Alien was not the first monster movie. Alien was not the first sci-fi movie. It wasn’t even the first scifi/horror hybrid. But director Ridley Scott’s elegantly-built haunted house film, with its provocatively-designed creature taking the place of the ghost and a compelling female lead facing off against it, put the proverbial feather in the cap of the genre. It is now impossible to think of monster movies without Alien, and any list of films that have been influenced by (or have parodied) Scott’s film would exceed the phone book in length. Alien layered interesting themes, highly-detailed environments, and a quality character actor cast onto material traditionally considered B-movie schlock. It was a “B movie done as if it was an A movie” as one diehard fan eloquently put it in a recent Youtube tribute video. So many elements make Alien the milestone film it is and elevate it way beyond ‘B movie’ level, but it is fair to say its impact would have been greatly diminished without the presence of two key pieces: the “bio-mechanical” nightmare Alien creature design that sprang from the mind of Swiss artist H.R Giger, and actress and star Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of the Alien’s main human foe: Ellen Ripley.
Alien was initially cooked up by two very unique and somewhat eccentric minds. Dan O’Bannon and producer Ronald Shusett were the masterminds behind the original story – and unique grisly concept of how the Alien bred – hammering out the idea when O’Bannon was crashing dejectedly on his friend Shusett’s couch after losing his gig on the mercurial Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed Dune adaptation (where O’Bannon at least met Giger). The two writers are famed within the annals of sci-fi today, with Shussett going on to work on the big-budget Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring adaptation of Philip K.Dick’s Total Recall, and O’Bannon having already cut his teeth on no less than John Carpenter’s Dark Star and Star Wars before he even started on Alien. Later screenplay revisions by producers David Giler and Walter Hill would introduce elements such as the corporate paranoia and android spies, as well as making the lead character a woman. It helped that, in the wake of the success of Star Wars, Hollywood studios like Fox wanted another sci-fi epic- and fast. Alien’s script was greenlit and handed to the winner of the Best Debut Film award at the 1977 Cannes Film – Ridley Scott – to bring to life.
Emerging in the pre-digital era where Hollywood was reeling from the power of Star Wars’s stunning visuals, Alien is an effects-heavy picture which boasts a fascinating and very physical ‘in camera’ production history, almost as interesting to study as the final film itself. An artist himself, director Ridley Scott’s storyboarded vision helped convince the studio paymasters to give him a higher budget to realise the huge futuristic sets and creature design. During the shoot and post-production, Scott proved more than capable of handling this complex project with so many logistical and technical moving pieces (he remains famed to this day for delivering big movies, on time and on budget). Concept artists Ron Cobb, Chris Foss and Syd Mead helped shape Alien’s highly detailed, lived-in future worlds, such as the Nostronomo ship and Narcissus shuttle, and their ‘do it for real’ ethos became one of the franchise’s most memorable and consistent features. Alien- and its sequels too – might be a Hollywood-bankrolled product, but relied on many British production and art specialists for the UK-based shoots, including Production Designer Michael Seymour, and Art Directors Roger Christian and Leslie Dilley. Swiss artist H.R Giger unnerved many on the Alien set with his gothic outfits and piles of bones, but his visions of the creature which Ridley Scott saw in his book Necronomicon– barely altered for the final design seen on screen – gave this film the ability to transcend the typical ‘man in a suit’ effect that plagued earlier monster movies.
They say too many cooks spoil a broth, but with ALIEN the reverse is true. This diverse, motley group of mothers and fathers mentioned above helped birth a truly spectacular beast, scoring highly at the box office and stopping the 1979 Academy Award for Visual Effects. Alien is celebrated at Moving Pictures Cinema on May 16 with a special anniversary screening, where novelist and critic Kim Newman (himself no stranger to the horror genre, being the author of Nightmare Movies and hundreds of horror reviews for the like of Empire and Sight and Sound) will give a special Q&A to mark the event.
Even 40 years on…in space, no one can hear you scream!