In space no one can hear you scream
One of the downsides (I’m sure there’s many others) of the internet is that the surprise element in movies is very much negated. In addition, releases are now pretty much worldwide, especially as so many films are then released onto a streaming service within weeks of their cinema debuts.
So a film, like Alien, would somewhat lose its shock/surprise element to an audience today.
In the late 70s, sci-fi films were on a tidal wave of popularity, following Star Wars astounding success in 1977. There was Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Battlestar Galactica, Superman, Star Trek; The Motion Picture, The Black Hole etc etc. Anything related to science fiction was now serious box office.
But Alien was something else. It was a horror film that just happened to be set in a futuristic science fiction setting where it was more akin to a haunted house story than science fiction.
As we all know now the film follows the crew of a commercial space ship, who, after investigating a mysterious derelict spaceship on an undiscovered moon find themselves up against a particularly aggressive and murderous extraterrestrial alien that stalks their spaceship.
It has spawned numerous sequels, prequels, novels, comic books, video games etc. where now it is a cultural icon, especially in the alien itself.
The production was incredibly fortunate where screenwriter Dan O’Bannon introduced director Ridley Scott to the artwork of H.R. Giger who was then hired to work on all design aspects of Alien and its environment including all form of the alien from the egg to the fully developed alien.
Whilst exploring the derelict spaceship, one of the crew members, unfortunately, has a parasite attaching itself to his face. Once back on their spaceship it eventually frees itself from him and the crew have a final meal before returning to stasis . . .
The impact of this scene on audiences worldwide was startling. The sense of dread had been slowly building through the film but we weren’t expecting something like this. It also stands as a superb example of practical effects which are so utterly convincing. It also surprised the cast during filming who were not expecting the sudden outburst of blood and gore. Their reactions caught on film are genuine.
The crew now decide to locate the creature but it has grown . . .
The alien proceeds to kill the remainder of the crew, with the exception of Warrant Office Ripley who escapes from the spaceship aboard a shuttle but the alien has also boarded the shuttle. With ingenuity Ripley blasts the alien into deep space which allows the audience to regain their composure as the film ends.
Despite initial mixed reviews, Alien has received critical acclaim over the years, particularly for its realism and unique environment. One of its great strengths is its pacing. It takes its time. It waits. It suggests the enormity of the crew’s discovery by building up to it with small steps.
A sequel was inevitable but it would be another 7 years before the release of Aliens in 1986.
IMO, this is one of the very few times in movie history where a sequel has matched the original, albeit it is styled entirely differently in that it is more akin to a war movie . . . the catchline for the movie was “This time it’s war”.
Set years later, Ripley is sent back to the moon where the alien was first was discovered on, accompanying a squad of space marines to investigate why communications have been lost with a human colony on the moon.
Like the original film, Aliens is an incredibly intense experience with a standout performance by Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. It also cemented director James Cameron as a serious talent to be noticed.
Unfortunately after this movie the series petered out in a number of very poor sequels and recently there has been a couple of attempts to revive the franchise with 2 prequels – Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.
Despite both being directed by Ridley Scott, neither came close to replicating the visceral sense of horror and excitement of both Alien and Aliens.