10 Things You Might Not Know About Alien

The original Alien remains the best in the franchise, and these fascinating facts about the movie will enrich your experience of the sci-fi horror classic.

Xenomorph in Alien (1979)
Photo: 20th Century Fox

This article contains Alien spoilers

They say that in space, no one can hear you scream. For those who’ve watched Ridley Scott’s Alien, you’ll know that isn’t the case – with this sci-fi staple “screaming” about its legacy for the past 43 years. Making a household name of Sigourney Weaver as Lt. Ellen Ripley, Alien is tightly held as one of the all-time horror greats.

Although the franchise has since spun off into sequels, prequels, and those maligned Alien Vs Predator crossovers, it all returns to the USCSS Nostromo and its doomed crew. While it’s ironic that the titular alien is only on the screen for a total of four minutes, this isn’t the only factoid to slither from behind the scenes. Here are 10 things you might not know about Alien

1. What’s in a Name?

There’s something simplistic about the name Alien, and now, it’s hard not to imagine the atmospheric crawl of the letters being spelt on-screen. Up there with other one-word horrors, it packs a punch like It and Scream. Like the latter being changed from the original title of Scary Movie, Alien had a change of identity.

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Originally called Star Beast, the first treatment came from Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. It reworked O’Bannon’s previous idea of a World War II setting of gremlins on a B-17 bomber.

When the second half of the movie sent them to space, O’Bannon suggested the change because of the number of times the word “alien” was used. Star Beast doesn’t have the same ring to it, but in some alternate reality, fans are probably waiting to hear about Noah Hawley’s Star Beast series on FX.

2. An Artistic Inspiration 

Part of what has helped catapult the Xenomorph into the atmos of horror legends alongside Freddy, Jason, and the rest, is the species’ iconic look. The Xenomorph is based on the paintings of H.R. Giger, with the design being traced back to his 1976 painting, Necronom IV. 

Discussing the now-iconic look of the alien in 1979’s The Book of Alien, O’Bannon said, “I had never seen anything that was quite as horrible and at the same time as beautiful as his work. And so I ended up writing a script about a Giger monster.”

Although Giger’s catalogue was branded too “disturbing” at first, Scott was all-in on the artist’s work and quickly brought him on board to design all aspects of the Xenomorph and LV-426. He wasn’t the only artistic inspiration, though, with the chestburster scene being inspired by Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” from 1944.

3. Han Solo and Amanda Priestley 

A great “what if?” is the idea that Harrison Ford could’ve played Captain Dallas instead of Tom Skerritt or Meryl Streep as Ripley instead of Weaver. The 2000 biography titled Harrison Ford: Imperfect Hero claims the star was offered the role of the level-headed captain but turned it down. 

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It’s easy to forget that back when Alien was being made, Star Wars had only just come out. With most of the Alien cast being relatively unknown, it might’ve taken us out of the action to have Han Solo aboard the Nostromo. 

As for Streep, a clip from the Alien Anthology Blu-ray has producer Gordon Carroll confirm he suggested her and Weaver. Streep was mourning the death of partner John Cazale at the time, so he took her name out of the running.  

4. A Darker Demise 

In Alien’s bleak finale, Ripley is the sole (human) survivor of the Nostromo, blows up the ship, and escapes in a lifecraft. Little does Ripley know, but the Xenomorph is on board with her – cue a tense showdown where she blasts the beast out of an airlock and torches it with the ship’s engine.

Despite surviving, it’s hardly a win when Ripley signs off and floats into the abyss to be found years later for Aliens. Still, it’s a damn sight chirpier than the original ending, which would’ve seen the alien get back on the ship and then brutally decapitate Ripley.

We’d still get a sign-off, but in a chilling twist, the Xeno was going to mimic Captain Dallas and presumably lure another unsuspecting crew to its doom. Scott has since discussed the alternate Alien ending and said the executives threatened to fire him if Ripley kicked the bucket. Well, you can’t kill off a franchise here, can you? 

5. Genuine Shock

When you think of Alien, there’s only one scene that comes to mind. The bloody demise of John Hurt’s Kane frequently tops lists of the best horror moments of all time, and to this day, seeing him writing in agony before a tiny Xeno smashes through his sternum is an incredible watch.

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The cast might’ve had a rough idea of how things were going to play out, but in a 2009 interview with The Guardian, they admitted they were largely in the dark. According to Weaver, “All it said in the script was, ‘This thing emerges,’” which means the look we see on her face is one of actual horror. 

