The original ‘Alien’ from 1979 is an exercise in quiet tension and measured intensity, and Ridley Scott’s film has the distinct advantage of being the first.

Scott’s film is just about as close to perfect as a science-fiction thriller can be, and has ever been. While it borrows from sci-fi stories of the past (The Thing From Another World, Invasion of The Body Snatchers). The film written by Dan O’Bannon takes those influences and carves its own path of horror.

The idea for Alien came about when writer Dan O’Bannon was studying cinema at university and he made a science fiction film with director John Carpenter and concept artist Ron Cobb called Dark Star. The whole experience left O’Bannon wanting to do a story more focused on horror with an alien that actually looked real. He will work on the script during the following years and when he then worked on a film adaptation of Dune he met several artists there including Chris Foss, H.R. Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud. He found Giger’s art disturbing but captivating at the same time so he wrote a script with a creature based on his work. The working title for the script was going to be Star Beast but O’Bannon didn’t like it and changed it to Alien. O’Bannon then turned to 20th Century Fox, who together with producers at Brandywine, asked the 1977’s The Duellists director, Ridley Scott to step in as director. The rest is history.

The brilliant cast as a group of blue-collar space workers put in an impossible situation, with Sigourney Weaver as the quintessential heroine, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto. The excellent artwork as one of the greatest Lovecraft-ian visualizations of pure terror ever put on screen, by Swiss artist H. R. Giger, while concept artists Ron Cobb and Chris Foss. The excellent script by Dan O’Bannon, and not least the vision of Ridley Scott, to use just the precise enough of practical effects to make our anticipation and fear build to a crescendo throughout the movie, with a creature that is barely visible, and rarely glimpsed, in the dripping shadows of the Nostromo, waiting to kill the ship’s crew one by one.

Alien was released on May 25, 1979, in the United States and was met with critical acclaim and found box office success. The success of Alien spawned a media franchise of novels, comic books, video games, and toys. It also launched Weaver’s acting career, providing her with her first lead role. The story of her character Ellen Ripley’s encounters with the Alien creatures became the thematic and narrative core of the sequels Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992) and Alien Resurrection (1997).[17] A crossover with the Predator franchise produced the Alien vs. Predator films, which includes Alien vs. Predator (2004) and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007). A prequel series includes Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017).

Alien chestburster scene

The Alien chestburster scene is the stuff of movie legend – and could genuinely be one of cinema’s greatest ever scenes if only for the reason that, despite having seen it countless times before, you still never expect what follows.

John Hurt’s character Kane, having had an unknown creature attached to his face for days, sits down to eat with his fellow Nostromo crew members; all seems well until he begins convulsing in pain. As the crew members try to contain him, a small alien creature bursts through his chest, killing Kane, before escaping into the depths of the ship.

In an old issue of Empire, the cast and crew of 1979 sci-fi horror Alien – including Scott and actors Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Veronica Cartwright (Lambert) and Yaphet Kotto (Parker) – revisited the moment, reflecting upon its gory legacy.

Scott’s desire was that of genuine reactions of terror, “[They] were going to be the most difficult thing. If an actor is just acting terrified, you can’t get the genuine look of raw, animal fear,” he mused.

Cartwright, who famously passed out when cameras stopped rolling, said: “We read the script. They showed us a mock-up, but they didn’t show how it was going to work. They just said, ‘Its head will move and it’s going to have teeth’.

The scene remains one of the most shocking and famous of all time, largely because it’s a master class in filmmaking.

This article is part of the series Iconic Scenes from Science Fiction