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As 'Prometheus' debuts, why 'Alien' remains a cinematic icon 33 years later (+video)

'Prometheus' arrives in theaters today, but people are still talking about 'Alien,' the 1979 Ridley Scott predecessor.

By Megan Riesz / June 8, 2012

'Prometheus' is director Ridley Scott's return to the 'Alien' universe after 33 years.

20th Century Fox/AP

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“In space, no one can hear you scream.”

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It’s one of the most famous taglines in film history, even more recognizable than “Play it again, Sam” or “Houston, we have a problem” – and it’s only one of many that appeared on “Alien” posters in 1979.

“Once again something has come from space and this time, it’s not a friend,” one said. “Prepare yourself,” warned another.

In a post-“Jaws” and “Star Wars” world, the demand for big-budget thriller and science-fiction movies was high. Ridley Scott, who won the Best Debut Film award in 1977 for his historical drama “The Duellists,” accepted an offer to direct a film about a team of astronauts picked off one by one by a hostile space organism. Thus, the birth of “Alien” – which Scott has revisited 33 years later in the form of a prequel, “Prometheus.”

The enormous hype surrounding the $120-130 million “Prometheus,” which revisits the mysterious “space jockey” in “Alien,” suggests the cultural power of the latter. Not only did the Nostromo crew’s battle against the alien astound and alarm audiences in 1979, it established a new genre of female action hero and it has remained a topic of conversation in Hollywood boardrooms and around kitchen tables.

“‘Alien’ was an acid-burned anecdote to the dewy-eyed optimism of ‘Close Encounters’ and ‘Star Wars,’" one documentary feature says. “This was future fantasy with razor-sharp fangs, a groundbreaking genre classic which gave nightmarish fall to unspeakable anxieties.”

Intent on making “Alien” better than a B-rated movie, co-writers Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett were unsure what the hostile organism should look like, or how it would get aboard Nostromo. All they knew is that it needed to be “horrific and visceral.” One night, Shusett woke up with the inspiration he needed – the facehugger, which plants an alien embryo inside Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt).

Upon realizing Kane has been contaminated, warrant officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) refuses to let him aboard Nostromo. This proves to be the first of many instances in which Ripley displays better judgment than her superiors. She is the only survivor at the end of “Alien” and has since become the face of the franchise, rated No. 1 on Total Film’s list of the 100 Greatest Female Characters.

Eventually, the alien inside Kane bursts from his chest and begins its murderous rampage. Unlike films of the time like “Star Wars” – although similar to “Jaws” – the man-versus-monster battle takes place in a confined area with no way out. And as the great white shark did for “Jaws,” fear of the unknown (and of silence) catapulted “Alien” to big box office numbers and critical acclaim.

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