Study Guide

Alien

Alien Introduction


Release Year: 1979

Genre: Horror, Sci-Fi

Director: Ridley Scott

Writers: Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett

Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt


If you ever encounter an extraterrestrial, be ready for one of two scenarios.

  • In scenario A, you'll meet the "We Come in Peace" alien. This alien is typically technologically advanced and will share its scientific savvy with the human race to usher in an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. Humankind will, in turn, share Candy Crush Saga and the latest reality show. 
  • In scenario B...well, let's just say you'd better hope for a well-stocked armory and a lot of old-fashioned human ingenuity.

In Alien, we definitely have a scenario B on our hands. 

The film opens with the crew of the Nostromo responding to a signal of unknown origins on a mysterious planet. This goes about as well as you'd expect, and the crew accidentally brings a dangerous alien aboard their ship, resulting in a tense game of kill or be killed.

Produced by Brandywine Productions, Alien was directed by Ridley Scott and hit theaters in 1979, the year of Donna Summer, the Village People, and the Bee Gees. Made on a corner-cutting budget of $11 million, the film was an instant success, taking in a world-wide gross of more than $100 million (source). It would go on to win an Oscar for best visual effects, a BAFTA for best production design and best sound track, and a Saturn Award for best science fiction film, best supporting actress and best director (source).

The film brought director Ridley Scott into the mainstream and turned Sigourney Weaver into a leading lady. Her performance as Ripley toppled cinematic gender role barriers (a girl in an action movie?!), paving the way for other grrrls to head up science fiction and action films. (Looking your way, Sarah Conner.)

The film was so popular partly because it successfully merged of the horror and science fiction genres, meaning that it had not one but two ready-made nerdy fanbases. These two genres have had the old on-again, off-again for the last two hundred years. If we think of their initial hook up as Frankenstein, then Alien was the blissful honeymoon before the long, gut-wrenchingly painful breakup that was Pandorum.

Seeing an opportunity to make bank, Brandywine turned Alien into a hugely popular franchise. The film spawned three direct sequels, a prequel, and two spin-offs where the alien went fists-to-fangs against the Predator from the Predator series. The franchise has produced novels, comics, action figures, and video games in every generation from the Atari 2600 to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. (Some of them have even been fun to play.)

And that is Alien in a nutshell...a terrifying, fleshy, mucus-covered, otherworldly nutshell.

What is Alien About and Why Should I Care?

Alien gave bloody alien birth to a substantial legacy of innovation and awesome—from its excellent blending of science fiction and horror tropes to its pitch-perfect world-building and excellent cinematography—but its greatest legacy just might be the character of one Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver.

Before Ripley, strong female characters in cinema were few and far between and entire light years apart in the science fiction and big-budget blockbuster films. Sure, you had your occasional Barbarella, but is Barbarella a strong female character or, at best, a fetishized power fantasy? (Hint: it's the latter.) Even Princess Leia had to do her time in a gold bikini.

As writer John Scalzi points out, Ripley is such a great female character because she's neither a sidekick, arm candy nor an "idealized killer fembot" but a fully realized human being who can run the gamut of emotions while still able to do what is necessary even at great cost to herself" (source).

In other words, she's just like us.

She is such an engaging character that she received the number 9 spot on Empire's "The 100 Greatest Movie Characters" list, making her the highest placed woman and putting her in front of such memorable bros as Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone, Samuel L. Jackson's Jules Winnfield, and Sean Connery's James Bond. (Word is, Bond was both shaken and stirred at the results.)

The point is, Ripley's brand of female buttkicker is the foremother for generations of strong female protagonists. In the '80s, we met Sarah Conner, who went toe-to-toe with the T-800 like a boss. The '90s would see Dana Scully in the X-Files and Captain Janeway take charge of a Star Trek starship. And in the 2000s, we got the ladies of the starship Firefly—not to mention a whole lot of familiar, high-value names like Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior.

Now that's a legacy of awesome well worth studying.

Trivia

During the famous chestburster scene, the actors weren't told how gushingly violent the alien's birth would be (which caused a stream of blood to hit an unprepared Veronica Cartwright (Lambert) square in the face). The result was honest-to-God fright. When the call to "Action!" came, the crew said they didn't have to do much "acting" after that. As Yaphet Kotto (Parker) recalls, "We were freaked. The actors were all frightened. And Veronica nutted out."
(Source)

Did you know Ridley Scott has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo in Alien? He does, and here's how to spot him. When Kane shines a light in the alien egg, we can barely make out a facehugger making these squishy, spasmy motions. That facehugger is Sir Scott putting on one heck of a performance. More specifically, it's his hands putting on the performance, costumed in a pair of rubber gloves. The egg for this scene was made of clear fiberglass to give it that eerie, unearthly quality.
(Source and source)

Audiences saw so little of the alien in Alien that is difficult to tell much about it, especially how Ridley Scott and his team pulled off creating such an impressive creature in a pre-CGI days of prosthetics and string. As it turns out, for several scenes, the alien was actually played by Bolaji Badejo. At 6'10, the foreign exchange student from Nigeria towered in the perfect way and his frame made the Slender Man look like a starting lineman.
(Source.)

