Released in 1979, ALIEN is considered one of the scariest films ever made. ALIEN was both a critical and financial success, earning over $100 million at the box office as well as winning an Academy Award for Visual Effects. The film spawned three sequels, two prequels, a crossover series in both comic and film form, as well as numerous toys, video games, comics, and nightmares of kids who saw it way too young.

ALIEN follows 7 deep space astronauts as they encounter a distress call from a far away planet. While investigating, they come across an ancient extraterrestrial ship, filled with alien eggs. One of the astronauts, getting in close to investigate, is attacked by a creature from within the egg, called a “facehugger.”

The creature attaches itself to the astronaut, but after a few days falls off dead. Thinking the worst is over, the unsuspecting crew sit down for one last dinner before returning to hypersleep. During this meal, a creature bursts forth from the chest of the afflicted astronaut, called a “chestburster.” At this point, the crew must work together to try and exterminate the “xenomorph” that stalks them through the spaceship.

While it is now considered one of the greatest horror films of all time, it was a film that had a very long gestation period, where several talented filmmakers had connections and input to the final, terrifying creation. It is a film that’s the opposite of a “studio mandated film;” instead, it’s born out of the passion of several different visionaries who concocted a genuinely terrifying film that was an inspiration for genre filmmakers for decades to come.

“An Alien That Felt Real”

Dan O’Bannon formed the first inkling of the idea that became ALIEN. O’Bannon would go on to be known for his screenwriting later in life, such as his work on TOTAL RECALL and his directing of the classic zombie film, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. In 1974, he had only a few credits to his name, the only notable one being DARK STAR.

Written by O’Bannon, DARK STAR was a space comedy following bumbling astronauts as they interact with an alien. DARK STAR would not be all that noteworthy except for the fact that it was the directorial debut of John Carpenter. A year later, Carpenter directed ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and then followed that up with the classic HALLOWEEN.

O’Bannon (Left) with John Carpenter on the set of DARK STAR.

In DARK STAR, the alien is a cheap and unrealistic creation. O’Bannon realized, after seeing the completed film, that he wanted to make a film with an alien that “felt real.” Along with this desire for a realistic creature, O’Bannon wanted to write something scary: “DARK STAR as a horror movie instead of a comedy” as he described it.

During this time, O’Bannon started to work on this idea with screenwriter Robert Shusett. At the time, Shusett had just acquired the rights to the Philip K. Dick story, “WE CAN REMEMBER IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE” and was attempting to make a screen adaptation. That script eventually became the film TOTAL RECALL, the Paul Verhoeven/Arnold Schwarzenegger classic. When O’Bannon and Shusett met, it was agreed between the two men to focus on O’Bannon’s idea at the time and come back to Shusett’s script later on.

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MEMORY

With the basic idea of “a scary movie on a spaceship with a small number of astronauts,” O’Bannon and Shusett went to work on a small outline script entitled MEMORY, which, in essence, is the opening scene of ALIEN. A group of astronauts find that their deep space sleep has been interrupted by a distress call from an unknown planet. While there was a basic idea in place, and a first act had been written, O’Bannon and Shusett were stuck on how they wanted the alien to look.

They were at an impasse and were not sure where to go next with the script. Unable to continue, the pair put the script away as O’Bannon traveled for his next project. That project, DUNE, proved to be an expensive failure, while also giving O’Bannon the inspiration to complete the script for ALIEN, and helped usher in one of the most terrifyingly unique creatures in film history.

DUNE Financial crumble

O’Bannon was hired to help write the adaptation of DUNE, the Frank Herbert epic novel. The film was to be directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, a highly celebrated foreign director known for his films EL TOPO, THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, and SANTA SANGRE. The project, funded by a French consortium, was a huge, expensive undertaking, that soon started to fall apart as the budget started to skyrocket ($2.5 million of the $9 million was spent in pre-production alone). Jodorowsky’s cast included Salvador Dali (promised 100 grand for his role), Orson Welles (promised his favorite chef to be flown to set), and his own son in the lead role, as well as a soundtrack that was to be created by Pink Floyd.

