Year: 1979

Production: 20th Century-Fox

Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright

Screenwriter: Dan O'Bannon

Based on a story by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Novelization (1979) by Alan Dean Foster

117 minutes, Color

One of the most influential sf films ever made, Alien is actually much closer to horror in its adherence to genre conventions. The merchant spaceship Nostromo, on a routine voyage, visits a planet where one of the crew is attacked by a crablike creature in an abandoned alien spacecraft. Back aboard the Nostromo this metamorphoses, partly inside the crewman's body, into an almost invulnerable, rapidly growing, intelligent carnivore. Science officer Ash (Holm), who unknown to the crew is a robot instructed to keep the alien alive for possible commercial exploitation, attacks Ripley (Weaver); he is messily dismantled. The alien picks off, piecemeal, all the remaining crew but Ripley.

Giger's powerful alien design, inorganic sleekness blended with curved, phallic, organic forms, renders the horror sequences extremely vivid, but for all their force they are plotted along deeply conventional lines. Considerably more original is the sense - achieved through design, terse dialog and excellent direction - that this is a real working spaceship with a real, blue-collar, working crew, the future unglamorized and taken for granted. Also good sf are the scenes on the alien spacecraft (Giger's design again) which project a genuine sense of "otherness". Tough, pragmatic Ripley (contrasted with the "womanly" ineffectiveness of Cartwright as Lambert) is the first sf movie heroine to reflect cultural changes in the real world, where by 1979 feminism was causing some men and many women to think again about the claustrophobia of traditional female roles.

Alien, which was made in the UK, was a huge success. It had precursors. Many viewers noticed plot similarities with It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) and with A.E. van Vogt's "Discord in Scarlet" (1939); a legal case about the latter resemblance was settled out of court for $50,000.

The sequels are Aliens (1986) , Alien3 (1992), and Alien: Resurrection (1997).

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Constructed as craftily as the commercials Scott first made his name with - the film opens, for example, with the crew of the Nostromo awakening and ends with the sole survivor, Weaver, returning to sleep after her literal nightmare - Alien is nothing less than a gigantic "Boo!", set in outer space, where, as the film's advertising slogan goes, "No-one can hear you scream." At the heart of the movie lies H.R. Giger's alien (or rather aliens, as the prawn-like creature that bursts forth from Hurt's chest grows and grows) and its ferocious will to live and procreate at whatever cost to those around it.

Although the film can be seen as an inversion of Star Wars (1977), which supplies the hardware, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which offered us a benign alien (rather than a remake of Edward L. Cahn's It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) which it closely resembles), in fact Ridley's movie is far closer to the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft. His turn-of-the-century tales about the "Necronomism" provided Giger, who illustrated the collected tales of Lovecraft, with his vision of the "biomechanoid" being, a mixture of human and mechanical elements fused together. Thus, it was entirely fitting that Alien was shot at Bray studios, the long-time production base of Hammer Films, the company that made the best (and some of the worst) horror and sf films in Britain, and that the imagery of the film should be sexual rather than high tech.

The film, which deservedly won its design team an Oscar for special effects, is a stunningly mounted series of visceral shocks. Yet strangely, the film's psychological overtones notwithstanding, unlike The Parasite Murders (1974), Alien remains just another, superior, horror outing.

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