In 1979 the film Alien came out and redefined the horror genre. Quiet and atmospheric beyond comfort, the film pitted the small crew of a space tug against the eponymous Alien. Led by a commanding performance from Sigourney Weaver, Alien was a smash hit and spawned countless sequels and two cross-over events with the Predator universe. Now, 40 years after the release of the spine-tingling classic let’s take a look back and find out exactly what made it so special.
Changing The Rules Of Science Fiction
While Alien is a horror film at its core, it’s also become known as an iconic work of science fiction. One of the reasons it has earned this status is for breaking the rules of casting. The character of Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, was originally a man in the script.
When it came time to actually cast the role, one of the producers suggested gender-swapping the role. At the time of its release, women were never the heroes of large event movies.
When screenwriter Dan O’Bannon wrote Alien it was called Star Beast. He hated the title, but couldn’t come up with a better name. Then it dawned on him during a late-night writing session where characters kept saying the word “alien.”
O’Bannon says he changed the title right then and there. The new name seemed all too fitting, especially since it could be used as both a noun and adjective. Can you imagine movie posters with the movie’s original name on them? Neither can we!
O’Bannon Was Inspired By Comedy
Before writing Alien, Dan O’Bannon had worked with John Carpenter on the dark comedy Dark Star. The film was a huge flop in 1974 and made the young writer turn away from comedy, believing it would be easier to make audiences scream then laugh.
Since failing upon its initial release, Dark Star has become a minor cult classic. It picked up steam with audiences in the ’80s and has been credited as an influence for the video game Metal Gear Solid.
Star Wars Saved It
When Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett (who helped develop the story) began pitching the script around Hollywood, no one was biting. The pair almost struck a deal with Roger Corman to turn it into a B-movie before Brandywine Productions stepped in.
The company had connections with Twentieth Century Fox and began asking for rewrites. Unhappy with the script, it was almost dropped until Star Wars came out and changed the cinematic landscape. Suddenly, every studio wanted a hot new sci-fi property, and Twentieth Century Fox officially put Alien into production.
Ash Wasn’t In The Original Script
Near the end of Alien, it’s revealed that Ash is secretly a robot working to bring the creature back to Earth for the Weyland Corporation. The only problem is the script didn’t need Ash, at least according to O’Bannon: “If it wasn’t in there, what difference does it make? I mean, who gives a rat’s [expletive]? So somebody is a robot.”
As it turns out, producers suggested the inclusion of the robot character Ash. Ronald Shusett loved the addition, but O’Bannon was clearly less enthusiastic.
Ridley Scott Played A Role In The Cast
Legendary director Ridley Scott brought Alien to life for Twentieth Century Fox and made sure to cast himself the juiciest role possible. When the crew of the Nostromo finds the alien eggs, a creature moves inside of one.
In reality, that wasn’t an alien baby at all. It was Scott flicking a gloved hand under moving lights. It was a small role for the director, but it was vital in setting the tone of the film as early as possible.
Actors Weren’t Told About The “Chestburster” Scene
One of Alien’s most iconic scenes is when the first alien emerges from the chest of John Hurt’s character while he’s laying on a medical bed. The actors knew to expect something to happen in the scene, but they had no idea what trauma Ridley Scott was going to put them through.
After the fact, Sigourney Weaver recounted this story. “Everyone was wearing raincoats [referring to the crew]… We should have been a little suspicious.” Hindsight is 20/20, they say.
H.R. Giger Helped Design The Alien
H.R. Giger became famous for paintings that depicted the biomechanical relationships between humans and machines. And it was one of his designs that became the basis for the creature in Alien. Using his painting Necronom IV as a starting point, Giger worked with Stan Winston to bring the painting to life.
The terrifying work they created is what’s known as a “Xenomorph” and won the entire special effects team an Academy Award in 1980. It also created nightmares for just about anyone who watched the film.
Inspiration For The “Chestburster” Was Medical
While no one has ever actually had an alien “burst” through their chest to be born, the idea for the shocking scene did come from a real-life medical condition. Dan O’Bannon suffered from Crohn’s disease while he was alive, and used his own pain as inspiration.
Crohn’s disease affects a person’s digestive tract, and O’Bannon once said it felt like “something bubbling inside… and struggling to get out.” It sounds like he used his worst nightmare to create one of cinema’s all-time most shocking scenes!
Ash’s Insides Were Edible
Ash may have been a robot, but it was a real actor, Ian Holm, who played him. When Ash is decapitated by Ridley, a mold of Holm’s head had to be made, and robot insides had to be created by the special effects team.