O’Bannon was hired to help Jodorowsky complete the script. At completion, the script was gigantic (“the size of a phonebook,” commented Frank Herbert) and would have resulted in a 14-hour film. With Jodorowsky not willing to budge from his terms, the script being unwieldy, and the production burning through money, no film studio was willing to produce the film. Jodorowsky’s DUNE fell apart before one scene was shot (Dino De Laurentiis later bought the film rights, and an adaptation directed by surrealist director David Lynch was released in 1985, to financial and critical failure).

H.R. Giger, The Rising Phoenix of DUNE

During this financial downfall, O’Bannon found himself working with foreign artists, such as Chris Foss and Jean “Moebius” Giraud. The one artist that stuck with O’Bannon was Swiss artist H.R. Giger.

O’Bannon with Giger (right).

H.R. Giger was an artist known for his biomechanical-styled ink and oil paintings. The pieces were very sexual, melding sex and machinery together, forming a nightmarish landscape. It was this nightmarish imagery that stuck with O’Bannon, who is quoted as saying

“[Giger’s] paintings had a profound effect on me. I had never seen anything that was quite as horrible and at the same time as beautiful as his work.”

After that point, O’Bannon wanted to write a script about a Giger monster.

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From STAR BEAST to ALIEN to Brandywine

After the collapse of DUNE, O’Bannon moved back to Los Angeles, and back to work with Shusett. The two of them resuscitated the MEMORY script and started to write the film together. While creating the second half of the film, Shusett encouraged O’Bannon to take the idea from one of his other scripts, a group of gremlins attack a B-17 bomber and modify it to fit their new script. While still in the writing stages, the working title was “STAR BEAST.” Wanting to avoid the B-movie aura of that title, O’Bannon and Shusett fell on the idea of “ALIEN” as the title, liking the simplicity of it.

With the script done, Shusett and O’Bannon started to shop the script around Hollywood (describing it as “JAWS in space”). The duo nearly signed on with Roger Corman, the legendary B-movie producer, before a mutual friend got them in touch with a newly formed production company named Brandywine, who had connections with 20th Century Fox. Brandywine was headed by producer Gordon Carroll, screenwriter/producer David Giler, and director Walter Hill, the creator of the cult classic THE WARRIORS.

Brandywine bought the script, but after O’Bannon and Shusett had signed with them, Giler and Hill did a massive rewrite. While O’Bannon was not happy about their input, Shusett liked their contributions, which included the creation of the android character, Ash, as well as a tightening of the overall dialogue.

Even with these rewrites, the executives at Fox weren’t convinced that a science fiction film could be successful. However, that all changed when the box office behemoth STAR WARS was released; and, after the immense success of this film, studios were looking to pick up space-centric scripts anywhere. Fox green lit ALIEN, and pre-production was free to begin.

“THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE of Science Fiction”

With a budget and script in place, it was now time to figure out who was going to direct. It was first assumed that Walter Hill, a budding director at the time, would take on directing duties. Hill decided not to direct, due to other ongoing projects, one of which was THE WARRIORS, released the same year as ALIEN. Hill was also nervous about taking on a film with such a high level of visual effects needed.

Several other directors were considered, such as Peter Yates (BULLITT), Jack Clayton (THE GREAT GATSBY), and Robert Aldrich (WHAT’S WRONG WITH BABY JANE?). O’Bannon and Shusett weren’t in favor of any of these choices, as they felt they would treat the material as a B-movie, which they were hoping to avoid.

Ridley Scott on the set of ALIEN with Sigourney Weaver.

Then, a strange choice emerged as the front-runner. Ridley Scott became the favored choice of the executives at Brandywine, based mostly on his one feature film, THE DUELIST. THE DUELIST is a historical drama following two French soldiers through the decades, as the conflict between them grows. It was a well-received film, but still drastically different than ALIEN. Still, the executives at Brandywine made Scott an offer, which he quickly accepted.

Scott proved early on that he was the correct director to bring the script to life. Scott created detailed storyboards of the film, which impressed the executives at 20th Century Fox so much that they doubled the budget of the film. While the design of the ship and spacesuits were inspired by modern day science fiction films (a la 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and STAR WARS), Scott was determined to focus on the horror aspects of the script, describing his film as

“THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE of science fiction.”

