Horror films produce strong characters. It makes sense. Character, almost by definition, is established by being tested, by putting one’s self through trials that strain the soul and force growth through hard decision-making. If hell is where character blossoms, there’s no soil more fertile than horror. Alien is no exception. There have been countless characters involved in this franchise that deserve recognition. Some heroes, some villains, others mysterious outsiders. All are represented in our top ten Alien franchise characters.
There is a catch, however.
We are intentionally leaving Ellen Ripley and the Xenomorphs off this list. Cry sacrilege all you want, but there’s a reason for it. You already know why they’re amazing. If you want a deep dissection into Ripley’s character, you can check out Melissa Kay’s article going up later in the day. The aliens themselves will be explored through Eric Houstoun’s examination of H.R. Giger. For now, pretend Ripley’s still in cryosleep, the aliens still safely unhatched inside their eggs, and make yourself some time for ten other characters who proved their worth where no one could hear them scream.
Michael: Hudson is an obvious, but totally justified choice. It’s hard to argue with the charm of a young Bill Paxton and while his take on the comic relief soldier draws from other sources, he totally makes it his own. Hudson also has a character arc, which is more than I can say for the other soldier with an ‘H’ name in Aliens. Hicks starts the film as a quiet badass and ends the film as a quiet badass who has been burned a bit by acid. Hudson starts the film as a loudmouth joker who isn’t taking the mission seriously, transitions to a panicky liability and finally goes out like a hero. When he leaves the movie it’s a legitimate loss.
Billy: “Game over, man, game over!” It’s an iconic line that absolutely makes Hudson an automatic inclusion on this list. Bill Paxton delivers an incredible performance as the grunt, a role that gives you perfect perspective on the types of characters Ripley has now found herself working amongst in Aliens. While the crew of the Nostromo were unprepared, this guy is a straight up idiot. Somewhere between surfer dude and high school dropout, Hudson keeps the atmosphere fun long after the xenomorphs make their murderous way through the squad, letting audiences know when it’s okay to breathe and when it’s time to take things seriously after Hudson meets his untimely demise.
Billy: When audiences first saw Alien in 1979, the Space Jockey was the first truly alien image that they encountered. Its origins remained a mystery of the franchise for more than thirty years, with the only absolute truth about the mysterious creature being how it met its demise. There’s just something so grotesquely ‘other’ about the elephantine physiology of the Space Jockey, its gigantic scale creating a further dissonance with humanity that pushes it far outside our realm of understanding. The decaying corpse, fossilized into its chair, represented something otherworldly, futuristic and impossibly ancient all at once. Although we never see a living member of the species the Space Jockey originates from in any of the original four Alien films, Prometheus tells us they were actually Engineers, a completely different race of alabaster humanoids whose disturbingly perfect bodies mirrored our own, and the Space Jockey we all know and love was merely a suit. It’s not an entirely satisfying answer. While I personally love Prometheus, it’s hard to argue that the original mysterious Space Jockey holds something mysterious and powerful as an image that’s better left unsaid.
Michael: I’d go so far as to say that the Space Jockeys weren’t only a mystery for the franchise, but one of the biggest and most-enduring mysteries in all of film. Ridley Scott mused about the origins of the Space Jockey several times over the years before an idea took hold and he filmed Prometheus. I love the Engineers as seen in that movie. These sculpted, statuesque Gods that are both angelic and, terrifyingly, indifferent. But there’s no denying that the fossilized corpse seen in Alien was such a shocking, tantalizing image that any answer would be at least a bit of a let-down. But when the muscled, bald Engineer grapples with the abortion squid at the end of Prometheus I wouldn’t trade that phallic vs. yonic imagery for the world.
It also amazes me that a film like Alien didn’t just create one of the most recognizable creations in horror and sci-fi, but it actually created three of them. Between the Xenomorph, the Facehugger and the Space Jockey there was more Lovecraftian inventiveness packed into throwaway moments than most movies could hope to get into their entire runtime. The Space Jockey freaked me out as a kid. Imagining large, bio-metallic space elephant astronomers blew my mind. It still freaks me out to this day.
Guy Who Tries to Take the Papers From Ripley
Michael: This heading really covers a lot. The Company (AKA Weyland-Yutani) including the many ways it’s represented in the film. Specifically M.O.T.H.E.R., the computer from Alien, the idea of The Company that ominously hangs over Alien 3, and this guy who tries to take the papers from Ripley in Aliens.
