Alien – 35 Years On

by Graham Edwards

Alien Poster 1979Everyone remembers their first time. Mine came when I was fourteen years old, in the darkness of a cinema on the south coast of England. The experience was gripping, deeply immersive, and accompanied by the sickly-sweet smell of popcorn and the occasional blood-curdling scream. Yes, I’m talking about that moment familiar to any movie geek: the first time I fell head-over-heels in love with a film.

Why? What did you think I was talking about?

The film that captured my heart all those years ago was Ridley Scott’s seminal deep-space horror Alien, which had its first US theatrical release 35 years ago this month. Twentieth Century Fox are celebrating the anniversary throughout 2014 – here’s what Jeffrey Godsick, president of Fox Consumer Products, has to say about their planned merchandising programme:

As we celebrate the 35th anniversary of one of the most successful film franchises of all time,  we are thrilled to introduce an array of commemorative products across different categories in partnership with iconic brands including NECA, SEGA and many more. In addition to the highly anticipated release of Alien: Isolation™, hardcore fans can finally add Lieutenant Ellen Ripley to their Alien collections as we welcome her NECA figures into the family of officially-licensed merchandise. Many other exciting first-time and limited edition products will also be released to celebrate this exciting milestone.

35 years! Jeez, where did the time go?

Alien first hit the screens in 1979, but it must have been early 1980 before I experienced my popcorn-and-screams rite of passage (in those days, we Brits frequently had to wait months for the latest blockbuster to cross the Atlantic). I saw Alien again on its subsequent re-releases – including a memorable double feature that paired it with John Carpenter’s The Fog. I’ve watched it countless times since on both VHS and DVD, and you know what? It’s never failed to work its magic on me.

Filming the Space Jockey

Production designer Michael Seymour suggested that the space jockey be mounted on a rotating platform so that only a small portion of the background wall would need to be constructed.

So why do I love Alien so much?

One reason, I’m sure, is the impressionable age at which I first saw it. Many of my abiding movie memories were made in the 1980s, when I spent endless summers scrunching my gangly teenage body into sticky seats and gawping at the wonders unveiled on the screen. The films of that era were the myths of my youth: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Gremlins, Back to the Future … I loved them all then, and I love them all still.

Alien was extra-special because it was the first film I anticipated with the boundless enthusiasm of the true film fan. Before seeing it, I read the novelisation by Alan Dean Foster, and devoured the tantalising text and eye-popping pictures of The Book of Alien by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross. By the time the big day came, I was stoked.

At fourteen, I was too young to be admitted into an X-Certificate programme. So I got my dad to buy the tickets and sneak me in past the signs suggesting that epileptics and pregnant women might want to give the show a miss (yes, really). Did my big coat and surly attitude convince the cinema staff I was eighteen? Almost certainly not.

Did I care? I’ll give you one guess.

Alien mechanised head by Giger and Rambaldi

The mechanical alien head was sculpted by HR Giger and mechanised by Carlo Rambaldi. Much of the rich detail was obscured by a smooth translucent shell (absent here) which covered totally the upper portion of the head.

As well as captivating me from atmospheric start to nail-biting finish, Alien also introduced me to the world of visual and special effects. For the first time in my life, I understood there were people who actually did this stuff for a living. After seeing the film, and armed with this knowledge, I loaded up my bookshelves with yet more behind-the-scenes goodies. Pride of place went to Giger’s Alien by HR Giger and issue #1 of a magazine you may have heard of, called Cinefex.

No sooner had I started to appreciate visual effects than I found myself looking at them with a critical eye. Why did the Nostromo seem to judder as it moved across the screen in the two opening shots? Could it be that the shutter speed was set too fast, reducing the motion blur and making the image strobe? Why are there no stars in that section of space the ship is moving through? Oh, I see, it’s so they can do a simple double exposure and not have to bother with traveling mattes.

Ridley Scott and Facehugger

Ridley Scott briefs John Hurt as one of the effects technicians drapes animal intestines from the alien face-hugger, one of three dummy models made by Roger Dicken.

I also found myself appreciating the way the visual effects integrated with the rest of the movie. Gasping at the gorgeous wide shot of the alien derelict, I judged that some of its power must come from the artful timing of the reveal, following as it does a claustrophobic jumble of hand-held shots as the three astronauts stumble through the bleak, bonelike terrain. And, for all the effort that went into creating the various incarnations of the titular creature, you barely see it on screen … and yet still it leaves a lasting impression.

