Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”
Though I have watched isolated scenes here and there over the years and the best moments are of course part of our culture by now, I'm diving into the Alien series start-to-finish as a first-time viewer, so my comments here come from that perspective.
Is it just me, or is this nothing more than a monster movie done extremely well? The producers say in the bonus-disc interviews that it illustrates our collective fears of the time, but that's only in peripheral ways: There is fear of corporate infiltration of our culture, fear of new biological threats emerging from the wilderness, and a woman's fear of rape by desperate men from the lower class, but all of these fears are represented as drops in a bucket compared to the rubber mannequin representing the alien itself, an impressive idea rendered unimpressive by needing to be taken seriously as anything but an extraterrestrial bugaboo. In that half-second moment when Dallas encounters the creature in the air ducts, it looks remarkably like a stuntman in a suit. No genre has been so altered by advances in special effects technology as science fiction, and where an attempt was made to create this alien with a detailed costume instead of the fake-looking CGI of today, it came out, well, hokey. (How I look forward to comparing this to "Alien: Resurrection," which I do not expect to win.)
But it does have one thing that films today lack in their dependence upon special effects: A script that gives dimension to the characters and the situation. Ash's speech about admiring the monster's purity may be spoofed by clever Nintendo games these days, but it's a stroke of genius for a film that aspires to create ice-cold chills up your spine. This isn't just a monster that wants to eat you for its own sake; it's something that a human corporation actually desires for acquisition, expending human lives to obtain for further expending of lives. Striking as it is, Ash's speech may not make the movie monster anything more than a movie monster, but it's an admirable attempt to try.
The film would have benefitted from some brief exposition mentioning whether humanity has interacted with aliens by the time this story takes place. We catch small hints like the way Ripley casually asks if a beacon is human in origin, but it's that much harder to get into the mindset of these hunted sailors if we don't know how truly "alien" this experience is for them. The buildup to the alien might be suggestive enough of its importance, however, as the vastness of the set for the crashed alien ship (almost denied by the studio) give the discovery a valuable sense of grandeur. And yet, it all comes down to the characters ignoring pleas of "let's get the hell outta here" and one lowering himself down so he press his face against an obvious biological threat, because the plot requires him to do so. For all of the impressive sets and intellectual turns of the screenplay, this is a monster movie, and no amount of cleverness or skill can conceal that simple lack of ambition at the most fundamental level. The film is not invalid; certainly it deserves its status as a beloved masterpiece of horror, but even the best film that can be made from this premise is not as good as a similar film that could be made from a better premise.