The space tug Nostromo is on its way back to Earth with its crew in stasis. They are Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt), Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), android Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm), and Engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton). The ship’s computer, Mother (voice of Helen Horton), detects a distress signal from a nearby planet and awakens them. Landing on a moon, they sustain damage which the engineers must attend to, and Dallas, Kane, and Lambert investigate the signal, which is a mysterious warning from a derelict alien ship.
Kane discovers hundreds of large eggs. A creature leaps out of one, breaks his helmet, and attaches itself to his face. The others carry Kane back to the ship, the captain overruling Ripley’s contagion fears. Ash attempts to remove the creature, but its blood is a powerful acid that burns through decks and almost holes the ship. Eventually, it detaches of its own accord and dies. Kane awakes apparently unharmed. Before they go into stasis, a small creature bursts from Kane’s chest, killing him, and runs off.
The crew tries to locate it and capture it, to no avail. It grows quickly, attacks Brett, and disappears with his body. Dallas tries to find it in the air-duct, but it kills him. Ripley is now in command. She accesses the computer and finds that Ash has been ordered by the Company to bring the creature back to Earth, with the crew expendable. She confronts Ash and he tries to kill her. Parker hits him with a club and knocks loose his head, revealing him to be an android. They learn that his owners want to ensure the creature’s survival. He admires it. They incinerate him.
The remaining crew decide to destroy the Nostromo and escape in the shuttle, Narcissus, but Parker and Lambert are ambushed and killed. Ripley initiates the self-destruct sequence. She puts the ship’s cat, Jones, in a carrier and makes it into the shuttle, escaping just before the ship explodes. Before she enters stasis, she discovers that the creature is in the shuttle with her. She manages to push it out the airlock and into the engine exhaust, firing it into space. She returns to Earth in the stasis pod with Jones.
The film, one of the triumphs of SF horror, was directed by Ridley Scott and written by Dan O’Bannon, based on a story by Gordon Carroll, David Glier, and Walter Hill of Brandywine Productions, distributed by 20th Century Fox. The alien itself was designed by the brilliant and strange Swiss artist H.R. Giger. It won an Oscar, three Saturns, and a Hugo. It spawned nine more movies and made the career of Sigourney Weaver, most promising newcomer at the time.
Veronica Cartwright had been in The Birds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. She wanted the Ripley role and was disappointed to be chosen for Lambert, who is terrified the whole time. Ridley Scott and others convinced her that she was the one the audience would identify with. She won a Saturn Award for the role. John Hurt was nominated for a BAFTA Award for the character whose chest is broken open, a scene repeated over and over again in any documentary about SF horror. Yaphet Kotto had just played Doctor Katanga in Live and Let Die. He rejected a big money role to be in Alien. The creature was played by Nigerian Bolaji Badejo, who was six-foot-ten without the costume and thin enough to make it look like there was nobody inside.
The film was famously inspired by Dan O’Bannon’s beachball alien in Dark Star by John Carpenter and by H.R. Giger’s disturbing pictures, as well as The Thing, Forbidden Planet, Planet of the Vampires, and stories by Clifford D. Simak and Philip Jose Farmer. 20th Century Fox was not happy about doing a science-fiction film until the sudden success of Star Wars, but the grungy ship, the obviously older working-class crew, and the horror were far from the youthful and happy-go-lucky world of Star Wars. Four orange cats played Jones. My wife’s comment in the theater: if they kill the cat, I’m leaving. Jerry Goldsmith did the three-times nominated music.
For the chestburster scene, the cast didn’t know how much blood there would be, and their shock was genuine. Cartwright fell over and went into hysterics. It has been compared to the decapitation scene in The Omen and the transformation in An American Werewolf in London. Brilliantly, the creature did not fully appear until an hour into the movie. A showing in Dallas had people screaming and running from the theater. I count nineteen nominations and awards. 20th Century Fox claimed it lost two million dollars, which was met with outright laughter. There is a cottage industry of analysis of the sexual imagery in the movie.
Jones the Cat, supposed to hiss at the alien, was suddenly shown a German Shepherd. The facehugger and chestburster were designed to make males uncomfortable. It was called revenge for all those women ravaged by movie monsters. Ridley Scott said it was inspired by three films: 2001, Star Wars, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Veronica Cartwright and Sigourney Weaver had to wear tape over their nipples for the T-shirt scene so as not to offend certain countries. Tom Skerrit traded in his salary for half a per cent of the royalties. A theater owner in Texas, bothered by people barfing in the restrooms, cut out the chestburster scene. Veronica Cartwright’s sister is Angela Cartwright—Penny on Lost in Space.
I read a great blog on Yahoo!Life by Liz Arcury, that pointed out that everybody on the Nostromo died because none of the men on board would listen to Ellen Ripley. The only male who survived was Jones the Cat. In the sequel, Aliens, nobody at Weyland-Yutani believed her and she had to go back to the scene of her horrors to prove her allegations. The only ones to survive that trip, aside from Ripley, are a little girl and a robot.