Alien is a classic, there’s no denying it. But what made this movie so great that it hold up almost 40 years later? This week BD takes you into the deeper detail behind the original 1979 Alien film.
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What’s up everyone, welcome back to the Devils in the details, I’m BD, and let’s just fire up today’s episode.
The 1970’s proved to be a benchmark decade in the development of cinema, both as an art form and as a business.
The decade is referred to as the “New Wave of American Cinema.”
With young filmmakers taking greater risks in restrictions regarding language and sexuality, Hollywood produced some of its most critically acclaimed and financially successful films since its “golden age.”
The films in the 70’s came in many different varieties, as the socially conscious directors that emerged in the late 60’s grew in very different ways, influenced by music, literature, politics, crime and war.
The birth of the blockbuster horror film, initiated by William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” paved the way for subsequent horror thrillers such as Jaws, The Omen, Halloween and of course Alien.
The script for Alien had been sitting on a desk over at 20th Century Fox for quite a few years.
The studio had reservations about making a science fiction horror film.
But with the success of Star Wars at the box office, those reservations quickly went away and the script was given a green light.
Alien set out to give audiences a nail biting suspense filled thrill ride vibrating with a dark and frightening intensity.
The initial concept for the script was written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusset.
Much of O’Bannon’s inspiration for Alien came from another science fiction film he had co-written with the extremely versatile film director and cult classic creator, John Carpenter.
And after meeting H.R. Giger and seeing his artwork, O’Bannon began to visualize what the art for the film could look like.
Alien was directed by Ridley Scott, Scott has long been known for his atmospheric, highly concentrated visual style who frequently showcases memorable imagery regardless of what project he might be working on.
For Alien, much of his inspiration for its visual tapestry came from artists such as Möbius and H.R. Giger.
Giger, a Swiss painter, whose style was adapted for many forms of media, including record albums, furniture and tattoos, was an artist best known for airbrush images of humans and machines linked together in a cold ‘biomechanical’ relationship.
He later abandoned airbrush work for pastels, markers, and ink.
He was hired by Fox Studio to be a part of the art department and special effects team to provide concepts and designs of the Alien.
And he was also part of the team that was awarded an Oscar in 1980 for best effects and visual effects.
The film is a great classic original. It builds on the seminal opening shot of Star Wars with its vast ship in the lonely vacuum of interstellar space, but sidesteps Lucas’ space opera to tell a completely different story.
Alien is about a team of 7 astronauts with mercenary motives. Not your typical scientists.
These are hard working space cowboys living in an isolated spacecraft who discover a long-dormant alien, bring it inside their commercial towing vehicle named the Nostromo and are subsequently picked off one by one as the Alien evolves and morphs into an adult as it haunts the ships corridors.
Much of the success of Alien can be directly attributed to its list of perfectly cast actors.
The writer, O’Bannon, had focused on writing the Alien first, putting off developing the other characters.
He and Shusett had intentionally written all the roles generically: they made a note in the script that explicitly stated that the crew be unisex and all parts be interchangeable for men or women.
This freed Scott and the casting directors, Mary Selway and Mary Goldberg to interpret the characters as they pleased, and to cast accordingly.
They wanted the Nostromo’s crew to resemble working astronauts in a realistic environment, a concept summarised as “space truckers.”
Tom Skerrit, the ships captain, had been approached early in the film’s development but declined as it did not yet have a director and had a very low budget.
Later, when Scott was attached as director and the budget had been increased , Skerritt accepted the role of Dallas.
Veronica Cartwright as Lambert, the Nostromo’s navigator. Cartwright had originally read for the role of Ripley, and was not informed that she had instead been cast as Lambert until she arrived in London for wardrobe.
John Hurt was Scott’s first choice for the role of Kane, the ships Executive Officer,
but was contracted on a film in South Africa during Alien’s filming dates, so John Finch was cast as Kane instead. However, Finch became ill on his very first day of shooting.
Ian Holm as Ash, the ship’s science officer who is eventually revealed to be an android.
Holm, a character actor who by 1979 had already been in twenty films, was the most experienced actor in the cast.
Harry Dean Stanton as Brett, the engineering technician.
Yaphet Kotto as Parker, the chief engineer. Kotto, an African American , was chosen partly to add diversity to the cast and give the Nostromo an international flavor.
And finally, Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the warrant officer aboard the ship. Weaver, who had Broadway experience but was relatively unknown in film, impressed Scott and the producers with her audition.
She was the last actor to be cast for the film, and performed most of her screen tests in-studio while the sets were being built.
The role of Ripley was Weaver’s first leading role in a motion picture..
The cast was spoiled in the sense that they had everything they needed to relate to and understand their characters.
Many of the designs and concepts in the film were completely original. I enjoyed watching Scott describe how he brought the Alien eggs to life.
And from the eggs sprang the face huggers. For the dissecting scene, Scott used oysters, clams, a large kidney, sturgeon and caviar.
I wonder if the crew then ate the props.
From the face huggers, we were introduced to the chest buster.
Another artist whose work inspired the filmmaker was Francis Bacon.
Scott and Giger discussed his artwork when deciding what the chest buster should look like.
The chest buster was a very logical idea, it’s quite reasonable to assume that a creature would need to incubate within the warmth of another being. To be able to grow during a very short gestation period makes sense.
There was a criteria to be followed in the design of the adult Alien, they started off with the idea of “no scales, no claws, no fangs.”
I’m not sure if they feel if that was accomplished.
The costume itself was built utilizing many different parts, including hoses taken from an old Rolls Royce and vertebrae from snakes which were then held together and sculpted using plasticine.
The head of the Alien was quite a bit more complicated to develop since it had so many different moving parts.
The lips had to be able to peele back so the mouth could open allowing the tongue to slid out.
And the tongue itself had another mouth attached to it which also needed to be able to open and close.
Ridley also needed to find someone to wear the creature’s suit, someone who could animate the Alien. He first looked at circus performers.
But he quickly realized that what he was looking for was an extremely tall and extremely thin person.
Bolagi Badejo who’s exact height remains unclear, I’ve found reports ranging from 6 foot 10 to 7 feet 2 inches.
Badejo was hired to play the Alien and was sent to take Tai-Chi and mime classes by the production so that he could slow his movements and unfold himself from a crouched position in a creepy and unnatural manner.
The suit also had to be as thin as a contraceptive but as strong as nylon to be able to withstand the rigours of filming which was no small task because in 1979 it was nearly impossible to find latex that thin that wouldn’t break almost as soon as you tried to bend it or applied any tension or stress to it.
When filming the Alien, Scott very much used a Hitchcockian approach. He shot it really tight, and only showed the bits the audience really wanted to see, letting our imagination fill in the blanks.
One of the great strengths of this film is its pacing. It takes its time. It waits. It allows for silences to create a palpable tension.
The set itself, a giant construction with all its corridors and different work spaces were all connected.
This added to the claustrophobic nature of the film giving the audience an element of feeling cornered from which there is no escape.
Scott was able to keep the viewer enthralled throughout the entire film because he evolved the nature and appearance of the creature, it sometimes seems like an octopod, or reptilian or even arachnoid, you never knew quite what it looked like or what it could do.
The sound, editing and the score married perfectly to the images showed to the viewer, were all key elements that kept the audience on the edge of their seats.
Alien has been called the most influential of modern action pictures, and it truly is.
It’s hard to believe that the film will soon be 40 years old and I’m still astonished of how well it’s withstood the test of time.
If you haven’t watched it in a while, do yourself a favor, and grab yourself some popcorn along with the director’s cut if can and drop me a comment down below.
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