The first four Alien films — Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, and Alien: Resurrection — are about Ellen Ripley’s journey from working stiff to mother of dragons. It is essentially a character study about a character who seemingly can’t stop running into an acid-bleeding xenomorph, no matter how many times she goes to sleep, gets a new job, finds a new home. There’s smiley, waiting for her. The major difference between the first quartet of films and Alien director Ridley Scott’s recent revival movies — Prometheus, Alien: Covenant — is the turn away from character (specifically Ripley, but character in general) and into mythology. Scott’s attention span is limited when it comes to people. In Prometheus, he threw a bunch of famous/soon-to-be-famous stars — Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Noomi Rapace, Not Tom Hardy — at the wall to see who stuck. He wound up being most interested in the robot.
That’s not to say there are no signs of life in Prometheus and Covenant, it’s just that they have stiff competition. The Alien films, especially the first two, are populated with weird, real-seeming, funny, scared, and brave people. The characters, and their group dynamics, have as much to do with H.R. Giger’s nightmarish vision of extraterrestrial life and the filmmaking prowess of Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (and Joss Whedon). It’s about people — people who need people, and need to not have their chests busted open.
For as much as we may remember an Alien emerging from the dark or being the end result of a nasty coughing fit, there are just as many human moments — the first meal in Alien; the frayed nerves of the colonial marines in Aliens; David’s Peter O’Toole obsession in Prometheus (OK, sort-of-human moments) that are just as indelible. They are what elevates the series beyond rinse-and-repeat slasher sci-fi. Who needs engineers when you have good actors?
Here then, is a definitive ranking of Alien movie characters. A note on my credentials: I have watched these movies many, many times, and I think a lot about what makes them good or bad. A note on methodology: There is no advanced metric at work here. Rather, I went off of the characters that have stayed with me, either through the performance of the actor, or the importance of the role to the franchise. A note on preferences: I rank these movies as follows …
3. Prometheus (it’s complicated)
4. Alien 3
5. Alien: Covenant (I imagine this will be more rewatchable than Alien 3, for whatever that’s worth)
6. Alien: Resurrection
There are not many Alien: Resurrection characters on this list, because I don’t like that movie very much. There are only a couple mentioned from Alien: Covenant, which opens Friday, because I don’t want to spoil anything.
1. Private Hudson (Bill Paxton), ‘Aliens’
2. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), ‘Alien,’ ‘Aliens,’ ‘Alien 3,’ ‘Alien: Resurrection’
When I first told my coworker Amanda Dobbins that I would be selecting Bill Paxton’s Hudson as the best Alien character she responded, "This is a series about female trauma, but fine." She is right on both counts.
The first four Alien movies are about Ellen Ripley. Sigourney Weaver’s performances in the first four films are uniformly wonderful, and quite different from movie to movie — she is a borderline villain in Resurrection.
Because of her nagging ability to live through just about anything, including death, she is an unknowable character. In Alien, she is everyday people, a warrant officer on a commercial ship thrust into the role of hero when her captain is killed and her ship’s android breaks bad. In assuming this role, as the lone survivor of the Nostromo crew, she loses her actual life.
She wakes up 57 years later at the beginning of Aliens, and she goes about building the life she slept through — forging friendships, finding usefulness, and becoming a mother to an orphaned child. She is the franchise’s North Star, and while I find it hilarious that Ridley Scott is shine blocking Neill Blomkamp’s proposed sequel (which would revolve once again around Ripley), it’s easy to see with Prometheus and Covenant that the franchise needs her as much as it needs its toothy, gooey monsters.
But we’re not talking about the most important character, we’re talking about the best character. And the best character is the late Bill Paxton’s Private Hudson in Aliens. This is a bit of a Luke-Han situation. Luke is the engine of the story, Han is what makes it fun. Hudson is Han, only he’s Han if at the end of Star Wars, he had shouted, "Let’s blow this thing and go home!" and then he crashed into the Death Star.
There’s no point in making a YouTube supercut of all of Hudson’s good lines, because every line is good. This is one of the great action movie performances of all time. Paxton is loud, brash, stupid, funny, annoying, AND VERY BELIEVABLE AS A GUY WHO IS CONFRONTED WITH THE FACT THAT AN ALIEN SPECIES IS LIKELY GOING TO END HIS LIFE.
