It’s sometimes hard to imagine that there was a time when certain films never existed, and that many productions from the 70s and early 80s had to be willed into existence under troubling circumstances which paved the way not only for a type of film we have now but also created the cliches and tropes that became part and parcel of the franchises they launched, and even their respective genres.
The Alien franchise is one that has been around for forty years, paving the way for a plethora of sequels, prequels, and cross-overs with other franchises, in film, comic books, video games, action figures, tie-in novels and graphic novels. And to think that its quest to reach the silver screen in 1979 was that of a fraught, difficult production, and one that wouldn’t even lead to its first sequel for seven years.
After the success of Star Wars, every studio wanted a piece of the science-fiction pie; even 20th Century Fox who had produced the first film, but which were only set to be distributors for the forthcoming sequel. They wanted another sci-fi hit and so they went to a script that had originally been named ‘Star Beast’, written by Dan O’ Bannon and Ronald Shussett, and which would be given a re-write by producers Walter Hill and David Giler.
Everything that came about with Alien would be a clear and precisely classic example of brilliance: in the poster, the ad campaign, the intense trailers, the choice of Ridley Scott to direct, the choice of unknown Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, and the designs of HR Giger.
The film that emerged was a ferociously perfect beast, so it makes sense that its titular character should be believed as so even by one of its lead characters. There is Kubrick-like control to much of the first act of the film, with a detached impersonal style that director Ridley Scott, in his second feature-length film after debut The Duellists, utilised to brilliant effect; the opening credits pan across LV-426 slowly, deliberately, a calm before the storm accompanied by a subtly menacing Jerry Goldsmith score.
Even the introduction to the Nostromo and its crew is precise and controlled; we pan down the corridors gently and without provocation and are introduced to the characters as they awake from a peaceful slumber. It could almost be some sort of small scale character drama, albeit about a bunch of characters who are effectively truckers in space. Unlike Star Wars and Star Trek, the world of Alien is closer to ours than the religious overtones of The Force or the upper political echelons of Starfleet.
The crew of the Nostromo swear; they make fun of each other. Some, like Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto), make it known they want bonuses for the work they do. They seem to eat what looks like cereal for breakfast, and even smoke cigarettes.
It’s only when we get our first glimpse of the crashed ship on the planet they land on in order to answer a distress signal that the film goes into the realm of harder sci-fi and fantasy, and even this is completely different to the worlds of Roddenberry and Lucas. The designs of Giger, the sexual connotations and even the metaphors on play when Kane (John Hurt) is attacked by a Facehugger, have fuelled books along the lines of ‘Alien and Philosophy’ for decades.
The sexuality of the film is all in the production design, the violence is gory, the atmosphere grows grimly intense as it hurdles to its climax, the body count rises and the film earns its then X-rating alarmingly well.
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After forty years, Alien has lost none of its power. The 18 rating may now be a 15 (there is nothing more shocking than seeing the film broadcast in the middle of an afternoon on one of Sky’s many film channels), but it is still a perfect beast that not even a plethora of weaker follow-ups can dilute. The first sequel is a worthy follow up that managed to tweak the formula more into the realm of action cinema and doubled down on the character of Ripley and her journey; the latter being something the other sequels did too but to a more mixed degree, from the nihilism of David Fincher’s third film to the Batman and Robin-style disaster of Alien: Ressurection.
The crossovers with the Predator franchise weren’t much better, but then Scott returned to craft prequels to divisive reactions. Prometheus and Alien: Covenant are interesting films for sure, and they aren’t afraid to be darker R-rated thrillers in a style and manner that Hollywood seems to be afraid of nowadays, but in exploring the backstory, an epic tale involving the evolution and genesis of not only the creature but humankind also, and answering questions to the mysteries raised here, it ends up meaning the first film loses a sense of mystique.
The lack of answers to the origins of the ship and famous ‘space jockey’ made Alien even more unsettling, a feeling that went right on top of the violence and atmosphere. A perfect beast already, and while we did get Aliens, sometimes one wonders if it should have been left alone.