Alien is one of the great mind-games of modern cinema. It is an excellent film by nearly every measurable category. The production is first rate, the look, the tension, the attention to detail. The ships is craggy and industrial with pipes and steam everywhere, looking like what it is: a simple freighter. The planet looks like a surreal nightmare dreamscape, all fog and dark with constant wind. The alien vessel is just that, alien in nearly all aspects. It is huge and weird and full of … things.
Once the face-hugger gets Kane things really start to roll and the crew is so focused on the threat from without (the face-hugger and eventually the alien the movie is named after), they forget to look at the threat within. Many people say the best, most horrifying scene in the film is the one in the tunnels where Dallas buys it. That is probably the best stinger or “gotcha” scene, but the best scene is later, when Ripley is in the Mother interface room and Ash pops into view behind her.
Ash is the real monster in this movie. By far. And when he freaks out and tries to kill Ripley (or tries to not kill Ripley, the fact that this is never fully answered is wonderful and will maintain the debate for eternity) that is the real horror.
Yes, we’ve all seen the movie a hundred times now, but try to remember the first time you sat through this masterpiece. Try to remember the first time you saw Parker hit Ash in the face with the fire extinguisher and his head flops off … and he keeps fighting with white goo spewing everywhere. Talk about a freak-out. To this day when I see that scene, the headless torso flailing about with weirdly wet mechanical sounds and screeches going on while Parker and Lambert try to stop it, I just cringe. Nobody saw that coming.
As I’ve discussed with classmates and friends over the years, the alien is a tough hombre. It is definitely something to be feared and planned for. If at all possible it is to be avoided. Why the company that runs things in the Alien universe wants one for a weapons division pet (and spends several movies pursuing this goal) is beyond any sane and logical thinker.
But guess what? You could say the same thing about a great white shark, a grizzly bear, and a black mamba snake. The alien is bad news, but is it evil? Is it doing what it does with malice? Does it prey exclusively on humans? Nope. One of the sequels in this film series features a dog-alien that hatches from a dog on a prison planet. Throughout the series you get the impression that the alien bugs simply adapt to whatever their environment is and seek to take the top rung on the food chain. Every organism does this.
No, the monster in Alien is Ash, and the company who deems the crew of the Nostromo expendable in the quest for the perfect organism to use as a weapon. The first time you watch the movie you don’t catch all that Ash is up to, but after you know the story and know the film it is fun to watch Ash and all that he does.
He quotes regulations that make them land on the planet in the first place, threatening to take away bonus money the crew has earned. He overrides Ripley, ranking officer when Dallas and Kane are off the ship, and lets the face-huggered Kane back into the ship after the extra-vehicle search. Later, when Ripley starts to suspect things Ash is obviously not surprised when Ripley and Mother decipher the beacon signal that brought them to the ship. The signal is a warning, not a distress call. Finally, there is Special Order 937 that takes away all ambiguity. The company wants the bug, the crew is of no value, Ash is to ensure the alien makes it back to earth.
Sure, he’s a synthetic, a robot. Sure he has to follow orders. Sure, as you pay attention to him in the film he displays little or no emotion and defers to everyone else in normal dealings (the scene where Parker chases Ash out of his chair early on indicates this).
It’s the scene that freaks me out that tells the story. When Ash surprises Ripley (and the audience) in the Mother interface room she slams him against the wall, then flees. She’s furious, she’s confused, she’s terrified. Then we get to see Ash’s face up close and a single dribble of white fluid is running down his left temple. Later we understand this is what passes for his blood.
Did Ripley damage Ash? Is that why he comes after her, tearing tufts of hair out and tossing her around medical? Eventually he rolls up a magazine and jams it in her mouth. Why? He seems to be deeply conflicted during this. Again, is he broken or is he fighting his orders?
I go to the dark side of things here. It makes Ripley more heroic and Ash more evil. I think had Ripley not slammed him into the wall in the Mother interface room, surprising and damaging Ash, that Ripley would have died by Ash’s hand before Parker and Lambert got in the room. I believe Ash was trying to kill her, but Ripley broke something pretty important inside his tin head and that saved her life.
What do I base this on? It is a quick little shot, but it is crucial to the characterization and flavor of the entire film. After they reduce Ash to white oozing spare parts they put him back together enough to get some answers out of him. He quotes Special Order 937 and then proceeds to talk about his admiration for the alien. Right before they pull the plug, something they could do without fanfare or further discussion, Ash has other ideas:
Parker: Look, I am, I've heard enough of this, and I'm asking you to pull the plug.
Ash: Last words.
Ash: I can't lie to you about your chances, but … you have my sympathies.
Even that isn’t enough. But then, what does Ash do? What does that order following plastic man do? He smiles. Smiles. That smile tells the story. He is happy to watch them die so that this alien can grow stronger. He’s happy to follow Special Order 937.
If that isn’t evil, then I don’t know what is.
All in all, Alien is, without a doubt, one of the best science fiction/horror movies ever made. It is relentless in tone and mood, shocking without being cheesy, and will be scary a hundred years from now.