Prometheus, the upcoming Ridley Scott film, is part of the same canon as Alien, which marked Scott’s big breakthrough as a filmmaker in 1979.
Scott’s work can be hit and miss, but when he’s on target he’s often amazing, and Alien still holds up very well after all these years.
Scott first worked in advertising, and didn’t get his first feature out into the world, Paramount’s The Duelists, until he was 40. His next project was going to be another period story, and adaptation of Tristan and Isolde, when he caught Star Wars, and it completely blew him away. He wanted to do a sci-fi film next, a genre he wasn’t really a fan of until seeing Star Wars, and Ridley’s sci-fi epic would be as terrifying as Star Wars was uplifting.
Where Star Wars was considered the Beatles of sci-fi, Alien was the Rolling Stones, the bad boy of the genre, and the late Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the Alien script with Ron Shussett, had an ace in the hole with H.R. Giger. (Walter Hill and David Giler, who produced Alien, also did work on the script).
Giger was going to design an early incarnation of the movie adaptation of Dune, which Alejandro Jodorworsky (El Topo) was going to direct, and O’Bannon was going to script. When that fell apart, he brought Giger over to Alien, which gave the film a sleek, distinctly terrifying bad acid trip design that took you to the heart of your worst nightmare.
Not only was the design unique, but the fact that a female, newcomer Sigourney Weaver, was the hero and the lone survivor against the monster was considered revolutionary for its time, although O’Bannon later said there were women on Star Trek for years and he didn’t consider it that radical of an idea to have a female hero.
In O’Bannon’s script, none of the characters were gender specific, and supposedly Alan Ladd Jr., who ran Fox and also greenlit Star Wars, was the one who decided that the character of Ripley would be a woman. (Fox made a lot of “female-friendly” films during this period including An Unmarried Woman, Three Women, and Julia.)
Alien also had a modern day Psycho shower scene, the alien bursting out of John Hurt’s chest. In the days before the Internet and spoiler alerts, audiences didn’t see this coming, and many completely lost it when this scene hit. It also happens about an hour into the movie, leaving another hour to go, and also leaving audiences helpless wondering what could jump out of nowhere next.
Alien hit theaters on Memorial Day 1979 for superstitious reasons. Fox had an enormous hit with Star Wars on that day, which previously was the deadest time of year you could release a film, and they hoped for similar luck. Alien also had the great mysterious ad campaign with the egg spewing green vapor and the immortal tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
Where science fiction crossed over to mainstream audiences with Star Wars, Alien was another important step in the evolution of the genre, a sci-fi / horror hybrid that like Star Wars took a lot of nods to the sci-fi films of the ’50’s, but updated them in a terrifying new way.
On the 20th anniversary of Alien, Ridley told Premiere, “I was looking at it and thinking, boy, we got everything right. It was a masterful job by everybody. Sometimes when you look back on a film you’ve made, the seams stick out like crazy, but here they just don’t show.”
Now that the film’s past its 30 year mark, and still holds up remarkably well, it’s doubtful Ridley’s changed his opinion. Here’s to hoping Prometheus will be just as good.