What makes a memorable movie death? Is it the gore that tries to horrify the audience? Is it the shock, the pain at losing a beloved character? Is it satisfaction at seeing the bad guy get what he deserves?
The Alien movies have no shortage of deaths. The first two films both follow the same structure: almost everyone dies but Ripley and the creature her dormant maternal instincts have chosen to save. But amid the carnage, some deaths are more memorable than others. In advance of
In advance of Alien: Covenant, we’ll be looking back at the best deaths of the Alien movies, reviewing the loss of cast members that shocked, surprised, or offended audiences enough to be remembered above the rest of the franchise’s carnage.
10. Brett – Alien
Poor Brett, taken out chasing after a damn cat that was probably better left alone! While Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett isn’t a major character in the film, he does form part of a sorta-funny duo with Yaphet Kotto’s Parker, and he got a death scene that’s way above his pay grade.
As he wanders through the ships cargo hold looking for the cat, we get one of the more inexplicable scenes of the film. Seeing some dirty garbage water dripping from the ceiling, Brett decides that he’s going to tip his head back, take his trademark hat off, and have a little bath. Like, what? But the sound of that dripping water, the clanking of the random ceiling-mounted chains (why are those there again?) and the character’s moment of vulnerability all let us know Brett is no long for this world. It’s the perfect set-up for a memorable, atmospheric horror movie death.
Of course, the Jonsey surives without Brett’s help. Here lies a poor guy who just wanted a paycheck.
9. Dr. Clemens – Alien 3
Ripley goes through a lot throughout Aliens 3. All her friends are dead, and she’s marooned on a prison colony populated by murders, rapists and other monstrous types. And yet she finds a sympathetic soul in Dr. Clemens, the morphine-addicted doctor that landed in the prison colony after misprescribing medication while under the influence.
It’s a heavy blow, then, when he’s one of the first characters offed by the Xenomorph rampaging through the colony. Almost immediately after opening up to Ripley and, controversially, sharing her bed, his head is split like a melon in a surprise attack. Ripley quickly loses her friend and defender, and is once again left alone in a sea of unfriendly monsters, both human and non.
8. Newt – Alien 3
In a franchise dominated by a strong woman, it’s perhaps a surprise that a little girl is one of the most resilient characters in the series’ second installment. Newt, the child rescued by Ripley in Aliens, survives a large scale Xenomorph attack entirely on her own. She lives in vents and scrounges out a living under nightmarish circumstances, not combing her hair, like, even once.
Even after the rescue team of arrives, Newt seems to be more capable—and courageous—than a number of the adult male characters in that film. And in a world of cold, emotionless characters, Newt is the warm, living center of the film the audience can’t help but want to love and protect.
Newt’s death is horrifying for a couple reasons. First, she dies off-screen, with absolutely zero ceremony. For one of the few genuinely likable characters of the Alien franchise, this kind of hand-wave death is especially offensive. We hear of her death second hand, first through a computer screen and then through Dr. Clemens. It seems somehow disrespectful that one of the few lovable characters of the franchise should be wiped from the world without even allowing the audience to bear witness.
Then, the audience is treated to a bloody autopsy sequence in which Ripley and her companion, Dr. Clemens, inspect Newt’s corpse for signs of Xenomorph infection. This proves to be a fruitless, pointless desecration of her body, layering just a little insult on top of the injury.
7. Corporal Hicks – Alien 3
All throughout Aliens, apparently-competent Colonial Marines are dropped left and right by a horde of Xenomorphs. Multiple colorful and likable characters like Private Vasquez, Private Hudson and Sergeant Apone were mowed down, leaving little hope that anyone apart from Ripley and Newt would live to fight another day.
Thus it’s an incredible relief for viewers when Corporal Hicks, played by Michael Biehn, ultimately survives the events of that film. He’s a tough, powerful man with an empathetic core, and he’s one of the few characters that treats Ripley with respect throughout the entire film. At the end of the film, Hicks, along with Ripley and Newt, survive as a small family, with the hope of a happy ending for all three together.
