A-Ron’s Film Rewind Series Takes You Back To The Corridors Of The Nostromo, To Celebrate Director Ridley Scott’s Groundbreaking 1979 Sci-Fi / Horror Masterpiece. It Created Fear Of Outer Space, Gave Us A Female Action Heroine & Gave Birth To One Of The Most Iconic & Terrifying Creatures In Movie History. This Is The 40th Anniversary Of Ridley Scott’s “Alien”.
With every great film there is a great director, cast, crew and a great tag line….“In space no one can hear you scream”. It is one of the most recognizable tag lines in cinema and it’s tagged onto one of the best sci-fi films in movie history, from one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers Ridley Scott. It’s his 1979 seminal classic “Alien”, which is celebrating it’s monumental 40th anniversary on May 25th, 2019.
Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, originally started with writer Dan O’Bannon’s original draft titled “Star Beast”, but he was never happy with this. It was at one point being considered as being called “They Bite”. Only after re-reading his script, that he noted how many times the word “alien” appeared, and realized that it was a perfect title.
The film is nothing short of a masterpiece, masterfully directed by Ridley Scott (my favorite filmmaker). Technically brilliant, tense, horrifying and visually breathtaking, there’s not a moment in this B-monster sci-fi / horror movie that doesn’t excel well beyond the usual genre trappings. The cast that includes Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skeritt, Ian Holm and John Hurt is incredible. Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score soars. The set design, production design, sound design you name it, it’s all just marvelous. And H.R. Giger’s frightening creation of the Xenomorph is awe-inspiring, yet viciously creepy and wholly unforgettable. As far as sci-fi horror films go, Alien sets the bar.
When “Alien” was first released during the summer movie season of 1979, science fiction films were all the rage. The trend had been started two years earlier with the unexpected box office success of “Star Wars”, and, by 1979 anything even remotely connected with space and/or aliens was guaranteed to raise some interest. With the release of two highly anticipated efforts, the big screen debut of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “Star Wars” sequel “The Empire Strikes Back”, both of which were within a year of their opening dates, it only further invigorated the atmosphere for sci-fi fans.
It was into this climate of the sci-fi high that “Alien” was unleashed upon the public. While “Alien” was produced in the post “Star Wars” craze of science fiction films. “Alien” actually owes more to it’s most obvious influence: Howard Hawks “The Thing” from 1951. “The Thing” was also about a team in an isolated outpost who discover a long-dormant alien and are picked off one by one as it haunts the corridors. Look at “The Thing” and you see “Alien” in embryo.
Much of the credit for “Alien” must go to director Ridley Scott, who was not the original choice to direct. First choice for director was Walter Hill (“48 Hours” and “The Warriors”), but he pulled out and gave the job to Ridley Scott after being impressed by Scott’s only major film before”Alien”, the cerebral and elegant “The Duelists” in 1977. Ridley Scott is also responsible for getting studio Twentieth Century Fox to double the budget from $4.2 million to $8.4 million dollars on the strength of seeing Ridley Scott’s storyboards. Till this day Ridley Scott draws all of his storyboards by hand. Scott even did all of the handheld camerawork himself, which is usually not done by the director himself. The film to follow “Alien” would be another intelligent and visionary sci-fi epic “Blade Runner”, that would solidify Ridley Scott as a master filmmaker of the science fiction genre.
“Alien” is a perfect example of a director who gradually elevates the level of energy and anticipation. The way Scott meticulously raises the sense of menace and tension is worthy of any of, Hitchcock’s great work. Like Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws”, Ridley Scott relies on the viewer’s imagination to enhance the alien’s nightmarishness. Ridley Scott cites three movies as the shaping influences on his movie: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) for their depiction of outer space, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) for its treatment of horror.
Scott carefully restricts how much we see of the Xenomorph. He restricts it so much so that we only see The Xenomorph for a total of four minutes and doesn’t make its first appearance until about an hour into the movie. Scott gives us just enough to provide our minds with horrifying images, but not too much to where the illusion is spoiled. Interesting to note their was originally a scene featuring a full view of the Xenomorph, that was removed from the final cut. The that clip is available on the laserdisc, DVD special editions and Blu Rays of the movie.
