Alien Autopsy – A perfect evolution from script to screen
Screenplay by Walter Hill and David Giler
Based on an original screenplay by Dan O’Bannon
(For reference, the script is available to download here: https://www.avpgalaxy.net/files/scripts/alien-1978-10-04.pdf)
Alien (1979) is a Science Fiction/ Horror screenplay that, on its surface, is about the crew of the commercial towing vehicle, Nostromo, fighting for survival against an alien organism seemingly designed to kill. The original screenplay by Dan O’Bannon was made into the 1979 film of the same name by Ridley Scott. The film became seminal to the genres of Science Fiction and Horror but is also hailed for its economic worldbuilding paradoxically borne by a claustrophobic setting, its oppressive atmosphere, revolutionary special effects and the utilitarian female lead in Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. Delving deeper into the subtext of the screenplay, however, I’ll explore the themes of creation, life, humanity, and survival.
O’Bannon sets a slow, ponderous pace, presenting the industrious innards of the Nostromo from the initial fade in. The introduction of the crew members awakening from Hypersleep is fitting to the ensemble cast whose subsequent deaths only reveal the main character. The reader isn’t offered any single protagonist. Then comes the cold canopy of black space which dwarfs the titanic vessel, adding to the seclusion and isolation of the ship and its crew. The film inverts this. A slow crawl across beautiful, indifferent space. Jerry Goldsmith’s score instantly clawing at the nerves and offering an ominous soundscape of mystery. This gives the viewer time to digest a different space from something like Star Wars (1977), also produced by Fox, in which the fantastical romance is quite literally far, far away from the dissonant, interminable scape of stars.
There are undoubtedly three acts to Alien, and the age-old technique of conflict to propagate narrative is present before the Alien is on board. There is a subtlety to conflict within the dialogue between the characters in the first act. The intimacy, of both the hyphenated, succinct writing style present in the screenplay and that of the character’s physical space aboard the ship feel dynamic.
Each character seems to have hints of personality (if not, personability) from the beginning, but there is no expository dialogue eluding to personal histories or even any context to the time and climate of humanity. All the humanity we need to know is presented to us within the seven crew members of the Nostromo. Dallas is the dutiful Captain but, as is typical with most stories, he isn’t overtly presented as the reader’s buy-in to this world. That would be Ellen Ripley, whom I’ll discuss later. Ash immediately pronounces himself as a company-man, knowing the regulations by which the crew should abide.
“You can walk on it…” (Page 12). Ash says in response to the crew chiming in with investigating the inciting incident of the story: the distress call from an uncharted planetoid. The three dots at the end of Ash’s line speak volumes about his interest in the unknown. This is juxtaposed with Brett and Parker’s earlier references to monetary interests and undue duty to the company. Ash’s dialogue within the first act continues to display his superior logistical knowledge and sycophantic traits. The quiet conflict between opportunism and pragmatism running through the first act is integral to the creeping clandestine nature of the story.
O’Bannon heralds an industriousness through his writing which is embodied within the story and its characters. Pages 35-38 have a conflict of morality between Ripley and Dallas. Ripley following protocol and her gut instincts on whether to allow Dallas, Lambert and a compromised Kane back on board. Ash relinquishes Ripley of the right to decide by opening the airlock himself, and from here onward characters display stronger signs of humanistic traits and individuality. Not least because of the discovery of new life. This isn’t hailed and lauded over as one may expect but rather, it is feared. This is an intrinsic sign to the harsh reality of disparate mankind, trekking star-systems out of necessity rather than discovery. And one where the question of Is there life? in the first act makes way for What is this life? of the second act.
Character motifs and the language of the story are established within the second act. The dinner scene where a seemingly recovered Kane has a slithering Alien beast burst from his chest is an extremely effective way to not only shock the audience with visceral dread (especially in the film) but to introduce the antagonist, who brings with it the horror. The already established Science-Fiction identity combined with the Horror element creates a unique narrative of blended genre. This sense of identity for Alien is crucial to the success of the second act, which, in my opinion, is one of the most successful second acts of any film. The screenplay is the Rosetta Stone for that.
Once the Alien is free from the confines of Kane, the Nostromo is one crew member down; shocked, scared and secluded. The Alien is hiding, from the crew and the reader, and yet it’s never out of mind. Its adverse effect on the characters, especially Ash and Ripley – the former for its preservation, the latter for its destruction – gives weight to convey a broad range of possibilities as to narrative trajectory.
Story embodies, and reveals, the human condition in progress. The purpose of story is to make us more conscious of what it means to be human, so that as humans we can continue to evolve. The purpose of story, in a word, is meaning. (Buchbinder, 2008, p. 42).
It is as if Buchbinder is commenting directly on Alien and its journey through the human condition. Though there are alien life forms and a matriarchal artificial intelligence, the fragility of humankind is ever present. Questions of belonging form from the sense that humanity doesn’t belong on sailing starships. And yet, the human condition has a fierce instinct to survive when we cannot thrive. Though the Alien may have a stronger sense of predatorial lust.
The acid-blood incident is an expert use of visual storytelling.
The liquid flows onto the bedding next to Kane’s head. Starts to hiss. Smoke curls up from the stain. Next, the yellow fluid eats a hole through the bunk bed. (Page 39).