While it’s mostly a funny little sight gag it’s kind of indicative of the relationship between Ripley and the company throughout the movies. She’s sensible, pragmatic, has first-hand experience with the Xenomorphs and is rightfully terrified of them. The Company just wants her to shut up so they can find a way to make a buck off of something they don’t truly understand. The good thing is it never really works out for The Company: Burke dies, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) in Prometheus dies, Ripley kills herself to keep the Xenomorph from them in Alien3, I assume guy reaching for papers doesn’t have a great life. Unfortunately, is is too often the case, it doesn’t stop The Company from trying again and again.
Billy: The boardroom scene in Aliens where Ripley tries to explain the events of LV-426 to a thick skulled tribunal is amazing on several levels. It’s outright misogynistic towards Ripley. The man with his hand outstretched telling her those aren’t her papers to take, and the entire tone of that meeting is dismissive and derisive of Ripley as a human being. It’s a tone that pretty much says they would have rathered her capsule never be found, and it’s the perfect representation of everything we assumed The Company would be when we first heard about them in bits and pieces scattered throughout Alien. It’s that realization that everything we thought about The Company is true and truly sells it as Scott’s dystopian capitalist vision.
Billy: F**k everyone else. Vasquez is the shit. It would have been so easy to represent a group of hardened space marines with an all male cast, leaving Ripley as the lone woman out of her element (the scene in the warehouse with the loader works excellently on this level) but Vasquez continued Alien’s gender-defying structure by putting a woman into the combat boots and telling the men to nut up. When Hudson asks “Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?” he’s questioning her worth as both a woman and a marine, belittling her by saying she can’t be both. With her response “No. Have you?” she turns it back. It’s a Vasquez herself slapping every sexist bigot who says she shouldn’t be there and shoving it right back in their face. When she dies, it’s in service to taking out more of those sons of bitches and not falling victim to the birthing process of the chestburster. Not only does she deserve a spot amongst these space marines, she’s probably the scariest and most lethal one out of the whole bunch. She’s strong and badass as all hell. And that’s the whole point. If the entire squad had been made out of Vasquezes, the aliens would have been dead in the first fifteen minutes.
Michael: Vasquez is the quintessential Space Marine. She’s hardcore from the moment we see her, including the memorable and important moment with Hudson that Billy mentioned. My favourite thing about Vasquez is her relationship with Lt. Gorman. Like I said, Vasquez is the definition of a Space Marine and when we meet Gorman he’s the definition of a soft, know-nothing officer who could endanger everyone. Vasquez doesn’t like him so we don’t like him. But over the course of the movie our sympathies align more with Gorman. He may have been over his head but, hell, everyone’s over their head now. In their final moments, when Vasquez and Gorman are stuck and about to sacrifice themselves to take out some Xenomorphs and buy everyone else some time, Vasquez jokes with him. She says “You always were an asshole, Gorman” something she would have easily said to Hudson or Drake. In that moment we accept Gorman because Vasquez accepts him. And who wouldn’t want to be like Vasquez?
Michael: Prometheus is a movie that gets criticized a lot for its characters actions. Whether that’s fair or not, it’s a hard argument to make against Idris Elba’s Captain Janek. He’s smart, compassionate and quick to make the right choices, whether they’re easy or not. It also doesn’t hurt at all that he’s played by Idris Elba. His character is from the same mold as Dallas or Parker from Alien: when the shit goes down it’s no-nonsense. They take action fast. While the scientists are busy running around an otherworldly haunted house, getting turned into space-zombies and getting burned to death, Janek is busy being healthily skeptical. The minute he sets his eyes on what’s in the Engineers’ ship he realizes it’s the worst-case-scenario and sacrifices his life to stop it when it’s the only option. He’s a legitimate badass.
Billy: The most important things about Janek are the Christmas Tree and the concertina. He’s a captain of the ship in the truest sense, an old school sailor stuck in the space age, and his character adds a wealth of personality to Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien franchise in Prometheus. I agree with Michael that Idris Elba is a huge reason for my love for the character and the film in general. He has a level of familiarity with his ship that no other Captain in the Alien franchise really had before. Think of Alien, and how Dallas is beholden not only to MOTHER but his crew as well. It’s the type of characterization of someone who’d throw up his hands and say “Hey, I just work here”. For Janek, this is his life and purpose, and that final sacrificial act says so much about who he is and what he’s willing to give to stop the horrors of this planet from making it back to Earth. Earth isn’t home to Janek, that ship is, and destroying it is an act of generous compassion.
Billy: Alien 3 has a lot of viewers conflicted, but most will agree that of anybody in the film, Clemens is the character who brings some light into its dark corners. Within the film, Ripley is put into an absolute hell. The people she saved in Aliens have died, and even Bishop, after being reanimated, essentially asks for Ripley to kill him. In this hell, Clemens is the one person responsible for driving Ripley forward through her despair. Of all the other white bald men that she encounters on Fury, Clemens was someone who believed in Ripley, who supported her and helped her see what laid beyond her traumatic past. He wasn’t perfect, confessing an addiction to morphine that got him sent to the planet directly before being eviscerated by an alien, but he had a moral centre that was steadfast in its righteousness. He was the perfect flawed character for the third chapter’s oppressive prison setting.
