This month, I’ll be looking at four movies from legendary film director Ridley Scott. Let’s start with the movie that put him on the map, Alien. I’ll also be looking at Gladiator, Blade Runner, and Kingdom of Heaven, most likely in that order. Originally from England, Ridley Scott has directed a variety of horror movies, war movies, historical epics, spy thrillers, and even a handful of comedies and romances. Although as far as I’m concerned, the average quality of his work has declined noticeably in the last 10 years, some of his small scale movies are still fairly good.
Although Alien is the movie that put Scott on the map, it’s not his first movie. It’s his second. He debuted with The Duellists, a historical drama film looking at various duels between two life-long rivals, between the year 1800 and 1816. It was a very well-received movie, but wasn’t all that well known outside of the UK. He initially planned to adapt Tristan and Iseult for his second film – a very influential classic romance with a number of adaptations since the 12th century. After he saw Star Wars, he decided to direct a sci-fi movie instead, convinced of the potential of a large scale, effects-driven film.
The movie Alien didn’t start with Scott however. While studying at the University of Southern California, writer Dan O’Bannon made a science-fiction comedy film with director John Carpenter, Dark Star. That also happens to be Carpenter’s directorial debut. The movie featured an alien, and that experience led O’Bannon to want to work on an alien that looked real. A few years later, he started working on a similar alien-focused story, but with more of a horror approach. “I knew I wanted to do a scary movie on a spaceship with a small number of astronauts.”
He wrote a 29-page script called Memory, which would become the opening act of Alien. It featured a crew of astronauts awakened early to see that their voyage was interrupted by some sort of signal. They investigate, and their ship breaks down on the surface. At the time, O’Bannon wasn’t yet sure what the alien antagonist would be like. At one point, he signed on to work on an adaptation of Dune, which eventually fell through, but while in Paris for six months to work on the movie, he met Chris Foss, H.R. Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud. He found Giger’s work disturbing, but it helped shape his work on what would become Alien. Giger would later work on many aspects of Alien’s visual design, including the alien itself.
Soon after, O’Bannon moved to LA to live with co-writer Ronald Shusett, and they revived his “Memory” script together. They retitled it “Star Beast” initially, but O’Bannon disliked the title, so they called it Alien instead. Shusett liked the new title and its duel meaning as both a noun and an adjective. Shusett came up with the idea of the chestburster, thinking it would be a neat idea to bring the Alien onto the ship. A number of classic sci-fi horror movies inspired the story, from The Thing from Another World, to Forbidden Planet, and even Planet of the Vampires. The chamber of eggs was specifically inspired by a short story, “Junkyard”, and “Strange Reflections” influenced the alien’s form of reproduction. “I didn’t steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!”
With most of the plot complete, they presented the script to several studios, calling it “Jaws in space.” They eventually sold the rights to 20Th Century Fox. There, David Giler and Walter Hill started extensive rewrites on the script. It was to the point where it caused tension with O’Bannon and Shusett. “They weren’t good at making it better, or, in fact, at not making it even worse,” according to Shusett. Hill and Geller did add substantial elements to the story, including the Ash android, which O’Bannon felt was unnecessary, but Shusett later admitted Ash as “One of the best things in the movie.” Hill and Geller ended up going through 8 drafts of the script, concentrating mainly on Ash, but also making the dialogue more natural and trimming the planet sequences. Even though most of the final script was Hill and Giler’s work, the Writers Guild of America only gave writing credits to O’Bannon, and Shusett received additional story credits.
Even after all the rewrites, 20th Century Fox wasn’t confident in a science-fiction film … at least until Star Wars. Suddenly Science Fiction became the hot genre. Fox wanted another sci-fi movie fast, and the only script they had ready was Alien. They immediately greenlit the movie, with an initial budget of $4.2 million. They assigned a small production team, known as Brandywine, to handle the production. O’Bannon first assumed that he’d direct the movie, but Fox wanted Hill to direct instead. Hill declined due to other commitments, while also not being comfortable with the level of visual effects the film needed. Everyone involved with the film was impressed with Scott’s debut film, The Duelist, and offered him a role. Scott quickly accepted. He started by creating detailed storyboards including designs for the space ships and suits, influenced by Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The casting was held in both New York City and London, England. With only seven characters in the story, Scott wanted to focus mostly on strong actors so he could spend most of his energy on the film’s visual style. The script was written in such a way that the seven characters could all be either men or women, which made the casting process much easier. In the end, most of the cast members were either in their 40s or 50s. Roger Ebert noted in his review that it helped make the characters more convincing. “By skewing older, Alien achieves a certain texture without even making a point of it: These are not adventurers but workers.”
