Science fiction was everywhere by the time Alien hit theaters in 1979. Two years earlier, Star Wars (also released by 20th Century Fox) had taken over the movie industry. Everybody was trying to make the next next-level blockbuster that would blow the doors off of theaters around the world. So it may have been easy for casual moviegoers to dismiss Alien as another attempt to capitalize on the latest craze. But Alien wasn’t Star Wars. No way. It wasn’t trying to enrapture audiences with space mythology. It was trying to scare the pants off of them.
The story and characters of the original Alien are surprisingly down-to-earth (for lack of a better term) compared to other space-set stories. Alien deals with workaday people, “truck drivers in space” as the creators called them. Led by Captain Dallas (played by Tom Skerritt), the crew of the Nostromo are not intrepid explorers, they’re a small crew transporting cargo. When they’re woken out of a long slumber to take a detour and investigate an odd signal, there are protests. But the company’s rules are rules. And what the crew brings back with them will become iconic in pop culture.
By now everyone knows the major story beats of Alien. The space jockey. The facehugger. The chestburster. The full-grown monster. The chase through the air ducts. The betrayal. The survivor. All of this is told in an efficient, powerful way by director Ridley Scott— there is no wasted motion in his film, few stylistic touches that don’t feel true-to-life, or as true-to-life as something set in outer space can be. The sleek, unsettling look of the Alien in its many forms (famously designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger) was something utterly unique to audiences.
What should never be overlooked, though, are the pivotal contributions of the film’s cast. The seven actors who play the film’s only human characters are simultaneously recognizable “types” and utterly unique on their own. Every member of the cast would go onto greater fame after this film, none bigger than the then-unknown Sigourney Weaver. Though she wasn’t top billed yet, Alien is of course her character’s story, as we slowly get more and more invested in her arc until the thrilling final moments. Audiences entered the theater unfamiliar with Weaver, but by the end they’d never forget her.
Alien is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.