Michael: Losing Clemens as early into Alien 3 as we do is a double-edged sword. The shock of it reinforces how deadly a single Xenomorph can be, and taking him out isolates Ripley even further, severing her from the one friendly connection she made in the prison. On the other hand, Charles Dance’s performance is fantastic. He’s almost instantly sympathetic and he’s smart enough to know that Ripley knows more than she’s letting on. Losing him not only deprives us of his performance but loses one of the only fleshed out characters in the film besides Ripley. Once he’s gone we’re left with Charles S. Dutton’s Dillon, who is also really good, and a bunch of barely distinguishable, bald, white guys. A few of them end up being sketched out slightly but none of them rise to the level of Clemens.
Michael: Burke is amazing. He’s one of my favourite 80s movie archetypes: the weaselly bureaucrat. Paul Reiser plays him to perfection. I remember watching Aliens for the first time and knowing Reiser from Mad About You, so how could he be anything but a good guy? One of the best things about Aliens is the shifting allegiances and sympathies. You start the film generally on Burke’s side — albeit with a healthy dose of skepticism due to him working for The Company — while disliking Lt. Gorman and being unsure of Bishop. Throughout the film this gets twisted around so much that there may not be a better moment than when Burke gets his comeuppance.
Billy: While The Company itself is on this list for being faceless, Burke perfectly embodied a cog in the machine. Michael is bang on about the brilliance of casting comedian and actor Mad About You’s Paul Reiser in the role, as never has a character in the franchise come off so fundamentally pathetic, spotlighting every negative and selfish quality of man in one character. When he closes that door on Ripley and the other marines, the audience truly hates him. While Alien’s Ash was a synthetic who betrayed the crew of the Nostromo by mandate of his programming, it’s almost forgivable. He’s a victim of his systems, unable to disobey even if he wanted to. He wouldn’t change his actions, but he’s also truly sorry about the fate of his fellow crew. Burke, on the other hand, makes all his decisions himself. He reminded us the evil of The Company originates in humanity.
Brett & Parker
Billy: The perfect comedy double-act of Alien, Brett & Parker are incredible characters that carry the atmosphere of first act the film with a light, grounded tone that perfectly sets up this all-too-believable crew of the Nostromo for horror and hardship as the storyline progresses. Always bringing up their duties and trying to get more shares, they’re the ultimate blue collar workers, the union guys looking to make the most of their menial jobs. Taken alone, they have their strengths, but they’re so much more powerful together, riffing off the same things and improvising their lines joyously to the frustration of other members of the cast. Yaphet Kotto was an intensely serious actor to the role, going so far as to pick fights with Sigourney Weaver and the actor portraying the alien on set, in order to increase tension on set so that their interactions could be realistic. While they have their own personal qualities, it’s impossible to consider these two characters separately when they work so well together.
Michael: Brett & Parker reinforce the realism of Alien in a major way. Even though the film is set in the future, on a mining ship traveling through space, we’ve all met people like Brett & Parker. Working class stiffs who can be funny, or annoying, or just plain assholes depending on the situation. Their scenes together are so lived-in — which is to expected from the likes of Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton — that you can imagine these guys grabbing a six-pack of PBR and sitting on a New York stoop as soon as they get back to Earth. Separately they’re incredible as well. The unfortunately short-lived Brett is a toned-down space-Kramer who comes off as cool and aloof at all times. Parker is an asshole, but one who gets things done. As soon as everything goes sideways he jumps into action, working with Ripley despite their previously acrimonious relationship. They can sense that they’re both survivors and it’s basically bad luck that Parker didn’t have a Ripley there in the end to save him.
Michael: This was maybe the easiest choice for the list. The only difficult part was deciding whether the androids should be grouped together and how high on the list they should be. Of the four androids in the series, the only one I wouldn’t include in this is Call (Winona Ryder) from Alien: Resurrection. She’s fine, but the other three are in a totally different stratosphere.
Ash (Ian Holm) in Alien was the introduction to androids and his attack on Ripley and the eventual reveal of what he is was so well-done and terrifying it made you forget about the Xenomorph for a second. Bishop (Lance Henriksen) in Aliens plays off of this, Ripley’s distrust of him seeming reasonable from what we know of Ash and the fact that he’s, you know, played by Henriksen. While Bishop turned out to be one of the more noble characters in Aliens, David (Michael Fassbender) from Prometheus straddles the line between Ash and Bishop. He’s a complicated character, doing what he’s programmed to while yearning for more.
