The 11 Movies That Paved The Way for Ridley Scott’s Alien

Before Alien arrived in 1979, these nearly dozen movies provided the ingredients for its ultimate hybrid of sci-fi and horror.

space jockey in Alien
Photo: 20th Century Studios

Alien didn’t just spring fully formed out of the heads of director Ridley Scott and writers Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett, Walter Hill, and David Giler. Its combination of “monster on the loose” and “haunted house in space” scenario was perhaps the ultimate distillation of a long line of sci-fi and horror pictures that had come before it, from quick B-movie cheapies to some of the genre’s most elegant offerings. What Alien did under the visionary hand of its director, however, was meld all those influences together in a way that transcended the schlockier elements of the film’s influences and elevated the more artistic and meaningful ones. The result wasn’t just a monster movie, but a psychosexual nightmare with Lovecraftian overtones and a sense of existential dread.

It was also a film that impacted countless others in the 45 years since its release (it came out in May 1979) while spawning a shipload of sequels and spinoffs, including this August’s Alien: Romulus. But it might never have happened if other movies before it hadn’t laid down markers and established templates for O’Bannon, Scott, et al. to fashion into a horror/sci-fi masterpiece. Here are 11 movies that paved the way for Alien.

The Thing from Another World (1951)

Based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s classic 1938 novella Who Goes There?, this Howard Hawks production starred James Arness as a hulking humanoid alien accidentally unthawed at a remote Arctic crash site by a team of scientists and soldiers who must then defend their outpost. One of the seminal sci-fi movies of the 1950s, The Thing from Another World certainly provided the template for a band of humans battling an otherworldly menace in an isolated location, even if it wasn’t set in space itself. Ironically, the success of Alien helped open the door for John Carpenter’s masterful 1982 remake of The Thing, which hewed much closer to the original story’s conception of the alien as a shape-changer and veered more toward the body horror of Ridley Scott’s film.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Much like The Thing from Another World, Jack Arnold’s Amazon-set thriller is considered one of the high water marks of 1950s sci-fi cinema. In the film, an expedition heads down the South American river to a previously unexplored lagoon, unaware that an ancient humanoid amphibian creature lurks there. The more inhuman nature of the creature (as opposed to James Arness’ walking plant-man in the above film), combined with its uncanny intelligence and the sexual undertones it exhibits toward star Julie Adams in its attacks, lets us draw a more direct line between Creature and Alien. Yes, it’s still set on Earth—although in the vast, unexplored Amazon—but it probably seemed just as remote as any star system in the 1950s to American audiences that included Dan O’Bannon among their ranks.

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Forbidden Planet (1956)

Finally, we get into space! Not that Hollywood hadn’t ventured into the cosmos before, but Forbidden Planet established in a big way the concept of deep space exploration by a crew traveling faster than light, with the entire film set in another solar system. It was also the first sci-fi movie to feature a robot as a major character with its own defined personality, and also included plot points like the mysterious remains of an ancient alien race. It likewise featured a menace that lurked in the shadows and seemed unstoppable. All of these elements would make their way into not just Alien, but other sci-fi milestones like Star Trek, making Forbidden Planet one of the genre’s most influential films, period.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

This is one of two movies (we’ll get to the other shortly) that has, for many years, been widely cited as a direct influence on Alien. The plot is simplicity itself: a spacecraft launches on a mission to Mars with the crew determined to learn what happened to a previous ship that crashed on the same voyage. Only one survivor, the captain, is found, and no one quite believes his story that his crew was killed by a hostile Martian creature—that is until the monster stows away on the second ship and begins knocking off another crew one by one. Make no mistake: this was and is a cheap, janky, black-and-white B-movie with visual effects and performances on a par with the film’s overall quality. But there are some atmospheric moments while the crew is being stalked through multiple levels of the ship until they finally blow the monster out of an airlock. You do the math on that.

The Haunting (1963)

What does Robert Wise’s Gothic horror masterpiece about the mother of all haunted houses—the first and still best adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House—have to do with a sci-fi movie about an alien creature murdering the crew of a spaceship? Well, in theory, not much really, but there is one thing that both films share: the idea of a place as a character. Hill House is very much a major character in both the book and movie of The Haunting, breathing and whispering, and shifting with a life of its own. Conversely, the Nostromo, with its dangling chains, dark, constricted corridors, and dripping, shadowy machine rooms, is also a vast haunted house in its own right, a sort of industrialized labyrinthine cathedral with who-knows-what lurking in its deepest recesses. Scott himself has called Alien “a haunted house movie in space,” and that doesn’t even refer to the far more sinister and bio-mechanical spacecraft the Nostromo’s crew finds an alien egg on. Whatever walks there, walks alone.

