If you are looking for the definitive science-fiction/horror screenplay, then look no further than the Alien script (1979). Writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett seamlessly blend the two genres into a story that excels at building tension and inciting fear. As we break down the screenplay, we will provide an Alien summary, plot points and an analysis of characters and the infamous double ending.
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WHO WROTE ALIEN SCRIPT?
Written by Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Dan O’Bannon was an American writer and director. He got his start by working together with legendary filmmaker John Carpenter on Dark Star (1974). He would later collaborate on the Alien script with fellow writer Ronald Shusett. He made his directorial debut with the iconic zombie movie Return of the Living Dead (1985). O’Bannon passed away in 2009 from Crohn’s disease.
Ronald Shusett is an American screenwriter. He attended UCLA and produced stage plays in the '60’s. However, his career wouldn’t take off until 1974, when he collaborated with Dan O’Bannon on the Alien screenplay. Ronald would go on to write other great movies, the most famous being Total Recall (1990).
STRUCTURE OF Alien SCREENPLAY
Here is the story structure for the Alien screenplay:
The crew of the Nostromo wake up from hypersleep. They gather around a table, drink coffee and exchange barbs with one another. They soon find out that their ship is off course and nowhere near Earth.
Dallas, captain of the Nostromo, discovers the reason: Mother, the ship’s supercomputer, has picked up a mysterious signal from a nearby planet. The crew is obligated by contract to explore any possibilities of intelligent life.
Plot Point One
Upon entering the planet's atmosphere, the Nostromo suffers heavy damage. The crew will be grounded for longer than expected.
Plot Point Two
Dallas, Kane and Lambert discover the source of the transmission: an alien spaceship. Meanwhile, Mother interprets the alien signal as warning, not an S.O.S.
Rising Action One
Kane discovers a chamber full of strange, leathery objects. Upon further investigation, he notices a creature moving inside one of the pods; it bursts open and attaches itself to his face.
Rising Action Two
While in the infirmary, Ash attempts to forcibly remove the organism from Kane’s face but fails. Upon further investigation, it seems the creature is force feeding something down Kane’s throat. Ash attempts to cut the creature off of Kane, but its acidic blood stops him.
Plot Point Three
The alien dies and releases Kane. With the ship repairs somewhat complete, the Nostromo takes off and heads into space.
Kane wakes up and seemingly recovers. At the dinner table, he violently convulses as an alien creature bursts from his chest. Kane lies dead on the table. The crew watch in horror as the alien escapes.
Plot Point One
Killing the alien would cause its acidic blood to spill out and eat through the ship's hull. The crew decides that the best course of action is to capture it alive and eject it out of an airlock.
Rising Action One
Brett, looking for the cat, hears hissing. He is ambushed by the fully grown alien. Around seven feet tall, the creature effortlessly grabs Brett and carries him away into the darkness.
Rising Action Two
Dallas volunteers to go into the vents to look for the alien. Armed with a flamethrower, he carefully navigates the dark shafts alone. The alien ambushes him; the Captain is gone.
Plot Point Two
Upon further investigation, Ripley discovers that Ash has been protecting the alien. He attempts to kill her, but she is saved by Parker. Ash is killed and revealed to be an android. He was given orders by the company to lead the Nostromo to the derelict spacecraft.
Running out of options, Ripley decides to blow up the ship while she, Parker and Lambert escape on a shuttle. Parker and Lambert are killed by the alien, while Ripley finds Dallas and Brett, who are cocooned. Ripley kills her shipmates, activates the self-destruct sequence and escapes on the shuttle.
The Nostromo explodes, but the alien has escaped with Ripley on the shuttle. Using the cat as a distraction, Ripley manages to slip on a space suit and open an air lock. She gets back inside the shuttle, but the creature is clinging to the exterior. Ripley activates the engine and blows the alien into space.
Ripley gives her final report. She goes into hypersleep as the shuttle drifts aimlessly.
Alien Script Takeaway #1
The Alien plot is controlled with pacing
One of the many things that make the Alien plot so great is the slow pacing of the story and the “less is more approach.” Much like the famous shark movie by Steven Spielberg, Alien takes time to build tension and atmosphere.
The creature’s first form and the first jump scare aren’t even seen until page 30. In other words, we have plenty of time to settle into these characters and their world before building the suspense. Here's the scene when the alien finally makes an appearance. We added the Alien script to the StudioBinder screenwriting software so we could isolate and dissect the various elements.
Kane Discovers the Eggs • Read the Entire Scene
Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett use of slow pacing gives the reader time to get to know and love the individual characters. Rather than just being meat for the monster, the Alien characters feel like real people, with personality and emotions. This way, one someone does die, there are high stakes and real loss felt. Here is the infamous scene.
Alien • Egg Chamber
The sporadic use of jump scares and the limited use of the monster also gives way to greater payoffs throughout the Alien screenplay. As much fun as a pile of bodies and an ocean of blood can be, true terror comes from the anticipation of the unknown.
Each time the alien makes an appearance, it does something new and horrifying the reader doesn’t expect.
The clever use of slow pacing in the Alien script allows for greater character development and better payoffs. The tension, the character drama and the scares all benefit from this style of writing. It requires a bit more patience to read, but the reward is well worth it.
ALIEN SCRIPT TAKEAWAY #2
Alien quotes are simple but effective
The dialogue in Alien is less about memorable one-liners more about building the mythos of the story. An important Alien quote occurs early in the script which establishes a recurring theme in the screenplay: corporate greed.