Explaining why he reduced it only to Hurt knowing the intricate details, Scott added, “The reactions 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.” Shussett said that Veronica Cartwright (Lambert) passed out, while Yaphet Kotto (Parker) went to his room and refused to talk to anyone.

6. Joseph Conrad Connections

It’s not just the artwork of Giger and Bacon that helped inspire Alien’s aesthetic, with Joseph Conrad’s works effectively being a pre-Marvel Easter egg for fans to look out for. Scott’s first major picture was an adaptation of Conrad’s The Duel, and his love of the Polish-born author went from there.

In Alien, the name Nostromo comes from Conrad’s novel of the same name, while Ripley’s lifeboat is named Narcissus after a vessel in The Children of the Sea. The tradition extends beyond Scott, with the franchise continuing to honour Conrad via the names of spaceships.

Aliens’ USS Sulaco is named after a town in Nostromo, Alien3’s USCSS Patna is a ship in Lord Jim, and even the Alien: Isolation video game includes USCSS Torrens being named after a real-life ship Conrad served on.

7. Harsh Conditions

Being trapped in the confines of a tin can in space or exploring an arid planet with acid-bleeding monsters wasn’t enough, the working conditions on the set of Alien apparently weren’t much better.

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Filming took place during sweltering heat, so we imagine those scenes where the crew are dripping with sweat didn’t take much imagination. Part of the problem was the spacesuits worn were hefty, lined with nylon, and originally had no ventilation for exhaled carbon dioxide. There were nurses on-hand with oxygen tanks, and reportedly, it was only after Scott and cinematographer Dennis Vanlint’s sons nearly passed out that they were altered.

In an interview with Yahoo!, Skerritt cleared up some of the movie’s myths and admitted it wasn’t great in the suits. Still, he says, “It wasn’t as bad as everyone says.” Saying he sucked it up and got on with it, Skerritt added, “When you’re working with someone of that calibre, you don’t complain,”

8. Finding the Crew

It’s hard to imagine the Alien franchise without Ripley, and although Scott has tried to do this with Prometheus and Alien Covenant, many feel they’re missing our horror heroine. In some alternate reality, imagine if Ripley were male.

When the cast was auditioning for Alien, none of the roles were gendered. The first script (via Daily Script) confirmed that Dallas, Lambert, Ripley, and co. were simply written as names, thanks to a clause that states, “The crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women.” That being said, Scott imagined Ripley as male – presumably to fit with action hero stereotypes at the time. 

Discussing the change (via CBR), Scott said 20th Century Fox President Alan Ladd asked why can’t Ripley be male: “There was a long pause, that at that moment I never thought about it. I thought, why not, it’s a fresh direction, the ways I thought about that. And away we went.” Even in the finished movie, the only mention of gender is when Captain Dallas refers to Ripley as “my dear.”

9. Casting the Xenomorph

Unlike Weaver becoming a household name, the man synonymous with the Xenomorph has faded into obscurity. Nigerian student Bolaji Badejo was picked up in a Soho bar by the Alien casting team.

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In a 1979 interview with Cinefantastique Magazine (via Strange Shapes), Badejo said he was picked due to his imposing 6″10 and even beat Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew to the part. Despite helping bring the Xenomorph to life, Badejo turned down the offer of a part in the sequel – having moved back to Nigeria in 1980. 

Scott originally pushed for animatronics to get away from the look of “a man in a suit,” however, the technology wasn’t there. You might notice there are no front-facing shots of the Xenomorph because he wanted to avoid it looking too human. For the final fight, the set was built around Badejo but was still cramped. At one point, the whole tail fell off. 

10. The Many Furry Faces of Jones 

It’s true that Ripley wasn’t the sole survivor of the Nostromo, with a furry friend accompanying her on her escape. Jones the cat survived our first brush with the Xeno, and while the nine-lived feline is long dead in real life, he’s got quite the history.

There were four cats to play Jones, with the novel Alien Vault confirming one was for holding, one was for hissing, etc. According to comedian Sooz Kempner, she owned one of the cats growing up. Proving her sceptics wrong, Kempner tweeted a picture of “Boris” to confirm he was Jones.

To get Jones to react to the Xenomorph during Brett’s death scene, they used a German Shepherd to taunt the cat/cats. Early in filming, Weaver came out with a rash and thought she was allergic to cats – telling the crew it would be easier to replace her. In fact, it was just a reaction to the glycerin sprayed on her skin to make her look sweaty.