Voyage to the End of the Universe (aka Ikarie XB-1) (1963)

This Czechoslovak film, based on a novel by Polish sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem (Solaris), details the voyage of a spaceship on its way to a mysterious “white planet” orbiting the star Alpha Centauri. Various challenges are hurtled its way, including the discovery of an abandoned Earth ship and a crew member’s breakdown, before the ship arrives at its destination and an ambiguous ending. This may be the most obscure title on this list, but director Jindřich Polák’s atmospheric gem is astoundingly cerebral. It’s literary science fiction that with its emphasis on the effects of a long-term space voyage impacted creatives on both Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

Directed by Italian horror auteur Mario Bava (Black Sunday), this is the second film on this list generally considered to have an undeniable influence on Alien, as well as similar films that followed in the latter’s wake, including Pitch Black, Event Horizon, and Scott’s own Prometheus. When two ships on a mission to explore deep space pick up a mysterious signal from an unknown planet, they land on the surface only for the crew of one ship to become possessed by a strange presence and begin killing the others. The force turns out to be the disembodied inhabitants of the planet, who wish to take control of the humans and their ships before heading to Earth. The scene where the human astronauts come across the remains of an alien vessel that crashed on the planet before them was almost directly transplanted into Alien.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick’s landmark film elevated the sci-fi genre (alongside Planet of the Apes, which came out the same year) as a serious form of cinema, opening the door for the fruitful science fiction films of the 1970s. At the same time, it did examine what it was like for humans to spend long, lonely months and years in space (just like Ikarie XB-1, which Kubrick reportedly screened while working on 2001). And in the character of HAL 9000—the supercomputer that runs the deep space vessel Discovery—this landmark film introduced an artificial intelligence that not only began to exhibit psychological stress, but was capable of actual murder. Sounds to us like a direct predecessor to Ash (Ian Holm), Alien’s android science officer whose job is to keep the xenomorph alive, even at the cost of the crew. Although what is scarier, the AI that malfunctions or the one that works perfectly fine as it undermines employees deemed expendable assets?

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Dark Star (1974)

Four men (and one dead but still conscious captain) go slowly mad aboard their spaceship some 20 years into a deep space mission. Beginning as a student film at USC, Dark Star’s ingenious, low-budget combination of genuine science fiction and sharp-edged satire was the brainchild of director John Carpenter, making the first film in what would become a legendary career, and the late Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the script and played the incredibly annoying, inept Pinback. O’Bannon, of course, penned the original screenplay for what would become Alien, and elements of Dark Star—a blue-collar space crew, their infuriating ship’s computer, and a clawed alien creature (in this case resembling a beachball) running loose on the ship—certainly seem to be wackier, more surreal dry runs for his magnum opus.

Jodorowsky’s Dune (1974-1976)

Not a single frame of avant-garde Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version of Frank Herbert’s Dune was ever shot. Yet in many ways the film does exist, both in the imaginations of fans and in the undeniable creative influence that seeped out of the film’s development process into the DNA of countless sci-fi films to come—including both theatrical versions of Dune that actually were produced. One thing that Jodorowsky did was bring together like-minded individuals to work on Dune, including legendary artist H.R. Giger to storyboard the film and Dan O’Bannon to create the visual effects.

O’Bannon, Giger, and other artists from Jodorowsky’s ultimately abandoned Dune (including Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Chris Foss) all reassembled to work on Alien, with Giger’s conception of the xenomorph achieving iconic status. Somehow, even though Jodorowsky’s Dune did not come into being, the creative connections it incited arguably helped Alien become the stunning visual work that it is.

Jaws (1975)

Don’t take our word for it: Dan O’Bannon himself, along with writing partner Ronald Shusett (who helped him break the original story), pitched their initial screenplay for Alien to Hollywood studios as Jaws in space.” One can certainly see the resemblance, not just in the basic premise of a small group of everyday working people battling a relentless force of nature in a vast sea of nothingness, but in the lesson that Ridley Scott took from Steven Spielberg’s classic: the less the audience sees of the monster up front, the more terrifying it will become. Just like Spielberg did with his shark, Scott kept his creature hidden from the viewer for most of the film—and the result was a monster for the ages.

Alien: Romulus is out in theaters August 16.