For an actor to convincingly take on—or portray—an alien requires abilities and a physique that look superhuman on screen. Here are some fun facts about some films where the fight goes extraterrestrial.
1. They Live (1988) – Long before The Rock went from wrestling to movie stardom, creature feature specialist John Carpenter saw Roddy Piper on WrestleMania III (1987) and felt he had found the star he needed. They Live, a horror film ostensibly about an alien invasion that was actually about Reaganomics, opened at number one in the box office—but fell precipitously after that. Piper influenced the film by changing the climactic fight sequence. Originally envisioned as only twenty seconds long, Piper and co-star Keith David took it upon themselves to create a greatly expanded version. In the backyard of the production office, they choreographed a five minute and twenty second battle over the course of three weeks. The fight was unusually real, with only strikes to the face and groin faked. Carpenter liked the result so much he kept the scene exactly as the actors rehearsed it. Legendary stuntman and martial artist Jeff Imada portrayed all of the aliens shown in close up or with speaking parts, including the women. John Carpenter was impressed by Imada’s ability to wear high heels, saying, “He didn’t mind the pumps. When you have 14 black belts you can wear pumps!” While They Live wasn’t much of a success, it did inspire graffiti artist Shepard Fairey to create his ubiquitous “OBEY” campaign, and so its influence lives on.
2. Predator (1987) – Predator is remembered for its groundbreaking special effects, Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, and a slew of classic 80’s action one-liners. It was also almost known for featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme as the alien. The idea was to make the creature an acrobatic fighter, capable of impressive martial arts skills. Van Damme was cast and production was moving ahead, but then several factors came into play. Van Damme is only 5’9”, Arnold is 6’2”, and some of his co-stars were 6’5”, making it difficult to compose fight scenes. More urgently, Van Damme, who already resented the idea that he would never actually be seen, came to hate the monster suit. Filming conditions were terrible, with hot, sweltering days. Van Damme repeatedly passed out in the cumbersome monster suit, which inhibited his ability to show off his martial arts expertise. With no one happy with how things were going, Van Damme left the picture and was replaced with Kevin Peter Hall. Hall, who at 6’9” stands a full foot taller than Van Damme, was able to tower over Schwarzenegger, creating the needed dynamic between hero and villain. The monster suit was redesigned for greater mobility, and the newly imposing Predator took his place in movie lore.
3. Edge of Tomorrow (2014) – Whatever you think of Tom Cruise, he is likely the most accomplished stuntman who is also an A list actor. He has the full respect of the stunt community and his directors, for both his commitment and his ability. Cruise once again did all of his own stunt work in Edge of Tomorrow, a movie based off the novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. Inspired by the endless resets of video games, Sakurazaka wrote a book that was pitched to movie studios as, “Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers,” as the heroes fight to save earth from invading aliens. Emily Blunt, an accomplished yogi already capable of the “planche” pose required for the role, trained for three months in Krav Maga and performed almost all of her own stunts. However, she was not prepared for the weight of the metal battle suit, which was 85 pounds, 120 with armaments. Between takes the actors were hooked up to a frame that took the weight off of their shoulders. Cruise was heavily involved in the development of the suits. He wanted something that would look real, and not dependent upon CGI. Months after principal photography wrapped, reshoots were required. Blunt went from doing her own stunt work to being unwilling to do any. Cruise, confused by this change, asked his co-star why she no longer wanted to do fight scenes, and thus became the second person (after Blunt’s husband) to learn she was pregnant.
4. Total Recall (1990) – While Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Quaid spends plenty of time battling Martian mutants, one of his most dangerous foes is Lori, his own wife. Cynthia Rothrock was originally considered for the role of Lori, but her would-be male co-stars did not like the idea of working opposite a real martial artist. Sharon Stone stepped into the role and seized the opportunity with gusto. She lifted weights, gained muscle, and trained in tae kwon do. Stone had a natural athleticism and a willingness to commit to her fight scenes that impressed cast and crew. Schwarzenegger took to calling her the “Female Terminator” and she was inducted into the Stunt Woman Association as an honorary member. Director Paul Verhoeven wanted the fight between the characters of Lori and Quaid’s love interest Melinda to have the feel of real combat. He believes their fight in Total Recall is the first instance of two women fighting in a big budget movie that isn’t just “a cat fight.” Verhoeven wanted Stone to show more skin in Total Recall, but she declined. However, Stone poised nude in Playboy to coincide with the release of Total Recall, in part to show off the new physique she had gained in her training.
5. Superman (1978) – The ultimate alien, Superman can’t be played by just anybody. Over 200 actors were considered for the role, and many of the most famous names of the day turned it down. After a two year long search, a relatively unknown actor named Christopher Reeve nailed the audition, but at 6’4” and only 170 pounds, Reeve did not have the physicality to embody Superman. The son of Ivy League professors, Reeve was an intellectual who had never spent time in a gym. Reeve convinced director Richard Donner he could bulk up in time, but the director knew he would need help and called David Prowse. A towering Englishman who was both a body builder and a trainer, Prowse knew what it took to look impressive onscreen—he had just portrayed Darth Vader in Star Wars—A New Hope. Prowse and Reeve instantly hit it off and got to work. Reeve’s first bench press was only 40 pounds. By the time the cameras rolled, Reeve weighed in at 212 pounds and could bench 320. He continued lifting throughout filming, his body changing so much promos shot at the beginning were redone at the end. The physical transformation gave Reeve the strength and the confidence to do all his own stunt work.