Don't call Ridley Scott a hack. Who else can make a cat hiss on cue the way he can?

By Max Garrone

Published April 3, 2001 1:00AM (EDT)

Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto
20th Century Fox; anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Director's commentary, deleted scenes, artwork and photo galleries

Some call Ridley Scott a hack. It's much too cruel a moniker for someone who made two of the strongest visual landmarks in contemporary cinema, "Alien" and "Blade Runner." Not that Scott makes terribly nuanced films; he excels at spectacle. On the "Alien" director's commentary, Scott is straightforward about his strengths and weaknesses. Character and themes add tension and carry the plot forward; the interesting stuff is the visual detail and how he pulled it off.

"Alien" follows Sigourney Weaver and six others as they investigate a mysterious radio message from an uninhabited planet. When they land on the planet, one of them becomes infested with an alien life form that, once on board the ship, quickly begins to kill the other crew members. Scott knows the plot is simple; the power, he says, comes from developing enough tension to carry the audience to the next money shot.

The film's visceral effects owe everything to a look that is both alien and claustrophobic. Much of it takes place in the bowels of a spaceship, which look remarkably similar to tunnels, sewers and crawl spaces. The key element in all of this is the alien creature and its surroundings, which were based on the creepiest of designs of Swiss illustrator H.R. Giger. Scott describes the look as "biomechanoid." The close-ups of the alien's mouth, its bristling double jaws secreting waterfalls of saliva, are still horrifying.

Scott repeatedly returns to the importance of jabbing his audience in the gut. He says that "2001: A Space Odyssey" was a strong influence, but he was quick to jettison Stanley Kubrick's realistic silence of space in favor of Dolby explosions. Still, the movie was famously tagged with the line "In space no one can hear you scream." Scott has no problem talking about that sort of compromise. Otherwise, he's delivering quick takes on films cues between cigar puffs: "I love this cue here" [cigar puff]; "now you know Harry's gonna die" [cigar puff].

Scott's at his best when talking about special effects. There's a distinct glee in his voice when he says his crew got the actors to shake for a landing scene by putting paint mixers under their seats. For him, physical effects are important; he's rueful of the computer-generated work that dominates the industry today. (Guess he changed his mind by the time he got to "Gladiator.") But back then, he didn't need them: For a sequence when he needed a cat to hiss on cue, he put a German shepherd behind a board and the cat on a leash; when he raised the board, he got the perfect reaction.

If the commentary isn't enough, turn to the deleted scenes and outtakes. They offer a sense of how stronger character development was eliminated in favor of pacing and a window into expanded special-effects scenes. Plus, the production drawings show four prominent pre-production artists' takes on the film.

Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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