“'Jaws' in space” was the pitch Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett put to their initial script for 'Alien'. Yet no studio wanted to make “'Jaws' in space”. Then, as all now openly admit, it was hurriedly green-lit following the success of 'Star Wars' - fairly hilariously, as it would be hard to think of two films more unlike each other. In 1979 it finally hit the screens.
When both films notched up hits under the same genre label, science fiction was back in mainstream cinema. 'Star Wars' of course brought the bigger swell of immediate cash-ins. (It looked pretty easy, after all. You just needed a hero with a ray gun, a villain in black and a girl in a silver bikini.) But in terms of lasting influence, 'Alien' had the bigger impact. I have lost count of the times I have stumbled back from the pub on a weekend, clicked on the telly and immediately gone ”Ah, 'Alien' cash-in.” Even films which aren't simple spoiler products, which have their own plots and agendas can show it's imprint.
...an imprint which comes chiefly through it's design, the dirtied-down anti-sleek look O'Bannon called “the used future.” It's like industrial gothic meets surrealist nightmare beneath some severe under-lighting. 'Star Wars' stemmed from the gaudy, adventurous world of Saturday morning serials and comics, with the Marvel adaptation decided early. It was a previously critically rated arthouse director going mainstream. 'Alien' was the other way up, taking notions from the margins to the mainstream. It's chief visual designers were ex-underground cartoonist Ron Cobb (who had previously worked with O'Bannon on 'Dark Star') and gothic surrealist artist HR Giger.
But also, from the weird-sounding transmission which kicks off the plot, 'Alien' always seemed to overlap with contemporary music, particularly the then-emerging genre of industrial music. (Check out Throbbing Gristle's 'Hamburger Lady.) Indeed, Graeme Revell of industrial band SPK later became a Hollywood composer.
Yet the paradox is that a film which spawned so many sequels and copyists actually occupies a strange kind of pivot-point between Seventies and Eighties cinema. This emphasis on look and design in itself makes that film that classic of the Seventies – mainstream auteurist.
There's a kind of myth that's now arisen around the idea 'Alien' was fertilized by the shit of B-movie schlock. Whereas it actually owes most to Hawkes' acclaimed 'The Thing From Another World' (1951). 'It! The Terror From Beyond Space' (1958) has a more headline-style title and may well have been an actual B Feature (shown as a warm-up for the film audiences had actually paid to see). But it's actually a much better film than any of that suggests. Scott was simply too smart to take influence from bad films when he could have looked at good ones.
Nevertheless, it's fair to say the plot line is pure B-movie. It's only in seeing it, the deranged designs, that unsettling strangeness, the pressure-cooker effect of events on the crew, that it becomes effective. O'Bannon and Shusett's script may have languished so long simply because it wasn't designed to work on the page, it needed a strong visual imagination to bring it to life. Their work is important, of course, but the film is rightly thought of as Ridley Scott's 'Alien'.
Moreover, you don't just not get the atmosphere from the plot, you also don't get the theme. In another zeitgeisty moment, 'Alien' is seen as a crossover between a science fiction and a slasher film. Notably the two sequel-spawning staples of the slasher genre bookend it, 'Halloween' in 1978 and 'Friday the 13th' in 1980. Certainly, the same formula is there – chop away at the cast until you're left with the monster and the last girl. But there's important differences. Perhaps I shouldn't generalise about a genre I don't follow or care for, but I contend the formula of slasher films is 'sex sublimated into violence.' When the sex can't get any more explicit for a mainstream film, somebody gets chopped up instead. (A far more savoury sight, of course.)
Whereas, and unusually for a mainstream film, 'Alien' not only doesn't have any sex scenes, it doesn't even bother with romance subplots. (An early idea was that Ripley and Dallas would be together, but it never seemed a notion the film's events would lead to them getting together.) True, at the end Sigourney Weaver strips down to her scanties. But that's to emphasise her vulnerability. (Well, you know, partly.)
Instead the sexuality is thrust upon the alien and the landscape. Sexual imagery abounds (penetration, gestation) but transformed into something horrific and otherly - like a universe that's out to rape you. The Alien is not just horrific but also icky. Slime is a signpost to horror here and in all the sequels. Most crucially, it doesn't just invade their ship, it invades the human body. The theme is Body horror, something then absent from most SF or even slasher films.
Crucially for this to be effective, the crew is composed not of bold astronauts but regular working guys. This comes straight from scripter Dan O'Bannon's previous feature 'Dark Star.' (Whose plot is effectively the crew going insane through the monotony of space travel, the trucking without the pit stops.) In 'Beautiful Monsters: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Alien and Predator Films' David McIntee notes that part of the film's effectiveness in frightening viewers "comes from the fact that the audience can all identify with the characters...Everyone aboard the Nostromo is a normal, everyday, working Joe just like the rest of us. They just happen to live and work in the future."
Furthermore, the film is steeped in a kind of anti-corporate cynicism, a common theme among auteurist films of the era. Pakula's 'The Parallax View' (1974), for example, though ostensibly a thriller, was set in such a strange defamiliarised modernist environment it's almost an honorary SF film. Yaphet Kotto, who plays Parker, had only just starred in Schrader's anti-corporate drama 'Blue Collar' (1978). Similarly, here the Alien may be the adversary but the Company are effectively the villain, through their attempts to get their clutches on it they put the crew in danger.
