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In Praise of the Incredible Ensemble Cast of Alien

As Alien turns 45, let's take a look at the characters surrounding Ellen Ripley.

By Matthew Jackson
An alien hand reaches out to Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) in Alien (1979).

Virtually everything about Alien (now streaming on Peacockworks. Ridley Scott's breakthrough sci-fi hit turns 45 this year, and even after decades of imitators, it retains a visceral, claustrophobic power, and a status as one of the best horror films ever made. There are a lot of reasons for that, from the creature design to the pacing, but in the end, Alien doesn't work if its characters fall flat.

When it comes to character, Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley gets most of the press, and with good reason. She's an incredible heroine and one of the best Final Girls in horror, but she's far from the only reason the film lands so well. Surrounding Weaver throughout Scott's terrifying adventure is an ensemble cast of talented, committed character actors, all of whom add their own distinct flavor to the horror.

For More on Alien:
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Sigourney Weaver Encourages Alien Fans to "Vote for the Planet"

Space Truckers with Dangerous Cargo, The Incredible Character Actors in Ridley Scott's Alien

The cast of Alien (1979) tends to a crewmember on a dinner table.

Much has been made of the "dirty space" aesthetic surrounding Alien, the way everything feels lived-in and raw like it's been beaten down by time and the elements across decades, and that extends to the characters. They are, after all, truckers in space, a group of people whose job is towing cargo across the stars, more worried about the bonuses they'll get from their company than any real cosmic danger. 

But these are not a pack of cliches. From navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) to chief engineer Parker (Yaphet Kotto), the crew of the Nostromo in Alien is made up of real humans, not caricatures of blue collar workers who just happen to have a sci-fi job that seems interesting to our present-day imaginations. They get up from stasis sleep and trade jokes about bad coffee and badder food. They argue with their supervisors, particularly Dallas (Tom Skerritt) over pay and work hours. They're just people like any of us, trying to get through the day, trying to get home from work.

And then, of course, their lives are intruded upon by a deadly alien creature with nothing but pure predatorial instinct to guide it, and suddenly they're all thrust into a nightmare they can't escape. Here again, the film and its cast could fall back on exaggerated B-movie sci-fi tropes and simply scream for their lives, but they don't do that. These are professionals, in charge of company property and with a job still to complete, so they don't panic. They work the problem. They examine their challenges and their options and push ahead, while never losing sight of the reality that, in spite of all of this, they're still just people doing a job. It's the kind of narrative framing that allows for jokes like Dallas handing Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) his pen back after using it to sample Xenomorph blood, but it also creates something else, something which becomes especially important as the crew starts dying.

Real Victims, Real Horror in Alien

Up until Kane (John Hurt) dies, Alien is the story of a group of blue collar people who've discovered something weird and possibly quite dangerous. After Kane dies, it's a story of those same people realizing that any one of them could be next, no matter how calm they are, no matter how quickly and efficiently they try to end the threat. One of the great narrative joys of horror is placing good characters in a given predicament, and then watching them try to get out of it, and Alien is a masterclass in revealing the different responses to a given predicament. 

The film's ensemble, each with their own sharply realized character, takes a mutli-pronged approach to their Xenomroph encounter. Skerritt plays Dallas like a steely-eyed problem solver, the guy who could have easily made it out alive if he hadn't put himself in harm's way so willingly. Kotto's Parker is a fighter, determined to stay alive no matter what, while Brett's laid-back style gets him in trouble quickly. Then there's Lambert, who Cartwright plays as the manifestation of the entire audience's quite rational fear, slowly unraveling as the danger gets closer and closer. She might seem weak, but in many ways she's contending with the reality of the situation in ways none of her crewmates really can. Then, of course, there's Ash (Ian Holm), who has his own motives and his own cool way of dealing with the issues, right up until the point that his secret is revealed. They all feel real, which means their demises all feel real.

The variations in these responses, and the lived-in feel of each of these characters, means that Alien never gets any slack in the tension it's out to create. Scott can turn the camera on any member of his cast and get something compelling, and we as an audience can watch the film again and again and keep finding new details in the ensemble. None of them are Ripley, but in many ways the ways they surround her and set her up for greatness are Alien's biggest strength.

Alien is now streaming on Peacock.