This summer, we hit a sci-fi movie milestone. The original Alien, directed by Ridley Scott in 1979, turns 40.
Four decades ago, Scott made extraterrestrials scary again after their image had softened a bit in movies since the heyday of sci-fi creature features. In 1977, Steven Spielberg used cutting edge special effects to give viewers his vision of a benign race of alien explorers who visit Earth to make contact with humanity, though their intentions aren’t clear until the end of the movie.
Scott decided to take things in the complete opposite direction, while also using modern special effects with outstanding results. Instead of taking place on Earth, Alien was set in the distant future on a large space ship that works as an interstellar tug boat ferrying large amounts of cargo.
While on a return trip to Earth, the mostly blue-collar crew is awoken by the ship’s computer (called “Mother” and given a sort of ominous text-only personality like a more bureaucratic Hal 5000) when a distress signal is detected in deep space from an uninhabited planet named LV-426.
Several crew members descend to the planet’s surface where they find an ancient alien spacecraft that looks to have crashed ages ago on the lifeless planet. Inside they find the skeleton of a giant species and a room full of ominous looking leathery eggs shrouded in mist.
A spidery creature with a tail springs from one of the eggs, latches onto one of the crew member’s face through his helmet, and we’re off and running.
Audiences were stunned in theaters when a dinner scene is interrupted by Kane (John Hurt) going into spasms. When you expect the seizure to cease, his shirt darkens with blood before a snakelike creatures bursts from his chest through his ribcage. We find out the facehugger creature from the egg laid an embryo in Kane’s chest, which then grew into a new creature that killed him when it “hatched.”
As if that isn’t scary enough, the crew was now trapped on a spaceship in the middle of the void with the newborn alien, which grows incredibly fast and is an incredibly adept killer. This was emphasized by the film’s tagline: “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream.”
The movie was a hit that came just as the blockbuster was coming into its own and the unique look of the Xenomorph alien creature and its nest designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, really struck a nerve with audiences.
As with most great sci-fi movies, the unique story and creatures were only enhanced by a stellar cast, including Tom Skeritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright, Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, a newcomer to feature films, Sigourney Weaver.
It was Weaver in the role of Ellen Ripley who would come to define the series and to become one of the most recognizable and strongest female characters in movies of the 70s and 80s. The fact that she was an unknown made the fact that she was the last one to survive to battle it out with the Xenomorph even more surprising to audiences at the time.
Weaver returned for the sequel, the cheekily titled Aliens, seven years later again playing Ripley, who has been drifting in hyper-sleep for about 50 years. This time, James Cameron was at the helm, fresh off the success of The Terminator in ’84, and where Ripley relied on tension and isolation for the original, Cameron knew that kind of film wouldn’t be as effective now that audiences knew what the alien looked like and how it worked. They wouldn’t be a shocked by the chestburster or by the alien having another set of jaws inside the outer ones.
Instead, he made it into an action movie in space, teaming Ripley up with a squad of Space Marines sent to see what has gone wrong with the colony that has been built on LV-426 since Ripley last visited. So instead of a bunch of scared, unarmed people in a spaceship against one alien, we get a whole squad of armed Marines against a whole bunch of aliens. And it worked.
Cameron also adds to the Xenomorph mythology, including telling audiences where the facehugger eggs come from and introducing the Alien Queen concept and creature.
A third movie followed some years later that underwhelmed audiences and critics alike, despite the fact that Weaver again played the hero Ripley. The movie was grim, monochromatic, and it made a valiant attempt to recapture the magic that the first Alien conjured up by reverting the story dynamics to that of the original with a group of unarmed, isolated people who can’t escape being hunted by a single creature.
But where Scott’s movie captured imaginations, Alien 3 simply disappointed and wiped out some of fans’ favorite characters who managed to survive the second movie in a very callous and unimaginative way—plus there are no guns. None at all. They essentially have to fight the alien with garbage and a giant smelting plant.
However…it kept the series alive through the early 1990s, gave us that great scene where the Xenomorph gets like two inches from Ripley’s face, and paved the way for a fourth movie to be made—and the last to feature Weaver in the role that made her famous…sort of.
Alien: Resurrection is very much a movie of its time. It’s slick, heavy on the CG, heavy on the action, heavy on the exposition, and fairly light on character development. And…yeah, it has that awful title.
It was a real surprise for audiences that Weaver would be coming back, since the third movie ended with Ripley’s damn near certain death by falling into a giant pool of molten steel, yeah, just like T2.
Instead of working in the same time period and continuing the story, this movie almost acts as a reboot, sending audiences many decades into the future from Ripley’s time. We find out that the team from the Corporation was able to salvage Ripley’s DNA from the prison planet in the third movie, possibly from blood samples the doctor drew. They use it to not only clone Ripley, but also the Alien Queen embryo that was growing inside her when she died.
How? Future space science, that’s how. Those were the gymnastics the filmmakers had to go through to bring back both the Xenomorph without, yet again, heading to LV-426, and Ripley. A team of surgeons removed the alien from Ripley’s chest after she’s fully grown and miraculously, she survives—but after having her DNA blended with the Xenomorph’s, she’s a bit different.
The Corporation has been replaced by a military industrial complex type of institution and their idea is to use the Xenomorph as a weapon of some kind. So, in order to study it, they need to implant some embryos. Enter a team of rag-tag space smugglers who have a handful of cryo-tubes—people included—that they sell to the military for reasons unknown. These poor bastards are then strapped into seats above some leather eggs and wake up just in time to see a face-hugger coming at them.
Now there’s a bunch of aliens. But don’t worry, the scientists have them contained in state of the art cells that they can’t ever escape from…until they do. Then its a lot of running and shooting and dying and Ron Pearlman competing with Weaver to see who can be the bigger badass on screen. And then there’s the ending with the straight up alien/human hybrid creature—an ending capable of grossing out even the most seasoned of horror fan.
Even more sequels would follow in the from of a spinoff series inspired by a crossover comic book series including Alien vs. Predator (2004) and AVP: Requiem (2007) plus two prequels from Ridley Scott, Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017).
But after all these years, there’s no arguing that the original Alien changed the horror and sci-fi movie landscape forever.
There’s just one question. When a Xenomorph blows out 40 candles on a cake, which mouth does it use?
Let’s take a look at all the guns used in the original four Alien movies, real and fake. (We’ll leave the AVP spinoffs and the Ridley Scott prequels for another time.