In his second feature film, Ridley Scott helped birth one of cinema’s most infamous scenes and an iconic monster. We look back at the personal history the filmmaker brought to 1979’s Alien.
In 1962, Ridley Scott made his first short film, Boy And Bicycle, while he was a photography student at the Royal College of Art in London. Shot in West Hartlepool and South Shields, the gritty North East where he grew up, it serves as a dry run for the legendary Hovis advert he would make a decade on. It also, in unlikely fashion, perhaps helped pave the way toward his cinematic career and some of his most arresting films – including 1979’s Alien.
Boy And Bicycle sees Ridley’s younger brother (and future film director) Tony Scott in the role of a schoolboy playing truant. He meanders around Hartlepool on his bike, capturing the post-war industrial vistas of northern Britain as he loses himself in his thoughts. It was released in full form in 1965 with sound and music thanks to funding from the BFI, where you can watch it for free. It includes a musical composition by John Barry no less, already famed by this point as the composer for numerous James Bond films.
As with many of the ‘angry young men’ films of the British New Wave in the 50s and 1960s, from Look Back In Anger to Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, there’s something decidedly ancient and yet futuristic about what Scott captures here. It feels like two worlds bleeding into one – the quaintness of pre-war Britain alongside the cold, wide, encompassing industry that stalks the landscape. Scott wants us to appreciate the kind of detail and scope he would later build in Alien, Blade Runner and beyond.
Scott admitted to the DGA that the project wasn’t something the Royal College was behind. “There was no film school there; all there was was a Bolex camera with a windup key in a cupboard with a light meter and instruction book,” Scott said. “That was it, that was the only indication that they were even trying to be a film school. I wrote a script and they said, ‘Okay, you’ve got the camera for six weeks.’ So in the summer holidays I went back home, and I fundamentally ruined my brother Tony’s holiday by hauling him out of bed at five or six o’clock in the morning and saying, ‘Come on, I’ve got the car, let’s get going.’ He played the boy on the bicycle. We’d drive up to Hartlepool with the gear that I’d manage to rent at 12 pounds a week. Arriflex legs, no-battery stuff because it was all like winding a clock. The whole film cost 60 quid.”
It nonetheless kickstarted the visual artistic side of the twentysomething Scott’s career, after which he became employed by the BBC as a designer, working on the Tonight programme and other series, some of which he would go on to direct. This is perhaps where we can see Scott put the artistic composition talents he displayed in Alien, more so than The Duellists, to initial use and begin honing his craft.
In what surely stands as one of the fascinating alternate history moments of science-fiction production, Scott was pencilled in to design ‘The Daleks’, the second serial of Doctor Who. At this stage in 1963, Scott was the new kid on the block and Doctor Who was a show most at the Beeb were convinced would fail. Scott was a whisker away from helping design one of the most iconic villains in science-fiction history, only for scheduling conflicts to mean Raymond Cusick was assigned the job and, well, the rest is history. Luckily, Scott would have a second shot at helping to produce an eternally memorable, deadly alien creature in the not too distant future.
Following his years as a designer and BBC director, working on commercials and ultimately developing a historical sweeping drama such as The Duellists, Scott might have seemed an unusual choice to direct a film like Alien. Yet he grew up with science-fiction; he read the works of H.G Wells as a child, such opuses as The Time Machine or War Of The Worlds. His mother Elizabeth would take him to the movies, where he would see 50s genre films like The Day The Earth Stood Still and Them! Then, during his BBC directing days, he saw the film that would shape his interest most acutely – 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s collaboration with author Arthur C Clarke.
Scott describes the experience as being when “I knew what I could do” as a director generally, and certainly of science fiction. He saw that narratives set in space, set in the future, didn’t have to involve alien invasions or screaming masses reacting to giant monsters. Sci-fi could be cerebral. It could speak to higher philosophical ideas and talk about the human condition. By and large, though, the 1970s seemed to avoid it. Alejandro Jodorowsky came close to making Frank Herbert’s seminal novel Dune, and Philip Kaufman almost made a 2001-inspired big screen Star Trek called Planet Of The Titans, but nothing attempted to rival Kubrick’s grand canvas.
That was, at least, until 1977, the year Scott released The Duellists, when George Lucas married sci-fi grandeur, fantasy and adventure archetypes to make Star Wars. The film not only paved the way for the modern blockbuster, but also saw 20th Century Fox give screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett the green light for what would become Alien. Reams have been written about how Alien was developed as a script and came to be, but Fox’s desire to capitalise on Star Wars’ rampant popularity and success saw it begin looking for a director to bring the idea to life, much as O’Bannon assumed he would be given the gig.
As Scott once told Total Film, he wasn’t initially top of Fox’s list. “I was fifth choice [as director] on Alien,” he said. “The last guy they’d given it to was Robert Altman. Robert Altman went, ‘What the fuck, are you kidding me?’ But I read it, and I went, ‘I know what to do.’ Because a lot of it, on face value, is art direction. If you don’t have that alien, you ain’t got shit. You’ve got a dodgy B-movie. The simplicity of the story – seven people locked in a tin can in space, and not being able to get out- is about as B-movie as you can possibly get. Alien is a B-movie horror movie done in an A-plus way.”
