History, Legacy & Showmanship
Monday, 27 May 2019 16:10

Still Screaming in Space: Remembering “Alien” on its 40th Anniversary

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Alien (like other 1970s films such as Jaws, Superman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Godfather, and Star Wars) was a seminal landmark in the upgrade of shopworn B-movie clichés — monsters, comic book characters, flying saucers, gangsters, Saturday afternoon serials — into major A-movie assets.” — Paul M. Sammon, author of Ridley Scott: The Making of His Movies

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 40th anniversary of the release of Alien, the sci-fi/horror classic about the five-man, two-woman (and one cat) crew of the Nostromo, who got more than they bargained for after investigating a distress signal from a mysterious planet.

Suspense, atmospheric moodiness and Oscar-winning visual effects were among the highlights of Alien, directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator) and starring Tom Skerritt (Top Gun), Veronica Cartwright (The Right Stuff), Harry Dean Stanton (Repo Man), John Hurt (The Elephant Man), Ian Holm (Chariots of Fire), Yaphet Kotto (Live and Let Die), and Sigourney Weaver (Ghostbusters) as Ellen Ripley. [Read on here...]

The popular and influential film, which spawned several sequels and numerous imitations, opened forty years ago this month. For the occasion The Bits features a compilation of statistics and box-office data that places Alien’s performance in context, plus passages from vintage film reviews, a reference/historical listing of the movie’s opening-day presentations, and, finally, an interview segment with a trio of historians who reflect on the film four decades after its debut.

And, in case you missed them or desire a refresher, the Bits’ other Alien-themed retrospectives include Aliens 30th anniversary and Predator 30th anniversary.

Alien (1979) screenshot



  • 1 = Rank among top-earning films in the Alien franchise (adjusted for inflation)
  • 1 = Number of Academy Awards
  • 2 = Number of Academy Award nominations
  • 2 = Rank among top-earning films directed by Ridley Scott (adjusted for inflation)
  • 2 = Rank among top-earning films of 1979 (summer season)
  • 2 = Rank among top-earning horror films of 1979
  • 2 = Rank among top-earning R-rated films of 1979
  • 2 = Rank among top-earning science-fiction films of 1979
  • 3 = Number of Saturn Awards
  • 4 = Rank among top-earning films of 1979 (calendar year)
  • 6 = Rank among Fox’s all-time top-earning films at close of original run
  • 6 = Rank among top-earning films of 1979 (retroactive / legacy / lifetime earnings)
  • 7 = Number of sequels, prequels and spin-offs
  • 7 = Rank on AFI’s list of best science fiction films
  • 13 = Number of months between theatrical release and home video release
  • 24 = Number of weeks of longest-running theatrical engagement
  • 29 = Rank among top-earning movies of the 1970s (earnings from 1/1/70 - 12/31/80)
  • 32 = Peak all-time box-office chart position
  • 91 = Number of theaters playing the movie during opening week (91 venues, 94 screens)
  • 110 = Number of 70mm prints during first-run (worldwide)
  • 757 = Peak number of theaters simultaneously showing the movie (week of July 6-12)
  • $1,000 = Approximate cost of each 35mm print
  • $8,000 = Approximate cost of each 70mm print
  • $38,767 = Opening weekend per-screen-average
  • $2.0 million = Box-office gross of 2003 re-release
  • $3.5 million = Opening weekend box-office gross (4-day holiday, May 25-28)
  • $11.0 million = Production cost
  • $24.0 million = Box-office gross (international)
  • $38.7 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
  • $40.1 million = Box-office rental (% of gross paid to distributor)
  • $49.0 million = Box-office rental (worldwide)
  • $78.9 million = Box-office gross (original release)
  • $80.9 million = Box-office gross (lifetime, includes re-releases)
  • $84.5 million = Box-office gross (international, adjusted for inflation)
  • $104.9 million = Cumulative box-office gross (worldwide)
  • $141.1 million = Box-office rental (adjusted for inflation)
  • $172.5 million = Box-office rental (worldwide, adjusted for inflation)
  • $277.7 million = Box-office gross (original release, adjusted for inflation)
  • $364.4 million = Cumulative box-office gross (worldwide, adjusted for inflation)

Alien (1979) screenshot



“The horror genre, in any period, is one that you like, or leave distantly alone. The violence in Alien is less ’real’ than the shark-infested waters of Jaws. But telling yourself that these galactic goings-on are improbable nonsense is less effective than it should be in unclenching your fists or making your heart stop pounding. Surrender at all to Scott’s extraterrestrial make-believe and you are in for jolts, shocks and some fairly gruesome and shuddering sights.” — Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times

“Don’t race to it expecting the wit of Star Wars or the metaphysical pretensions of 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. At its best it recalls The Thing [from Another World], though the Howard Hawks film was both more imaginatively and more economically dramatized.” — Vincent Canby, The New York Times