It is then just as horrifying that he should be killed off screen in the same crash that ended Newt. He gets even less ceremony than Newt does, with barely a passing mention.
Aliens 3 committed many sins, to be sure, but one of the worst was mercilessly murdered two beloved cast members without so much as a pang of regret or a chance for the viewer to mourn their loss.
6. Private Hudson – Aliens
As different as Aliens is from its predecessor, James Cameron’s masterpiece has nevertheless secured its place in history as one of the finest action movies ever released.
For a secondary character, Private Hudson has an interesting arc. In a field of cool, collected Marines, he’s an emotional and immature, covering his uncertainty with bombast and bluster. He starts the film as the self-styled “ultimate badass,” confidently ticking down the Marine’s armaments and capabilities, even as genre-savvy viewers (and Ripley) know just how useless all that will eventually become. But when the attempt to rescue the trapped Marines from LV-426 fails, Hudson goes into panic mode, staring at the wreckage around him wide-eyed while uttering his immortal epitaph: “Game over, man! Game over!”
Yet, even through his terror, he manages his fair share of heroic moments. It’s Hudson that saves Newt from the facehugger in the medical bay, and his sacrifice in the operations center allows the survivors to escape the onslaught of Xenomorphs. In his final scene, he obliterates several Xenomorphs with a fusillade of firepower and “fucks” before finally falling to an alien in the floorboards. His death might not have been strictly surprising—none of the deaths in the film are, if you know what kind of movie you’re watching—but his final scene is certainly one of the more memorable moments of the film.
5. Bishop – Alien 3
The end of Aliens was bad enough for Bishop. The soft-spoken but suspect android was shorn in two by the Alien Queen while rescuing Newt. In his moment of sacrifice, he proved to a suspicious Ripley that synthetic life could have value, even if Ash had betrayed her trust before.
But Bishop was not destined to die at the end of Aliens. Instead, he lived on, though only barely. His body is nearly obliterated in the fatal crash that kicks off Aliens 3. However, the android is intact enough for Ripley to briefly resurrect and interrogate him in a short version of Ash’s interrogation scene in Alien. Unfortunately, Bishop’s body is too mangled to survive, and Ripley powers him down permanently. With that, we lose the last member of the Aliens cast with minimal fanfare.
4. Ripley – Alien 3
Few films are as crammed with major deaths as David Fincher’s much-maligned Alien 3. In an attempt to ratchet up the tension—and resurrect the unpredictable storyline of the original film— writers dramatically and brutally killed a number of well-loved characters. But it is the final, unthinkable death of Ripley that truly shocks audiences.
The stalwart, basically immortal heroine that survived the events of the first two films sacrifices herself at the end the Aliens 3. By the end of the film, Ripley has been impregnated with a Xenomorph queen. To circumvent the Weyland-Yutani Corporation’s cartoonishly-villainous plan to extract the Queen embryo from her body and use it as a weapon, Ripley plunges herself into the same vat of molten metal to which the film consigned the corpses of Hicks and Newt.
Up until the moment of her death, it’s possible to believe that some cliched, last-minute ex machina will save the Alien franchise’s erstwhile last girl, but no aid is forthcoming. And while many fans felt frustrated and betrayed by Ripley’s demise, the cinematography is exceptional, as Ripley adopts a Christ-like posture and tumbles into the pit. Yeah, the Xenomorph busting out of her chest mid-fall is a little much, but no one says Alien 3 is a good movie.
It’s possible to speculate that, with this move, Fincher intended to end the franchise, but it’s hard to say for sure. Of course, a version of Ripley would be resurrected for the worst film in the franchise, Alien: Resurrection, removing much of the dramatic tension from this “final” death scene for modern viewers.