We can see here the joint sensibility Scott brought to Alien, as he worked on developing designs for the Nostromo – the vast mining ship Ripley and the rest of the crew are travelling in – by using 2001 and Star Wars as visual inspirations. The key to why Scott makes Alien work, and it is a film that lives on the visual construction even more than an admittedly strong script and quality performances – is that he marries together the artful A-movie and the B-movie stylistics of what Lucas brought to the masses. Alien became the thinking person’s thrill ride, infused less with fantasy and rather a deeper vein of visceral horror.
Alien almost feels like a signature reaction to the world of space escapism and space fantasy. Spacecraft in Alien don’t fire lasers or phasers, nor do they fly about in space with super-powered engines faster than the speed of light. Their crews are not naval officers, freedom fighters or scoundrels, and only a few of them are scientists. The world of Alien presents a future grounded in the cultural and sociological reality of the 1970s. It could almost been seen as a breakwater between earthy, anxious 70s American cinema and the escapist, fantasy resurgence we would see in the colourful 1980s.
Perhaps we can see some of Scott’s working class origins bleeding into the construction of Alien here, albeit despite many of the underlying socio-political ideas of the story existing in the script. Noah Hawley, developing an Alien TV series for FX, commented on this to Vanity Fair. “You know, one of the things that I love about the first movie is how 70s a movie it is, and how it’s really this blue collar space-trucker world in which Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton are basically Waiting For Godot,” said Hawley. “They’re like Samuel Beckett characters, ordered to go to a place by a faceless nameless corporation. The second movie is such an 80s movie, but it’s still about grunts. Paul Reiser is middle management at best. So, it is the story of the people you send to do the dirty work.”
If 2001 positioned astronauts as protagonists confronting the existence of God, and Star Wars draws us into a mythical battle of wizards and apprentices battling fascism, Alien gives us characters inside a much bleaker future. The Nostromo exists to supply a largely unseen mega corporation (referred to here as only ‘The Company’) with increased wealth and prosperity. Kotto’s Parker and Dean Stanton’s Brett both raise the point that they’re a commercial shop, here to make money, when the Nostromo changes course to investigate. “Can we talk about the bonus situation?” Ian Holm’s Ash points out that they signed a contract stating if they refuse, they lose their shares. No money. The Company have these characters over a small print barrel.
So much has been written about Alien over the last four decades. It has been analysed to within an inch of its life, as writers and historians and film theorists pull from it an enormous amount of meaning and context. For me, Alien stands as perhaps Scott’s crowning achievement in a career that both glistens and at times loses a certain shine. Everything from the slow, steady shots of the remarkably-designed Nostromo – all cavernous, Gothic corridors wrought of metal – through to the arresting and truly alien visuals of the Space Jockey and its vessel, and of course HR Giger’s legendary alien creature itself… it’s truly masterful.
Alien also still manages to shock and repulse in its infamous chest-burster sequence, as John Hurt’s Kane, having been infested with an alien spore, is killed by a parasite which cracks out of his chest on the Nostromo dining table. Think about just how great an influence that moment has had on sci-fi and horror storytelling since. Perhaps only The Exorcist can match it for how powerfully it holds the ability to scare, how impactful the scene continues to be, and the legacy of what it did for cinema. Again, it marries art and schlock in the manner Scott intended. It’s straight out of a sillier, more overt science-fiction picture, while never coming across that way.
Alien simply works to wrongfoot the audience in almost every respect. Scott’s decision to change Ripley from a man to a woman, and kickstarting Sigourney Weaver’s illustrious career in the process, not only created a feminine icon of American storytelling but also utterly transforms the meaning and power of the climax. Ripley not only becomes one of the ultimate examples of the ‘Final Girl’, but Scott is also able to code the picture as being about motherhood and sexuality. The alien preparing to unleash its hard, elongated appendage to penetrate and kill Ripley is pointed. It’s vicious. And Scott creates a heroine able to beat that kind of monster. His mother Elizabeth would no doubt have been proud.
Scott also includes touches that he will explore in future films, namely the confluence of technology and biology. The Nostromo is powered by an all-seeing AI called ‘Mother’, who Ripley curses as a “bitch” when the self-destruct abort fails – she too is another allusion to the importance of the feminine. Ash is revealed (in another unerring moment of horror) to be a ‘robot’, and Scott will of course explore the intersection of human and synthetic life in Blade Runner, before returning to it in the Alien universe much later in his career. Scott presents them as threats to the natural order, in contrast to James Cameron who in Aliens flips the script through Lance Henriksen’s Bishop.
We see in Alien trademarks of Scott’s entire career to come. His obsession with detailed world building. His ability to craft both expansive and contained vistas, combining the intimate and the grand in one space. His fascination with deeper questions about humanity and, ultimately, his desire to entertain. First and foremost, that’s what Alien does. It entertains. It thrills. It never loses its power.
As the film became a huge critical and commercial success, cementing Scott’s career and creating an entire franchise, the ultimate tribute for Scott came when he heard from his greatest inspiration. As Scott once recalled, “The first time I talked to Kubrick was a week after Alien came out. Somebody said, ‘Stanley Kubrick is on the line.’ I said, ‘Hello?’ ‘Hello. Stanley Kubrick here. How are you? I just saw Alien.’ Straight in. ‘How on earth did you get the thing coming out of his chest? Because I’ve got a print, and I’ve run it on the machine, and I can’t see the cut.’ So I said, ‘Well, I had John Hurt cut a hole in the table, lie in a horrible, awkward position, and I made a fibreglass shell…’ He said, ‘I got it, I got it, I got it. Brilliant.'”
Stanley Kubrick loved Alien. Is there any finer praise than that?
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