This is the key to Hudson, and it’s why Paxton’s performance is so memorable. I would love to think that when the Aliens started cocooning my friends, crashing the plane that was supposed to airlift me off of a hellscape of a planet, and threatening my adopted daughter, I would make like Ellen Ripley. But I would definitely be this guy:
And so would you. "Game over" is the meme (and was improved by Paxton), but I was always partial to his reaction to being told that he must be reading his tracker wrong. There’s something so funny about taking a moment in an extraordinary situation to get pissy about something as ordinary as whether or not you are able to work a gadget.
Ripley is absolutely the hero of this movie — and this franchise — but Hudson is the best character. His bravest moment is when an Alien finally catches up with him, bursting through the floor and swallowing him. He had nothing left to lose.
3. Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), ‘Aliens’
By far the best villain of the entire franchise, and I’m including robots who betray their human shipmates and xenomorphs with two sets of razor-sharp teeth and acid for blood. This is down to Burke’s arc — starting out as the "cool substitute English teacher" of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, and revealing himself as a sniveling, manipulative twerp who gets an unceremonious death via the very thing he was trying to smuggle back to Earth (inside the bodies of Ripley, et al.). Up until Aliens, Reiser was best known for Diner and delivering the funniest non–Eddie Murphy line in Beverly Hills Cop:
This is not my locker. In Aliens, he was a nebbish supervillain. The underlying story of the franchise revolves around the futuristic industrial space race to colonize and mine other planets. In Prometheus, we see the original of this greed and hubris, in the typical Elon Musk–Howard Hughes mad-scientist guise of Guy Pearce’s Peter Weyland. But I prefer my corporate evil to be come in the more familiar middle-management guise.
4. Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope), ‘Aliens’
This guy took so many L’s — constantly dissed by his men (and women), and spends the majority of the second half of the film with a goofy bandage wrapped around his head. Gorman was the kind of dude whose dream in life is to be an offensive coordinator. He goes out like a viking, though, along with the people’s champ …
5. Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), ‘Aliens’
6. Dallas (Tom Skerritt), ‘Alien’
7. Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), ‘Aliens’
In any other franchise, these two would have been the heroes of their respective movies. I still wonder, if you could go back to Alien without knowing there would be multiple sequels focusing on Ripley, would Dallas play as the main character right up until he bites it in the franchise’s scariest scene.
On initial viewings, Biehn is overshadowed by Paxton, but he has the quiet, Gary Cooper thing going on. Biehn is a great what-if as an actor. For whatever reason, he was never able to parlay his work in Aliens into a consistent career, as either a character actor like Paxton or a star like Weaver. There’s a rumor that, in an early draft of Alien 3, written by the sci-fi novelist William Gibson, Biehn was actually the protagonist of the movie, replacing Ripley. But in the final version, he is killed in the beginning of the film. In Aliens, Hicks is a little overmatched, intellectually, for the moment he’s in, but he pairs really well with Ripley, and the two of them have some lovely moments, like when Hicks explains how to use a pulse rifle. I don’t know if it ever gets as romantic as this Evanescence-scored fan video makes it out to be …
… but it’s the closest thing this franchise has to a real love story.
8. Ash (Ian Holm), ‘Alien’
9. David (Michael Fassbender), ‘Prometheus’
10. Bishop (Lance Henriksen), ‘Aliens’
Ash is the best robot because we don’t know he’s a robot. There’s a scene in Alien, where Ripley finds out that Ash and the Weyland-Yutani Corporation are in cahoots to transport the xenomorph back to Earth, and that the crew is expendable. She throws Ash against the wall of the "Mother" room, and he gives her this look of total derision and condescension, that sums up every "the machines will rise" plot in every other movie, without ever saying a word. We still don’t know Ash is an android at that point! Adam Nayman wrote beautifully about the robots of this franchise, but suffice to say, I think David is a great character, with an incredible story, stuck in an overcooked movie/new franchise that jostles between being a one-off and the beginning of a multifilm series.
The idea that David, a beguiling Pinocchio figure with a mean jump hook and an infatuation with Lawrence of Arabia, would find more kinship in this primordial ooze that will eventually evolve into the Aliens of previous films is a fascinating treatise on Darwinian evolution and creation myths. It’s too bad they can’t just make the movies about him. Once you see Covenant, you will see that’s what Scott clearly wants to do.