When the crew first discusses their impromptu mission, Parker says “I hate to say this, but we’re a commercial ship not a rescue team. This kind of duty is not in our contract...but if it’s for some money…”
Ash replies with a line about how their contracts say otherwise.
Alien Quotes • Ash Quote About Contract
This exchange is important as it establishes that the crew of the Nostromo are subject to the whims of an unnamed corporation. Towards the end of the story, it is revealed that Ash has been working a covert mission, unbeknownst to the rest of the expendable crew.
Another important Alien quote occurs in the medical bay. As Ash tries to cut the alien off of Kane’s face, its blood melts through several floors.
Alien Quotes • Alien's Blood is Molecular Acid
This scene is important as it establishes just how dangerous the creature is because of its acid blood. It also put the crew in a conundrum: killing it outright is not an option, not when you’re in space.
Here are some other great Alien quotes, some of which didn't make the final cut of the film. Can you spot which ones?
- “Ash. Urgent. Mother has deciphered part of the transmission. I’m afraid it may not be an S.O.S.”
- "It used him for an incubator."
- “He could die in twenty-four hours. Open the hatch…”
- "The problem between you and the Alien will produce a simple and elegant solution. Only one of you will survive."
- “Interesting combination of elements making it practically invulnerable.”
- “Expendable, I’m afraid. It wasn’t personal. Just luck of the draw.”
- “This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.”
Alien Script Takeaway #3
Alien characters are strong
The Alien screenplay was originally written with “genderless” characters. Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett did this so that each of their characters wouldn’t fall into typical gender roles. This especially worked out for Ripley.
Rather than being a typical damsel in distress/final girl, becomes a strong leader amidst the rest of the crew. She stands up for what she thinks is right, even if that puts her in direct conflict with Dallas, the ship’s captain.
As Dallas and Lambert try to bring Kane back onto the ship, Ripley takes a stand against the captain for the overall safety of the crew. Here's the scene as originally written.
Alien Characters • Ripley and Ash Argument
This scene also demonstrates the variety of personality amongst the Nostromo’s major crew members. Ripley is very “by-the-books” and wants to follow protocol. She believes that this is the best way to protect the rest of the crew from contamination. Dallas wants to get Kane to the medical bay as quickly as possible to save his life.
Both characters are trying to save lives, yet their individual stances put them in conflict with one another.
This scene also plants the seeds for the science officer, Ash. He disobeys Ripley's orders and allows Dallas, Lambert and Kane back onto the ship. On the surface, this seems to be an act of kindness. In reality, he did this because of his secret orders from the corporation he works for.
The Alien script develops its characters throughout the story. It’s what makes each death feel so memorable and relevant. By the time we read the infamous chestburster scene, the loss of Kane is not only gruesome, but also tragic.
A Simple Dinner Scene
Inside the 'chestburster scene'
Perhaps the most notorious scene in the Alien screenplay and film is what's commonly referred to as the 'chestburster scene.' From the name alone, you should know exactly what we're referring to.
The scene is shocking in a number of ways. First, Kane's recovery is assumed to be successful — he seems totally fine, if maybe a little exhausted. So, even though we know something must have happened to him, we probably don't expect this "remission" so soon.
Second, in a well-known bit of movie trivia, the actors in the scene also had no idea what to expect. They knew the general idea but they hadn't seen the practical effect or how much blood would be involved. Their reactions in the scene are genuine.
Let's watch the scene first and then we'll look at how it was originally scripted. Obviously, this scene is not for the squeamish.
Alien Script • Chestburster Scene
Wow, even with all the advancements we've made in CGI and VFX, the scene still works. Solid directing, acting, sound design, and creature effects all rolled into one. But how was the scene originally written? It's just as shocking, gruesome, and effective. Make sure to follow the image link to read the entire scene in all its gory glory.
Alien Chestburster Scene • Read the Entire Scene
Unlike many other contemporary horror stories, the Alien screenplay values its characters. When a character is killed, it's not just another body on the pile; it's a person that has suffered a terrible fate.
Alien Script Takeaway #4
The Alien ending has two parts
The Alien ending does a great job of deceiving the reader, as there is a false conclusion. After the remainder of the crew is picked off by the alien, Ripley activates the self-destruct sequence on the Nostromo. She narrowly escapes the explosion in a shuttle dubbed the Narcissus.
Here's how the first false ending is written. Follow the image link to read the second ending through to the end.
Ripley Escapes • Read the Entire Alien Ending
However, the story is not over. Look at the page count and you’ll see that there are 10 pages to go. What else could possibly happen? Hasn’t Ripley suffered enough?
No. The alien snuck aboard the shuttle, escaping certain death along with Ripley. There is one final climax to be had.
Ripley now has to face off with the alien in the true climax of the script. She knows she can’t beat it in a fight, so she carefully sneaks around the alien. She opens the airlock, hanging on for dear life. But the alien is a survivor too. It tries to get back onto the shuttle, so Ripley fires the engines, blowing the alien into the depths of space.
Alien Ending • Ripley’s Last Stand
The Alien screenplay constantly subverts the reader's expectations. As a general rule for writing in general, keeping the reader from predicting what will happen next is key to keeping their attention.
Alien does this masterfully, blending character development with atmosphere and horror. This is why Alien is ranked amongst the best horror movies of all time.
Read and Download More Scripts
Alien has become a timeless addition to the sci-fi and horror genres. If you want to read more great scripts, we have Midsommar, No Country for Old Men and Gone Girl in our screenplay database. Great screenwriters read lots of scripts. Get started today!