Necronom IV and The 7 Little Astronauts

O’Bannon made sure to introduce Scott to Giger’s artwork, hoping to convince him to add Giger to the design team. Both men agreed that Giger’s “Necronom IV” should be the basis of the film’s creature. The team at Brandywine convinced Fox to hire Giger, while Scott flew to Europe to meet with Giger. Scott recruits him to create every aspect of the alien, as well as the designs of the derelict ship.

Necronom IV.

With most of the film crew hired, and the biggest design problem, as Scott saw it, being “fixed” with Giger’s designs, it then came time to cast the film. O’Bannon and Shusett, while writing the film, focused more on the concepts over the characters. The roles could be filled with either a male or female actor, as they were drafted as unisex. With only seven characters in the film, Scott was focused on getting the strongest ensemble cast that he could.

The focus of the casting was finding actors who would resemble working class astronauts, described as “truckers in space.” After auditions were run in both New York City and London, the core seven astronauts were cast: Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, and the at-the-time inexperienced Sigourney Weaver.

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From Nightmare to Reality

With everything in place, filming began July 5th of 1978 and went until October 21st of the same year. During filming, set designers and SFX artists worked in tandem with Scott to create the perfect creature. Through several design sketches, Giger was able to create the facehugger, chestburster, and xenomorph that appear on screen.

Giger designing the head of the xenomorph. Giger used a real human skull in the creation of the head. Due to the opaqueness of the head and set lighting, The skull can not be seen in the finished film.

Scott made a directing decision that helped make the film’s creature even more terrifying. Scott never filmed the entire alien in one shot, only showing certain segments of the creature; and, because of this, the audience is never able to tell what the actual creature looks like, instead allowing our imagination to fill in the blanks. On the subject of how he filmed the creature, Scott said:

“the most important thing in a film of this type is not what you see, but the effect of what you think you saw.”

With the filming wrapped, it then came time to advertise the film. Fox, realizing the mistake they had made not capitalizing on STAR WARS, released several pieces of merchandise featuring its titular creature, all sold to coincide with the film.

The film’s trailer also made a stir; focusing less on plot, and more on creating a sense of uneasiness through its use of quick shots and musical score (and, on a personal note, was a trailer screened during the Great Movie Adventure ride at MGM Studios at Disney World, which both terrified and fascinated this author at a young age).

The trailer that both terrified me, and help create the genre fan I am today.

The Financial Success of The Doomed Nostromo Crew

ALIEN was released in American theaters on May 25th, 1979. While there wasn’t a formal premiere, people flocked to the Egyptian Theater where props from the film were on display. The film was a box office success, earning over $100 million internationally, on an $8 million budget.

The accurate box office numbers aren’t entirely clear, though, with numbers ranging from $104 million to $203 million. The reason for this is that Fox said the film only made a $4 million after marketing and expenses. This is a practice called “Hollywood Creative Accounting,” a criticized practice which still continues today.

The unofficial ALIEN premiere at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles (1979).

The film had a mixed critical reception. Film critics of the era usually looked down on both science fiction and horror, and ALIEN was no different. Noted film critics Leonard Maltin, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert all gave it negative reviews.

In Ebert’s review, he called it an “intergalactic haunted house thriller set inside a spaceship” (said insultingly, contrasting with how awesome that sounds). Both Maltin and Ebert changed their opinions over time, with Ebert putting it into his “Great Movies List,” giving it four stars.

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At the 1979 Academy Awards, the film won for Visual Effects, as well as a nomination for Best Art Direction. When released on home video in 1980, the film took in another $40 million in home sales.

A Young Action Auteur Takes the Reins

James Cameron (center, holding the camera) on the set of ALIENS.

With the enormous success of ALIEN, a legacy was born. In 1986, a Young James Cameron wrote and directed ALIENS, a followup of the original. Cameron had just come off THE TERMINATOR, as well as writing credits on PIRANHA 2 and RAMBO II. Gale Anne Hurd (producer of most of Cameron’s films, as well as THE WALKING DEAD) produced the film.

ALIENS was a success, earning $180 million at the box office, making it one of the highest-grossing R-rated films. The film was critically praised and was nominated for 7 Oscars, winning for Best Sound Effects Editing and Visual Effects. Sigourney Weaver was, in the same retrospect, nominated for an Oscar, which was a landmark moment for genre filmmaking. Rarely had a science fiction and horror film seen such accolades.

