Directed by Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott’s second feature film as director, Alien, turned out to be the first of what has come to be known as a “franchise” in the film industry (a term that hadn’t been introduced yet in 1979.) To date, there have been at least eight Alien movies, if you include the two crossover films with the Predator franchise.
Not surprisingly, it was Star Wars that drew Ridley Scott to try his hand at big screen science fiction, because George Lucas’s film opened his eyes to the possibilities. Scott has become the most artistic of mainstream film-makers in bringing indelible science fiction images to the big screen. Other than The Martian, which was more blatantly commercial, and other than the big budgets, you can’t tell Scott’s science fiction films from so-called “art house” films, especially when you cite Alien and the director’s cut of Blade Runner (not the studio-mangled cut that was originally shown in American theaters.) More than any other director, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg included, Scott has made science fiction artistically respectable in the cinema.
While James Cameron and others have added nice touches to the Alien franchise, Ridley Scott’s original film stands as a breed apart for its slow, atmospheric build of suspense and its cinema verité style. Scott has learned from George Lucas with no special effects for the sake of effects, just for the sake of the story. He has learned from Howard Hawks, with his characters talking over each other in natural arcs of dialog, rather than delivering speeches. He has learned from Hitchcock that the explosions aren’t exciting, but rather the slow, inexorable build toward the explosions.
In 1979, the female protagonist was a real departure for a science fiction film. For example, there was an old science fiction film where a woman scientist stows away on the spaceship. She is supposed to be a PhD or something, but when the men discover her on the ship she is relegated to serving them coffee. In the Lost in Space TV series, the mom was supposedly chosen for the mission because of her scientific expertise, but she is never once shown doing anything but cooking and washing clothes. Sometimes, women showed up as strong, gun-wielding characters in Westerns or gangster movies, but they were always sexy, fetishistic portrayals, designed to titillate. Sometimes, as in Barbarella, the sex was the only point of a female protagonist. Alien changed the formula, and it was really the first movie to do so. The Ripley character has since become iconic.
Alien owes a lot of its staying power to the scientific verisimilitude of its look and feel, its spaceships and alien creature. Scott owes as much to Stanley Kubrick as he does to George Lucas. So many bad science fiction films were made in the wake of Star Wars, to try to cash in, but most of the film-makers overlooked what made films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars seem real to the point of engaging audiences in the “willing suspension of disbelief” (a major principle of good science fiction that sf critics and authors have cited for years.) While some post-Star Wars cash-in films like Flash Gordon and TV’s Battlestar Galactica now have cult audiences, they aren’t actually good, they are just campy and nostalgic. Ridley Scott was able to pluck the pacing and real life feel of real astronauts on a real spaceship from Kubrick, filter it through Lucas, and come up with something authentic. And the choice of Swiss artist H.R. Giger to design the alien creature was brilliant. While Giger had other brushes with pop culture (such as the lawsuit over his naughty 1973 landscape that was included as an insert in a 1985 Dead Kennedys album), the creature from Alien put him forever in the public eye.
–Dale D. Dalenberg MD