Alien, revisited: how Ridley Scott reinvented science fiction

by Sam Long

Alien, revisited: how Ridley Scott reinvented science fiction
March 3, 2020 Sam Long

“In space, no one can hear you scream.” The tagline for Ridley Scott’s Alien is captured perfectly by the opening of the film. The camera pans slowly across the quiet nothing of space and the silhouette of an unknown planet, as the title fades in one sharp line at a time. 

It sets the mood immediately. This isn’t a spacefaring adventure like George Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope, which was released two years earlier in 1977 and set a new standard for the science fiction genre. A New Hope’s opening scene is even superficially similar to Alien’s: the camera pans through a starscape towards a planet, before the colossal white star destroyer chasing down Leia’s rebel freighter comes into view at the top of the screen. This scene invokes immediate action and excitement. But there is an eerie quietness to Alien’s Nostromo as it glides across the inky void, isolated from any contact; no other planets or life aside from the crew of seven workers onboard. We are shown the interior of the ship — it is cold and dirty, not like the Enterprise with its gleaming walls and bright lights. As you move through the dimly-lit corridors of the Nostromo, you realise that nobody’s home. At the time, this was new for audiences; a starship was a very unusual setting for bleakness and horror. George Lucas unquestionable popularised the sci-fi genre, but it was Ridley Scott who reinvented what science fiction meant for films.

Before Alien, spacefaring sci-fi was hopeful and adventurous. There were battles of good and evil, light side and dark side. You had Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise exploring the stars and overcoming adversity. Plucky humanity conquering galaxies, demonstrating that anything was possible. 

There are happy moments in Alien; the opening breakfast scene has a warmth to it as the crew wake up from cryo-sleep and banter with each other. However, Scott’s vision of the future is ultimately a bleak one, in which the faceless Company views the lives of its employees “expendable” under special order 937.

Previous sci-fi horror films had remained largely earthbound, while limitations in special effects limited the fear their monsters could induce. Scott borrowed the structure of the nascent slasher genre, in which a group is picked off one by one until only a sole survivor makes it out alive — although it’s much easier to become invested in his sympathetic blue-collar workers than a slasher’s typical line-up of grating teenagers.

Of course, what made Alien truly horrifying was the alien itself — or ‘xenomorph’ as it would come to be known. H.R. Giger was a Swiss artist whose unsettling work featured humans and machines in erotic, biomechanical couplings. As part of the special effects team for Ridley Scott’s film, his painting Necronom IV was the inspiration for the creature’s design. On the film’s release there were reports of audience members fainting or running screaming from the theatre at the sight of the creature. This writer was millimetres from his seat as Barret looks up at the rafters, just missing its curled-up carapace; and also when Dallas braves the ventilation shafts with flashes of fire lighting his way, unaware the alien stalks behind him in the shadows — until he turns around and it’s too late.

Alien met with critical success and won the 1979 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and Saturn Awards for Best Science Fiction film, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Veronica Cartwright. Reviews at the time praised it for its simple premise, applauding it for blending science fiction with horror that was genuinely frightening.

Ellen Ripley, utterly owned by Sigourney Weaver, is one of science fiction’s most memorable and enduring heroes. The part was supposed to be played by a man: Weaver was cast weeks before filming, and few changes to the script were made to reflect the change. Refreshingly, she’s mostly left unsexualised. Although Ridley Scott set out only to make a horror film, Alien has come to be scrutinised by gender academics; “Alien is a rape movie with male victims”, wrote critic David McIntee.

Following the success of Alien came a wave of films that were either subtly or overtly influenced by it — its simple premise, its themes, and its setting. Not only did it set a new bar for special effects in a monster flick, it also provided filmmakers with a new aesthetic dialect to add to their vocabulary: that of dark, clanking, cavernous space hulks, all swinging chains and steaming grates — a far cry from brightly-lit, cheerily-beeping control rooms and swishing doors. This visual signature can be felt in screen media since, in films like 2009’s Pandorum and the video game series Dead Space (2008–2013).

