Ian Holm in Alien - A masterclass in performance
When you initially watch Alien, the primary antagonist becomes pretty clear: the infamous xenomorph that bursts from Kane’s (John Hurt) chest is the creature to fear and fight. Well, that’s until the film and the brilliant Ian Holm throw a curve ball in the narrative - Holm’s medical officer Ash is an android, programmed to bring the lifeform back to Earth, ‘crew expendable’. To remember the recently passed Ian Holm, let’s look at how Holm uses his acting skills to deliver a memorable, complex villain who proves key to the overall narrative.
The most apparent point is that of Holm’s physical tics. It’s so easy to slip into a Schwarzenegger portrayal of a robot: not to criticise the Austrian, but we all assume that androids talk and act as wooden as Arnie in Terminator. However, Holm showcases his theatrical background with a subtle performance that only hints at the truth of Ash. Notice how he blinks quite quickly at points and glances with a threateningly observational side-eye, like in the scene where Dallas informs the crew of the distress signal.
It’s not something you’d notice on the initial viewing as a giveaway, just a character trait. But Holm masks it as such quite brilliantly. He still appears quite suspect, but more of a cold scientist than the killer android. Holm is able to tread the line quite expertly, fooling us as well as the crew.
The best example of this is in his interaction with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) once the ‘Facehugger’ has left the body of Kane. With the benefit of hindsight, the scene features some of the most obvious, even clumsy foreshadowing. “Maybe I’ve jeopardized the rest of us, but it was a risk I was willing to take” is clearly meant to lean into his mission parameters: “bring back lifeform, crew expendable.” But when you actually view it as it’s meant to be viewed - without the knowledge of Ash as an android - it’s a genius red herring that only works due to Holm’s reserved performance.
It’s a scene that’s designed as a moral interrogation of Ash’s decision to break protocol. But more importantly, it’s meant to establish the confrontation between Ripley and Ash, a relationship that coaxes Ash’s android secret out. We may think that the differences between the two will spark an emotional breakdown: Ripley is trying to keep the crew safe by killing the alien, Ash acts like he’s keeping everyone safe by preserving the alien and analysing it. But as we see in this scene, it just brings out more calculated analysis from Ash: “Maybe I’ve jeopardized the rest of us, but it was a risk I was willing to take.”
Holm’s role is essential to the narrative. Not only does he drive it with his actions, secretly tied to the survival of the alien, but Ash also acts as the spark for the likes of Ripley to engage with how they feel about the situation...
It’s a statement that’s delivered with intent, not reflection or admission. Holm’s assertive tone makes it feel like there was no other option for Ash, despite the risk and the rules. And this is what starts to give off some suspicious vibes, which are ultimately proved correct in Ash and Holm’s final scene. As Ripley and the crew struggle following the death of Dallas, Ash appears calm, simply stating that he and Mother (the ship’s computer) are ‘still collating’ on a solution. Two computers in conversation. The revelation is that this monotone dialogue belongs to a robot delivering programmed discourse, not a scientist speaking the only way he knows how.
During the fight, Holm almost instinctively brings all of Ash’s nervous tics to play, as though he were piecing the puzzle of his performance together right before our eyes. We see him blink erratically, his eyes widening, shaking as he tries to execute Ripley: their confrontation from earlier is coming to its conclusion.
And then, once his machine parts are revealed, Holm is truly allowed to embrace his character’s calculated alter-ego. In an electronically infused voice, he notes he admires the alien’s “purity” - “unclouded by conscience or delusions of morality.” His dead-eyes and lack of expression act as a natural conclusion to a character that struggled to show emotion to begin with.
Holm’s role is essential to the narrative. Not only does he drive it with his actions, secretly tied to the survival of the alien, but Ash also acts as the spark for the likes of Ripley to engage with how they feel about the situation. Yet, Holm doesn’t create a lifeless being. It’s difficult to tell that Ash is a robot, and that’s a testament to his acting credibility. He turns a key plot point into a fascinatingly cold character: humanising an android in a way that’s entirely invisible is no mean feat and showcases his quality.
What's your favourite Ian Holm performance? Will you revisit Alien tonight?
If you liked the article, be sure to take a look at my review of Spike Lee's equally masterful Da 5 Bloods. Click here for the article.
Also, subscribe to the website! I'll keep you updated on all of the latest posts. And follow The Film Foyer on social media! All of the links can be found in the feedback form at the bottom of the page.