1979 saw the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien, perhaps one of the best and most influential films of the decade. It was a unique combination of science fiction and horror, transcending what had come before from both genres to create a beautifully designed and wholly effective modern masterpiece.
Scott was a commercial director with one previous feature credit (The Duelists), and was very much inspired by the aesthetic of Star Wars, but wanting to take that “used future” look even further. He poached Roger Christian, who was a prop master on Star Wars, to be his art director, and Christian made his mark by crafting and designing some remarkable props and environments to achieve the “truckers in space” look that Scott wanted.
The development of the art department for Alien is the stuff of legend. Many of the same people that designed the film had been left reeling from the collapse of Jodorowsky’s Dune film, with such artists as Ron Cobb and (for a brief time) Moebius, who’s designs were pretty much all utilized. The overlap between Dune and John Carpenter’s student film Dark Star is evident as well, since Dark Star serves as a rough draft version of what Alien would become. Dan O’Bannon, who was involved in both Dune (as an art director) and Dark Star (as writer and actor), developed the script for Alien, and is widely considered to be the initial creative force on the film before others molded it into something extraordinary. O’Bannon loved the final film, but felt screwed over by the producers (he particularly hated Walter Hill).
The biggest coup in elevating Alien above a schlocky monster movie was hiring HR Giger as the conceptual artist for the Alien and its related environments. Giger’s impact on the film cannot be overstated, as his designs were so completely removed from what had been seen in a film before as to seem legitimately otherworldly. His monster design instantly became iconic, as did the designs he developed for the derelict space craft, the nursery chamber, and the “space jockey”. The fact that these designs were able to be so well realized as sets, costumes, and props is a testament to the collaborative power of film making.
The cast of Alien, and the characters they play, are amazing. A killer list of fantastic character actors (Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton) all turn in naturalistic performances that sell the outer space elements as “business as usual”. And even in the first film, Sigourney Weaver turns in a star performance as the singular bad-ass Ellen Ripley, an officer with a clear sense of duty and procedure, who represents a balance of keen, practical intelligence and commitment to protecting those around her. Alien is the type of film that establishes a whole cast of characters so well that, before you know it inside and out, you aren’t sure who will be the final survivor. Ripley survives for a reason, and the film builds to that as the logical conclusion. And she only becomes more awesome by the second film in the series.
Alien has had a massive influence on both science fiction and horror films in its wake. It’s a premise that would have been treated to a low budget and disdain in previous decades, but Scott brings all his gifts to bear and crafted a naturalistic, atmospheric, and wholly convincing nightmare full of texture and menace. Outside of its numerous sequels, prequels, and spin-off crossovers, Alien still stands tall as an effective peak in the series, the original product that has never been equaled (though some may argue that Aliens, the 1986 sequel by James Cameron, is in fact its equal or superior).
So, on this Alien Day for 2018, feel free to discuss any and all the films, comic books, video games, or endless merchandise associated with the franchise. It’s a day to celebrate a fictional universe that is full of many rich concepts and has produced many dreams and nightmares for nearly 40 years.