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A silvery grey alien-like creature with enormous silvery teeth.
The xenomorph from Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic, Alien. AJ Pics/Alamy

How Alien mutated from a sci-fi horror film into a multimedia universe

A new life form was born on May 25 1979 when an alien exploded from the chest of a bewildered officer aboard the commercial towing vessel, Nostromo. The alien that comes to be known as the xenomorph escapes, grows, stalks and kills all but one of the ship’s crew. The lone human survivor, Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, blasts it into deep space turning it and her into icons.

We are, of course, talking about the cinematic classic, Alien.

But what was born that day was not just a horrifying monster. It would become a fully fledged fictional world that, in the four decades following, has become an indelible part of our popular culture. And it is a topic we explore in our new book, Alien Legacies.

Though initially conceived as a cash-in on the popularity of science fiction in the aftermath of Star Wars, Alien grew from a hugely successful film into not only a franchise but a whole universe. It spawned three sequels - James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), David Fincher’s Alien3 (1992) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection (1997).

There were also two prequels - Prometheus (2012) and Alien Covenant (2017), which were both directed by Scott. And finally, there was a spin-off “mashup” franchise - Alien vs Predator directed by Paul WS Anderson (2004), and its sequel Requiem (2007).

It has inspired innovation and creativity beyond the films. There have been novelisations, video games, audiobooks, comics and toys.

A man lies on a white table surrounded by food while four other people reach out to hold him down.
The actor, John Hurt, got more than he bargained for in this famous scene from the 1979 film. Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

The first two films, Alien and Aliens, have enjoyed considerable scrutiny given their cultural presence and resonance for debates concerning gender, technology and genetics.

But what has received less focus is what Alien has become. The franchise has proliferated and mutated across various forms of media while staying true to its cinematic origins.

Alien, like Star Wars, is what we can now call a “transmedia franchise”. It has pioneered ways of expanding storytelling across media boundaries. Our book examines the transmedia universe as a whole, addressing the original films, the prequels and everything that followed.

The franchise has been open to adopting new methods and ideas, as well as adapting to changes in new media technology and politics.

In fact, one almost entirely neglected aspect of the Alien universe we explore are documents purporting to be “real” crew profiles, training manuals and diaries that expand upon and develop our knowledge and understanding of this fictional world.

One of the extras on the 2010 Alien Anthology Blu-ray collection was a special feature called Weyland-Yutani Inquest: Nostromo Dossiers. This was a collection of corporate documents detailing the professional lives of the Nostromo spaceship crew.

From The Weyland-Yutani Report: A look at the Nostromo’s crew including past employment and personal life details.

Some of this material, such as the Colonial Marines Technical Manual, has been created by fans. It found its way into gaming instalments of the franchise having been picked up and explored by the many creative artists and writers who have worked in the Alien universe. These include Aliens versus Predator, Aliens versus Predator: Extinction and Aliens: Colonial Marines (2013).

The attempt by media companies to control and manage fan practice is not new, but it demands our attention. Inviting people to pitch their own short films set in the Alien universe to mark the fortieth anniversary in 2019 was a canny means by 20th Century Fox to curry favour with the fans of the series.

Similarly, transmedia marketing campaigns have grown to include fictional evil corporate websites, exclusive events at conventions, personalised advertising and franchise universe websites.

We argue that Alien’s transmedia marketing is particularly captivating because it is closely linked to the film’s production. As a result, these marketing campaigns are arguably becoming as creative and entertaining as the films themselves.

The transmedia marketing campaign for the Prometheus film.

The Alien series asks existential questions uncommon in mainstream blockbuster cinema about the origins and destiny of humanity and the dividing line between the human and the machine.

Alien should not be seen, as popular culture so often is, as unimportant or irrelevant to our understanding of ourselves as a species. It has the potential to contribute to our knowledge and enlightenment.

The continuing debate among scholars and fans surrounding the Alien franchise demonstrates how popular culture can bridge disciplinary boundaries and make complex academic debates more accessible. It helps us better understand the significant questions we must ponder as humans.

We hope our book will contribute to conversations about Alien. It explores its relevance to contemporary debates and paves the way for future studies on the franchise. After all, it has entered an uncertain new phase under the control of a new owner.

In 2019, Disney bought Fox and with it the rights to Alien. And Disney is a company that, throughout its history, has shown itself willing and able to adapt and build upon all aspects of its holdings in a variety of ways.

This starts with Fede Alvarez’s untitled Alien film, currently in production, and set for release via Disney’s Hulu streaming service.

Fans and academics will both probably continue to chase Ripley and the xenomorphs across the cosmos for the next forty years.

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