The cast includes Tom Skerritt as Dallas, the captain of the Nostromo. He was approached early on in development, but declined until the movie had an actual budget and Scott as the director. Sigourney Weaver plays Ripley, the warrant officer. At the time, she had Broadway experience but was relatively unknown in film. She very much impressed everyone in her audition, earning her first starring role. Veronica Cartwright is Lambert, the ship’s navigator. She originally read for Ripley, and thought she’d get that role, only to learn that she’d play Lambert when she arrived in London for wardrobe. At first she didn’t like the idea of playing the most emotional member of the crew, but eventually grew to like it.
“They convinced me that I was the audience’s fears; I was a reflection of what the audience is feeling.”
Harry Dean Slanton plays Brett, the engineering technician. His first words to Scott at his audition were, “I didn’t like sci-fi or monster movies.” The fact that he accepted the role amused Scott. John Hurt plays Kane, the executive officer who becomes the host for the alien. Hurt was Scott’s first choice for the role from the start. At first, Hurt was unavailable as he was supposed to do a film in South Africa during Alien’s shooting schedule, so they hired Jon Finch instead. However, Finch became ill on the first day of filming, and was later diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, which worsened the bronchitis he fell ill with. Hurt was in London at the time, the South Africa production having fell through, so he quickly replaced Finch.
Ian Holm plays the previously mentioned Ash. It’s worth mentioning that he played the older Bilbo Baggins in both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit – his brief appearance in Battle of the Five Armies being his last acting role before he retired for good. Yaphet Kotto is Parker, the chief engineer. Kotto, a black man, was added to the movie partly to make the cast more diverse, but they also enjoyed his role as Dr. Kanaga in Live and Let Die. Kotto said he rejected a lucrative film in order to be cast in Alien. Last, but not least, in his only film credit, Bolaji Badejo plays the Alien. At the time, he was a 26-year-old design student discovered in a bar by a member of the casting team. He immediately put the slender 6 foot 10 Nigerian in touch with Scott. The alien suit made him 7 feet tall, and his long, slim arms made it easy for the alien to look like no human could possibly fit inside the suit.
Fun fact, while shooting, Weaver quickly learned that she was allergic to the combination of the cat hair from the four cats on set and the glycerin used to make the characters look sweaty. By removing the glycerin, she was able to work with the cats again.
As much as there is a lot of fascinating stuff to talk about with the film’s production, the BTS details have gone on enough for this blog post, so let’s get to the movie itself. The movie first released in May 25, 1979 with a limited run. The film didn’t have a former premier, yet moviegoers lined up for blocks to see it. The movie then received a wide release the next month in the United States, but still didn’t get a wide release in the UK until 1980. It ended up earning $143 million worldwide on an $11 million budget. Despite this, Fox argued that the movie lost the studio $2 million. It’s a textbook example of Hollywood creative accounting to limit any payments to the Brandywine team. They were legally forced to admit that the movie was profitable, but even then, they claimed the movie only earned them $4 million. This resulted in a lawsuit, which Brandywine won in 1983. Shortly after that, Fox agreed to fund Alien II, which would later be called Aliens.
Critical reception for Alien was originally mixed. At the time, most critics tended to be negative towards science fiction, and groups like Variety, Sight and Sound, and critic/historian Leonard Martin, all gave either mixed or negative reviews. Martin would later give the film a positive review upon reassessment. Time Out called the film an “empty bag of tricks whose production values and expensive trickery cannot disguise imaginative poverty.” Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on the other hand both gave the film a positive review. Ebert called it “one of the scariest old-fashioned space operas I can remember.” Siskel wasn’t quite as positive, giving the movie 3 out of 4, calling it “an accomplished piece of scary entertainment”, while also praising Weaver’s performance. His main complaint was “for me, the final shape of the Alien was the least scary of its forms.” It sounds like his complaints were more based on personal taste than on the quality of the film, which is fair.
