Alien: How Its Physical Performances Create a Horror Classic

Many years later, Alien remains a masterpiece of tension thanks to the power of its physical performances.

When a movie works – really, really works – its combination of acting, cinematography, music, sound design, lighting, and editing come together so seamlessly that it can become difficult to pin down exactly why it’s so effective. Take Alien for example: beautifully shot by Ridley Scott and cinematographer Derek Vanlint, cut with razor-sharp perfection to Jerry Goldsmith’s piping eerie score, it’s a masterpiece of genre filmmaking.

In the years since Alien’s release in 1979, various aspects of it have been singled out for praise: H.R. Giger was rightly handed an Oscar for his part in the seductively hideous xenomorph in its various stages. The film’s story and nightmare imagery is still picked over for its Freudian and feminist subtexts. Yet there’s one part of Alien that your humble writer had failed to fully appreciate until a few days ago: the extraordinary physical intensity of its performances.

 I must have seen Alien at least a dozen times, but this is the first time I’ve been convinced that the film would have failed without the great acting. The alien’s barely glimpsed, but we feel its presence because the crew seem so believably scared. 

This minor epiphany occurred while watching television in a rather cramped French hotel room. Flicking through the channels, I stumbled on a late-night showing of Alien, understandably dubbed into French. My comprehension of the language being entry-level at best, I simply turned the sound right down and concentrated on admiring the visuals. It was then that I began to notice the way the actors carry themselves and behave in each scene, and how seldom the dialogue is even required to keep track of the story.

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That story is the definition of streamlined: the crew of the commercial vessel Nostromo are flying back to Earth when they’re awoken by a mysterious signal. Following the signal to a tiny, windswept planet, the crew discover a crashed, otherworldly spacecraft. While investigating, crewmember Kane (John Hurt) is attacked by a spiderlike creature emerging from a leathery egg. Incapacitated by the monster attached to his face, Kane is carried back to the Nostromo – where something hideous and even more deadly eventually hatches from Kane’s stomach…

Now, it goes without saying that Alien has a superb cast. A group of character actors and theatre performers rather than A-list movie stars, the seven players at the heart of Alien seem as natural and weathered as the ship itself. Part of the genius of Aliens script, first written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett and later rewritten by David Giler and Walter Hill, is that it creates such a sober view of what working in space might look like circa the 22nd century. These aren’t all-American astronauts, but rather a motley collection of navigators, engineers, and scientists. They bicker and squabble over bonuses and pay. Some of them resent each other. Others appear to have been in a relationship in the recent past. 

All of this is there in the screenplay, but it would have been for naught had the casting not been so perfectly judged. Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton are perfect as the surly engineers who patch up the Nostromo and mutter discontentedly among themselves. Ian Holm is faultless as the duplicitous science officer Ash. And of course Sigourney Weaver is brilliant as warrant officer Ripley.

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With the dialogue stripped out of the film, it becomes easier to appreciate how each actor communicates their character’s fears and desires through their body language rather as well as line delivery. Let’s take Ian Holm’s Ash first of all. Holm brings a keen intelligence to the part, but also a fidgety, passive-aggressive edge. He bears an obvious resentment towards Ripley almost from the beginning. Note how he avoids her gaze, how he almost seems intimidated by her confrontational way of talking to him. Note too how calculating he is. As John Hurt’s luckless Kane sits down to eat what we know will be his final meal, Ash is watching him with detached fascination. Before the infant alien even stirs in Kane’s stomach, Ash knows exactly what’s going to happen. He just doesn’t know when or how. When the birthing sequence begins, Kane pinned to the table and thrashing in agony, Ash moves quickly to assist – the rest of the crew seem to think Kane’s having some kind of seizure – but Ash hardly seems surprised at the unfolding horror. 

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The rest of the cast, on the other hand, have an extraordinary ability to convey expressions of outright fear. Part of this is thanks to good, old-fashioned trickery on the part of the filmmakers. The legend goes that the cast didn’t know just how spectacularly bloody the alien’s birth would be – Veronica Cartrwright’s disgusted reaction to being hit full in the face by a jet of gore is genuine.

