08 November 2010

Ridley Scott's "Alien"

Alien-2011 Blu-Ray
The 2011 Blu-Ray edition. Source
Can you believe this film came out in 1979 and it wasn't until recently that I actually sat down and watched it in its entirety?  I always put off seeing it because of a horrific childhood memory of the scene where the baby alien explodes out of John Hurt's chest. I had to have been seven or eight years old, and I walked in on a family member watching it...right at that exact moment, and wham, scarred for life. Even though I had many chances to watch the film all the way through, I only ever caught it in snippets on AMC, and usually around the exact same scene.

I'm glad I finally watched Alien. It's a great visionary piece of sci-fi horror. The film is a slow-burn, and great at building up tension and establishing a sense of isolation and dread from its excellent pacing.

But to me, much of the horror comes from the nightmarish, weirdly sexual conceptual designs by H. R. Giger, and he rightfully won an Academy Award for this work (The Editing Room hilariously goes into detail about all the sex in the Abridged Alien script). No creature, planet, or spaceship design can compare to his artwork for these films...they truly embody the idea of "alien," otherworldly, non-human life. I can't recognize any sort of human-like quality in these creatures, they are so complex, so foreign (OK, maybe they have the right amount of limbs and can walk upright, but that's about it).

Ian Holm's character in Alien, Ash (the Science officer), describes them as being perfectly evolved creatures. To me, the notion that the Alien is a creature embodying perfect evolution is disturbing. Maybe it's because as a race, humans are inherently narcissistic; maybe it's because I can remember going to church when I was little and learning that man was created in God's own image...but to me, when I think of a perfectly evolved creature, I can only think of it in relation to how it has evolved from man. We've placed ourselves at the top for a wide variety of reasons (intelligence, emotionality, the ability to speak, a deeper awareness of consciousness, the capacity to love, etc), so if there was the chance for nature to perfect something, wouldn't it be a more perfect version of us?  This is why Alien is so troubling for me--I just can't see anything human in the aliens at all!

This has made my brain go in a different direction. I was going to tell you how I found the Face-Hugger to be incredibly terrifying and blah blah blah but now I want to examine this idea of the Aliens, Ash, and "perfect evolution."  Ash says that the Alien is perfectly evolved. I say that this is scary because they clearly don't have a piece of humanity in them, and that shouldn't something perfectly evolved come from humans? Isn't Ash an example of a perfectly evolved human (an android)?

We don't know what Ash is for the majority of the movie. He's the Science officer aboard the ship, is relatively quiet, matter-of-fact, and knows the rules of protocol. When the crew awakens waaaay off their original course, and receive a signal from a nearby planet, Ash is quick to remind the crew that they are required by their corporation (an energy/mining/refinery company) to investigate it or else they forfeit pay. At this point in time, Ash seems like a boring, by-the-rules officer.

Then John Hurt's character is attacked by a face-hugging alien. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) doesn't want to allow him on the ship or into the medical bay, citing the rules that he and the officers with him must be quarantined for 24 hrs.

But Ash overrides her, breaks the rules and potentially endangers their lives by allowing them to return in. We learn over the course of the film (as the Alien is born, grows, and hunts the crew on the ship) that Ash just isn't to be trusted. 

Ripley later discovers from the ship computer "Mother" that Ash has been ordered to retrieve the Alien, and the crew is "expendable." Ash walks in on Ripley as she makes this discovery. The two scuffle, and when Ash almost succeeds in killing Ripley (shoving a rolled-up magazine down her throat to choke her) the crew beats him down with a fire extinguisher and decapitates him...revealing that Ash is a robot.

Ash-Alien
Screenshot from the 1979 film (Source).

What is a robot...or more specifically, an android? It's a robot designed to be human, but in ways surpass a human by being more intelligent, unable to age, unable to grow tired or wear down, etc. So Ash is an example of an evolved human in this regard, since he is a human being "perfected."

It's interesting to me that Ash is the one to note that the Alien has evolved perfectly. Does Ash envy the Alien? He certainly admires it, you can clearly hear it in his voice when he describes it to Ripley and the others. Even though Ash, as an android, can be considered a better version of human, he is still obviously fallible, since he is decapitated and electrocuted. He is also controllable (no real free will)--by the corporation who has ordered him/programmed him to bring back the life form at all costs (he is pretty creepy when he turns on Ripley), and by his crew mates when he is briefly reanimated to give them all the information he knows about the Alien. Ash is not a good guy, even though he expresses sympathy to the rest of his crew, who he deems unable to defeat the Alien. Ash's lack of true humanity (his sympathy rings hollow to me) makes him a monster, and arguably the second major Alien in the film.

There's an awesome Wikipedia article on the character, where I found two items worthy of note--it mentions Asimov's Laws of Robotics and then mention Ash's "Otherness."  I remember from I, Robot that robots are not supposed to harm humans because it is contrary to their programming...so this would make Ash an outsider to other robots, who follow the three laws. Wikipedia also mentions that critic/author Nicholas Mirzoeff compares Ash to the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, noting that the scariest monsters are the ones like us.

I can see where he is coming from--the monster is like us, so it's harder for us to tell whether or not he is a monster at all, or if they are normal and we are the monster, etc. That can be genuinely scary. But Ash wasn't scary. He was indeed a monster. He was menacing, and cold, and calculated, and his "death" scene was very disturbing, but because he was humanoid I still felt a bit of sympathy for him. He was programmed to be the way he was. He admired the Alien because it was perfection and no doubt something that could not be controlled...Ash expressed sympathy but he can't really "feel" like humans do because he isn't human. He's stuck being what he is.

The Alien...the alien is the true terror of this film. I can't recognize what it is at all. It's animal, insect, humanoid, androgynous, sexual, asexual, predatory, everything! I search for something familiar in it to understand what it is, but it is so genuinely different from anything else I have seen that I'm at a loss. If you can't recognize what something is, how can you understand it to defeat it? Even when the crew questions Ash about the species, they don't get "real" answers about it to kill it. Ripley destroys the Alien through a combination of luck, happenstance, and quick thinking, not by understanding the true nature of the beast. Even after the film's resolution, I thought to myself, "What the hell was that thing?"  I'm still trying to figure it out. The fear of the unknown is a very powerful thing.

Work Cited

Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm. 20th Century Fox, 1979. DVD.

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