After an extensive promotional campaign that threatened to outstay its welcome, not to mention all manner of discussion in the three years since it was originally announced, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus has finally made its way into cinemas around the globe. As debate still rages about the merits of the director’s first foray into science fiction territory in three decades, it is the ties to his earlier work that proves the centre of focus, courtesy of his seminal 1979 effort Alien.
Indeed, whilst 1982’s Blade Runner was similarly well-received, the rest of his career has been filled with more misses than hits, increasing the importance of his second feature effort. That it endures despite such mixed reactions to high-profile offerings 1492, Hannibal, Black Hawk Down and Kingdom of Heaven – as well as to his five-film collaboration with Russell Crowe, as seen in Gladiator, A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies and Robin Hood – is illustrative of its place in the annals of cinema history, as is its permeating influence. Although the franchise it spawned – including Scott’s latest effort – is an obvious indicator of its status, so too is the spate of imitators it spawned in the sci-fi and horror genres. A film that indulged the imagination and cultivated spooks and scares at the same time, inspiring a legion of copies, it remains his finest film creation.
On paper, the feature is imbued with simplicity, pitting seven strangers against an otherworldly opponent. On the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo, a return flight from Thedus to Earth is interrupted when a distress signal diverts their attention to a nearby planet. The vessel’s crew – captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt, Ice Castles), second in command Kane (John Hurt, The Elephant Man), navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, Annie Hall), science technician Ash (Ian Holm, Chariots of Fire) and engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton, Cool Hand Luke) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto, The Running Man) – are awakened from stasis and forced to investigate, with their findings changing the course of their mission. After an attack threatens one of their number, an extra-terrestrial life form is brought on board, incrementally stalking and slaying the ship’s inhabitants.
From that point onward, the film’s fierce, frightening namesake comes to the fore, even if only primarily sighted through shadows and movement. One by one, the troubled travellers attempt to locate, contain, understand and then eradicate the looming, lethal alien, however in speed, size and a multitude of maturing shapes it appears to have the upper hand. Accordingly, their careening spacecraft becomes a source of terror and a site of tension, with danger potentially lurking around every corner, and all avenues of escape appearing impossible. Conflicting orders and hierarchies further complicate crew relationships in their fight for survival, as they each struggle against the crafty, cunning beast to stay alive.
An atmospheric, alert thriller that seethes with originality despite its antecedents in other efforts, Alien’s aesthetic and narrative impact is immediately apparent. From the stunning production design that embraces the technology of its time whilst projecting ahead, to twists and turns in the concise yet cerebral story, the feature set the pace for science fiction efforts to come, whilst paying homage to many of the genre’s classics. Indeed, The Thing from Another World and It! The Terror from Beyond Space are often cited as obvious precursors given their contemplation of non-human life forms and the carnage they can cause, whilst 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris can be seen to inform its intergalactic handling. Conversely, its confined ship setting can be seen in Sunshine and Moon, the alien design in Species and Independence Day, and the championing of a strong female role model in The Terminator and The Matrix franchises.
Beyond its function and form, the genuinely jump-inducing feature paved the way for new directions in body horror. As such, many of the efforts to follow in subsequent decades owe a sizeable debt to Scott’s smart, stylish and scary movie aping its amalgam of futuristic and frightening content. Its performances, too, inspire the character archetypes to live on in other films, whilst making an action star out of its leading lady. Indeed, the four official films recognised as relating to the first offering (James Cameron’s Aliens in 1986, David Fincher’s Alien 3 in 1992, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection in 1997 as well as Prometheus), and the two hybrid spin-offs (Alien vs Predator in 2004 and Alien vs Predator: Requiem in 2007), are only the beginning of Alien‘s lingering legacy.