Yet the peculiarity of 'Alien' is to come at the end of this era. Significantly, its release coincided with two big signposts of political change, the elections of Margaret Thatcher (1979) and Ronald Reagan (1981). Initially there's an upstairs-downstairs division between the crew, with grunts Parker and Brett attempting to demand parity in “the bonus situation.” But ship's Captain Dallas resembles the “Carter power” which the Dead Kennedys were predicting to “soon go away.” Such distinctions soon erode under the alien threat, and after some accelerated Darwinism 'downstairs' Parker and 'upstairs' Ripley are the last to survive. It's the modern world. Career paths don't go to plan any more. You can only rely on yourself.
It would be tempting to claim the Alien as the market, a ruthless self-serving machine we can only organise ourselves around. As is said of it at one point, “its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” (Should the tag line have been “in the neoliberal mode of production, no-one can hear you scream?”) Indeed, the motor here and in the sequels is the Company forever trying to catch and weaponise the Alien. And wanting to have the Alien is akin to wanting to be like it. But their plans are forever going awry. The Alien is more likely the natural world, the cycle of life the Company seek to control and dominate.
Yet this just leads us into something more crucial. Ash says of it, “I admire it's purity. A survivor...unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.” But this description also fits Ripley, who was willing to leave the others in quarantine rather than risk infection aboard the ship. Ultimately, Ripley doesn't win because she is more moral, she survives because she is tougher and smarter. She's the human being most similar to the Alien. Significantly the film ends with her final log, not a stirring speech or smart sound-bite, but a simple, direct statement of survival.
Significantly, neither 'Halloween' nor 'Friday the 13th felt obliged to keep the same female protagonist through their sequels. It's easier to get in a fresh crop of nubile girlies to get their kit off and then get offed, then another for the next one. After all, it's the guy with the chopper and the hockey mask people have come to see. Yet the Alien films all have to feature Ripley, just like you couldn't make a Dalek film without the Doctor. (Unless of course you count the '...vs. Predator' films. Which we don't.)
So... the look of the film is hugely influential, and the themes can only be found if seen through the prism of that look. But the look stuck while those themes would disappear not only in the imitators, but by the first direct sequel. The working crew, are replaced by (in order) space marines, monastic convicts and galactic outlaws. Their crossing and improvised dialogue is swapped for the reading of often-quotable lines. In short, the characters in the sequel films are characters from films. Ripley reappears, it's true, but with fading recognisability. By the fourth she's virtually become a superhero.
Sequels have many of the trappings of fanfic. One of which is, under the guise of 'developing' themes, making explicit what worked much better when implicit. A classic example is the accelerating literalism of the comparison between Ripley and the Alien. Let's count 'em. When she starts looking after a child instead of a cat, there's suddenly an Alien queen with her brood. Then she gets effectively pregnant with an alien. Then she becomes part-alien. If they'd made a fifth sequel, perhaps they could have swapped over roles entirely, and she'd chase the Alien in it's underwear through some gothic-looking set. (The poster for the third film was a comparison shot of Ripley and the Alien's heads.)
Similarly, an effective component of the Company's ruthless inhumanity is the way they lie unseen, existing only as offstage orders. They're not even named, they're simply referred to as 'the Company'. That last job you were laid off from, did you ever meet the guy who made the decision? Of course not! Someone, somewhere simply sent a message saying “crew expendable.”
Their one visual representative, Ash, turning out to be an android is perfect. How many times have you spoken to somebody representing a corporation who as the conversation went on became more and more like a machine? The personalised villains of the sequels do not add anything, do not tell us more about the Company or how it functions. They simply take stuff away.
But overall, if the sequels break away from the original that's their strength rather than their weakness. If you're going to do sequels, that's how you need to do them. Movies are standalone, they don't work well as chapters in an overarching storyline. Each film is made by a new director with a new angle, a new visual style and no thought of further sequels. Then another new crew come in and do the same.
It's not so much passing the baton as handing someone your car keys and telling them to go nuts. Of course, they crash the car. But they crash it somewhere else, in some new way, unforeseeable from where it was last parked. They're all, of course, inferior to the first film. But by minimising the points of comparison they give themselves the best fighting chance.
Take the way the Alien is designed slightly differently in each. While of course the original was the perfect killing machine. It's like the way sharks and crocodiles have stayed as they are for millennia, without need of evolution. Change is pointless. But necessary. You either mutate the Alien or throw in the towel.
Of course each is, in it's own way, flawed. But perhaps significantly the least flawed, the most functionally effective, is the second one, 'Aliens' – which essentially turns the whole thing into one big battle. (The tag line, “this time it's war”, effectively tipped us off - “this time it's not really an 'Alien' film”.) It succeeds most by attempting least. (My personal favourite among the sequels is the third. Despite it being... you know... flawed.)
And of course through breaking away they escaped the other great trap of sequels or fanfic – of wanting to explain or elaborate on things from the original, to answer questions no-one was actually interested in asking. They old stuff was just a springboard. Now it's time to make new stuff up. Which was better for all concerned.