Thursday, June 21, 2012

They May Be Synthetic, but They're Not Stupid: The Androids of Alien and Prometheus

Now that we have Prometheus as our “small beginning” (!) to a “big thing” (the long-lived Alien franchise), there is an opportunity to gaze at the five films and chart new thematic or character connections.  Considering the critical role that David (Michael Fassbender) plays in Prometheus, Ridley Scott has given audiences and fans a wonderful opportunity to trace, specifically, the development of artificial life forms in the series. 

In fact, with a little imagination and analysis, can we actually track the full evolution of a sentient, android race in the Alien franchise films? And can we do so in the same manner we would trace the growth of an individual human being; from birth to maturity?

Prometheus’s David is the first or earliest android in the chronology, we now understand.  This, in a sense, makes him the first of his kind, or a newborn…a child.  Accordingly, we see in the film how David seeks out guidance -- and like a human son or daughter -- models himself on those around him…whether an adopted parent or a figure he sees in a movie he enjoys (like T.E. Lawrence). 

Also much like a young child, David seems to conform to no accepted rules of morality except those that are explicitly established for him by his Daddy, Weyland (Guy Pearce). 

And when David has the opportunity to test the limits or boundaries of his world – for instance, when he speaks something cryptic to the Engineers – he seems to do so without hesitation. 

So in David we witness a synthetic life form taking his first baby steps; reckoning with the world and attempting to determine his place in terms of a “family” and behavioral limitations.   In fact, David is the first android in any of the five films who is contextualized in terms of a standard, human family of origin, and here we meet not only patriarch Weyland, but David’s resentful “sibling,” Vickers.

In Prometheus, we also see David intentionally misbehave by opening a door in the temple when he shouldn’t, and by de-activating a camera feed to block his sister’s view. There seems to be something of the mischievous, capricious child in his demeanor.

Alien’s (1979) Ash (Ian Holm) is next in the chronology.  I’ve written about the intense sexual underpinnings of this Ridley Scott film before, but seen in the context of all the franchise androids, I now wonder if it’s possible to view Ash as the repressed teenager of the bunch

Ash is moody, difficult, sulky, and envious (of the alien and humans), and he’s apparently got an unhealthy obsession with Ripley.  Just watch that scene of enraged sexual aggression late in the film as he tries to jam a rolled up porno magazine into her open mouth.  He’s full of rage and, at the same time, unable to perform in the way he desires.  And then, of course, when Ash can’t succeed with Ripley, he shoots his wad, ejaculating white android fluid everywhere. 

Ash, clearly, is an android uncomfortable with his identity, and the way he fits in with the world around him.  He is frequently bullied by Parker and challenged by Ripley.  Nobody likes him, and indeed…he isn’t likable.  Sound like any thirteen year old kids you know?

No wonder Ash gazes at the alien with such wonder and awe.  The xenomorph is hostility personified, but also simplicity personified. It knows exactly where it fits in -- anywhere it wants to! -- and exactly how to co-opt other life forms to its (nefarious) ends.  Ash -- an adolescent seeking his place -- can’t say the same thing.

Bishop, portrayed by Lance Henriksen, appears in Aliens (1986) and Alien3 (1992).  Unlike his predecessors, this android seems to have accepted his role (and limits) in human society with grace.  This may be because Bishop is governed by new programming (not available for earlier models like David and Ash, ostensibly…) that prohibits him from acting in a way that allows human beings to be harmed.  Bishop is still child-like, much like David, but – importantly – is much more stable in temperament.    Again, part of the process of maturation in humans is observing limits and understanding that one fits in with a group, and can’t act on any and every impulse.

Thus Bishop seems like a young if still naïve man who has accepted the law of society (Asimov’s laws of robotics) and accepts that they protect everyone.  He may admire the alien, like Ash did, but Bishop’s adherence and acceptance of a law outside himself or a parent means that he can’t be swept up in this infatuation. 

Uniquely, Bishop also faces death with grace, realizing that it is better to die on Fury 161 then to linger in a state of half-life.   One of Alien 3’s greatest rhetorical reversals involves the Bishop character, and audience acceptance of him.  After two movies, our image of the kindly, even sweet Bishop android has erased the memory of the duplicitous and mad Ash.  So when the real Bishop – a flesh-and-blood human – appears to tempt Ripley with a life she can’t have, we want more than anything to trust him.  The android in the Alien series has thus gone from being a dangerous child and mad teen to a productive, trusted and beloved person…even in the eyes of humanity.

The last android we meet in the Alien series is Alien Resurrection’s Call (1997), played by Winona Ryder.  In a very significant way, she represents the final evolution of the android journey.  Not only is she stable like Bishop was, but she is able to look outward – beyond concern for herself or her immediate companions -- to the well-being of the universe at large.  Perhaps not coincidentally, Call is also the first female android we meet in the series, though the jury is still out on Vickers...  

For the first time in the series, an artificial person, Call, independently reaches the same eminently reasonable reckoning about the aliens that the human Ripley did immediately before her apotheosis on Fury 161: that they must be destroyed at any cost to assure the safety of all life forms. What we have here, then, is a synthetic being who sees life as worthwhile, and attempts to nurture and protect it. Is that one way to define maturity? Being able to see outside yourself, your desires, and even the law, and acknowledging some brand of connection among life forms?  Prioritizing life over selfish, financial, or military gain?

