Alien was one of those perfect-storm movies where every decision just plain worked out right. Think about the cast for a minute: There are seven people (and one cat) in this movie, and every single one of them is absolutely perfect for the role they play. To wit:
Sigourney Weaver: Siggy invented the modern female action hero in this movie; Angelina Jolie should be cutting her in for at least 10% right off the top. As Ripley, Our Heroine, Sigourney (real name: Susan Alexandra Weaver) projects an amazing combination of strength, vulnerability, and unconventional/too-tall-and-skinny/just-slightly-butch sex appeal. Alien made Sigourney a star, but no other role ever allowed her to shine like this one (see also: Aliens and, on and off, the two other movies in the series); Ripleys don’t just come along every day.
Yaphet Kotto: It is a pleasure just to type the words “Yaphet Kotto.” He plays Parker, the head engineer, sort of the Scotty of the Nostromo. As Alien‘s only person of color (quiet, John Hurt: “translucent” is not a color) he carries a heavy burden, but does it with dignity, aplomb, and you might even say grace. He goes out hard but fighting all the way.
Harry Dean Stanton: As Parker’s sidekick Brett, HDS delivers an especially compelling version of his patented shtick: a sleazy lowlife who nonetheless seems to have a handle on things in a way that makes him impossible to dismiss. This act reached its apotheosis a few years later in Repo Man.
Tom Skerritt: Skerritt has had a long, active, and strange career; he’s been in many movies, often in large roles, and yet never quite become a star. He has a leading man’s looks but a character actor’s demeanor. As Captain Dallas he is both competent/authoritative and supremely mellow. You would love to have Dallas as your captain, boss, dad, whatever…too bad about what happens to him, especially in the director’s cut.
John Hurt: Hurt has the smallest role in Alien (i.e. he dies first, though remarkably, this is almost an hour in), but he leaves an indelible impression. First sallow and unhealthy-looking; then eager and curious; then comatose with a weird creature gripping his face; then hungry and full of life; and then in agonizing fucking pain for the rest of his short-ass life.
Veronica Cartwright: Quite simply one of the greatest screamers in movie history; no one goes to pieces like Veronica. In the space of two years she was in both Alien and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, both of which gave her ample opportunity to unleash her Hall of Fame vocal cords. Wikipedia just whispered in my ear that “She was originally cast as Alien‘s heroine Ellen Ripley, but director Ridley Scott switched her role with Sigourney Weaver’s just prior to shooting the movie.” I find that hard to believe, but what the hell do I know?
The Great Ian Holm: That’s right, “The Great” is actually part of his name, like Larry the Cable Guy or World B. Free. As Ash, the science officer, Holm channels all of his considerable powers into a performance of unsurpassed creepiness. Ash is like some version of Spock gone very, very wrong; both coldly logical and sexually twisted (watching Alien today, I am somehow reminded of Karl Rove). The scene where he tries to murder Ripley by gagging her with a rolled-up magazine is one of the downright hinkiest things ever committed to celluloid.
Jones the Cat: A highly underrated performance. Talk about versimilitude — you never for one moment think that this actor is anything other than a cat.
There is lots more to write about this movie — the sexual symbolism alone is a subject both wide and deep — but I may or may not have time. In any case, if you haven’t seen it lately, I highly recommend a viewing…assuming you have what it takes.
I think what’s best about Alien is that at the time, Kotto and Skerritt were the biggest stars in it, but Ripley was the lone survivor. It was very unpredictable yet it made perfect sense. I love movies like that. Very rare indeed.
Aliens was awesome for different reasons, but far more predictable. While watching it you know everyone but Ripley, Reece (his term. name), and Nute will die. I thought perhaps one of them would die as well, but no, all three lived. Sort of lame but oh well, it was so awesome it didn’t bug me.
Then Aliens 3 killed of Nute and Reece before it even started rendering Aliens meaningless. That pissed me off. The movie sucked anyway but even if it hadn’t, it never had a chance due to that bad decision.