The reception has become much more positive over the years, to the point where it’s critically acclaimed these days. It holds a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 9.1/10. Around the release of the director’s cut in 2003, Ebert described it as among “the most influential of modern action pieces”, and praised its pacing, atmosphere and settings.
Alien ended up winning the 1980 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, while also receiving the nomination for Best Art Direction. The Saturn Awards awarded Alien as the Best Science Fiction Film, gave Scott a Best Direction award, and Cartwright won the Best Supporting Actress award. Weaver also received a Saturn nomination for Best Actress, while the film also received nominations for Best Make-up, Best Special Effects, and Best Writing. The film received numerous other awards and nominations.
As for myself, I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of this movie, but I do still enjoy it. In a lot of ways, it’s a classic horror monster movie that happens to be set in space. There is very little reliance on jump scares, as the movie mainly focuses on atmospheric horror, a touch of body horror, and a sense of paranoia. The tight corridors on the dark ship, combined with a monster who can easily traverse through tight spaces, makes for a well-made horror film. Although it’s not all that realistic for the ship to be so dark inside, it does add to the general atmosphere of being stalked by an apex predator.
All of the performances are fantastic, and it’s not worth going into too much detail there. The soundtrack is also brilliant. The movie does start off slow, as it spends time introducing us to the crew of the ship, showing that they’ve become like a family over the course of their journey. Well … maybe except for Ash, who seems to distance himself socially from the rest. When they reach the strange planet, they’re met by a mysterious environment where something clearly went wrong, but the ruins are so old that there’s no way the crew can figure it out on their own.
Once the chestburster scene happens, the movie really doesn’t slow down. It’s from this point on that the crew is focusing purely on dealing with this alien threat, whether it be coming up with makeshift weapons to fight this thing, or finding out Ash’s true intentions. Even if there isn’t a whole lot of fighting on screen at any point, it gets quite intense at times. The design of the alien itself, as well as its different stages in life, look like their straight out of a nightmare, something that H.R. Giger always specialized with. Even beyond that, the way the movie limits how much of the alien you can see until near the end just makes the movie all the more suspenseful, and the alien all the more threatening.
When it all comes down to Ripley, the movie gets really intense. If you haven’t seen Alien but you want to, I really shouldn’t spoil what happens. What I will say is that the confrontation that happens on the escape shuttle wasn’t originally going to be in the movie. Scott pitched the idea to Fox and negotiated an increase to the budget and a couple of extra days to film it. He originally wanted the movie to end with the alien biting off Ripley’s head, and then imitate Ripley’s voice for a final log entry, but the studio only agreed to it if the alien is shown getting killed. Yeah, the alien imitating Ripley’s voice and mimicking a log entry mere days after being born sounds a bit odd.
Alien is not paced like most modern day horror movies. It takes its time to build up its atmosphere and suspense. Even when it gets moving, it doesn’t rely on quick-paced action. That is worth keeping in mind if you are interested in seeing it for the first time. That said, even if it’s not quite in my personal taste (I’m generally not huge on horror movies), Alien is a very good movie. It was groundbreaking for both horror and science-fiction. It’s very rare for horror movies to hold back its main monster for most of the film, classic or within the last 20 years, but Alien does that masterfully. Of that choice, Scott said,
“I’ve never really liked horror movies before, because in the end it’s always been a man in a rubber suit. Well, there’s only one way to deal with that. The most important thing in a film of this type is not what you see, but the effect of what you think you saw.”
I’m planning on writing about Gladiator next week, which remains Scott’s most award winning movie. Then I’ll look at Blade Runner, which is often considered to be the greatest Science Fiction movie ever made. Then I’ll conclude with Kingdom of Heaven, specifically the director’s cut. That’s a textbook example of a film studio ruining a fantastic film by cutting it down too much. Also as of right now, I’m planning for April to be my so bad it’s good month. Very much looking forward to that.