The spaceship Nostromo is travelling back to Earth with its cargo of twenty million tonnes of mineral ore, but has only reached the halfway point of its journey when there is a signal received from an unknown source. The small crew are awakened from their suspended animation and groggily make their way to the meeting room where they try to work out why they have been roused too early. The answer is that signal: apparently a distress call from the moon of a large planet not far from where they are; they are under instruction from the company bosses to investigate any possible alien life, so have no say in the matter - unfortunately...
The real unfortunate thing about Alien is that if you've heard of the film, and it is very famous, then you're probably all too aware of every surprise it contains, not something that audience of 1979 would have been afflicted with as they settled down to watch what was being rumoured by strong word of mouth to be one of the scariest movies of all time. Director Ridley Scott certainly tightened the screws of tension with incrementally impeccable care, and for those who prefer the sequel, Aliens, the original is simply too slow to reveal its secrets. But they are not really secrets now, when the details of the plot have been so extensively broadcast in the years since its release.
Yet even if you are familiar with the twists and turns Dan O'Bannon's basic script took - it underwent rewrites and the cast were encouraged to improvise their dialogue - there's no denying how exquisitely Alien was assembled. Much of the credit went to H.R. Giger's truly innovative design, both of the title creature and the various sets and whatnot associated with it, and although he was not alone in fashioning the distinctive look of the production, it undoubtedly raised his artistic standing, even more than those album covers he made his name with. What most viewers picked up on, even if they didn't quite catch on to it, was the atmosphere of dangerous sexuality that the Alien represented.
This means you can't read a review of the film without someone pointing out that the whole thing illustrates a kind of perverse take on reproduction, one of the most notorious subtexts in the movies. In fact, it's so blatant that it's difficult to miss it, as the creature represents a twisted variation on masculinity centred around rape, while the character who finally gets the better of it travels from the asexuality of the others to a more obvious femininity - that's why her nurturing side leads her to go back for the cat, and in case this battle of the sexes has not registered, she strips down to her underwear for the climax. It was so perfectly realised that it's little wonder it was so revered and actually reviled by some: the reaction was definitely split at the time, and it was by no means lauded as an instant classic at first.
But perhaps more than all the sexuality, what truly made its mark was the manner in which it showed the vast emptiness of space as something sub-zero cold, both physically and emotionally. Right before Alien happened along, a blockbuster called Star Wars had revitalised the science fiction movie, rendering the whole genre the epitome of fun for all the family, but with this it was strictly for the adults. The thought of an episode of Star Trek, for example, being too scary for kids was a potent one, and although that never happened the almost existential bleakness of tone here was something that made it all the more unnerving. Not to mention the clearest evidence of humanity in the story before Ripley (Sigourney Weaver became a star thanks to this) asserts herself is the profit-obsessed machinations of the company who run the space mining operation, another reason why there's an iciness to Alien that makes her triumph over it all the more satisfying. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.
Talented, prolific British director whose background in set design and advertising always brings a stylised, visually stunning sheen to often mainstream projects. Scott made his debut in 1977 with the unusual The Duellists, but it was with his next two films - now-classic sci-fi thrillers Alien and Blade Runner - that he really made his mark. Slick fantasy Legend and excellent thriller Someone to Watch Over Me followed, while Thelma and Louise proved one of the most talked-about films of 1991. However, his subsequent movies - the mega-budget flop 1492, GI Jane and the hopeless White Squall failed to satisfy critics or find audiences.
Scott bounced back to the A-list in 2000 with the Oscar-winning epic Gladiator, and since then has had big hits with uneven Hannibal, savage war drama Black Hawk Down and his Robin Hood update. Prometheus, tentatively sold as a spin-off from Alien, created a huge buzz in 2012, then a lot of indignation. His Cormac McCarthy-penned thriller The Counselor didn't even get the buzz, flopping badly then turning cult movie. Exodus: Gods and Kings was a controversial Biblical epic, but a success at the box office, as was sci-fi survival tale The Martian. Alien Covenant was the second in his sci-fi prequel trilogy, but did not go down well with fans. Brother to the more commercial, less cerebral Tony Scott.