My wife rolls her eyes when she catches me getting all analytical like this. She wonders how I can enjoy a film when all I want to do is take it apart. I explain that spotting the joins is part of the enjoyment.

We agree to disagree.

And I continue to dissect movies, with an delight that began 35 years ago, when the lights went down, and the camera started that slow pan across the curve of an alien world, and Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie score crawled down the back of my neck and set its claws deep into my spine. A delight which has lasted ever since.

Alien – I thank you.

Do you remember the first time you saw Alien? Did it affect you in the same way it affected me? Maybe there’s another film that triggered your strange obsession with visual effects – or with films in general. If so, what is it, and just why did it get under your skin?

Alien photographs copyright© 1979 by 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Production still unit photography by Bob Penn.

9 thoughts on “Alien – 35 Years On

  1. I saw Alien on theatrical release when I was 12. I was blown away. A friend had the movie novel (remember them?) and the soundtrack on vinyl. But to actually see it move, to come to life onscreen was a sight to behold. After 35 years it still demands your full attention when it plays. Whether it be on LD, DVD or BD… or even an elusive theatrical screening.

    What a movie…

  2. I also had to enlist the help of my father to sneak me in at the same age as you, Graham. Except, I must have looked younger than you, because two other cinemas threw me out before I managed to sneak in. The book by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross was my bible after that, both I later came to discover were friends of Cinefex.

    Years later, I have my original “Alien” British quad poster framed on my living room wall, and a plush facehugger hanging above my bookshelf. Somewhere in a box I have some paperwork I saved from Filmfex Animation Services, where I first worked in London (Filmfex animated Bernard Lodge and Colin Cheesman’s graphics for the ‘MU-TH-UR 6000’ computer displays, as well as doing the aerial image space composites). And during my travels for Cinefex, I was also thrilled to lay my hand on the hull of the 7-foot Nostromo miniature, which I stumbled upon before its Prop Store restoration (Greg Nicotero bought it from Bob Burns and had it under a tarpaulin in the back of KNB, and I was stunned to see it there, all rusted and delaminating its nurnies, while I was covering “The Mist”).

    “Alien” is a timeless film for me, which I never get tired of watching.

  3. My folks took my brother and me to see ALIEN in June of 1979. I was 10 years old. The theatre was the Century 22 in San Jose, California. Sadly, this theatre — where I experienced STAR WARS two years before — just closed for good in March.

    Watching ALIEN on the big screen when it was new was mind blowing. I was traumatized by it. It wasn’t until much later that I realized what a work of art it is. It’s my favorite film.

  4. One more thing about ALIEN.

    My very first exposure to the film was the 30 second TV spot that ran prime time during the spring of 1979. Later, it was the 2 minute trailer in theaters. Neither revealed anything. No narration. No monster. No nothing. I had no idea what the film was about. I just knew it looked creepy. “Why are these people scared out of their wits? What’s happening???” The one sheet doesn’t reveal much either.

    This type of marketing campaign for a big budget sci-fi or horror film would be unthinkable today.

    • Best trailer ever. Scared me to silly when I saw it in the cinema with “Moonraker” June 2, 1979, at the Odeon Leicester Square. I sat through that whole silly Bond film thinking, ‘What did I just see?’ And it was all I could talk about on the way home. The egg rising up from the plasticine squares, the lady running through corridor, the lights, the noises, something hatching. I just knew I had to see that film.

  5. So if you’re that big a fan of the original, what do you think of the sequels, and Prometheus?

    • OK, Simon, here goes:

      “Aliens” – When I first walked into the cinema back in 1986 I wanted to hate this movie. How could a sequel full of testosterone-pumped marines with big guns possibly live up to the sublime original? By the end of second reel, James Cameron totally won me over and I did a complete about-face. I love this movie nearly as much as I love “Alien”, though for entirely different reasons.

      “Alien 3” – The theatrical release is a car crash BUT the extended cut is a fascinating glimpse of the much better movie Fincher was trying to make, against insurmountable odds. Still relentlessly grim and gloomy though.

      “Alien: Resurrection” – I’m a fan, despite the awkward clashes between Whedon’s script and Jeunet’s direction. The sets and monsters look gorgeous, Sigourney Weaver’s reinvention of Ripley is wonderful and the ensemble cast are clearly having a ball. The “clone room” scene is macabre and powerful. But it’s not a patch on the first two.

      “Prometheus” – My experience of this film was the opposite of “Aliens” really – I walked into the cinema wanting to love it and walked out frustrated. The first half is superb – glorious production design and VFX create a terrific future environment – but once the script starts throwing logic out of the window I find it hard to stay on board.

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