Alien is 40, and still terrifying. Shame about the sequels

Four decades after it burst from screens, we celebrate Ridley Scott's peerless sci-fi horror hybrid.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films | TV | Movies | Television | Technology
Richard Trenholm
5 min read
Sunset Boulevard

I would happily argue that Alien is a perfect movie. On paper, it sounds kinda schlocky: a creature feature in which a guy in a monster suit gorily dismembers a crew of thinly written characters.

And yet this peerless blend of sci-fi and horror still grips the emotions and imagination 40 years later.

Released on May 25, 1979, Alien began life as a script by Dan O'Bannon with help from Ron Shusett. It was called Star Beast. Inspired by decades of science fiction set on strange planets among predatory aliens, the story followed a crew of working stiffs trucking across the galaxy until they were interrupted by a mysterious signal. Traveling down to a forbidding planet, they discover a chamber full of what appear to eggs. One of the crew makes the mistake of looking inside...

Cast members of the 1979 movie Alien
Enlarge Image
Cast members of the 1979 movie Alien

The ill-fated crew, in a clean, well-lighted place.

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Alien is a great example of the collaborative nature of filmmaking, of how a team of people bringing their best make a film more than the sum of its parts. O'Bannon and Shusett laid the groundwork with their script, including the horrifying details of how the alien reproduced. Walter Hill and David Giler added a subplot about an android. Designer HR Giger conceived one of the most distinctive and horrifying alien creatures committed to film before or since.

The art and effects teams made space more real than it had ever been. The cast of veteran actors -- John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwright and Tom Skerritt gave the film life and texture, while the young Sigourney Weaver combined strength and vulnerability to embody a heroine for the ages.

With Alien and 1982's Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott shaped a vision of the future that influenced science fiction and moviemaking to this day. Robert Aldrich and Walter Hill were among those considered to direct, and it's strange to think the film could have been very different if helmed by someone other than Scott. What could have been a creature feature B-movie was elevated by Scott's serious treatment of the subject. The industrial look and feel of Alien, which Scott would perfect in Blade Runner, laid the foundations for cyberpunk's corporate dystopia.

Watch this: How 'Alien: Covenant' was inspired by Ridley Scott's fears for the future

And can we just take a moment to remember the tagline? "In space, no one can hear you scream." That's got to be one of the best adverts for a film ever.

OK, maybe the fake android head doesn't look great. But the rest of the Oscar-winning effects are still terrifyingly real. We might look down on movies featuring a monster played by a man in a suit, but compare how real Alien looks to the glossy, weightless computer-generated monsters in supposedly more high-tech modern films.

On the set of Alien
Enlarge Image
On the set of Alien

Sigourney Weaver and director Ridley Scott.

Sunset Boulevard

Let's not forget, this movie is scary as shit. I first saw it when I was far too young, and even now when I look up the clip of the chestburster scene on YouTube I feel the same revulsion as the cast when the deadly xenomorph makes its first appearance. But the real fear of the film is in the fact you mostly don't see the alien until it's too late. It melds into the shadows. The most awful thing you can imagine, lurking in the darkness.

I was obsessed with Alien and the more military-themed sequel Aliens as a teenager, reading the comics and books and drawing the alien on my schoolbooks. It followed me through my young life, because I was studying for a media degree, and let me tell you, media studies academics bloody love Alien. When we weren't talking about The Matrix we were talking about Alien. 

A lot has been written about the subtextual horror of Alien, the phallic creature, the oral violation, the combination of reproduction and death, culminating in Barbara Creed's analysis of the "monstrous-feminine as archaic mother." Sex and death and penetration and fangs and something awful in the night. The horror of Alien is primal, both repulsive and fascinating. 

On the Set of "Alien"

HR Giger's horrifying design for the alien sinks its fangs into our primal fears.

Sunset Boulevard

In sequels, no one can hear you scream

There are two ways to look at Alien: as a standalone movie and as part of a multimedia franchise. The original 1979 film is the creation myth of a meta-mythology that spans films, books,  comics video games  and more. And that's where things get tricky.

Jaws invented the modern blockbuster. Star Wars invented the multimedia merchandising juggernaut. But it was the Alien series that pioneered the modern "cinematic universe." Until very recently, Star Wars, Star Trek and other franchises ran in pretty linear fashion, each sequel featuring the same characters and the same setup and continuing the same story. The Marvel Cinematic Universe , by contrast, contains different subseries featuring different characters, with each outing even feeling like a different genre.

The Alien movies and books and comics are the mid-point between linear sequels and dissipated cinematic universe. They have less of a through line with every subsequent story: Aliens switched gear to a completely different genre, going from the first film's horror to a more action or war style. Alien vs Predator launched a new offshoot crossing over with a different film series, the sort of meta gambit you were more likely to see in old-timey pulp B-movies rather than mainstream cinema. And the series protagonist Ripley has disappeared from recent entries in the series.

In novels and comics especially, the alien is the only constant as new characters and settings are invented for each story. The xenomorph's acid blood has even burned a hole into whole other fictional universes as the creature becomes the go-to crossover antagonist, drooling over everyone from Superman and Batman to Judge Dredd.

Comics and other spin-off media always have more freedom and flexibility than films, which tend to be more fixed and definitive, not to mention risk-averse. But with Scott's 2012 prequel Prometheus the series even dropped the alien itself, both in the title and the story. I know Prometheus has its fans, but I'm no fan of prequels. If you look back at the original movie, a big part of the horror was in how incomprehensible and unknowable the creature was -- how alien it was.

Watch this: Just how scary is 'Alien: Covenant'?

The point is, by going off in so many different directions, the Alien franchise joined the dots between the traditional model of sequel after sequel and the modern idea of a shared setting.

But the Alien series, like its monstrous contemporaries Terminator and Predator, has a serious problem. People still love the concepts, and there are still stories to be told in those worlds. But each time they limp back to the screen, it's with a crushing sense of diminishing returns. Alien: Covenant was awful. Terminator: Genisys was awful. The Predator was awful.

And yet more of them are on the way. The first trailer for Terminator: Dark Fate suggests the upcoming movie doesn't have a single original bone in its cybernetic skeleton, while the behind-the-scenes wrangling over a possible new Alien movie doesn't inspire confidence.

Fortunately, it's not hard to find people doing interesting things with these much-loved concepts. You can look to the more experimental or expansive stories told in the comics, books and spin-off media.

And you can always just get a takeout and watch Alien again. Forty years on, whether you hear it or not, it's still a scream.  

2019 movies to geek out over

See all photos

Originally published May 24.