The design of the Xenomorph was created by H.R. Giger who was a Swiss painter, best known for airbrush images of humans and machines linked together in a cold biomechanical relationship. Giger later abandoned his airbrush work for pastels, markers, and ink. In Giger’s original illustrations of the Xenomorph, he had given the creature eyes. Giger has later insisted that the creature have no eyes, thus giving the bleak appearance of a cold and emotionless beast that hunts by smell.
Although one of the most distinct features of the Xenomorph was created by Conceptual Artist Ron Cobb who came up with the idea that the alien should bleed acid. This idea came about when writer Dan O’Bannon couldn’t come up with a reason for why the Nostromo crew wouldn’t just shoot the alien with a gun.
Another obstacle that writer O’Bannon was faced with was trying to work out how the alien would get aboard the ship. Co-writer Ronald Shussett came up with the idea that the alien would have sexual intercourse in someway with one of the crew members. That is how the facehugger concept was created. The method they use of reproduction via the implantation by the face hugger, the writers were deliberately adamant that the victim be a man. Firstly because they wanted to avoid the horror cliché of women being depicted as the first target; secondly, because making a female the casualty of a symbolic rape felt inappropriate; and thirdly, to make the male viewers feel more uncomfortable with this reversal of genre conventions.
Director Ridley Scott originally wanted to use animatronics to portray the alien, hoping to avoid the sight of a monster obviously being played by a man in a suit. Which is why the Xenomorph is never filmed directly facing the camera. Ridley Scott, determined at all costs to dispel any notion of a man in a rubber suit, by filming the beast in varying close-up angles, while very rarely capturing the beast in its entirety. During production, an attempt was made to make the alien transparent, or at least translucent. Coincidentally, this idea was scrapped but later used for the creature’s camouflage suit in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Predator” in 1987, which was later revealed to take place in a shared universe with Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, which lead to two films putting the creatures against each other.
Unfortunately, the special effects techniques at the time weren’t sophisticated enough for what he had in mind, but he eventually agreed to an actor playing the part after being introduced to Bolaji Badejo, who was a graphic artist that was discovered at a pub by one of the casting directors. Badejo was seven feet one inch tall with very thin arms, just what they needed to make the alien look less human and more insect-like. Badejo was sent for Tai Chi and mime classes to learn how to slow down his movements. A special swing was constructed for him to sit down during filming, as he could not sit down once he was suited up, because of the alien tail. The suit that was made to fit Badejo, the front facial part of the head is made from a cast of a real human skull.
With its metallic, reptilian body and rows of razor-sharp teeth dripping saliva, few cinematic images can equal the unparalleled terror of the Xenomorph. Filmmakers of movies with an alien creature have worked unsuccessfully to develop something as striking as Giger’s design. Not surprisingly, the entire effects team including Giger won an Oscar for their work on “Alien”. The Xenomorph was seen as so terrifying that at the premiere of the movie, religious zealots set fire to the model of the Xenomorph, that was on display believing it to be the work of the devil.
Following the massive success of the “Star Wars” action figures, Kenner marketed an “Alien” toy for Christmas 1979. However, instead of the three to four inch size used for the “Star Wars” figures, the “Alien” figure was made at eighteen inches, and was not paired with figures of the Nostromo crew. Keeping faithful to Giger’s design and featuring a hinged jaw, the figure was highly breakable. Due to parental complaints, Kenner pulled the action figure. The toy has since become a collector’s item, with mint boxed versions going for as much as one thousand dollars.
The alien “face hugger” and the Xenomorph itself are still among the scariest creatures in movies. “Alien” contains its fair share of genuine scares. Ridley Scott doesn’t present mere “boo” moments, but creates legitimate shocks. The first big moment occurs when Kane (John Hurt) slowly peers into the alien egg, the scene completely silent with no Jerry Goldsmith score, and then suddenly Kane gets the face hugger bursting out of the egg and attaching itself to his face.