Producers David Giler and Walter Hill rewrote Alien several times, and some of their scripts took the story in weird directions. According to Ron Shusett, one of these directions included having the alien do battle with Genghis Kahn, Attila the Hun, Jack the Ripper, and the rest of history's dirty dozen. It sounds crazy, but you have to admit: You do kinda want to see that movie, don’t you?
(Source)

The tendons of the alien's jaws were created using shredded condoms. When you consider that the alien looks a lot like a giant phallic symbol and its acts of killing seem a lot like cross-species rape, this is a horrifyingly fitting choice.
(source)

Alien's tagline, "In Space No One Can Hear You Scream," isn't just a perfect encapsulation the film's blending of horror and science fiction. It is also a pretty clever play on the fact that there are no air molecules in the vacuum of space, meaning sound has no substance to travel through. Light still travels through space though, so they’ll at least see the alien noshing on your brains.
(Source)

The shot of the astronauts in front of the alien spacecraft was actually done to scale. The actors are children, in order to sell the illusion that the ship was bigger than it actually was. (Source)

Alien Resources

Websites

Aliens Collection
Aliens Collection is dedicated to all things Alien, and we do mean all things. It has tons of information on the movies, of course, but it also archives awesomeness about the toys books, comics, posters, fan fictions, and alien-inspired cross stitches. You read that right.

Fan (Home)Base
The go-to wiki for the Alien franchise. These fans know their stuff.

In This Corner
Want more Predator in your Alien wiki? This wiki chronicles both franchises and the epic monster mashes between them.

Something Wicked This Way Comes
Strange Shapes contains blogger Valaquen's articles on Alien, Aliens, Alien3 and Prometheus. It has some of the best original reporting on the franchise across the web.

Man behind the Cam
Did you know Ridley Scott was knighted by Queen Elizabeth? Just one of the several fun facts about this award-winning director you'll find here.

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter This Website
Take a peek inside the mind that created the alien, one of cinema's greatest original monster creations.

An Alien Abroad
Here's the home sweet digital home for the man who started the horror.

Book or TV Adaptations

50 Shades of Black
Alan Dean Foster penned the official novelization for Alien. Fun fact: he also ghostwrote the original Star Wars novelization.

True Blue Sequel
Aliens is one of the bluest movies you'll ever see. It also took the horror of Alien and made it into a military adventure. Surprisingly, it really, truly worked.

AVP: The Side-Prequel
Aliens versus Predators with a human body count between them. 'Neff said.

Articles and Interviews

Find Out What It Means to Me
Roger Ebert wasn't too excited about Alien when he first reviewed it. Looking back, he gives it the respect it deserves, including it on his list of great movies.

From Alien to The Matrix
The title of Roz Kaveney's book says it all. As a bonus, it contains an excellent case study of Alien, and it can be read on Google Books.

K-I-S-S-I-N-G
Academics love Alien and they've spilled a ton of ink trying to analyze its many facets. Bu why do academics heart this science fiction film so much? Tom Shone might have the answer.

Strange Fruit
Like its extraterrestrial star, Alien didn't come out of nowhere to wreak havoc on the box office. Someone had to lay the egg that would hatch to invade Dan O'Bannon's mind, and this article explains the alien's bloody family tree.

Just Call Me Rambolina
What kind of character is Ripley? Is she a new female action hero? An evil step mother? A victim of intergalactic reproductive horrors? Xan Brooks explores the many ways to read the character.

Video

Classic Trailer
One of the best trailers of all time. Seriously. How can you not watch this movie after seeing this?

We're #1
WatchMojo counts down the top ten alien species. Guess which spot our intergalactic stowaway takes.

Behind the Screams
"The Beast Within" provides you an in-depth look at the making of Alien. Oh, and spoiler warning is in full effect. Duh. (Secondary warning: there's some adult language, but it's in the context of the movie's dialogue.)

You Don't Know Alien, Jack
Need a fix for your trivia craving? Here's another behind the scenes documentary for you called "Alien Evolution." Comes complete with British narrator and everything. (Look out for some adult language in this one, too.)

Alien Saga in 5 Minutes
5 movies in 5 minutes for those of us who need our cinematic scares in a concentrated form.

"Oh no, Not Again"
Mel Brooks parodied the famous chestbuster scene in his film Spaceballs and John Hurt reprises his role as the universe's most unlucky dinner guest. We include because we love it.

Audio

Death Knell
Ask not for whom the Alien theme plays. It plays for thee.

Horror in D Minor
Wait, Alien had a soundtrack after the opening? Although most of us were probably too engrossed in the film to give it its due, here's the complete soundtrack to correct that mistake. It's really very good.

Just Because
We don't know why you'd need the sound effects for the alien, but if you do, then we've got you covered.

Images

Green Eggs and Scram
The movie poster for Alien features on scary looking green egg. We would definitely scram before finding out what's inside.

Hello, Beastie
The famed alien from Alien in all its alien alieness.

Some Call Me the Space Cowboy
Here lies the mysterious pilot of the derelict alien ship. Some call it the Space Jockey; others call it seriously weird. Just don't call it the gansta' of love.

Kane + Facehugger
Equals love at first bite. Their lovechild would prove one deadly chip off the old block.

Home Away from Home
The Nostromo in all its space-faring glory… on second thought, maybe we'll vacation on the International Space Station.

Dead Men Posing
Here is a shot containing the entire case of the Nostromo. Like a photo from a high school year book, you won't be seeing most of these faces for long.

The Stuff of (Awesome) Nightmares
The surrealist print that gave birth to the alien: We present to you Necronom IV by H.R. Giger.