Alien: 40 Years of Screaming in Space

A determined group of writers, filmmakers, craftspersons, actors, and musicians changed the face of both science-fiction and horror 40 years ago. This week in 1979, Alien burst onto the screen.

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


The poster contains one of the greatest taglines in movie history: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” It’s chilling. It’s scientifically accurate. And it’s a message: In this new age of friendly droids and cuddly Wookiees, this film has a completely different mission. The mix of horror and science fiction wasn’t new in 1979; it stretches all the way back to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein. But director Ridley Scott captured lightning in a bottle. Taking a clever script and building on it with assured performers, innovative visuals, and one of the greatest gross-out fright scenes in cinema, Alien became an award-winning, franchise-building achievement.

The genesis of Alien came from writer Dan O’Bannon, who had previously worked on the offbeat science-fiction film Dark Star with director John Carpenter in 1974. The silly creature from that movie (made, in part, from a balloon) motivated O’Bannon to work on a film that would feature realistic creatures and also bring an element of horror into space.

O’Bannon drew some inspiration from art he saw while working on Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s never-completed attempt at Dune. The work of Chris Foss, Jean “Moebius” Giraud, and, in particular, H.R. Giger, fed his notion of what the creature should be. He collaborated with writer Ronald Shusett on the story; Shusett suggested integrating some of O’Bannon’s other ideas into a story about a crew that lands on a mysterious planet and winds up with a deadly alien aboard the ship when they leave. Shusett’s other major contribution was the idea that the creature should be implanted inside one of the crew. The pair began to call the story and eventual screenplay Alien.

The pair pitched the film as “Jaws in space.” After a few unsuccessful attempts to generate interest, they got involved with the production group Brandywine, which had been formed by filmmakers David Giler, Gordon Carroll, and Walter Hill. Hill and Giler did a rewrite on the script, adding the android character, Ash. The script had trouble getting traction at the studios at first because a number of them just weren’t interested in science-fiction films in the mid-’70s. But that all changed when Star Wars exploded into a phenomenon in 1977. Suddenly, every studio wanted to be in space. When 20th Century Fox, then the studio of Star Wars, reached for the next science-fiction story they could do, the first script they laid hands on was Alien.

At that point, O’Bannon and Hill each thought that they might direct the picture; the studio picked Hill, but he ended up passing due to other obligations and a hesitancy about the level of effects involved. However, Hill, Giler, and Carroll had another person in mind — Ridley Scott, who’d made the acclaimed The Duelists. Scott threw himself into the work, creating elaborate storyboards that showcased his visual ideas. Impressed, the studio more than doubled the film’s budget from $4.2 million to over $10 million. Scott also envisioned using the best actors available that could convincingly portray working professionals, rather than just populating the story with the youngest or hottest talent. That lead to the assembly of a strong ensemble that included Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, and Sigourney Weaver (who, at 29, was the youngest member of the cast).

CineFix’s “Art of the Scene” produced this behind-the-scenes look at Alien. (Uploaded to YouTube by CineFix)

O’Bannon showed Scott the Giger art he’d seen, and the Brandywine team supported getting the Swiss artist onboard. Giger ended up making significant contributions to the film, including the design of all of the various phases of the alien’s evolution, like the facehugger, as well as the eggs. One unsung hero was production designer Ron Cobb, whose brilliant mind for aesthetics put together a spaceship environment that felt lived-in and utilitarian.

The actual filming took about 14 weeks, from July to October of 1978. Post-production and editing took an additional 20 weeks. The music was composed by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith; no stranger to science-fiction and horror, by the time of Alien, he’d already done the music for Planet of the Apes and Logan’s Run as part of a career spanning 53 years. Scott pushed against Goldsmith’s initial impulses toward the more “weird and strange” — Scott would later say that the score was “full of dark beauty.”

The film opened on May 25, 1979, two years to the day after Star Wars debuted. Box office success was immediate, but critical acclaim took some time to build. Some critics embraced it immediately, but others took time to warm up to it; Roger Ebert, for example, was lukewarm at first, but would later add it to his Great Movies list. The movie’s R rating prevented it from taking in the stratospheric box office of Star Wars or Jaws, but it did very well for its time, making nearly $80 million in the U.S. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, winning for Best Visual Effects; it also earned a Grammy for Best Soundtrack Album and a BAFTA for Best Film Music.

There’s considerable consensus about what makes the film work so well. The first thing is that it’s genuinely scary. Scott builds an atmosphere of unease that pervades the early passages; he uses darkness and shadow to give the impression of looming, ongoing threats. The facehugger attack is the first real shock of the film, and it carries the audience right up to the iconic chestburster scene. All the while, the realistic dialogue and strong acting from the cast make you connect to the characters. The totality of the creature work is fairly incredible; Giger’s otherworldly designs and a talented crew make the various stages of the alien’s evolution believable and terrifying.

Scott also employs some very smart tricks to avoid telegraphing scares. He might use the kind of orchestral sting that you’d associate with a jump scare, but then nothing happens. Then, when the tension of the music has passed and it’s quiet, the creature strikes. The director distinguishes the film from other offerings by daring to be different.

Another driver of the film is that we’re quite obviously watching a star being born in Sigourney Weaver. Alien was only her third film, yet she brings a world-weary and self-assured confidence to the role of Ellen Ripley. Her general competence and ultimate cleverness allows her to overcome what seem like impossible odds. That mental toughness became the foundation for a franchise, as Weaver would return to the role three more times, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, a nearly unheard of feat for a genre film, with 1986’s Aliens.

The pop culture footprint of Alien never faded. James Cameron directed the first sequel, Aliens, and turned the story into a horror-action powerhouse; it was a colossal hit. A number of further films have followed in the franchise, including the Weaver-led Alien3 (1992) and Alien: Resurrection (1997). The 2000s saw two film crossovers with the Predator series before Scott returned with the prequels Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017). Weaver, Cameron, and Scott have expressed interest in doing more work in the series. With the recent acquisition of Fox films by Disney, the franchise has a new home, and various Disney execs have promised that more Alien films are in development.

The influence of Alien is evident in countless bits of pop culture. From the Brood of Marvel Comics to the hilarious chestburster parody in Spaceballs, creative types have paid homage to the creature since its arrival. Cheap B-movie knockoffs abound. The Halo series of video games, which have grossed over $3 billion worldwide, include several hat tips to the series, from the central role of “space marines” to the look of Master Chief’s assault rifle.

Sigourney Weaver visits the April production of Alien at North Bergen High School in New Jersey. (Uploaded to YouTube by Alien Anthology)

Most recently, this March, New Jersey’s North Bergen High School drew international attention when its students mounted a stage version of Alien that included props and an alien costume made from reclaimed and recycled material. Parent videos of the two-night production went viral and even earned the attention of Ridley Scott and Sigourney Weaver. Scott offered money to allow the show to be staged again, and Weaver went to the school to surprise the cast and introduce the play at the expanded April dates.

Today, films that mix genres are commonplace. We’ve seen so many different variations of fright and space effects that it’s hard to be impressed by anything on screen. But Alien remains impressive. It’s a genuine achievement put together by artists who believed in doing something different and committing to their craft with seriousness. Whatever the future holds for the franchise, the original film is a cinema classic that reminds us that frights can come from anywhere, even if no one can hear you scream.


Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *