Ridley Scott, at least in the period during which he made Alien (because God knows he has been unpredictable since), is a living embodiment of the director as designer, concerning himself first and foremost with the aesthetic means used to build a mood and only secondarily with the practices traditionally attached to a Hollywood director: working with actors, pacing a story from beginning to end, constructing a "logical" mise-en-scene. One can easily imagine Scott taking the script provided to him by Dan O'Bannon and dividing it into manageable chunks, attempting to visualize each section in the most dramatic fashion, squeezing the emotion out of every beat, every shot, every sequence through lighting, camera movement, and blocking. Or getting caught up in individual set pieces and forgetting he's making a feature-length film, only to find himself shunted back on course by a more big-picture thinker like a producer or a screenwriter. Not surprisingly, Alien feels as if it's made up of separate movements cross-faded into one another, much like its antecedent 2001: A Space Odyssey, though Alien's segments vary radically in length and tone and don't always glide elegantly along as in Kubrick's musical opus.
None of this is to suggest that Alien succeeds in parts and fails as a whole; in fact, the film is a stunning example of a mean B-movie conceit elevated to larger-than-life stature through the conviction and consistency of its execution. Alien sustains an unrelenting power largely because of one key feature: its tendency to cut the explosive final moments of each aforementioned movement prematurely, letting the tension bleed into each subsequent chapter. Once the crew of the Nostromo spaceship unintentionally invites an alien visitor into its habitat, the film becomes a remarkably taut string of scenes involving people walking through chillingly quiet and empty spaces searching for the strange creature that has gone astray in their spacecraft. The punch line of each encounter - usually the sudden vision of a titular Alien (aka xenomorph) and the implied violent death of the person - is truncated; this is not a film committed to expensive showdowns, but rather to atmospheric build-ups that accumulate into a nasty, looming cloud of dread. No scene, therefore, is free of residue from the last, all the loose threads and offscreen mayhem making its presence felt abstractly.
Scott's imagination is opened up considerably by the kind of schlocky material he worked with in Alien and, subsequently, Blade Runner. As a stylist he's very much reliant upon colored lights and smoke effects, and in few genres other than science-fiction and horror do these tactics make sense. Hard sources glowing from uncanny locations, slashes of foggy light, blinking and shuttering effects, and labyrinthine sets are all vital to Scott's evocation of intense, claustrophobic atmospheres, and here those elements get a robust workout. With Scott, the look and feeling of a set can shift on a moment's notice based on the emotional temperature in that space, regardless of the so-called diegetic logic. As such, the chaos of strobe lights and leaking smoke in the denouement of Alien functions less as a plausible result of Ripley's imposed detonation of the Nostromo than it does as a manifestation of her wild anxiety. Even more absurdly, when she shoots into space in her escape vessel shortly thereafter, she hits a button that turns on a flashing blue light seemingly only to give the impending sight of a surviving Alien perched in the corner of her spacecraft an expressive, kaleidoscopic dimension.
What I'm saying is this: Alien gets its blue-collar socioeconomic detail, its abundance of sexually charged motifs (labored over so pointlessly by critics for decades, as they're ultimately little more than shortcuts - albeit brilliant shortcuts - to squeamish scares), and its simple but effective overarching structure from O'Bannon, its androgynous and frighteningly inhuman monster from hyper-goth Swiss artist H.R. Giger, and the fluidity of its production design (from the slick, symmetrical, cold spaces of the ship's main floor to the dark, muggy, lived-in corridors in the basement) from Michael Seymour and Roger Christian, among many others. Only then does Scott take the reins and turn Alien into the sweat-soaked nightmare that it is. Cinema is always a collaborative effort, of course, but I get the sense that Alien is almost overtly so, that its various achievements come from separate moving parts and were synthesized and fully realized by Scott once placed in front of his camera. Why? Because with the exception of Blade Runner and the very recent Prometheus, Scott has not made another science-fiction/horror film (never mind one with supposed feminist slants), suggesting that he is not inherently drawn to this type of material despite the obvious aptitude he possesses working with it. Scott seems to have designed and constructed Alien more than he directed it, a small distinction but a significant one.
But, what a beautifully designed film it is! For starters, the first twenty or so dialogue-free minutes of the film are riveting in their quiet, gradual building of ambience. Taking cues from Solaris, Scott uses the time his ensemble cast spends in a deep sleep to glide through the tubes, valves, and belly of the Nostromo, capturing the eerie stillness of life in space, the detachment and alienation of these living quarters. Papers and dangling clothing swing softly to the cosmic breeze drifting through the ship, and Jerry Goldsmith's intoxicating synth-pad score floats uneasily over the images, always an aural omen of things to come. When the crew is woken up by their "Mother" - Alien's HAL, because every post-2001 sci-fi needs a HAL - Scott watches as their glass covers are mechanically lifted, and then utilizes what are notably the film's only slow dissolves as Kane (John Hurt), the first to die, rises to wakefulness. It's as if Scott's editing cue is suggesting that Kane's soul is detaching from his body, the first indicator that these people are bound for death.
The best scene of the film is that of Brett's (Harry Dean Stanton) demise, the second of six total crew member deaths in the film (though one may be defined more as a shutting down, but that's another discussion). Up until this point, Brett has been characterized as a bit of a village idiot, one of the lowly workers on the Nostromo brave and ignorant enough to argue for financial benefits when the ship runs off course due to its interception of strange signals from a nearby planet. Thus, it's no shock when he is ushered into the Queen Alien's chosen breeding ground on the ship by a mischievous cat. That much is pretty lazily scripted, but it's what Scott does with the scenario through image and sound that elevates it into something tense, sinuous, and strangely mystical. Scott's camera moves through the hazy boiler room slowly and with uncomfortable grace, much like the way it traverses the empty spaces of the main floor in the opening movement of the film. Meanwhile, the cat's cries, as well as dripping condensation and chains dangling from the ceiling, are heard reverberating through the cavernous architecture, beckoning Brett through the room. Just when the tension is at its peak, Scott deflects it temporarily by making Brett walk over to the liquid falling from above to point his face heavenward. Perhaps it's an attempt to cool himself in the pummeling heat of the room, but it works best as a kind of mysterious out-of-body moment, a calm before death. The image may pull from Tarkovsky's canon, most specifically Stalker, but it nonetheless holds a peculiar weight of its own in this suspended instance.
Of course, there are other things to admire about Alien. Weaver's performance is increasingly mesmerizing as the film progresses (though in some ways Alien inaugurated the slasher tradition of cardboard thin characterizations, she brings a vitality and perseverance to Ripley that cements her humanity). Also, with the exception of a few screenwriterly clichés that look transparently manipulative in retrospect and a distracting subtext about corporate corruption (or whatever), O'Bannon's script is elegantly propulsive, mostly dedicated to exposing the utter fragility of humans in the face of something unknowable and otherworldly. But I'm most fascinated with the way Scott absolutely controls the screen, how he displays an innate understanding of the behavior of images and how those images can be transformed by sound and by combination. Alien would be little more than a lavishly decorated hunk of metal suspended in front of a back-projection and a Nigerian man in a bulky monster suit without this pristine aesthetic command.