It's difficult to really formulate, in one's memory, just how that quality we now know as "buzz" was generated in the days before this mess we're all in now, but my recollection is that Alien DID indeed have some buzz about it before opening, despite the fact that it was a film that had no stars and its director was a relatively unknown quality. I and my collegiate pals were somewhat aware of The Duellists, but hadn't actually seen it. But we did know that this picture was coming and it was supposed to be something. There was a production story about it in the issue of Rolling Stone dated May 31st, which would have been on newsstands about a week before the film's May 25th, 1979 opening (Wenner's magazine was then, as now, a biweekly). I'm not sure if we had seen it or not.
But for whatever reason I was there for it on the afternoon of the opening day at the then-majestic (and now completely nonexistent) Stanley Warner Theatre on Route 4 in Paramus, N.J. Among my "posse" was the now-infrequent-SCR-chimer-in Joseph Failla, who's been my moviegoing companion since third grade, and My Close Personal Friend Ron Goldberg™, soon to be the keyboard player and composition maestro of the now-reformulated Haledon rock legends Artificial Intelligence. We went in with a very "bring it" attitude. And I left with the conviction that it had not, in fact, been broughten.
I'm not entirely certain whether or not I was under the influence of cannabis during the viewing (it's not unlikely, frankly) but I can tell you I was feeling pretty feisty. When the spawn of the face-sucker burst out of John Hurt's chest, unhinged its jaw, screeched, and scurried away, I actually tittered, and then sputtered, rather loudly, and with no small amount of what I then considered punk-rock indignation, "It's the Eraserhead baby with teeth!" Yes, I was pretty much the guy that you and everybody else in the sentient movie-viewing universe wants to pummel. And when the picture was over, I shrugged and seethed "That's IT?" My Close Personal Friend Ron Goldberg™ semi-fumed "It's just a slicker remake of X! The Terror From Beyond Space." And then we all went to the Forum diner and then maybe back to Ron's parents' place in Clifton to listen to King Crimson's Red and watch the pretty blue volume-level lights on his amplifier, or something.
I did not write up Alien for my college paper, thank God, or doubtless I would have puked up something daringly righteous and contrarian and dumb. I was 19 years old and although some will attest that I was a nice and amusing and even charming fellow on some levels, I was also an opinionated loudmouth asshole who thought he knew everything and that if you didn't grok Henry Cow you were an individual of entirely subpar intelligence and not much worth my time. (Of course I was also canny enough not to play Henry Cow records for all that many of the women I dated, but we'll get into that some other time.) I did not really come around to Alien until maybe the mid-80s. What turned me around was...well, it was a few things. I saw more movies, learned about form, and started—I can't emphasize enough the importance of that verb being "started"—to try and look at movies with respect to what was actually on the screen and with less of an urge to outsmart what I was looking at. The evolution of home video was one of the factors that turned Alien into an enduring classic rather than a sleeper hit. The respect it was accorded by subsequent acquaintances who clearly knew better than I did was also influential. For instance, Michael Weldon in the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film: "Of course it's an expensive B-movie, but it's also fascinating, well-made, and the scariest science-fiction film in ages." (Interestingly, though, as B-movies go, it wasn't THAT expensive. Still. Michael was conversant with the work of Andy Milligan.) I've since rewatched it, enjoyed it, and been frightened by it, a number of times. But I have to confess I felt no reverence to it on my first.
Point being? I'm not entirely sure. Except that when the next Alien comes around, it's not going to be made by the people who made the first Alien. It's gonna have been made by a bunch of people we're not all that familiar with. And when and if it comes around, I hope I have the eyes to see it for what it is, and if not quite that, to actually enjoy it.
UPDATE: The aforementioned Mr. Joseph Failla has some thoughts for me, and you: