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Alien is a 1979 science fiction horror film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto. The film’s title refers to its primary antagonist: a highly aggressive extraterrestrial creature which stalks and kills the crew of a spaceship.
Alien garnered both critical acclaim and box office success, receiving an Academy Award for Visual Effects, Saturn Awards for Best Science Fiction Film, Best Direction for Scott, and Best Supporting Actress for Cartwright, and a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, along with numerous other award nominations. It has remained highly praised in subsequent decades, being inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2002 for historical preservation as a film which is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and being ranked by the American Film Institute in 2008 as the seventh-best film in the science fiction genre.
The commercial towing spaceship Nostromo is on a return trip from Thedus to Earth, hauling a refinery and twenty million tons of mineral ore and carrying its seven-member crew in stasis. Upon receiving a transmission of unknown origin from a nearby planetoid, the ship’s computer awakens the crew. Acting on orders from their corporate employers, the crew lands the Nostromo on the planetoid, resulting in some damage to the ship. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt), and Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) set out to investigate the signal’s source while Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm), and Engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) stay behind to monitor their progress and make repairs.
Dallas, Kane, and Lambert discover that the signal is coming from a derelict alien spacecraft. Inside it they find the remains of a large alien creature whose ribs appear to have been bent outward from the inside. Ripley, meanwhile, determines that the signal transmission is some type of warning. Kane discovers a chamber containing numerous eggs, one of which releases a creature that attaches itself to his face. Dallas and Lambert carry the unconscious Kane back to the Nostromo, where Ash allows them inside against Ripley’s orders to follow the ship’s quarantine protocol. They unsuccessfully attempt to remove the creature from Kane’s face, discovering that its blood is a potent acid. Eventually the creature detaches on its own and is found dead. With the ship repaired, the crew resume their trip back to Earth.
Set design and filming
Alien was filmed over fourteen weeks from July 5 to October 21, 1978. Principal photography took place at Shepperton Studios in London, while model and miniature filming was done at Bray Studios in Water Oakley.Production time was short due to the film’s low budget and pressure from 20th Century Fox to finish on schedule. A crew of over 200 workmen and technicians constructed the three principal sets: The surface of the alien planetoid and the interiors of the Nostromo and derelict spacecraft. Art Director Les Dilley created 1/24th scale miniatures of the planetoid’s surface and derelict spacecraft based on Giger’s designs, then made moulds and casts and scaled them up as diagrams for the wood and fiberglass forms of the sets. Tons of sand, plaster, fiberglass, rock, and gravel were shipped into the studio to sculpt a desert landscape for the planetoid’s surface, which the actors would walk across wearing space suit costumes. The suits themselves were thick, bulky, and lined with nylon, had no cooling systems and, initially, no venting for their exhaled carbon dioxide to escape. Combined with a heat wave, these conditions nearly caused the actors to pass out and nurses had to be kept on-hand with oxygen tanks to help keep them going. For scenes showing the exterior of the Nostromo a 58-foot landing leg was constructed to give a sense of the ship’s size. Ridley Scott still did not think that it looked large enough, so he had his two sons and the son of one of the cameramen stand in for the regular actors, wearing smaller space suits in order to make the set pieces seem larger. The same technique was used for the scene in which the crew members encounter the dead alien creature in the derelict spacecraft. The children nearly collapsed due to the heat of the suits, and eventually oxygen systems were added to assist the actors in breathing.
The sets of the Nostromo‘s three decks were each created almost entirely in one piece, with each deck occupying a separate stage and the various rooms connected via corridors. To move around the sets the actors had to navigate through the hallways of the ship, adding to the film’s sense of claustrophobia and realism. The sets used large transistors and low-resolution computer screens to give the ship a “used”, industrial look and make it appear as though it was constructed of “retrofitted old technology”. Ron Cobb created industrial-style symbols and color-coded signs for various areas and aspects of the ship.The company that owns the Nostromo is not named in the film, and is referred to by the characters as “the company”. However, the name and logo of “Weylan-Yutani” appears on several set pieces and props such as computer monitors and beer cans. Cobb created the name to imply a business alliance between Britain and Japan, deriving “Weylan” from the British Leyland Motor Corporation and “Yutani” from the name of his Japanese neighbor.The 1986 sequel Aliens named the company as “Weyland-Yutani”, and it has remained a central aspect of the film franchise.