3. Captain Dallas – Alien
The first Alien film has survived as a classic for a variety of reasons. It’s a masterpiece of pacing, with a tense, dramatic script that unfolds with desperate inevitability. It plays on dark, universal fears of isolation and abandonment, featuring deeply human characters failing to protect themselves from a truly horrific monster. The actions of the crew make sense, but still fail, and it’s easy to insert ourselves into their doomed, nightmarish world. The star-studded cast sells ever scene, with extraordinary acting by legendary performs like John Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and Veronica Cartwright and Ian Holm. The atmosphere developed by the set design and art direction is superb, and the Nostromo’s realistic, weathered appearance inspires set decorators to this day. And while the revelation of the Weyland-Yutani corporation’s sinister intentions might feel clichéd to today’s viewers, Alien was on the forefront of defining that trope.
But one of the greatest elements of Alien is the surprise female protagonist. Throughout the early stages of the film, it seems as though Captain Dallas, the Nostromo’s commander, is our likely savior. He’s competent, intelligent, and charismatic, and the audiences of 1979 would have fully expected a male hero to win the day. Yet, during a daring attempt to bait the Xenomorph through the Nostromo’s air ducts, he’s summarily eviscerated in one of the films most memorable and frightening sequences.
His death is surprising in the moment, but also shocking within the context of the script. The loss of the alpha male character requires our heroine, Ripley, to step forward and save the day, outwitting the Xenomorph in the final act of the film. This is all even more surprising because Tom Skerritt, the actor playing Captain Dallas, was well-known to theatre-goers at the time, and audiences would have predicted his survival based on star power alone. Sigourney Weaver was in fact the only unknown cast member, making her surprise reveal as the heroine all the more unlikely.
It adds up to satisfying and surprising ending for the film, and one that has surely helped to earn Alien’s place in history.
2. Ash – Alien
As much as Alien popularized a vast array of its own tropes, it also fed off pre-existing ideas from popular science fiction authors and films. For example, the fact that the oddly-behaving Ash turns out to be a malefactor on the side of the corporate villains likely came as no surprise to audiences. Yet his drawn out, surreal death scene surely had an impact.
In his final scene, the decapitated Ash’s head is stuck to a table amid white liquid and flesh-colored goo. As he shudders back to life, he’s interrogated by the surviving crew members of the Nostromo. He stares with a strange conviction, confessing his respect for the Xenomorph’s “purity” while his mouth leaks a surreal, milky blood analogue. His mangled corpse lies next to him, its inner workings laid open for inspection as he reveals the frightening truth of the Company’s priorities. The silence is heavy as his broken voice warns the survivors, “You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? A perfect organism.”
It’s a visually striking scene, and one that stuck with audiences afterwards. And seeing that bastard of an android set aflame after that final, smug smile is a welcome moment satisfaction for the audience is such a tense, dreadful scene.
1. Kane – Alien
I expect I speak for many modern viewers when I say that Kane’s death scene, the ur-death of the Alien franchise, wasn’t so profound the first time I saw it. His death-by-chest-explosion in the original Alien film is so iconic that it became a stand-in for the film itself. In fact, before I even knew what the movie was about, I knew about that part of the film. It was referenced in pop culture extensively, either through homage or humor, and when I finally saw the sequence, the surprise had largely gone out of it.
This was not the case for the cast of the film, however. According to Alien‘s art director Roger Christian, while filming the chest-busting scene, “the actors were truly unaware of what was going to happen next.” The looks of shock and horror on their faces are largely real.
This is especially true for Veronica Cartwright’s memorable, horrified squeal upon being sprayed with blood. As Christian wrote, when the jet of blood hit her in the face, Cartwright “screamed in shock, recoiled back against the set, and dropped to the floor out of the shot.”
Theatrical releases audiences must have been similarly shocked. As the crew of Nostromo gathers together to enjoy a meal before returning to cryosleep for the long ride home, a monstrous tragedy strikes. The calm domesticity and familial warmth of the scene is brutally undercut by this sudden violence, ripping the viewer back into the horrifying events of the film.
It’s at this point in the film, when the chestbuster is revealed, that the film also reveals its true nature as a body horror film. Until that moment, it’s possible to believe that you’re watching a spooky sci-fi flick. Says Christian: “Ridley knew full well this was the moment in the film when he got the audience or lost them.”
I think we all know that he got them.