Alien: Dissecting Ash
- by ReuBen DeBord, 26 April 2016
The 1979 film "Alien" is an immensely successful piece of cinema. Not only is it a good film, but it has spawned sequels, crossovers and spinoffs in multiple different media. And yet, even with all of those sequels, crossovers and spinoffs, there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding the story in this film. Before the 2012 pseudo prequel "Prometheus", the big question on everyone’s mind was what the heck is going on with that fossilized alien sitting in the big chair? And heck, like "Prometheus" or hate it, even after that movie came out, we still don’t really know what was going on there.
But if you think of mysterious elements in the first Alien movie, while your mind might first drift to what fans took to calling the Space Jockey, there’s also another element of mystery from this film that, in my opinion, hasn’t really been definitively answered or explored adequately enough. And that element is Ash the Android Science Officer, played by Ian Holm.
If you haven’t seen the film, the plot is pretty simple. The mining ship Nostromo comes across a distress signal that they investigate, which leads to one of the crew members getting impregnated with the titular alien. Half the movie is spent hunting down the alien, with disastrous results. As if that’s not scary enough, we find out Ash is a robot, and he’s been ordered to get the alien back home to his bosses, even if it means letting his fellow crew members die. Ash meets his metaphorical maker when he attempts to murder our protagonist and is in turn murdered by the other crew members.
So what is so mysterious about Ash that I hope to address in this article? A few things, actually. Were the higher ups in the company aware that there were scary aliens on that one planet really far from Earth? If not, what was Ash’s purpose on the Nostromo before everyone found out about the alleged distress beacon (which Ripley later theorizes is actually a warning)? Furthermore, while we know Ash was ordered to bring the alien home no matter what, did Ash malfunction before he died?
Let’s see if I can answer these questions in order. Were the higher ups in the company aware that there were alien life forms on LV-426? I’m going to say no. While this isn’t stated in the film, according to the very handy Xenopedia, LV-426, the planet where poor Kane gets knocked up, is 39 lightyears from Earth. That’s a long way from home. I don’t buy that any kind of signal would be able to travel that far, and somehow only get picked up by the people in the sinister Company. What seems to be more likely is that the people in the Company didn’t even know about the alien until after the exploration party came back. Ash had any number of moments to send them secret messages and ask what he should do.
So that begs the next question. If they weren’t aware that there were aliens on that planet, what was Ash’s purpose on the ship in the first place? Why put a presumably expensive android on the ship to do science officer stuff when a Vulcan would be cheaper?
This is where some pretty far out conjecture comes in. In Season 5 of the television series Angel, about a vampire with a soul seeking atonement, we find out that the evil law firm Wolfram and Hart (actually run by demons from another dimension) has Weyland-Yutani, the mysterious company referenced in this film, as one of their many clients. This might contradict other “official” pieces of Alien lore, but the way I see it, if Weyland-Yutani was aware of demons, vampires and other monsters in the early 21st century, then it isn’t much of a stretch to say they were aware of aliens existing somewhere in the galaxy by the time the events of Alien take place. So it seems possible that they planted robots on ships that were going way out there, just on the off chance that they might encounter something cool that they could bring back home. They didn’t know the crew of the Nostromo would find the eggs on that weird planet, but they considered it enough of a possibility that they were willing to put their own man on the inside.
That brings us to our last burning question about Ash. Did he malfunction before he died? And if he did, why? To answer this question, there’s some things we should establish about Ash. First, even though he’s an android, he is not a nice guy. Mere seconds before his fellow crew members pull the plug on him, he says that he admires the monster they are hunting down. “I admire its purity. A survivor…unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” So it sounds to me like this guy hated everyone, even if his bosses didn’t instruct him to bring the alien back at the cost of human life.
We should also consider the very Asimovian words of another android, Bishop, from the sequel, Aliens. “The A2s always were a bit twitchy. That could never happen now with our behavioral inhibitors. It is impossible for me to harm or by omission of action, allow to be harmed, a human being.” Now Bishop ends up being a good guy, so we should be able to trust what he says. As far as the Asimovian programming that he speaks of, it’s entirely possible that this is something Weyland-Yutani put in all of their robots after Ash. There’s still a lot of debate about whether the Bishop in ALIEN3 is actually a human or an even more advanced robot, so we’ll skip him. And then Alien Resurrection gives us an android created by other androids with a specific mission to kill a human (well, a clone, but close enough, right? I don’t think Asimov would exclude clones from the 3 Laws of Robotics). But since the robot in Alien Resurrection was created by other robots, that could be the explanation for why she would be allowed to deliberately seek to harm a humanoid.
So when Bishop says that robot models following Ash are programmed not to harm humans, I can get behind that. What I find a little fishy is that Bishop insinuates that Ash attacked Ripley because that model was prone to malfunction. But as we’ve said, Ash was following orders at that point. But, as we’ve also said, Bishop is a good guy, and really wouldn’t have any reason to lie about something that happened almost 60 years earlier. So I posit that Ash also had some kind of programming in place very similar to what Bishop mentions in Aliens.
Sure, the higher-ups at Weyland-Yutani don’t care about their employees, that much is obvious in every film where they put others in danger in their attempts to get what they want. But they don’t want their robots turning on their masters, now do they? (And if the special features for the home-release of Prometheus are to be believed, then the Alien and Predator movies take place in the future of Blade Runner. So the folks at Weyland-Yutani maybe took a good long look at the history books, where crazy Rutger Hauer-shaped robots went AWOL and had to be hunted down, and they figured they wanted something to keep that from happening in their own robots.) While this might be a bit of a jump, what if Ash had some kind of conflict of programming which started to tear him up inside? While he certainly doesn’t like the humans on the Nostromo, he’s still got orders telling him not to harm humans.
But he’s also got orders telling him to bring in the alien specimen no matter what, even if it contradicts his previous programming. This would account for the fact that he is still following orders, but it would also explain the weird milk-sweat thing that happens shortly before he’s killed.
So that’s about all I’ve got, concerning Ash. Honestly, there’s a lot of dissection stuff that could be done about the Alien/Predator/Blade Runner/Soldier universe. And probably has been done, by people more knowledgeable about this sort of thing than I. But hey, this was still a lot of fun, so I might do something like this in the future! What do you think, Trash Muties? Let us know in the comments below! And in the meantime, keep it trashy!
Tagged: movies & TV.