In the late 1970s, Ridley Scott released what became one of his two most recognizable and famous movies, and inarguably his most successful: Alien.
Alien was and is the quintessential "haunted house" horror movie, transplanted into space and given a coat of SF paint. The crew of the space freighter Nostromo picks up what they believe is a distress call and discover a crashed alien vessel. Within the vessel is a strange room containing what appear to be giant eggs; when a crewman approaches one of these too closely (partly by accident), the egg opens and… something leaps out, somehow penetrating his suit's faceplate. When the crew manages to retrieve him, the victim is unconscious yet somehow still alive, with that monstrous something affixed to his face.
Unfortunately for the crew of Nostromo, that is just the beginning.
Alien is tremendously atmospheric, and indeed depends on its mostly silent, shadowy atmosphere to maintain the audience's uncertainty and tension. What music there is in Alien is subtle and understated most of the time. The Nostromo is carefully designed to be a perfect environment for horror; it is a gigantic ship but mostly automated, and with the grungy, dim look of a long-haul freighter that is maintained well enough to run, but not to be presented to company, so to speak. It is a dark, angular maze of passageways and crawlspaces and sometimes larger, dimly-lit storage or engineering areas, and even within its largest reaches seems somehow claustrophobic.
The eponymous Alien, later called a "xenomorph" (which just means "alien shape"), became one of the most famous and influential creatures in all science fiction's creature-filled history. Designed by H.R. Giger with disturbing techno-organic imagery, the Alien exhibits a life cycle similar to a digger wasp's with a physique of tremendous power, toughness, and speed. The common fan theory for years was that the Aliens were the result of genetic engineering to design a perfect weapon – engineering that succeeded so well that it killed off the species that created it. Given the thing's capabilities, that certainly made sense.
The Alien's speed, its double-jawed head, its clever, murderous stalking, and the techno-organic look, influenced everything from science-fiction movies and TV to slasher horror flicks. Ridley Scott's direction gave a force to the events of the movie that a lesser director would have made weaker, more pedestrian, less effective. The Alien was almost always kept in shadow, never fully revealed until near the end, building our suspense and fear throughout.
While there were quite a few characters in Alien, played by a number of fairly well known actors including John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, and Harry Dean Stanton, only two are generally remembered: Ellen Ripley, Warrant Officer of the Nostromo, played by Sigourney Weaver in her first major role, and the android Ash, the manipulative agent of the Weyland-Yutani company who is more on the alien's side than that of the humans, played with chilling precision by Ian Holm.
Weaver's Ripley was unique for her time. While there had been other female roles in science fiction, even the most action-oriented of them had generally required male assistance at the end. Instead, Ripley is the only survivor to escape the destruction of Nostromo, finally defeating the titular alien creature by first kicking it out the airlock and then blasting it away with her escape pod's rockets.
Had that been the end of the franchise, it still would be well remembered. Alien is one of the few truly frightening horror movies of its era, and still works to a great extent today. There is no reason to remake or revisit it; it remains as powerful a creator of fear and tension as it was the day it was released, and Ripley would be a wonderful symbol of a strong leading woman.
But a few years later a young James Cameron was given the opportunity to create a sequel, and produced Aliens. Rather than attempt to re-create the atmosphere of the original and thus compete with what was already regarded as a classic of the horror genre, Cameron decided to take the background of Alien and make it a slightly different film – an action-suspense film which still used the claustrophobic and restrictive approaches of its predecessor to imperil and terrify the characters… and the viewers.
Cameron was able to get Sigourney Weaver to reprise her role as Ripley, and in so doing completed the genesis of perhaps the single most important female character of her generation. In Aliens Ripley has a chance to confront her fear, find something to replace what she lost in her long coldsleep, and responds to the challenge beyond anyone's expectations. Surrounded by trained marines who are suddenly confronting something they never believed possible, it is Ellen Riply who holds the group together, keeps them from panicking, and gives them a chance to survive – although not many of them will, against an entire colony of Aliens.
Sigourney Weaver took Ripley in her second encounter and made her into the absolute epitome of badass – while keeping her completely human. Ellen Ripley became a symbol for at least a generation, maybe two generations, of women looking for an example of a woman who could be as much the action hero as a man and be believable in that role. Ellen Ripley delivers exactly that, able to confront the Queen Alien in her own lair, surrounded by Alien soldiers and eggs, bargaining for survival – and then successfully fighting her way straight out of a scene in Dante's Inferno when she realizes that the Queen has planned to betray her anyway.
The final confrontation between Ripley and the Alien Queen – epitomized by the soundbite "Get away from her, you bitch!" has itself become one of the most iconic pieces of action filmmaking, Ripley using the cargo powerloader to duel the Queen face-to-face in a primal clash that is fully the equal of any other action film climax.
The later Alien films… were not so good. Alien3 essentially undid all of Ripley's victories in the second film in order to basically replay the original film, only with less of a positive result, and Alien Resurrection tried its best but was handicapped by having to use Alien3 as background material.
However, the truth is that is rarely given to any franchise – movie, TV, or book – to produce more than one work that becomes iconic. The Alien franchise managed to produce two iconic movies, and within them three iconic symbols: the Alien itself, the Alien Queen… and ultimate badass Ellen Ripley. For that, I can forgive its later stumblings.
If you have never watched the first two movies, I strongly urge you to give them a chance. They're old now… but they still work.