Thirty-five years ago, Ridley Scott was a hotshot London adman, crafting slick TV commercials. He hadn’t yet directed Blade Runner or Thelma & Louise or Gladiator. He hadn’t received any of his three Oscar nominations. And he certainly hadn’t been knighted ”Sir Ridley.” In fact, he’d only just finished his first film — a moody, Napoleonic period piece called The Duellists. Scott had recently turned 40 and was well on his way to a brilliant second career in Hollywood. Or so he thought. Then The Duellists opened in America and no one went to see it. Everyone was still buying tickets to a different movie. ”I remember someone coming into my office and saying, ‘Ridley, you better go see this movie Star Wars,”’ recalls Scott while preparing his latest film, the eagerly awaited, top secret 3-D space thriller Prometheus (rated R, out June 8). ”People were lining up around the block! I’d never felt that sense of mass excitement before or since.”
Scott had already planned his next movie, an adaptation of the mothball-festooned medieval romance Tristan and Isolde, when he walked into Star Wars. But after being transported to George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away, he scrapped everything. ”I thought, ‘Why the hell am I doing Tristan and Isolde? Things are changing. It’s time to get down to business!”’ Six weeks later, he signed on to direct Alien. Scott likes to joke that he was Twentieth Century Fox’s fifth choice for that groundbreaking, bloodcurdling, face-hugging 1979 space odyssey. Even so, sci-fi movies as we now know them wouldn’t exist without Sigourney Weaver’s badass heroine Ripley and one of the greatest chest-bursting scares of all time.
When Alien came out, accompanied by the tagline ”In space no one can hear you scream,” the $8 million production became an instant classic. It grossed $105 million worldwide and in many ways has defined Scott’s career — epic, visionary, and whip-smart.
It’s also the film that he’s had the hardest time getting out of his head. Scott, who says he was ”marginally hurt” that he was never offered the chance to direct any of the Alien sequels, publicly flirted for years with returning to tell a new chapter in the saga — one that would be bigger and brainier. He wanted to grapple with some of the knotty philosophical questions that the first film only hinted at (Are we alone in the universe? Where did we come from? And who the hell was that mysterious elephant-headed alien pilot fans would later call ”the space jockey”?).