Not all films endure. However, there are the hallowed few that stand the test of time, culture and even special effects. They make their way into top ten lists and keep us digging in our pockets for "Special Editions", "Director's Cuts" and swanky box sets. Alien is indeed one of these. Much like Jaws, the legacy was as durable as the polarized silicon skin of the the eponymous beastie, and helped it endure the diminishing returns of later sequels. Even today's CGI-spoiled youth are drawn in despite the late 70's SFX tech. Sure, the model work of the Nostromo and set design was a detail-filled game changer, but the room sized computer and rubber puppet could be a crude distraction by today's standards.
What then has made the original Alien stand the test of time, even without the computer enhanced jiggery-pokery Lucas allowed Star Wars?
One reason is Scott's commitment to be a horror movie. "Texas Chainsaw Massacre In Space" was the MO and while the setting was indeed sci-fi, the idea was to place the screws of horror on the audience and tighten them until they turned to dread. In the opening credits Scott takes his time to impress on us the terrific expanse of space - there is indeed, noweher to hide - and then moves into the equally eerie bridge of the Nostromo. Screens sputter and bleep to life, but there's no one there to react and tell us what's going on. We could be just as easily inspecting the aftermath, as the beginning of an event. It is called Alien after all. With no cues, it's not until we dreamily observe the crew awaken from hypersleep, that we get some kind of reprieve from the apprehension that's set in - but it doesn't last long.
Staring into the pouring mouth of horror was indeed one of the elements that made Alien so timeless. More effective still was Scott and editor Terry Rawlings' deliberate pacing to start with. Modern times, sees MTV breeak-neck editing flip barely-seen images across the screen until you offer fear out of submission, rather than earning it through story telling panache. The pace does indeed go up a gear, but only once Ripley initiates the self-destruct sequence. Until that point the editing shows an steady hand that allows you to take in the situation and then holds a little longer for you to fill the murk and shadows with your own angst. It also means that any sudden moments feel appropriate rather than cheap scares. Even when you watch Kane bumble into the nest of fleshy, green eggs, you'd be surprised how matter of fact the whole incident is until he gets a helmet-full of facehugger.
When it comes to the achievements of Alien, it's all pretty much been said. However, there's one thing that's startling missed from reviews and retrospectives alike: The Nostromo Crew. The space-trucker analogy is well documented, but even after the crew have been in a peaceful slumber for months, they all wake looking like they've been wearing the same clothes for years and barely washed. There's a mugginess to our constantly perspiring shipmates that makes you want to shower after spending just over 2 hrs on the rig - let alone the years they do. Even with the same visual attention to detail that's allowed the sets and props, the mix of Scott's patient gaze and the off-kilter delivery of the crew adds an odd realism to the events. Clearly there's an intention to imbue the exchanges with a reality that grounds space jockeys, facehuggers and xenomorphs, but there's a chemistry between the crew that can't be contrived.
Ripley would later become the template for the strong female character, but the raoring engine of Alien has just as much to do with the strength of the remaining cast bringing these rough necks to life. At first it's Brett's monosyllabic retort of "Right," to everything Parker asks that seems to offer anything of character. Yet slowly everyone else perfectly joins the chorus of shit-kickers. Yaphet Koto's Parker has the most fun antagonising everyone. Amusingly, he turns on the exhausts to drown out Ripley's attempt to obtain a straight answer about the repairs, but even later on when she formulates the escape plan, Parker can't help but talk over the coolest head causing her to snap. It's brilliant dynamic set by Koto that gets it's vindication (if not a hero moment) when he steps in to save Lambert for the lurking monster.
However, everyone does get their chance to shine. Skerritt instills Dallas with a calm authority, one that oddly seems earned, even though we only get to see him reacting to the events here. Yet it's not overcooked bravado or militant leader, so when he has a change of heart about crawling through the air shafts it makes sense, and is all the more alarming when he meets the hostile embrace of the xenomorph. Before his post-dinner demise, the late John Hurt gives Kane a tempered excitement, which stops him being the giddy the child that puts himself in harms way and instead is the curioso.
Characters often get the best lines just before their demise, but never before was one quite so chilling as the decapitated intimidation of Ash. While he can't physically threaten the three remaining characters anymore, he can make sure that he leaves them with nothing else but desperation. "I can't lie to you about your chances, but...you have my sympathies." Not only that, but repeat viewings offer just how unwittingly we were that Ash was the robotic Keiser Sozei.
There's no doubt that without Ridley Scott's eye for design and tenacious vision, Alien may not have weathered the years quite so well, but it's still the unlikely gang of space truckers that keeps it timeless.
5* - Admire it's purity