To create the inner workings of Ash, the team used pasta, glass marbles, caviar, and milk. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Holm still needed to make Ash speak afterward and had to have his face covered in the concoction.
The Cast Passed Out… A Lot
The set for Alien was extremely hot, and the spacesuits the cast had to wear when exploring the moon were heavy, bulky, and incredibly uncomfortable. At the start of filming, no adjustments were made and the actors passed out regularly.
A nurse was on set at all-time to help keep the cast as safe as possible, but it wasn’t until Ridley Scott and his cinematographer’s children were put in the suits as a stand-in for long takes that fixes were finally made. Can you guess why? They passed out, too!
The Cat Was Actually Scared
Jonesy the cat is one of two characters who survives the events of Alien, and is seen hiding and running during several scenes. To get a real reaction out of the four cats used to play Jonesy, Ridley Scott made sure to actually scare the poor creatures.
A German Shepherd was brought to the set and hidden behind a screen. Then, when they needed to scare one of the cats, they would move the screen. It definitely sounds inhumane to us, and probably would not be allowed on set today.
Giger Was Detained At LAX With His Designs
Working in Switzerland, H.R. Giger needed to fly to the United States to work with the crew on the xenomorph. When he arrived at LAX, security there became suspicious of his artwork and detained him, unsure if he was safe to let into country.
Dan O’Bannon was then forced to rush to LAX and explain that the pictures were actually designs for a horror movie, not real people. Because that’s what security thought — that H.R. Giger had taken pictures of real people.
Meryl Streep Was Almost Cast As Ripley
There were two finalists to play the character of Ripley in Alien — Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep. Producers went with Weaver, who we agree was definitely the right choice. Still, it would have been interesting to see Streep, who has won three Oscars and been nominated countless time play the role.
Harrison Ford was also offered the role of Captain Dallas but turned it down. And Veronica Cartwright didn’t know she wasn’t cast as Ripley (she was Lambert) until she arrived in London to try on her costume.
The Alien Was Supposed To Be Attracted To Ripley
This is why rewrites are important. In one draft of Alien, the xenomorph was shown as being attracted to Ripley. In the cut moment, the creature watches her lustfully as she hides in a closet, staring at her through glass.
Everyone involved thankfully realized this moment was unnecessary and highly disturbing. In another cut scene written after Sigourney Weaver was cast, Ripley and Captain Dallas had “private time.” Neither scene was shot, and the integrity of the story was kept in place.
The Alien Wasn’t Shown In Any Advertising
One of the greatest tricks first horror films in franchises have is the ability to reveal the villain’s appearance at just the right time. To keep the integrity of Alien intact, 20th Century Fox didn’t include the creature in any marketing material.
When Aliens came out seven years later the xenomorph was able to be featured front and center in the marketing. The second film would also earn Sigourney Weaver a Best Actress nomination at the Academy Awards, an honor she was not recognized for after the first film’s release.
The Reason The Alien’s Blood Is Acid
With script written, there was just one more hurdle Dan O’Bannon needed to clear, story-wise. Why wouldn’t the crew of the Nostromo just shoot the alien with their guns? If that were to happen there would be no movie, so he needed a reason why.
Conceptual Artist Ron Cobb came up with the idea that may have saved the movie. If the xenomorph’s blood was acid. Then any splatter would injure the crew, making shooting the alien just as dangerous for them.
The Alien Is Rarely Shown In Its Entirety
Ridley Scott made sure when shooting the alien to rarely have its full body in shots. Because it was an actor in costume, he wanted to maintain the un-earthly focus and refused to break the audiences’ suspension of disbelief.
Most shots of the creature are terrifying close-ups of its face in a profile view or its tail snaking down from the roof behind its victims. There’s also a reason for that, which we’ll get to soon enough.
A Human Face
Remember how we said H.R. Giger using his work to represent the relationship between man and machine? The xenomorph was no different. the face of the creature was made from a cast of a human skull, meaning certain features need to be hidden from the camera.
There were three alien costumes in total made for one actor — one very tall and very skinny man. The man behind the suit was Bolaji Badejo, and he checked in at just under six feet tall.
Bolaji Couldn’t Sit In The Costume
Working on film sets means 12 hours days, so taking a break and being able to sit down is a requirement. Unless you’re Bolaji Badejo. The xenomorph suit he wore made it impossible for him to sit down.
Luckily, the crew took sympathy on him and designed a rig he could hoist himself onto, allowing his feet to take much-needed rest. Just because he played the villain didn’t mean he needed to be treated like one between takes!