Alien is a corker, a walloper, a rouser, a screecher and a ton of fun. If all movies were as thrilling I would happily spend all of my life in the movies.” — Gene Shalit, NBC-TV

Alien is an expensively assembled science-fiction and horror shocker that’s being pushed hard by 20th Century Fox, and enough of it works on the gut-level of cheap thrills to justify the company’s high expectations. Alien has its problems [though]. Special effects and shock moments aside, Scott seems ponderous about getting through simple plot mechanics that one of the old science-fiction films could have tossed off with workmanlike abandon. But for those who like this kind of film, he’s produced — in 70mm and Dolby sound — something like the equivalent of every amusement park ride rolled into one.” — Walter V. Addiego, San Francisco Examiner

“[Alien] reached out, grabbed you, and squeezed your stomach it was more gripping than entertaining, but a lot of people didn’t mind. They thought it was terrific, because at least they’d felt something: they’d been brutalized.” — Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

“You’re going to be most appreciative of Alien in its most technically advantageous circumstances.” — Eric Gerber, The Houston Post

“I left Alien feeling contentedly manipulated, but not in an unparalleled entertaining panic. The monster’s one blood-spattered attack will probably become the most talked-about sequence in Alien. The climactic episodes are a rather more impressive cinematic achievement.” — Gary Arnold, The Washington Post

Alien is mostly in the business of thrills, and on that level it did provide more than a few. I looked away from the screen during its most gory scenes. Even more enjoyable, though, was watching the film debut of an actress who should become a major star, Sigourney Weaver (she probably changed her name from Alice) makes an auspicious debut as one of the sturdiest crew members.” — Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

Alien is an old-fashioned scary movie set in a highly realistic sci-fi future, made all the more believable by expert technical craftsmanship. Picture isn’t quite good enough to be a combination of The Exorcist and Star Wars, but both titles are likely to come to mind.” — A.D. Murphy, Variety

“It is easy to see that director Ridley Scott had hoped for a cast of Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty and Jim Brown, for the three principals, but settled for lookalikes Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt and Yaphet Kotto. With only about 20 pages of script, it’s understandable why everyone is sulking and biting, even being obscene enough to give the movie an R rating.” — Thomas Goldthwaite, The (Phoenix) Arizona Republic

Alien is another triumph of technology over art. It is also a horror movie set in space — and it just doesn’t work…. Scott does make a concession to feminism by casting Sigourney Weaver as the hero but he couldn’t resist a sexist jab at the end when, with no motivation, she removes her trousers.” — Michael Blowen, The Boston Globe

“Any amount of symbolism and sociological messages can easily be intellectualized in Alien. There is a whole routine about science, for instance, that is compelling and intriguing. But I leave such considerations to others for now and give fair warning: When going on intergalactic travel, always be sure to take a cat. It may prove a friend.” — Carol Olten, The San Diego Union

“[Alien is] just an intergalactic haunted-house thriller.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“20th Century-Fox is rather superstitiously opening the picture on the same day that Star Wars opened two years ago, and in many of the same theaters, in hopes that box-office lightning can strike twice.” — John Hartl, The Seattle Times

“Ridley Scott has given us a chilling and brilliantly rendered antidote to swashbuckling space heroes and amiable robots. This is the best horror film to reach the screen since The Omen and a landmark piece of science fiction that looks back to the ’50s tradition of malevolent aliens.” — Desmond Ryan, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Alien is only the second feature for director Ridley Scott, but it should establish the young Briton as a major film maker. And if there’s any justice, it will cause a scramble to book The Duellists, Scott’s over-looked first film.” — Perry Stewart, (Fort Worth) Star-Telegram

“Fantasy, as Alien proves again and again, is not always benevolent. After the easy rides of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien arrives as a rollercoaster trip through a planet of horrors. With a cleverness that may rightly be described as fiendish, director Ridley Scott and a large company of co-producers, writers and designers have created the most awesomely horrific film in recent memory, not forgetting the inflated chills of Jaws or the primal shock of The Exorcist.” — Philip Wuntch, The Dallas Morning News

“Make no mistake about it — the gore, which is essential to this film’s effectiveness, is excessive enough to help earn the film the first ‘R’ rating given to any of the four recent sci-fi blockbusters. Any theater playing Alien may well consider building new wings on the restrooms to accommodate queasy patrons.” — Michael Clark, Detroit Free Press

“[The] plot is simple in the extreme. Alien has almost no wit, no depth of character, no complexity of plot, no subtext of meaning. In the long run, that might prevent it from being a truly classic horror film. For the moment, however, that won’t matter. The immediate sensation of Alien is nerve-shattering terror, and on that level it works masterfully.” — George Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Alien (1979) screenshot

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