If we do get the much-anticipated sequel to Prometheus, it will be intriguing to see how David’s continuing journey fills in the rest of the gap, leading up to the fussy, fastidious, pent-up Ash.   Cannon, a reader here on the blog commented (with insight) yesterday that David is actually symbolic of the Prometheus myth himself.  Like Prometheus, he is neither man nor God (Engineer), but a Titan, and thus apart. 

The journey of the androids in the Alien series reflects that separation.  These synthetic beings start out (historically) as separate, disdained (David) and hostile (Ash), but become integrated into the human community and even trusted (Bishop), to the point that they finally -- at last (in Call) -- echo our finest values as a species.


  1. Now that is interesting. David is an android who kindles the xenomorph into existence with moral indifference while Call is the android who seeks to vanquish the xenomorph completely, out of moral obligation. And yet this biomechanoid evolution perhaps mirrors that of the Engineers/humans too closely, ultimately attaining a state of good intentions, yes, but picking up the same bad habits along the way.

    Just as Holloway condescends David for not being human, Call flat-out chides a cloned Ripley on the same grounds: "You're a thing, a construct. They grew you in a fucking lab", then later, "How can you stand being what you are?" Prometheus exhibits a prejudice both against humans by the Engineers and against androids by humans. Throughout the span of this epic sci-fi saga we might for once consider the prejudice against xenomorphs. Taboo? Sure, they’re slimy and monstrous and heartless and all devouring, but, at the end of the day, are they not just another species trying to get by?

    Can they even be categorized as malevolent? The Engineers prove as much, as do humans and androids. But the xenomorph is merely an orgasm that functions for survival. One could argue that if they are not evil, they nonetheless personify it. Okay, but we gave birth to them; we the morbid family of father android, mother human and host Engineer. Now reverse: The Engineer gave rise to humans and the humans gave rise to androids, all of which driven by the psychology of human-like consciousness. But the xenomorphs are something else. They’re practically innocence incarnate.

    "You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage."

    1. Cannon,

      Have I told you lately that I love you? Er, sorry, did I say that out loud?

      This is a great comment that suggests the created become the very image of those who created them. Your most important formulation is this one: "ultimately attaining a state of good intentions, yes, but picking up the same bad habits along the way." Oh my gosh, you're right. A closer reading of Alien Resurrection does reveal that Call looks down her nose at Ripley when she, too, is a construct. A great insight.

      I also like your challenging argument about the aliens. They don't seem to have malice, necessarily, just a Darwinian urge to procreate and procreate and procreate. Do they have prejudices? Are they bigots? "Practically innocence incarnate?" Another extremely interesting and provocative nugget, and in a way you're right. They operate largely by instinct it seems, and not by malicious intent, even though they threaten to destroy us all.

      A great way of looking at the androids and the xenomorphs. Now I have to write an article about how the xenomorphs are viewed across the five films...

      Thank you for another astute comment.


    2. "But the xenomorph is merely an orgasm that functions for survival."

      Er, I meant to say orga-nism. My bad.

      However ...oddly enough ...the first one is not entirely without meaning.

    3. Hi Cannon,

      Wow, I breezed right past that. But it DOES kind of work, oddly enough, in the original formulation...


    4. Terrific stuff here. My beloved Alien Ressurection may one day attain the recognition it deserves based on these remarks. : ) I saw "orgasm." Of course I would. I was beginning to worry especially when you said you loved him. That's a joke guys.

    5. Hi SFF:

      If I had seen the orgasm thing initially, I might not have opened with the admission of love. :) Just kidding.

      And I love you too SFF.

      Seriously though, I've never been a big fan of Alien Resurrection. It just seems...cartoony compared to the other Alien films. I should watch it again soon, especially as it really caps off -- at least for now -- our understanding of android evolution. Maybe there's more to see and analyze there...


    6. That is funny. Back at ya. You are probably correct John. It is a bit on the cartoon side, but it's like a dark, gritty cartoon baked in a European oven. My son is interested in seeing all of the films now that he's watched Alien and Prometheus. We will be taking them in over the next few weeks ourselves.

  2. I don't have the free time right now to dig into this hypothesis so I'll just state it bluntly: Have we ever considered, and thus giving this essay yet another set of data, that Blade Runner takes place in the Alien universe/timeline? And if so, how does its data influence the rest of the data you've presented above?

    1. Hi Rian,

      That would definitely add a whole new element here. Would it scuttle the thesis, since the Replicants come before Prometheus, or add to it? I don't know at this point, which probably means I need to screen Blade Runner again soon to find out...


    2. I'll say that is a fascinating consideration even if Blade Runner was based on the work of P.K. Dick. It does make you wonder. Loads of great analysis this week on the world of Scott, Prometheus, Alien and Blade Runner.

