Consistently referred to as one of the most terrifying sci-fi movies ever released, Alien (1979) has held up over the last four decades. Where other movies from the same era have become corny and difficult to watch due to their subpar graphics, Alien is still loved by film enthusiasts everywhere.
A commercial success with a lukewarm critical reception, Alien has become wildly recognizable as an awesome science fiction film. The xenomorph, with its unique design, and Sigourney Weaver as the quintessential female lead, have redefined sci-fi horror. Keep reading to learn more about this incredible movie.
The Creation of the Xenomorph in Alien
While most films about aliens seem to rely on grainy glimpses of big-eyed greys, Alien broke from expectations by using the work of H. R. Giger.
Introduced to director Ridley Scott by Dan O’Bannon, the writer of the film, horror surrealist Giger was proven to be a perfect match for the project. O’Bannon and Giger met on a failed production of Dune in France where O’Bannon first encountered Giger’s “horrible” work, as he called it. Known for his disturbing imagery, Giger and Scott worked together to create the concept art for the xenomorph.
20th Century Fox was initially unsure of the decision due to concerns about the disturbing nature of Giger’s work being too much for audiences. Ultimately, the decision paid off, and Scott was left with the infamous xenomorph and the film took home the 1980 Academy Award for Visual Effects.
The Design of the Alien Set
One of the most incredible parts of Alien is the set design. In an industry that overemphasizes special effects and green screens, the set of Alien stands out for its physical construction, close quarters, and the fact that it still looks good.
Scott’s decision to have the cast shoot in the tight, claustrophobic quarters of the ship works well in the film. It’s uncomfortable for the crew to navigate and leaves plenty of places for the xenomorph to hide. The bleakness of the setting, coupled with the hopelessness that the crew feels, works well to create an atmosphere of intense horror.
While there isn’t anything wrong with green screens, or the blue screens from back in the day, Scott’s decision to avoid them was a good one. It’s allowed Alien to withstand the test of time where others, which were groundbreaking for their visual effects at the time, have become more and more dated.
The Unisex Casting Method of Alien
Written in the script, right after the descriptions of the cast, is a small disclaimer: the crew is unisex. The original writers of the film certainly had genders in mind when they were creating the characters but they didn’t want this to impact the potential casting of the characters. This fact has recently made its rounds on Reddit and it’s true: just take a look at the actual script.
This is part of why Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ellen Ripley, stands apart from other female characters in sci-fi. Initially written as male, the character has lines that are more realistic to the situation and doesn’t focus at all on love interests, which would have been totally preposterous in the situation. This is why Ripley has been heralded as a feminist icon in the film: she wasn’t written as a female character.
The feminism aside, the freedom of the characters not being specifically gendered allowed the production team more maneuverability in how they approached the script. Ridley Scott was especially open to this after having the revelation that they hadn’t found the right Ripley because Ripley wasn’t supposed to be a male character.
The Idea of Alien as Minimalist Horror
One of the most enduring aspects of Alien is the minimalist approach the film takes to aesthetics and design. While other horror films are brash and loud, Alien is dark, eerie, and sterile. The crew and the viewer are never meant to feel at home on the ship—letting the xenomorph’s presence linger even when it’s nowhere in sight.
Similar in concept to a haunted house but set in the inescapable vacuum of space, the film is ripe with existential horror and the unimaginable nothingness that surrounds the ship. While that itself is enough to make anyone uncomfortable, the addition of a creature that attacks so maliciously and without discrimination makes for a truly horrifying film.
This is a big part of why Alien has continued to terrorize generation after generation of sci-fi and horror lovers. The xenomorph may not be the most terrifying creature ever imagined, but the significance of its presence on the ship is something that doesn’t require cheap tricks, flashy visuals, or high-tech space flight scenes to convey. The audience, and the crew, know that they are very much alone in their fight to survive.
Alien has been cited as a genre-defining film, and for good reason. Much of what came after it relied on these same ideas of design, like Under the Skin (2015) and Event Horizon (1997), which are dark, dreary, and full of the implications of horror rather than actual visualizations of it. Read more about these sci-fi horror movie staples here.
What Else Makes Alien Special?
Besides some of the neat facts surrounding its product, Alien is, all-around, a good movie. The characters are well-done, the soundtrack is eerie and unsettling, and the visuals are enough to make even the biggest horror fan gasp.
Alien, and some of its spinoffs, is worth a watch and at least one rewatch. There are plenty of details that will escape a first-time viewer but that makes the movie even more incredible. Sigourney Weaver also gives one of the best performances of all time that is a must-see. Coupled with the adorable Jones, this unstoppable team broke from expectations and redefined sci-fi horror.