Sunday, October 10, 2010

So who exactly is the monster in Alien?

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.
Ripley: What?
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.


  1. I've always contended that Mother was the real monster...The company. Ash was doing what he was built for, and the alien...Well, how can you be mad at an animal for just doing what it does? You're right, not evil, just animal. And that's what it does. I think the real strength of this movie relies on the lighting, the set work, camera angles...etc. The overall claustrophobic look of the movie. Plus the fact that EVERYTHING in the movie looked sweaty and dirty. It added to the claustrophobic nature of it to me.

    Nicely worded!

  2. My beloved did an article "6 Evil Corporations in Movies (With Terrible Business Plans)". #1? Weyland-Yutani.

  3. Great post, Dave. You do a nice job describing Ash as a monster. I'm glad you included the quote and specifically noted the smile, which was pretty monstrous. Not to get all semantic, but what we're really talking about here is evil. The alien is definitely the centerpiece monster of the movie. This being said, Ash might be more chilling, and the corporation is certainly the most evil force in the film. ALIEN's already called a sci fi movie, a horror movie, and a sci fi / horror movie, but based on the roles of Ash and the corporation, we should also call it a thriller.

    Lastly, you might be disturbed to know that my verification word for this post is "nimpl".

  4. I can agree that the monster is Ash. What this seems to set up is a man v machine. Perhaps this is a world where machines are taking over and the alien is a way to exterminate man (maybe yet another Alien sequel.) After all it is the ship, mother, (a machine) that wakes them up. It's also interesting that they call it mother.

  5. Since we've hashed it out on FB about this movie, I'll just address a point in your post here. Why DID the company want the alien?? Why is that? Do we know for sure that it was for weapons development? What the hell were they going to do with it once they got it? Yes, Ash was horrible, but just as the alien was doing what the alien has to do, Ash was just a machine. Sympathies? From my limited experiences with androids they don't have sympathies. Can't really be made at him either.

  6. I said about the same thing in my post, but as for whether Ash was the monster, I have to go with Scott and Nik. Ash was programmed by the company and was acting only in his nature (which is to follow orders according to his programming). The company is the "human" monster, the evil that caused so much death and destruction. Ash was their tool, a reflection of that monstrosity. And I'm glad you pointed out his final words and smile, since I think this directly reflected his programming and the sentiments of those who gave his orders. As a tool, Ash was definitely monstrous. He just wasn't the main Big Bad here IMHO.

  7. I also think Ash could be considered a monster (and frankly I think Alien is a movie full of monsters, different levels of course, the Company being at the top). True, he was programmed to follow orders, but could he have really been programmed to admire the Alien? I don't necessarily think his feelings on the Alien were simple reflections of those who programmed him. We get nearly no emotion out of him until the "talking head" scene, and just how he speaks of the Alien made me feel his obsession with it.


  8. Great post. I totally forgot to consider Mother and Ash as monsters. Duh! I looked at them like just one more frustration that kept the plot moving. But they are cleary monsters.

  9. I always hated Ashe and Mother. It reflects the true capitalism of our world. Money is of more value than life. This is a typical ploy in films and books and one that will never be exhausted.
    For me to use the word hate is unusual, since I really don't hate. it's the ideology of the film that sucks but it is also what makes it so good.
    I saw this when it came out thirty years ago and this is the second time around.
    I still enjoyed it even though the beginning part bored me. But I was more attentive to the characters and their roles (especially Ashe) I couldn't remember why I didn't like him - he seemed cold and inhuman - then the bionic scene happened, and I remembered. Good comments.

  10. Great comments here about what it really means to be a monster. I agree with you that Ash fits the description of "monster" much better than the Alien itself, which is more along the lines of a natural predator. Of course, in some ways I see Ash as a sort of tool, too, since the Company was even more monstrous than him.

  11. My first time seeing this movie was when it was assigned for the class. For some reason I knew that Ash was a robot, probably some lore I read about or something. I don't know. But I was kinda bored through the beginning of the movie, my wife fell asleep while we were watching this-I thought about joining her-and didn't wake until the action really started.
    My first reaction to the movie was, well, that happened, those are some stupid people. The scariest part for me was the acid. It had the potential to ruin everyone's day.
    T. Marcus

  12. Big Business is the monster! No doubt about it. They have little regard for humanity--only the big bucks they can make. We can see the same example right now on our Louisianna shore line. Who is the monster? The men running the machinery or BP?