Time has been kind to Ridley’s Scott’s Alien since its release in 1979. What was initially regarded as a science fiction/horror genre work – albeit a superior one – now plays like an existential drama that just happens to take place in deep space.
An example of what commercial cinema can aspire to, even on a limited budget, the film boasts an intelligent script, careful performances, clever special effects and well-crafted sets. The titular alien, which was designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, and is only partially glimpsed throughout, remains the most elegantly vile creature to ever grace cinema screens.
The alien is still scary enough to inspire nightmares, but the film’s success is the result of a tight, organised script that appears simple, even though it was the product of many rewrites by different writers.
Sigourney Weaver, an unknown actress whose indomitable performance made her a star, plays Ellen Ripley, the warrant officer on the commercial spaceship Nostromo.
When the Nostromo picks up an SOS that suggests a new alien life form, it’s contractually bound to investigate. Unfortunately, the SOS turns out to be a warning, and the ship is invaded by a highly evolved, saturnine beast searching for human hosts for its offspring. As the crew are picked off, Ripley must try to outwit her nemesis.
The film has become so identified with its director, it’s easy to forget that the original story was created by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, a sci-fi fan who was inspired by everything from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
O’Bannon, with a production company headed by action auteur Walter Hill, had already engaged Giger to design the alien by the time Scott was hired to direct. But Scott, who’d had good reviews for his debut, The Duellists (1977), brought the full force of his imagination to all aspects of the film, and also added the final gripping sequence in which Ripley battles the alien in an escape shuttle.
Alien has inspired numerous sequels and prequels, including Scott’s Alien: Covenant (2017). There have also been tongue-in-cheek spin-offs such as Aliens vs. Predator (2007). The best of the lot, though, is the first sequel, Aliens (1986), directed by James Cameron. Set 57 years after the original, Ripley is rescued by space marines, and helps them fight the aliens while protecting a young girl.
Cameron’s version accentuates action over atmosphere, but it’s riveting, and the scene in which Ripley challenges the alien from inside a giant robo-suit is as definitive as any of Scott’s.
Alien will be screened as part of the Cine Fan programme on October 27 at Festival Grand Cinema, in Kowloon Tong, and on October 29 at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, in Wan Chai; Aliens will be screened on October 28 at Festival Grand Cinema and on October 29 at the Hong Kong Arts Centre.