Alien was a shock when it was released in 1979. Some newspapers were asking “Is Hollywood going too far?”. Still, there were huge queues in front of the cinemas, people were desperate to see it. It was an experience they wanted to go through.
It was extremely realistic at the time it came out. Even nowadays, the characters interactions are still completely believable. The special effects might have aged, but even the lighting is still relevant. Many movies made 10 or 20 years later, in the 90s, suffer much more from old age.
If we group the different scenes in acts, here is how it plays out:
You’ll notice there are 4 acts (hey, it is the same in James Cameron’s sequel Aliens). Also, the second act is unusually short. Maybe the writers suffered from the classic difficulty to get this act working. And maybe they compensated by having a much longer first act? Regardless of the reasons, I believe part of the success of this movie is due to its very good first act. It takes its time to create the scenery, and we end up believing in the characters and rooting for them. They have problems we can identify with like contracts clauses, how long the return will take and other relationships issues.
Scenes that might have been quickly told within the hands of others directors or writers are here folding out slowly. In an enjoyable slowness. The landing scene lasts more than 5 minutes. The excursion from the crew ship until they enter the alien ship is almost 8 minutes. That could be easily boring, but they are laid down with keys elements. You get to know their fear. That fear is mostly conveyed via one character, Lambert, which has been written exactly for this purpose. And when the other characters are starting to also get scared later on, you, the audience, know it is time to shit your pants.
We also get subtles clues about who Ash is, that you could only read during a second viewing. Eventhough those clues become really obvious when you see them again.
What is interesting too is how long we have to wait before seeing the monster. You’ve read the title of the movie, so you expect to see one. But not only does it arrive in a very unexpected way (ah, that chestbuster scene!), half of the movie has already been rolling.
I like how the direction deals with some ‘weaknesses’ of the script. Here are two of them:
First, Ash calls the crew to the infirmery twice. When the facehugger is dead, then when Kane is awake. It did not disturb me first time I watched the movie (granted, I was 11), because it is well told. It happens when the crew is busy doing other things. In the first case, Dallas is just by himself listening to music, this is a quiet scene. In the second one, the whole crew complains about Brett being a parrot and how long their return will take. This is the opposite of a quiet scene. This contrast prevents you from being bored by this repetitive event “go to the infirmery”.
I believe it could have been fixed differently, though. For instance, when Kane awakes, he could have gone out from the infirmery by himself and surprised his fellow crews members, which could be either scary or funny. Or both. You might then wonder if it was believable to have him escape Ash surveillance, but that would be worth exploring.
The second weakness is also a repetition. In the second act, they agree on 3 different plans to fight the alien. Plan A is electrocution, while they think it is still as small as a cat. Plan B is fire in the ventilation system and Plan C is blow up the ship.
After both failures of plan A and B, we get to see the reaction of the same character: Parker. In a big close up. Still, I did not mind as a viewer, because when you experience the fear of that tough guy, you can’t really worry about anything else.
So, despite those small ‘weaknesses’, the quality of the direction, acting and editing completely compensate.