Billy: Ash wasn’t originally an android in Dan O’Bannon’s original script for Alien, and he famously believed it was an unnecessary subplot in the already tense sci-fi horror. Yet at this point I cannot fathom the Alien franchise without its synthetics. The reveal of which character is actually an android is a pivotal moment in many of the films in the franchise, and Bishop’s scene in Alien 3, a living corpse reanimated by Ripley (and some incredible animatronics work) is legitimately the best scene in the entire movie. He literally begs Ripley for death, forcing her to again lose the one connection she has to her ‘family’ from the previous film. It’s a great arc for Ripley as well, going from a hatred of synthetics after Ash’s betrayal to needing one / mourning the death of one as a friend. And while, like Michael, I agree that Call didn’t add much to the franchise, David is incredible in Prometheus for showing us a synthetic in its infancy. Decades before Ash takes shape, David is but a child, learning about the world and behaving without true thought to the consequences of his actions. We see the technological, social, and societal progression of the synthetics throughout the transition of these three characters. The android holy trinity.
Billy: With Ripley and the Xenomorphs out of the running, was there ever any question about who would get the top spot on this list? Jones represents everything pure and innocent about Earth in the cold, unfeeling darkness of space that is the setting of the Alien franchise, and his inclusion in the first two films speaks to underline everything Ripley is fighting for. Known mostly for his orange coat and frustrating habit of showing up on motion scanners, Jones isn’t merely just a nuisance. One could make the argument that Jones is the only character in the original film who actually stands up to the alien, with his memorable hiss directed right to the Xenomorph’s face. Although his role in Aliens is really just a cameo, I’ve never seen a truer cat/owner relationship portrayed on screen than when Ripley calls Jones “you little shit-head” before heading on her journey. Why Aliens 5 isn’t going to be about Jones off on his own adventure piloting a stolen starship in search of Ripley I’ll never know.
Michael: Jones also helps ground the film by delivering great examples of two horror movie cliches: the jump-scare and going back for the animal. Alien gives us definitive versions of both and noted shit-head Jones is the reason. Jones is the troublesome pet in a haunted house, helping to release tension and endanger the characters. Plus, I mean, we get to see an adorable cat. He’s one of the all-time movie felines and deserves this spot. Even if we didn’t cheat a little by grouping characters and concepts and leaving off Ripley and the Xenomorph completely I’m sure Jones would find a way to squirm into the list. Probably at the most inconvenient moment too.
Michael: This is a spot for the other characters that I considered but couldn’t quite make the list. Elizabeth Shaw, Noomi Rapace’s character from Prometheus, was hard not to include. Her combo of faith and science makes for an intriguing lead, almost as inscrutable as David sometimes, and the self-surgery scene was a standout. Apone (Al Matthews) from Aliens was another contender, if only for the fact that his badass Sergeant character wakes up from stasis with a cigar ready to go. I also considered Dallas (Tom Skerritt) from Alien. I like the soft-spoken nature of the character and the way he subtly switches roles with Ripley as the protagonist of the film, right around the time he demands to they bring Kane back onto the ship, which is a cool bait-and-switch using our expectations for this kind of film.
Billy: I too had my characters that didn’t quite make the cut. MOTHER from Alien was one I originally thought of, for the fascination I find at Dallas and the other members of the crew turning to her for instruction and guidance. The themes of birth and motherhood in the Alien franchise are incredibly strong, and they’re laid out right in that first film, with the characters’ journey taking place in MOTHER’s womb. I also wanted to talk about Newt, who is arguably the emotional core of Aliens, but as Michael convinced me during our talks in preparation of this article, she isn’t so much her own character as she is an extension of Ripley’s story. I’m still a little on the fence about this one, especially since our list is sorely lacking female representation, and I didn’t get to mention Lambert’s magnificent slap in Alien either. And finally, although he isn’t the first character fans think of, I have a soft spot in my soul for any role played by Paul McGann, so Golic from Alien 3 gets a shout-out from me as well. The way he approaches the alien with near religious reverence brings a new dimension of thought into the Alien universe, and a set of behaviours unseen in any of the previous films.
So there they are. The inarguable list of the best characters in the Alien franchise. The only correct answer.
Of course that’s not true. If you ask ten different Alien fans you’ll get ten different lists. Sure, there would probably be some mainstays but the order and the reasoning would be as varied as the characters themselves. That’s a testament to the depth of this franchise and the quality of actors, writers and filmmakers who have contributed to it.
So discuss amongst yourselves. Tell us how dumb we are for leaving Hicks off the list or how smart we are for making a cat our top pick. Or even how we’re kinda huge cheaters by cramming a bunch of characters under certain headings. We look forward to hearing about it.