unfortunately, the films it influenced studied its thrills but not its thinking."
–Film critic Roger Ebert on Alien's cinematic impact.
Alien had both an immediate and long-term impact on the science fiction and horror genres. Shortly after its debut, Dan O'Bannon was sued by another writer named Jack Hammer for allegedly plagiarising a script entitled Black Space. However, O'Bannon was able to prove that he had written his Alien script first. In the wake of Alien's success a number of other filmmakers imitated or adapted some of its elements, sometimes by copying its title. One of the first was The Alien Dead (1979), which was titled at the last minute to cash in on Alien's popularity. Contamination (1980) was initially going to be titled Alien 2 until 20th Century Fox's lawyers contacted writer/director Luigi Cozzi and made him change it, and it built on press coverage of Alien's chestburster scene by having many similar creatures, which originated from large, slimy eggs, bursting from characters' chests. An unauthorized Italian sequel to Alien, titled Alien 2, was released in 1980 and included alien creatures which incubate inside human hosts. Other science fiction films of the time that exploited elements of Alien included Inseminoid (1981) and Xtro (1982).
In the decades since its original release critics have analyzed and acknowledged Alien's roots in earlier works of fiction. It has been noted as sharing thematic similarities with earlier science fiction films such as The Thing from Another World (1951) and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), as well as a kinship with other 1970s horror films such as Jaws (1975) and Halloween (1978). Literary connections have also been suggested, including thematic comparisons to And Then There Were None (1939). Many critics have also suggested that the film derives in part from A. E. van Vogt's The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950), particularly the stories The Black Destroyer, in which a cat-like alien infiltrates the ship and hunts the crew, and Discord in Scarlet, in which an alien implants parasitic eggs inside crew members which then hatch and eat their way out. O'Bannon, however, denies that this was a source of his inspiration for Alien's story. Van Vogt actually initiated a lawsuit against 20th Century Fox over the similarities, but Fox settled out of court. Writer David McIntee has also noted similarities to the Doctor Who episode "The Ark in Space" (1975), in which an insectoid queen alien lays larvae inside humans which later eat their way out, a life cycle inspired by that of the ichneumons wasp. He has also noted similarities between the first half of the film, particularly in early versions of the script, to H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, "not in storyline, but in dread-building mystery", and calls the finished film "the best Lovecraftian movie ever made, without being a Lovecraft adaptation", due to its similarities in tone and atmosphere to Lovecraft's works.
Lasting critical praise
Alien has continued to receive critical praise over the years, particularly for its realism and unique environment. It has a 96% approval rating at the online review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes based on 82 reviews, while Metacritic gives the Director's Cut an 83% approval rating based on 22 reviews. Critical interest in the film was re-ignited in part by the theatrical release of the "Director's Cut" in 2003. In his "Great Movies" column that year, critic Roger Ebert ranked it among "the most influential of modern action pictures", praising its pacing, atmosphere, and settings:
- One of the great strengths of Alien is its pacing. It takes its time. It waits. It allows silences (the majestic opening shots are underscored by Jerry Goldsmith with scarcely audible, far-off metallic chatterings). It suggests the enormity of the crew's discovery by building up to it with small steps: The interception of a signal (is it a warning or an SOS?). The descent to the extraterrestrial surface. The bitching by Brett and Parker, who are concerned only about collecting their shares. The masterstroke of the surface murk through which the crew members move, their helmet lights hardly penetrating the soup. The shadowy outline of the alien ship. The sight of the alien pilot, frozen in his command chair. The enormity of the discovery inside the ship ("It's full of ... leathery eggs ...").
McIntee praises Alien as "possibly the definitive combination of horror thriller with [science fiction] trappings." He notes, however, that it is a horror film first and a science fiction film second, since science fiction normally explores issues of how humanity will develop under other circumstances. Alien, on the other hand, focuses on the plight of people being attacked by a monster: "It's set on a spaceship in the future, but it's about people trying not to get eaten by a drooling monstrous animal. Worse, it's about them trying not to get raped by said drooling monstrous animal." Along with Halloween and Friday the 13th (1980), he describes it as a prototype for the slasher film genre: "The reason it's such a good movie, and wowed both the critics, who normally frown on the genre, and the casual cinema-goer, is that it is a distillation of everything that scares us in the movies." He also describes how the film appeals to a variety of audiences: "Fans of Hitchcockian thrillers like it because it's moody and dark. Gorehounds like it for the chest-burster. [Science fiction] fans love the hard [science fiction] trappings and hardware. Men love the battle-for-survival element, and women love not being cast as the helpless victim."
"Almost every horror film since Alien has ripped it off in some way, but most of the imitations have focused on details — a slimy killing-machine monster that is both vaginal and penile; the dripping, cavernous interiors of the Nostromo; those immensely influential H. R. Giger "biomechanical" designs — and missed what you might call the overall Zeitgeist of the film."
–Salon.com critic Andrew O'Hehir
Salon.com critic Andrew O'Hehir notes that Alien "has a profoundly existentialist undertow that makes it feel like a film noir" and praises it over its "increasingly baroque" sequels as "a film about human loneliness amid the emptiness and amorality of creation. It's a cynical '70s-leftist vision of the future in which none of the problems plaguing 20th century Earth—class divisions, capitalist exploitation, the subjugation of humanity to technology—have been improved in the slightest by mankind's forays into outer space."
In 2002, Alien was deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by the National Film Preservation Board of the United States, and was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for historical preservation alongside other films of 1979 including All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now, The Black Stallion, and Manhattan. In 2008 the American Film Institute ranked Alien as the seventh-best film in the science fiction genre as part of AFI's 10 Top 10, a CBS television special ranking the ten greatest movies in ten classic American film genres. The ranks were based on a poll of over 1,500 film artists, critics, and historians, with Alien ranking just above Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and just below Ridley Scott's other science fiction film Blade Runner (1982). The same year, Empire magazine ranked it thirty-third on its list of the five hundred greatest movies of all time, based on a poll of 10,200 readers, critics, and members of the film industry.
Critics have also analyzed Alien's sexual overtones. Adrian Mackinder compares the facehugger's attack on Kane to a male rape and the chestburster scene to a form of violent birth, noting that the Alien's phallic head and method of killing the crew members add to the sexual imagery. Dan O'Bannon has argued that the scene is a metaphor for the male fear of penetration, and that the "oral invasion" of Kane by the facehugger functions as "payback" for the many horror films in which sexually vulnerable women are attacked by male monsters. McIntee claims that "Alien is a rape movie as much as Straw Dogs (1971) or I Spit on Your Grave (1978), or The Accused (1988). On one level it's about an intriguing alien threat. On one level it's about parasitism and disease. And on the level that was most important to the writers and director, it's about sex, and reproduction by non-consensual means. And it's about this happening to a man." He notes how the film plays on men's fear and misunderstanding of pregnancy and childbirth, while also giving women a glimpse into these fears. Film analyst Lina Badley has written that the Alien's design, with strong Freudian sexual undertones, multiple phallic symbols, and overall feminine figure, provides an androgynous image conforming to archetypal mappings and imageries in horror films that often redraw gender lines. O'Bannon himself later described the sexual imagery in Alien as overt and intentional: "One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex... I said 'That's how I'm going to attack the audience; I'm going to attack them sexually. And I'm not going to go after the women in the audience, I'm going to attack the men. I am going to put in 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.'"