    3. I would think replicants are post-Alien quadrilogy (at least technologically). The Alien androids are bio-mechanical, whereas the skin-jobs are purely bio, yet still advanced robot technology. If I remember right, Dick called them androids in the book and the filmmakers changed it for some reason. The only real hangup is the intro to Blade Runner that posits its in the early 21st century, but when BR was made the filmmakers had no idea that the future Alien movies would eat up so much time in space...

      I know I'm forcing this, but the fanboy in me really wishes that BR was apart of the Alien puzzle.

  3. Excellent read John. Lots of thoughts jumbling here as I read this entry and the comments. I'm sure many of us at our day jobs have come across people, thankfully, of some intelligence that you can actually pass the time of day with in conversation in something other than the banal. I enjoyed our exchanges immensely. Okay, cut to the chase, his summation of Resurrection...
    "It's verrrry....French"...
    He was giving a nod to what I think is the existentialist seed that seems to be the main thread of the androids in this saga.


    I have many more thoughts, especially on the Prometheus theme. Outsiders. Frankenstein. Those created but not born of man, i.e, not from the womb. I think Mrs. Shelley would have had a thing or two to say about this...

    1. Hi Jane,

      I love that you brought in Mary Shelley and the Frankenstein story, the story of a "modern" Prometheus, right? I love that connection, and you're so right. David, Ash, Bishop, Call...they are all born of man but not from the womb.

      Describing Alien Resurrection as French gets to the point. It's weird and odd, and I find it off-putting. Not so much what happens, but the tone of how it happens, and even a lot of the design. I'm open to watching it again and giving it another go, but I've seen it so many times...

      Great comment,

  4. Anonymous11:04 PM


    This was a fascinating read…

    After watching Prometheus, I got into an argument with a friend who felt that David was being conscious malicious towards Holloway. I disagreed, feeling that David was acting more like a toddler testing his boundaries. It was like when a toddler hits his sister, possibly knowing it's wrong, but wants to know what will happen. Putting aside the fact that we was likely ordered to do so by Weyland, David seemed more impulsive and curious, without restraint to me… which is exactly what my toddlers were like.

    Your comments about Ash made me think of two things…

    During the chestburster scene, he is constantly acting like a teenager who's crashed the car, and is hoping no one will notice. Then, someone notices, he panics, tries to "get out in front" (i.e. handing Parker the spoon), then the look once he realizes the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, and that he's lost control of the lie.

    Now, let's add an Oedipal dimension with Ripley. This is especially important considering that Ripley has a pre-teen daughter waiting at home. Ripley and Dallas are the closest characters in Alien to "parents" for Ash. In this analysis, Ash is a "daddy's boy," considering how often Dallas defers to his expertise, and never challenges or questions him. On the other hand, Ripley is always skeptical of Ash, as if she knows her "son" is up to something. She is always questioning, such as "Have you tried putting that transmission through ECIU." Ash is evasive - "No, we're still collating", defensive - "You do your job, and let me do mine, yes?", and defiant - "Inner hatch open."

    Now you have Ash, quietly endorsing a plan that he knows will lead to Dallas' death by intentionally underselling the Alien - "Most animals retreat from fire, yes?" thus killing the father, plus his resentment and desire for "mother" building in equal measure until he can't contain it anymore. So, he does what all teenagers do, and that's flip-out.

    In regards to Bishop, we have quiet confidence, indicating maturity, which is demonstrated when he volunteers to go through the tunnel to the Acheron transmitters. It's also evident that some humans haven't progressed much since Prometheus, as Hudson demonstrates in his cavalier and enthusiastic endorsement, "You're right man! Bishop should go! Good idea."

    Lastly, with Call, there's a subtle comment about the lingering effects of racism - those who are victims of racism come to hate themselves because their race makes them different. Call is visibly distressed when she reveals the gunshot wound that proves she's an android. She gives Vriess a dirty look when he asserts her ability to patch into the Auriga's mainframe, and she begs Ripley not to make her take advantage of her "racial talents" in the Auriga's chapel.

    Thanks for giving me a great excuse to watch the Alien series… again.

    -Jeffrey Siniard

    1. Hi Jeffrey,

      Your analysis builds on the seed of my idea in this essay brilliantly, and coaxes it towards blossom. Seriously, I think your supporting evidence about David as toddler, Ash as teenager and Call, in particular, really add to what I began to formulate here.

      I agree with you about David. The more I think of him, the more I think of a child -- a toddler -- pressing at the edges of his world and seeing how far he can go. I don't sense maliciousness, necessarily, at the beginning. By the time he speaks to the engineer and says that children want to kill their parents, however, I think he has "matured" a bit. I don't know. Makes me want to see the film again.

      I think your Oedipal analysis of Ash, using Ripley and Dallas as parental figures is dead on (and it explains, beautifully, Ash's sexual fixation with Ripley). I was beginning to see the light so far as Ash as teenager, but you've really amplified this point. Perfect.

      Call is interesting, you're right, because there's this self-hating aspect of herself, as being an android. But as Cannon pointed out, she also disdains Ripley for being grown in a lab. By this point, our creation perfectly mirrors "us," conflicted, biased, contradictory.

      With your interpretation here, the thesis I began to enunciate about the evolution of android life in the Alien films is really evolving, itself.

      Wonderful comment.