By Jerry Chandler
From time to time, the timeline of cinema history has giant red lines etched into it that separate eras. There are the way things were or were expected to be before that point in time/event and then the way things were or were expected to be after that point in time/event. For science fiction cinema, the 1970s had two huge red lines etched into its timeline that changed the way we expected big budget science fiction to look on screen.
One of those lines came in 1977 with Star Wars. Star Wars brought on entire new expectations with regards to what science fiction on the big screen would look like. But, for as much as some people talk about the dirty, used, lived in look of the technology in Star Wars, the real impact Star Wars had was the work ILM did with both the FX work and in how some of that FX work was shot. The world of Star Wars may have been dirtier and more dog-eared than the world of 2001: A Space Odyssey just shy of a decade before it, but many of the visuals of the one could have easily felt at home in the other. Then the other red line in cinema’s timeline came along in 1979, and that red line, the movie Alien, changed the way we expected science fiction on the big screen to look in more ways than one.
That’s not hyperbole. The success of Alien literally changed the way science fiction films looked. Everything from the look of the ships to the look of the crew to the look of the alien menace of a film changed after Alien. Forget pristine clean or even a comfortably lived in look with your space ships, because Alien made space travel grungy as hell. The ship from Alien and many that would follow on its heels took their design ideas from looked barely comfortable, cramped to the point of being claustrophobic, and in need of constant tinkering and upkeep. The crew looked more like a motley band of mechanics than they did the usual clean cut service members soaring through the stars or the dashing hero/scoundrel characters. There was a reason for that.
In Alien, your typical crew were working stiffs just trying to get a payday and get home again. They at times seemed like they had far more in common with the crew you’d find at the local shit kicker bar on a Friday evening than the crew you’d find at an elite military space command or at the local adventurer’s club. They didn’t walk around the ship in spacesuits, uniforms, or some kind of company issued outfit. They wore whatever they seemed to have when it was time to leave for an expedition, whether this was just a stained white shirt and baggy work pants or some comfortable jeans and a gaudy looking Hawaiian shirt. It wasn’t the first time you’d seen this in speculative fiction. As Robert Ebert was fond of noting, the story and characters of Alien would have been totally at home in John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction during its nuts-and-bolts period of the 1940s. But it was this time with this film where it may have had one of the biggest impacts on films to come later.
However, more than what your crew was going to look and act like, Alien changed the way we expected science fiction vessels and landscapes to look. It also changed the way we expected aliens as big bads to look. The designs in Alien where visually a revelation on the big screen. They created an expectation in audiences of what could be done that films made in the next decade had to try to meet or exceed or be deemed lesser efforts. You can see the design DNA of Alien in most of the science fiction that followed it- unless it was trying to be Star Wars -through much of the 1980s.
What’s amazing to me is how close we were to never having what Alien gave us. The major names connected to Alien other than Ridley Scott were O’Bannon, Moebius, Giger, and Foss. The things is, they were hardly major names at the time. O’Bannon had a bit of a buzz name in some circles and Foss may have been known to some in Hollywood for his artwork, but that was largely it. As I covered in more detail HERE in another Needless Things article; all of the key players that made Alien such a visually amazing spectacle and made it a film that set new visual bars in Hollywood science fiction only met because they were discovered and assembled as a team for the ill-fated adaptation of Dune that Alejandro Jodorowsky would spend a year of his and their lives on before seeing it fall apart without so much as a second of film ever being shot.
Maybe the most important name on that list for fans of Alien out of all of Jodorowsky’s “spiritual warriors” is the unknown artist he plucked up to design the Harkonnen culture for his film. This would be the principle designer of the alien in Alien, H.R. Giger.
Giger’s design for the alien threat of the film (as well as a few other things we saw along the way) was like nothing most filmgoers had seen before, and the alien’s unique look was instrumental in turning it into an almost instant iconic creation in science fiction and horror. It’s actually fascinating to look at how influential the alien creation and the alien’s creator would become to American cinema and speculative fiction and then see how Giger’s introduction to these was dependent on a series of unlikely connections and events.
Alien was a B movie made in the 1970s with A movie aspirations. It was a science fiction/horror thrill ride of the type that was more commonly seen in the low budget, exploitation films of that era. It was created by a diverse crew who, when talking about the key players, should really have never met. That makes it all the more amazing that Alien would become one of those red lines etched into cinema’s timeline, but it is absolutely a film that changed science fiction cinema and what audiences expected from science fiction cinema forever.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. When not wasting too much time on social media, he can be found writing regularly here at Needless Things, but has also written for websites like Gruesome Magazine as well as remembering to put up the occasional musings on his on blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, Decades of Horror, and the Nerdy Laser. He has also recently become a regular cohost of The Assignment: Horror Podcast.