In these succinct sentences, the reader knows the Alien is utterly hostile. The near cataclysmic effect of its blood burning through two decks and nearly breaching the hull bestows a magnificent sense of possibility from this creature. Subtextually, the Alien having lethal acid for blood – the inverse of human blood which carries our life – by very design, is an antecedent metaphor to the Alien tearing through the ship and crew with the same efficient indifference.
The screenwriter is the god of his story. He is involved with only one phase of its lifecycle: creation. (Buchbinder, 2008, p. 44).
This excerpt from Way of the Screenwriter is particularly relevant to how O’Bannon created the utilitarian world, its characters, and the Alien. Any writer is the god of their story, but in Alien, religion isn’t a concept and yet, God is. The conflict of god without religion is presented within humanity in subtle ways throughout the script. A twisted conceit of creation. The Alien wouldn’t have been born without a human host. Humans created their own destruction, as Gods are often like to do within most mythologies – see Scott’s Prometheus (2012) for a more direct indictment of men, gods, and their symbiotic relationship. The deft extra layer here is that humans belonging to the oft mentioned and never seen Company, are why things go so wrong. Their parameters caused Mother to awaken the crew, their company man Ash – literally a machine-man made by the Company – allows the organism onto the ship, and they deem the Alien’s life more important than those of the crew. They’re the deities toying with the gods giving life to aliens.
David Bordwell offers an argument of film structure consisting of six parts. The “canonical story,” “introduction of setting and characters,” “explanation of state of affairs,” “complicating action,” “ensuing events,” “outcome,” “ending”. I believe the initial two and the latter two parts are clustered together in Alien and dealt with economically. Though during the second act, starting with Kane being brought aboard with the Alien inside him, and ending with Ash’s reveal as an android – and his subsequent death/ redemption through pity monologue – there are many degrees of ‘complicating action’ and ‘ensuing events.’ This is why the second act is so effective as a Horror movie following regular tropes like the intermittent deaths of the cast (all the more powerful if the reader cares about them) with intellectual writing and diligent service to believability for the reader/viewer.
The shocking moment of Ash’s reveal as an android hiding in plain sight (Page 89-B) never feels like a trick because of how O’Bannon crafted the script until that point. On page 47 when Dallas is speaking to Ash about getting rid of the Alien, Ash comments: “As long as we’re careful not to damage it.” To Dallas (and the reader) this would make sense after what he learned from the Alien’s blood but it, along with the aforementioned use of the alluding three dots, does reek of foreboding. Ash’s murderous turn is all the more impactful in its misdirection of the Alien as the sole antagonist, as it is earned.
“Screen time is precious so there is no room for wasted dialogue exchanges or superfluous waffle.” (Batty & Waldeback, 2008, p. 67)
The screenplay for Alien uses the Action to build the world and set the scene, leaving dialogue to advance the narrative and allow characters to grow. O’Bannon is absent within the screenplay. Its succinct structure, consisting of an ever-building sense of pressure is ultra-efficient and never indulgent. Perhaps the redrafts by Hill and Giler reformed the script into the pressure cooker of build-up, minimal release, further build-up that at once ponders and propels. The sparing use of the Alien, often only alluded to rather than overtly presented, is very effective in adding to its reign of terror. One never knows where or how it will appear. It’s seemingly omnipresent and paradoxically barely seen. A big decision seeing as O’Bannon had HR Giger already on board to design the perfect organism which isn’t described in much detail at all in the script – Alien was famously pitched as ‘Jaws in Space.’ This not only made shooting the film easier by not blatantly focusing on a man in an Alien suit but worked to ratchet up the tension as the crew (and by proxy the reader/viewer) fear the unknown. The Nostromo, described as “oily,” “dark” and “misty” is a playground for the Alien and as dank and indifferent as the space outside for the crew within.
Amidst Ash, the Company, and the titular Alien, Ripley is the moral compass and dogged persistence of humanity’s endeavor to survive. As the ensemble cast of characters falls to the Alien, Ripley is presented as the protagonist. Under such dire circumstances, Ripley’s internal and external goals coalesce into pure and pragmatic endurance. Her assertion as Captain after Dallas’s seeming death is direct and industrious. That Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley became an iconic film heroine is no fluke. Her survival is down to her tact and intelligence. She incites the search for the Alien, interrogates Ash’s dismembered head and is the sole survivor, thusly defeating the Alien in the terrifying climax. Ripley also displays motherly tendencies in keeping the crew in check with curt discipline, and how she cares for Jones the cat. Finding Dallas still alive (page 98), although harvested for some terrible fate to come, Ripley doesn’t evoke melodrama when killing her former Captain and lover. She does what needs to be done.
There are questions of gods, monsters, and humans intertwined like DNA throughout Alien though Ripley is the matriarch more deserving of the moniker ‘Mother’ than the AI computer. The Alien being blown from the hatch doors of the Narcissus to tumble into space is a visual metaphor for birth. Ripley expels the Alien from her, relieving herself of its burden before it relieves itself of her – as it did with her crew and the now smithereened Nostromo. This is especially prominent in the film, as the framing of the Alien clinging to the hatch door is shot as if from the point of view of a womb giving birth to death incarnate. Ripley’s final words of signing off are poised and professional but still her way of screaming for help. One of the morals of the story, however, is that in space, no one can hear you scream.
Aaron studies Creative and Professional Writing at Bangor University and is Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut and Nation. He is also a Young Critic for the Arts Council of Wales.