An Early Stumble For a Future Cinematic Master

David Fincher on the set of ALIEN 3.

Following ALIENS was ALIEN 3. Released in 1993, The then unknown music video director David Fincher directed ALIEN 3. While Cameron’s film was more an action film, Fincher’s film was much darker, focusing on a stranded, emotionally broken Ripley. The film, while making $159 million worldwide, was critically panned. Fincher has disowned the film, stating

“No one hates [the film] more than me.”

Reasons for its failure can be attributed to a rushed script (which took from several different scripts, such as a script that took place on a “wooden, monk-led planet”) lack of confidence in the young director, as well as confusion from filmgoers about what the film would be about (a teaser was released only a year prior that states the film would take place on earth). Fincher went on to make FIGHT CLUB, SEVEN, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, and a whole bunch of other critically praised films.

The confusing teaser trailer, released one year before Fincher’s drastically different film was released.

An Odd Choice Leads to a Strange Cinematic Failure

While critically panned, ALIEN 3 made a good profit, so ALIEN: RESURRECTION was released in 1997. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a French director known for his comedic films (AMELIE), RESURRECTION was a critical and financial failure. The film was filled with oddly placed slapstick humor and energetic camera movements, which were ill-fitting for the franchise. One person who left the project unscathed was Joss Whedon (of BUFFY and AVENGERS fame), who wrote the screenplay.

From The Silver Screen, to The Comic Page, to The Game Platform

Along with these three sequels, a series featuring the xenomorph from ALIEN fighting the creature from PREDATOR was created. Released in 2004, ALIEN VS. PREDATOR was based off of a long-running comic book series, as well as a popular video game.

A follow-up sequel, ALIEN VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM was released in 2007, which featured an obscene amount of gore. On another personal note, I saw REQUIEM at a midnight showing on opening day. It opened on Christmas. I spent the wee hours of Christmas with my father seeing this movie at 14. I have yet to be forgiven.

ALIEN also spawned a prequel series, helmed by the original director Ridley Scott. Released in 2012, PROMETHEUS received lackluster reviews. Scott hopes to mend this financial mistake with the release of ALIEN: COVENANT, released on May 19th.

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ALIEN has also spawned a long-running comic series at Dark Horse Comics, and several video games. Alien Day is April 26th (after the alien planet LV-426), and is celebrated yearly. In 2002, The Film Registry at the Library of Congress added ALIEN for historical preservation.

A Legacy of Intergalactic Terror

ALIEN revolutionized science fiction cinema. It proved that big budget science fiction could be terrifying, something the B-movies of yesteryear were never able to achieve. What followed in the wake of ALIEN’s success was a wave of science fiction horror films that helped change the course of genre filmmaking. Films like THE THING, THE FLY, and THE TERMINATOR may have never been produced if it wasn’t for ALIEN.

That wide berth of influence gets even larger with ALIENS, the perfect action science fiction film. ALIENS started a trend that gave us films like PREDATOR, INDEPENDENCE DAY, and THE TRANSFORMER’s franchise. To get an idea of how far reaching ALIEN’s influence is, look no further than the ALIEN inspired planet from ROGUE ONE.

Not only did the films themselves help revolutionize the industry, the character of Ripley was integral to changing the way movies, especially genre films, portrayed women. Ripley is a powerful character, surviving the creature in ALIEN, and then kicking ass in ALIENS. She was cinemas first female action heroine, and her character helped pave the way for today’s cinematic badasses like Sarah Connor (THE TERMINATOR), Katniss Everdeen (THE HUNGER GAMES), and Rey & Jyn Erso (FORCE AWAKENS and ROGUE ONE, respectively).

ALIEN is a film that probably wouldn’t be made today. Most films made by major studios are committee approved, filled with producer notes & reshoots. ALIEN was a film that had input from some of the greatest genre filmmakers of the era. It’s a film that took a chance on an unlikely director who proved to fundamentally understand the material. ALIEN seemed to have all the luck in the world; It’s an amalgamation of talented visionaries that helped create one of the greatest films of all time, which in turn changed genre filmmaking forever.

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