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As she proved in the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, Cartwright was capable of expressing horror and panic as well as any actor in the business. Leaving aside whether her flighty, birdlike character is particularly sympathetic or not, Cartwright makes us feel the character’s dread in the pits of our stomachs. Again, she’s sublime casting. Had Alien been populated with picturesque teens or 20-somethings, like your typical slasher of the ’70s and ’80s, there’s no way the film would have been so intense. Cartwright understands that, when people are genuinely scared for their lives, they don’t look pretty. There’s more than one scene in Alien where the camera frames Cartwright’s face, and we see her bulging eyes bloodshot and tear-streaked with fear. 

By contrast, Tom Skerrit’s Captain Dallas is the crew’s sturdy, dependable center. If he’s disturbed by the presence of the alien on his ship, he makes a good job of hiding it from everybody else. In an earlier period – the ’50s or ’60s, say – Dallas probably would have been the film’s star. But Alien does something audiences weren’t used to seeing in the late ’70s. While gamely hunting the alien through the ship’s ventilation shafts, Dallas winds up as its third victim. 

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The film’s most reassuring presence is abruptly snatched away, and you can feel the center of gravity shift among the remaining survivors. Lambert teeters on what appears to be the edge of nervous collapse. The imposing Parker (Kotto) reacts to the situation with a kind of impotent rage. (Kotto would often say to Scott, “I’m not gonna die today!” – to the point where Scott would actively avoid the actor on set. I think this attitude feeds into his character. He’s the only one who goes down fighting, or at least tries to.)

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While Ash remains aloof, Ripley’s the only member of the crew who sits, collects herself, and begins to work out a new strategy – lure the alien to an airlock and blow it out into space. 

It’s fascinating to see how much commitment the actors put into these scenes. Some actors might have looked at the script, saw an It! The Terror From Beyond Space-type B-movie, and simply coasted through the shoot. Instead, they attack their roles with obvious intensity. Their every stolen glance and gesture suggests a person gripped by fear and desperation. Aliens sets were designed in such a way that you couldn’t just wander on and off the set. You had to walk the whole way round its network of corridors and atriums to escape. Maybe it was this sense of claustrophobia that helped the actors absorb themselves so completely.

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“They built these elaborate sets for us so the actors could be in the world,” Weaver recalls in Ian Nathan’s book, Alien Vault. “I just used to wander around. It helped me find the character.” 

Sigourney Weaver’s brilliance really comes to the fore in the final act. And again, it’s an almost pure physical performance.

With the crew whittled down to just her and the ship’s cat, Mr. Jones, Ripley sets off the Nostromo’s self-destruct sequence, heads to the escape vessel – and almost runs headlong into the alien. It’s worth remembering that, up to this point, Ripley’s never seen the full-grown alien with her own eyes. Indeed, nobody’s seen the alien and lived. Her primal, terrorized response is perfect: she recoils, stifles a scream, and sort of slides quietly from the creature’s view.

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It’s Ripley’s control over her emotions which is the primary means for her survival. She doesn’t beat the alien because she’s stronger, but because her instincts lead her down the right path at each junction. A stereotypical “scream queen” character from a slasher movie wouldn’t have survived in Alien. A shriek or a whimper would have meant a swift and horrible death – or worse, if you’ve seen the extended cut, encasement in a gooey cocoon. 

With a less able cast, Alien could have wound up as just another monster movie, like the legion of imitators that followed Scott’s 1979 film. Although not without charm, movies like Titan Find and Galaxy of Terror failed to capture Alien‘s grimy sense of realism. Indeed, Scott himself couldn’t quite recapture Alien‘s magic in his own prequel, 2012’s Prometheus. The set designs and lighting are all there, but the eclectic, international cast simply doesn’t gel as it did in Alien.

As Ridley Scott has admitted himself in the past, Alien is still a pure B-movie at its heart. But the sheer quality of its design and production are what set it apart from the sci-fi horror offerings that came before and after it. And then there are those extraordinary performances, which make us truly believe that the crew of the Nostromo are trapped with the most terrifying predator in the galaxy in their midst. Alien isn’t just a great sci-fi horror movie; it’s great cinema.