Release and reception
An initial screening of Alien for 20th Century Fox representatives in St. Louis suffered from poor sound in the theater. A subsequent screening in a newer theater in Dallas went significantly better, eliciting genuine fright from the audience.Two theatrical trailers were shown to the public. The first consisted of rapidly-changing still images set to some of Jerry Goldsmith’s electronic music from Logan’s Run. The second used test footage of a hen’s egg set to part of Goldsmith’s Alien score. The film was previewed in various U.S. cities in the spring of 1979 and was promoted by the tagline “In space no one can hear you scream.”
Alien opened in theaters on May 25, 1979 It was rated “R” in the United States, “X” in the United Kingdom, and “M” in Australia. The film had no official premier in the United States, yet moviegoers lined up for blocks to see it at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood where a number of models, sets, and props were displayed outside to promote it during its first run. Religious zealots set fire to the model of the space jockey, believing it to be the work of the devil.Alien did have a formal premier in the United Kingdom at the Odeon Leicester Square on September 6, 1979, but it did not open widely in Britain until January 13, 1980.
Reaction to the film was positive, even by critics who were not usually favorable towards science fiction such as Barry Norman of the BBC’s Film series. It was a commercial success as well, making $78,900,000 in the United States and £7,886,000 in the United Kingdom during its first run. It ultimately grossed $80,931,801 in the United States and $24,000,000 internationally, bringing its total worldwide gross to $104,931,801.
Awards and accolades
Alien won the 1979 Academy Award for Visual Effects and was also nominated for Best Art Direction (Michael Seymour, Leslie Dilley, Roger Christian and Ian Whittaker). It won Saturn Awards for Best Science Fiction Film, Best Direction for Ridley Scott, and Best Supporting Actress for Veronica Cartwright, and was also nominated in the categories of Best Actress for Sigourney Weaver, Best Make-up for Pat Hay, Best Special Effects for Brian Johnson and Nick Allder, and Best Writing for Dan O’Bannon. It was also nominated for British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards for Best Costume Design for John Mollo, Best Editing for Terry Rawlings, Best Supporting Actor for John Hurt, and Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Role for Sigourney Weaver. It also won a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and was nominated for a British Society of Cinematographers award for Best Cinematography for Derek Vanlint, as well as a Silver Seashell award for Best Cinematography and Special Effects at the San Sebastián International Film Festival. Jerry Goldsmith’s score received nominations for the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, the Grammy Award for Best Soundtrack Album, and a BAFTA Award for Best Film Music.
Around and shortly after Alien‘s release in theaters, a number of merchandise items and media were released and sold to coincide with the film. These included a novelization by Alan Dean Foster, in both adult and “junior” versions, which was adapted from the film’s shooting script. Heavy Metal magazine published a comic strip adaptation of the film entitled Alien: The Illustrated Story, as well as a 1980 Alien calendar. Two behind-the-scenes books were released in 1979 to accompany the film: The Book of Alien contained many production photographs and details on the making of the film, while Giger’s Alien contained many of H.R. Gigers concept artwork for the movie. A soundtrack album was released as an LP featuring selections of Goldsmith’s score, and a single of the main theme was released in 1980. A twelve-inch tall model kit of the Alien was released by the Model Products Corporation in the United States and by Airfix in the United Kingdom. Kenner also produced a larger-scale Alien action figure, as well as a board game in which players raced to be first to reach the shuttle pod while Aliens roamed the Nostromo’s corridors and air shafts. Official Halloween costumes of the Alien were released for October 1979.Several computer games based on the film were released, but not until several years after its theatrical run.
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