One film that wears Alien on its sleeve is Galaxy of Terror, released only two years afterwards in 1981. It takes place on a dark and dusty alien planet, complete with an alien corpse and a man running through a dark, metallic corridor on an abandoned spaceship. It oozes the same B-movie style and campy practical effects but fully inhabits its 18 rating, with excessive gore, dismembered limbs, and a sexual assault by an alien worm. The audience stares into the blank, dead eyes of Captain Trantor, played by Grace Zabriskie, as she tells you of the disaster that left her the sole traumatised survivor.

However, where Alien goes for a slow build up of tension and an explosive payoff, Galaxy of Terror feels more like a galaxy of things made to shock you. Critics panned it, likening it to a bad parody of Ridley Scott’s film.

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) features a group of researchers isolated in the frosty wastelands of Antarctica, like the Nostromo isolated by the vacuum of space. They come across something alien in nature but realise too late the danger it poses. Where Alien had a sense of comradery — our human heroes united against the clear threat of the alien — Carpenter’s The Thing plays a more psychological game. From the moment the protagonists learn that the Thing can imitate others, paranoia and distrust are sown among the group. Like Alien, the film relies heavily on practical effects, but opts for more grotesque body horror. Perhaps this was one factor that turned audiences off; it was both a critical and commercial failure. However, over the years since its release, opinions have quietly been revised, and the film is now viewed as a massively-influential cult classic itself and one of the best horror films ever made. “If The Thing had been a hit, my career would have been different,” John Carpenter said in 2011.

Pitch Black (2000) also depicts a sci-fi world of dark, sweaty spaceships and screaming alien monsters. The crew of the Hunter-Gratzner, a passenger transport, crash on a scorching desert planet. Among the mixed group of pilots, religious men, and entrepreneurs is the bounty hunter Johns and his cargo: a criminal called Riddick. Pitch Black plays interesting games with our sympathies, eventually settling Riddick himself into position as the most anarchic of anti-heroes. Carolyn Fry’s character shines, too: a Ripley analogue, willing to make the hard choices.

Alien’s influence can be felt more recently, too. SyFy’s The Expanse starts off with the crew of the Canterbury, an ice mining vessel, receiving an SOS distress beacon of unknown origin. The crew argue between going off course to assist and making it back to Earth in time to earn a bonus. The captain makes them aware of a contractual obligation to log and help any vessel in need or they forfeit all pay. Sound familiar?

Life (2017) sticks to the near future and tacks more towards science than fiction. A band of scientists jostle on a space station orbiting Earth, collecting samples of Mars dirt for signs of life. An alien is found, and gruesomely picks off the crew one by one. As with Alien, Life seems to tell us that our curiosity and greed will be our downfall. It feels more nihilistic — we’re denied a happy ending, reminiscent of the hopeless situation of The Thing rather than Ripley’s final triumph in Alien.

The Alien franchise has been added to several times, but no film has managed to recapture the magic of the 1979 original. James Cameron’s Aliens, released in 1986, is generally regarded as the best sequel: but it’s more action than horror, different in scope and nature. The 90s brought us David Fincher’s Alien 3 and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection, both workmanlike sequels enjoyed by the series’ fans. Ridley Scott returned to the franchise in the 21st century with 2012’s Prometheus and 2017’s Alien: Covenant, both dominated by his preoccupation with the Alien mythology rather than the cinematic DNA that made the 1979 film a success. 

Part of that is its simple premise: being stuck on a ship with a killer alien. The two most recent sequels ask interesting questions, but rarely let you sit with your thoughts in the same way. A glance at the film score aggregator Metacritic shows that fans feel the magic is waning: Alien’s sequels languish in the mid 60s.

Alien was something incredible: a low-budget film that tackled the sci-fi genre as very few had done before. It played on the horror of isolation in space and suggested that discovering extraterrestrial life would not be a triumph for humanity. An increased production budget and vastly improved special effects have not yet resulted in a rival. As we hope we’ve shown, its legacy includes many very good films — even if not all of those are its sequels. Watch some, and see the original facehugger’s eggs gestating within.