Bishop is an OK character in a great movie, but he’s essentially a red herring (Ripley is worried about him, when she should be worried about Burke). Still, though: This is a fun party trick …
11. Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), ‘Alien’
12. Parker (Yaphet Kotto), ‘Alien’
Alien has been referred to as "truckers in space," which is a concept that definitely wouldn’t get made today. Nor would a sci-fi thriller where the median age of the actor is about 40. Casting is one thing, but Scott let his actors and actresses deliver lived-in, subtle, beleaguered performances, rather than having them ham it up. It’s been said before, but there’s a lot of Altman in the staging of the early scenes, and it goes a long way toward making you care about each and every one of the crew members, most of all the grousing mechanics, Brett and Parker. That’s why when something like this happens …
… every reaction matters. Most of all Lambert’s.
13. Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), ‘Alien’
14. Faris (Amy Seimetz), ‘Alien: Covenant’
15. Purvis (Leland Orser), ‘Alien: Resurrection’
The three sirens. Freaking out is an underrated quality of Alien characters. It’s important that every film have one person that just cannot handle what is happening, because that’s what we would be doing. Lambert spends most of Alien smoking and crying, and then she dies. Leland Orser plays a guy named Purvis who has one of the all-time grossest death scenes, but before that gets to have a complete meltdown.
This pairs very nicely with his infamous turn in Se7en, in which he played "Crazed Man in Massage Parlor." The years 1995–1997 were really intense for Leland Orser.
Amy Seimetz plays Faris in Covenant, and she was born to have the shit scared out of her in an Alien movie. I don’t want to do too much Covenant stuff here, because you can’t talk about the characters without addressing their fates, but suffice to say that, in a film where a lot of the actors don’t seem totally sure what the tone should be, Seimetz just plays it like she’s in Upstream Color — naturalistic and weird, and absolutely terrified of what is happening around her.
I really like Katherine Waterston, but Seimetz does a lot more with a lot less in this movie.
16. Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), ‘Prometheus’
Prometheus would have played differently had Natalie Portman or Carey Mulligan played this role (as they were both rumored to at points), and you can’t tell me otherwise. Rapace was not helped by being paired with Logan Marshall-Green for much of this film. I had a lot of time for that guy in Quarry, but in Prometheus, he plays Charlie Holloway, the dumbest archeologist in the world.
So why is Rapace on this list? For being in the most disturbing movie scene of the 21st century (Google "Prometheus" and "C-section").
17. Clemens (Charles Dance), ‘Alien 3’
18. Kane (John Hurt), ‘Alien’
19. Millburn (Rafe Spall), ‘Prometheus’
British people really eat off of this Alien series. Sometimes that doesn’t work out so well for them.
Of these three, Kane/Hurt is obviously the most famous, though if you think about it, this whole thing is his fault because he insists on futzing around on LV-426 despite Lambert’s and Dallas’s protestations. Tywin Lannister is the most interesting thing about Alien 3 but he gets X’d out right as things are getting good.
These films have big casts, lots of characters, and essentially a slasher-film structure — people getting picked off, one by one. You’re going to have some missed opportunities with performers, in that case. At least Dance gets a chance to shine; Rafe Spall — a wickedly good character actor — hardly gets any screen time at all, but still finds time to invent Yeezy Season.
20. Apone (Al Matthews), ‘Aliens’
21. Corporal Ferro (Colette Hiller), ‘Aliens’
One of the things ’80s action movies don’t get a lot of credit for is the pacing. They often told very simple stories at just the right speed. The relentless tempo would come with the arrival of Michael Bay, but in 1986, when James Cameron released Aliens, directors were still learning how to structure big blockbuster movies full of set pieces. Which is why characters like Apone and Ferro get these little pockets to be in character. Apone should just be a cigar-chomping blowhard, and Ferro shouldn’t have any lines at all. Instead we see Apone as a guy just doing his job, open to the possibility that Ripley can be a useful member of his crew.
Meanwhile, Ferro, the pilot of the dropship, gets to wear cool sunglasses, and say the word "Spunkmeyer."
22. Newt (Carrie Henn), ‘Aliens’
23. Jonesy (Unknown Cat), ‘Alien’ and ‘Aliens’
This is actually the same character.