#451) Alien (1979)
OR “Baby on Board”
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Dan O’Bannon (with uncredited rewrites from David Giler and Walter Hill). Story by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett.
Class of 2002
The Plot: Somewhere in the future, the spaceship Nostromo is returning to Earth after extracting ore from a distant planet. The crew (Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto) receive a transmission from a nearby moon, and they land to investigate. The moon contains several eggs, one of which hatches and attacks Kane (Hurt). The alien makes its way onto the ship, where it starts murdering the crew one by one. And in the midst of this haunted house in space is the kernels of one of Hollywood’s longest running film franchises.
Why It Matters: The NFR’s writeup for “Alien” is more a critique than a synopsis. Praise is given to Scott, art designer H.R. Giger, the cast, cinematographer Derek Vanlint and composer Jerry Goldsmith, though does point out that the film as a whole is “not particularly original”. Ouch.
But Does It Really?: Oh of course. The film’s first act is incredibly slow by today’s standards, but it ramps up to an intense subversion of what science fiction films can be. Ridley Scott confidently creates the world and populates it with impressive practical effects and great actors, with Sigourney Weaver giving a breakout performance at the center. There’s no way the National Film Registry could ignore a movie as iconic, as memorable, or as perennially exciting as “Alien”.
Shout Outs: Dan O’Bannon has cited “The Thing From Another World” and “Forbidden Planet” (among others) as influences, with Ridley Scott adding “Star Wars” and “2001” as his inspiration. And of course, the film was infamously pitched as “Jaws in Space”.
Everybody Gets One: Of the main cast, this is the only NFR appearance for American actor Yaphet Kotto (fresh off his Emmy-nominated turn as Idi Amin), and British mainstays John Hurt and Ian Holm, though with the latter two I can’t imagine that will remain the case for much longer. And special mention to Bolaji Bedajo, the 6’10” Nigerian artist who was hired to wear the Alien costume, his unique frame helping to camouflage the “man in a suit” approach.
Wow, That’s Dated: The only major giveaway is the ship’s technology, which is a combo of early computers and early VCRs. This was, however, intentional to suggest that the Nostromo is an older ship.
Seriously, Oscars?: One of the biggest hits of the year, “Alien” received two Oscar nominations. The film lost Art Direction to “All That Jazz“, but did win for its Visual Effects. Not only was Ridley Scott not nominated for Best Director, but 40 years and four nominations later he is still Oscar-less. Seriously, Oscars?
- You can find minute detail on every aspect of “Alien” online, but we’ll keep things simple here. After making the low-budget sci-fi film “Dark Star“, Dan O’Bannon dreamed of a large-budget alien movie with a scarier, more convincing alien. Collaborating with Ron Shusett, O’Bannon completed the first version of “Alien” and pitched it to several studios. The film was almost made by Roger Corman before being optioned by Brandywine, a company with connections to 20th Century Fox. The screenplay received a massive re-write from new producers David Giler and Walter Hill, though O’Bannon received sole credit in the final film. Director Ridley Scott came on board thanks to his debut film “The Duellists“, and his extensive storyboarding convinced Fox to double the film’s budget.
- Major kudos to the screenwriters, who purposefully wrote the characters as gender neutral. Ripley was originally written as a male, but thanks to some open-minded casting and a committed performance from Sigourney Weaver, you can’t imagine anyone else in the role.
- Even in the future, there are strict quarantine procedures. “If we break quarantine, we all die!” What did we do wrong?
- The most impressive thing about “Alien” is how little actually happens in the first half of the movie. It’s all set-up, but it has a lovely tension that never draws attention to itself, but continues to build throughout. The first major death doesn’t happen until an hour into the movie, and boy is it worth the wait.
- Spoilers: This is apparently one of 43 films John Hurt made in which his character is killed on-screen. What a legacy.
- The film’s other impressive masterstroke: never revealing the full alien in one shot. You only get them in snippets; a close-up here, a cutaway there. In addition, the whole film does an excellent job of giving the ship an escalating sense of claustrophobia and darkness, providing the alien plenty of plausible hiding spots. And of course, shoutout to H.R. Giger and his team for their impressive, and very Freudian, alien design.
- Poor Veronica Cartwright; first “The Birds“, now this. Meanwhile, her sister is one of the Von Trapp children…
- For me the most interesting thing about the movie is how Ripley emerges as the hero. She starts out as another crew member with some animosity towards her co-workers, but at no point does the movie announce that she will be the protagonist. Ripley rises to the occasion, and becomes the strong yet realistically flawed female lead that all female protagonists strive to be.
- Another subversion that will relieve most filmgoers: the cat survives. You’re the real hero, Jones!
- “Alien” was a hit, though the sequels were held up by a lawsuit after Fox claimed that the film didn’t make a profit. “Aliens” arrived in 1986 with a new director (James Cameron), and enough iconic moments and imagery for me to occasionally nominate it for NFR consideration.
- Since “Aliens”, there have been two direct sequels (“Alien 3” & “Alien: Resurrection”), two prequels that allowed Ridley Scott to revive abandoned concepts from the first movie, and two films in which Alien gets into a custody battle with Predator over their eight-year-old son (at least I think that’s what “Alien vs. Predator” is about…)
- Every Ridley Scott movies is required to have multiple cuts for fans to fight over, and “Alien” received one in 2003. While the “Director’s Cut” features some reinstated footage, Scott also used the opportunity to streamline the whole film, making its runtime shorter than the original cut! Scott later admitted that the “Director’s Cut” was a marketing ploy, and that his initial cut is “perfect”.
- “Alien” has been prone to so many parodies over the years. Bonus points are always given if you can get an original cast member to participate, so John Hurt’s cameo in “Spaceballs” takes the prize.
- Also worth mentioning are the times Sigourney Weaver has voiced a ship computer with ulterior motives. See “WALL-E” and “Futurama”.
- This is typically where I make a joke about a Fox movie now being a Disney movie and suggesting an inappropriate theme park tie-in, but Disney has beat me to it. Disney actually bought the theme park rights to “Alien” in the early ‘80s with the hope of basing a thrill ride on the film. The idea never came to be, but “Alien” did make an appearance in The Great Movie Ride.
- And last, but far from least: Shoutout to Barbara Gips (wife of the film’s poster designer Philip Gips) for coining the film’s tagline, “In space no one can hear you scream.”