It is still among one of the great film moments…you could just cut the atmosphere with a knife. The face hugger was originally planned to be painted green, but Dan O’Bannon, seeing the unpainted facehugger on-set, noted how inventive its human flesh tone color was and argued for it to remain as is. The face hugger was made using fresh shellfish, four oysters, and a sheep kidney to re-create the internal organs. Quick fun fact: the blue laser lights that you see used in the face hugger’s egg chamber were borrowed from rock band The Who. The band were in the soundstage next door, testing out the lasers for their stage show.
The second is the now famous chestburster sequence, that was filmed in one take using four cameras. John Hurt has to stick his head, shoulders and arms through a hole in the mess table, linking up with a mechanical torso that was packed with lots of animal guts and compressed air to help create the forceful exit of the alien. The rest of the cast were not told that real blood and guts were being used, so as to provoke genuine reactions of shock and disgust. This worked so well that actor Yaphet Kotto went home in complete shock afterwards, locking himself in a room and refusing to talk to his wife for several hours.
In the films last thirty minutes, during the hunt for the alien, the tension and suspense becomes almost unbearable. Ridley Scott’s original cut had ran three hours and twelve minutes. The original cut was a lot bloodier, but because of the negative reactions of test audiences, and the possibility of an “X” rating, scenes with violence and gore were cut down. Some outtakes that can be seen in making of documentaries on the films hard media releases show longer and bloodier versions of the chestburster scene, and Brett’s death scene.
Despite releasing a new version of the movie in 2003, when over one hundred boxes of footage were discovered in a London vault. Scott had labeled the 2003 version as “Alien: The Director’s Cut”. Ridley Scott wrote in a statement that he still feels the original three hour “Alien” cut was his perfect vision of the movie. “The Director’s Cut” features deleted scenes many fans wanted to see incorporated into the movie.
Twentieth Century Fox almost did not allow the “space jockey” (the giant alien pilot), to be in the movie. At the time, props for movies weren’t that large, and it would only be used for one scene. Conceptual Artist Ron Cobb convinced them to leave the scene in the movie, as it would be the “Cecil B. DeMille shot”, showing the audience that this wasn’t some low budget B-movie. At the end of “Alien”, wait for the credits and turn the volume up, you will be able to hear the sound of a face hugger pod opening.
Much was made in 1979 of “Alien’s” feminist heroine, Ellen Ripley. Until then, sci-fi movies were strictly a male preserve. Viewers had expected beautiful female actresses to be served up to the monster in the first reel. Female leads were rare, let alone female leads that outlived all the males ones and were to be generally shown to look stronger and more brave than the males are. Ridley Scott stated that in casting the role of Ripley, it ultimately came down to Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep. The two actresses had been college mates at Yale. Ultimately, Weaver was offered the job because Streep was mourning the death of her partner John Cazale at the time of casting. And remember, prior to “Alien”, Weaver’s only screen performance was a walk on role in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”. After “Alien” Weaver starred in three more “Alien” films and has made quite the prolific career for herself.
American Film Institute ranked “Alien” as the sixth greatest American thriller ever made, the Xenomorph as the fourteen greatest villain and its hero, Lt. Ellen Ripley as the eighth greatest hero which made a star out of Sigourney Weaver. “Alien” is a horror masterpiece that 40 years later doesn’t age at all and that is a testament to the skill of director Ridley Scott, who we can marvel at how the filmmaker generates so much tension and sweat, with a bare minimum of moving parts. It is a masterpiece with many imitators and zero superiors.
A combination of sci-fi and horror, that’s incredibly suspenseful and carefully structured with excellent pacing. Scott knows very well how to slowly build a disquieting tension and elevate it to the point of nerve-wracking, making “Alien” a genuinely scary classic. It breathed new life into the horror genre, launching a film franchise of eight films (three of them directed by Ridley Scott). In terms of tense sci-fi horror, it’s hard to top “Alien” and shows the impact one film has, that 40 years later has left one hell of a legacy.
•Regal Cinemas Will Celebrate The 40th Anniversary Of “Alien” With TCM Big Screen Classics, Hosted By Ben Mankiewicz.
October 13 @ 1pm
October 15 and 16 @ 7pm