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Hatching Horror: Ridley Scott’s Ongoing Journey Through Alien Terrain

The release of ‘Alien: Covenant’ continues the director’s voyage through terrifying worlds, one he began almost 40 years ago.

“In space, no one can hear you scream.” (Tagline, Alien)

On Earth: different story.

The screaming started on May 25, 1979, with the release of the film, which quickly joined the decade’s pantheon of horror classics, including The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and that same spring’s Dawn of the Dead. The influence of each is still felt on the genre. But only Alien remains a going concern in movie theaters, one still in the hands of its original director, Ridley Scott

Eighty this year, Scott lays claim to being the oldest filmmaker still tending a franchise. Not, however, with sequels—there are only so many ways one can blow an indestructible creature out of an airlock, and Scott flushed his alien down the interstellar drainpipe during the Carter administration. With Prometheus (2012) and this week’s release of Alien: Covenant, the director is taking a winding (some would say frustrating) path back to Alien, via prequels, with two or three more yet to come. 

All this convoluted backstory may yet pay off. But Alien—simple, elegant, and brutally efficient in delivering shock and surprise—is a masterpiece. It was his second feature, after a handsomely rendered adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Duellists (1978) and years of TV and commercial work in Britain. He planned a film of the 12th century story of Tristan and Iseult, but found himself in the 22nd century, steering the spacecraft that would be bear the Conradian name of Nostromo. The high style of The Duellists, and a series of enticing storyboards, earned him the job, and convinced 20th Century Fox to double the film’s budget, to around $9 million. The gamble is still paying off.

Alien is a perfect confluence of talents. Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett hatched the script, which drew freely from monster-on-the-loose pictures like The Thing (1951) and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) and atmosphere-saturated chillers including Planet of the Vampires (1965), with its décor of strange giant skeletons. They also gave back, with Shusett developing the infamous “incubation” concept (Scott revisits the “facehugger” and “chestburster” stages of the stowaway alien’s development, which led to John Hurt’s memorable demise, in the new film) and O’Bannon bringing the dark genius of “biomechanical” artist H.R. Giger into the fold. Executive producers David Giler and Walter Hill took what was pitched as “Jaws in space” and rewrote it, adding an android character, Ash (Ian Holm). The small cast of noted character actors, all of whom became more noted upon the film’s release, included a relative newcomer, Sigourney Weaver, who had competed with another Yale graduate, Meryl Streep, for the part of warrant officer Ellen Ripley. The film successfully melds the sci-fi of its era (1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and 1977’s Star Wars were obvious influences) with horror (the ruthless pacing of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was emulated) and takes the anti-establishment vibe of 70s movies into the solar system, as the “space truckers” are manipulated by a faceless, soulless corporation primarily interested in the alien’s potential as a weapon.

Filming at Shepperton Studios near London was strenuous, as the actors nearly collapsed in their hot, bulky spacesuits. When the Nostromo model didn’t seem large enough, Scott put his kids in smaller suits and filmed them to give it the appearance of greater size. Co-star Veronica Cartwright’s hysteria during the “chestburster” scene wasn’t feigned; the blood that hit her face caused genuine alarm. The studio was equally appalled by the gore and forced Scott to cut the film for its R rating. He and composer Jerry Goldsmith wrangled over the movie’s score (which makes for majestic listening on its own, and is heard from time to time in Alien: Covenant). Scott wanted to kill off Ripley and leave the alien in charge. 

Film history would have been very different had that been allowed. But a series of Alien movies was not on his mind as he built another fantastic world, a future Los Angeles, for his next movie, Blade Runner (1982). Alien had made its mark: it was the year’s sixth highest-grossing movie in the U.S. (Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Amityville Horror were also in the top ten), the second biggest grosser worldwide (the Star Wars-inspired 007 adventure Moonraker was No. 1), and the winner of the Best Visual Effects Oscar. It continues to inspire knockoffs, like this year’s Life. One of the earliest and better ones is the Roger Corman-produced Galaxy of Terror (1981), starring the late Erin Moran. On a frugal budget its production designer and second unit director, James Cameron, conjured impressively Alien-like atmosphere. Five years later, The Terminator (1984) under his belt, Cameron awoke Ripley from cryosleep and sent her into war, for Aliens (1986). First-time director David Fincher (The Social Network) killed her in Alien 3 (1992); she was revived, part-alien herself, in Alien: Resurrection (1997). The aliens fought their competition at Fox, the Predators, in comic books and two movies. 

With neither Ripley nor Predators in the cast, the aliens debuted, sort of, in Scott’s Prometheus (2012), which endeavors to explain, via a new exploration of the galaxy, the origin of the gigantic “Space Jockey” seen in Alien. “The keen fan will recognize strands of Alien’s DNA, so to speak, but the ideas tackled in this film are unique, large and provocative,” Scott said. And, for this “keen fan,” muddled and confused. While Scott isn’t directing the forthcoming Blade Runner 2049, it’s obvious that Blade Runner was as much on his mind as Alien as Prometheus was written and rewritten—the central character linking the two films is the android David (Michael Fassbender), twinned in Alien: Covenant with a newer model, Walter. (Alien has humor; Alien: Covenant, in-jokes.) The Alien side of the new installment, in which creatures besiege the unsuspecting crew of a ship sent to populate a new world, the Covenant, is exciting, if unsurprising. (We can suspend disbelief, but not memories of seven other films.) Of the Prometheus side, well—I can only hope that the director of Thelma and Louise (1991), the Oscar-winning Gladiator (2000), and The Martian (2015) will find his way back home. 

But maybe Prometheus detractors like me are overthinking it. Rather than go full-on digital, Alien: Covenant uses plenty of practical effects, and has that spooky, smoky texture of its predecessors in spades. “I wanted to really scare the shit out of people,” he told The Guardian recently. “My day job is to be an entertainer. Some of it is art, but fundamentally I entertain—never forget that.” And I wouldn’t bet against him finishing his grand mosaic, which may definitively fuse the universes of Alien and Prometheus. As he told me when I interviewed him for Moviemaker magazine in 2006, “I love the process. Even when I go on holiday I’m still reading and writing, and thinking about film. People used to say that I’m a workaholic but that’s not true. What is true is that I adore it.”