As 'Prometheus' debuts, why 'Alien' remains a cinematic icon 33 years later

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

20th Century Fox/AP
'Prometheus' is director Ridley Scott's return to the 'Alien' universe after 33 years.

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

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.

“One of the great strengths of ‘Alien’ is its pacing,” film critic Roger Ebert said in a review of the director’s cut of the film, which was released in 2003. “It takes its time. It waits. It allows silences…a recent version of this story would have hurtled toward the part where the alien jumps on the crew members.”

Scott’s directing style influenced subsequent horror films such as “Halloween,” which relied on slow and pacing and eerie soundtracks to create an anticipatory effect in viewers. Aside from the end of “Alien,” when Ripley blows the monster out of the shuttle into space, the tall, metallic-looking creature makes only minor appearances. The rest of the film follows the Nostromo crew as they navigate around the ship’s dark corners, often in silence or accompanied by the violin creaks of Jerry Goldsmith’s score, building up the fear of the unknown.

Likewise, O’Bannon and his team’s cynicism regarding space exploration (specifically, the idea that corporations in space would be as corrupt as they are on Earth) further helped legitimized the science fiction and horror genres in their exploration of political and societal problems. In the film, the android and science officer Ash tries to prevent Ripley and the crew from killing the alien based on orders from the corporation that owns Nostromo, a plot point that continues in “Aliens” (1986).

Even years after the release of “Alien,” some cast members have spoken out about the continued historical and symbolic importance of the film, as have those involved with “Prometheus.”

“It was so different,” Veronica Cartwright, otherwise known as Chief Navigator Lambert in “Alien,” said in a documentary feature. ”It wasn’t like any other monster movie that had ever been made.”

Noomi Rapace, who plays the lead role of archaeologist Elizabeth Scott in “Prometheus,” said in an Empire interview that Scott’s first film of the franchise “blew [her] away completely.”

“It was the first time I was shocked by a whole movie, and the first time I saw a woman doing things that men have always done before,” she said. “It changed a lot of things in me.”

Did “Prometheus” live up to the hype? See film critic Peter Rainer’s review here.

Megan Riesz is a Monitor contributor.

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