The most memorable single moment from Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror masterpiece Alien is the infamous chestburster scene, and justifiably so. It’s one of the most shocking gross-out moments in film history. So effective was the xenomorph’s onscreen birth that it actually overshadowed an equally shocking scene that occurred much later in the film. I’m referring, of course, to the reveal of Ash as an android. As an adult, I find that moment, as well as the ones that directly precede and follow it, to be most unsettling. Dare I say I find it scarier than the chestburster, due to its underlying themes and the way those themes are handled.
For the few people out there who’ve never seen the original Alien, I’ll offer a brief recap so as to offer bit of context. The Nostromo is a commercial space freighter manned by a mining crew in the furthest reaches of the galaxy. On company orders, they interrupt their trip back to earth to set down on an uncharted planet and explore a downed spacecraft. Crew member Kane is attacked by a parasite and brought back on board (against warrant officer Ripley’s orders, as she is adhering to protocol). The parasite falls off and dies, but not before dropping an embryo down Kane’s throat. During a routine meal, the embryo hatches. A snake like creature suddenly bursts forth from Kane’s chest and killing him. It then finishes off two other crew members when they attempt to hunt it down. Ripley, now the highest ranking crew member, is running out of options.
After conferring with Mother, the ships computer, Ripley learns the true nature of the Nostromo’s mission. She also learns of Ash’s prior knowledge of and compliance with that hidden agenda. After being startled by Ash’s sudden appearance next to her, she angrily confronts him, and then storms off to warn the other crew members. Ash stops her and physically assaults her. While she is incapacitated, he rolls up a pornographic magazine and attempts to shove it down her throat. Parker and Lambert arrive in time to stop the assault. Parker strikes Ash with a fire extinguisher, decapitating him. The crew revives Ash, hoping that he may know how to destroy the creature. When he informs them that the creature can’t be killed and that their chances for survival are nil, Parker blasts him with the flamethrower.
Even as a kid, I found Ash’s preferred murder method pretty odd. I chalked it up to the overall weirdness of the film, much as I did the design choices. I mean, why would anyone try to kill someone else by shoving a magazine down their throat? Luckily, adulthood brings with it greater understanding, not to mention that the internet is a great tool for an enquiring mind. As it turns out, Ash wasn’t necessarily trying to kill Ripley. According todirector Ridley Scott, he was trying to express something else:
“I figured that robots had to have, if they're sophisticated, had to occasionally have the urge, so I said to Ash, "how do you feel about sexual drive?". He said "great". (Sigourney laughing) So I said "rather than just beating her up, isn't it more interesting that he actually has always wanted to, and here's his opportunity but he doesn't have that part"”
“If you create a model as perfect as that, it will have, almost of necessity, a form of "emotional life." You don't have only a physical and mental mechanism, but a machine that is capable at any moment of uncontrollable emotional reactions and which will take certain decisions by itself. Like HAL in 2001. Here no one has considered that in building a robot, it had been given a psychological life, with worries and problems. This perfect machine starts to have feelings when faced with the behavior of humans. It starts to be interested in the women and to have desires that cannot be expressed. Behind the assault on Ripley is an attempt to solve these tensions, a sort of rape”
Moreso than the “face-rape” of Kane, which resulted in him giving birth to the xenomorph, I find the whole idea of Ash trying to “rape” Ripley deeply disturbing. The climax of the scene plays like a virtual “money shot,” as Ash’s malfunctioning body “ejaculates” all over the place. Once struck with the fire extinguisher by Parker, blood/fuel begins to spew forth from his mouth. It’s a milky white substance (another curious design choice) that resembles…semen. Jerry Goldsmith’s musical cue when Ash’s head gets decapitated makes the skin crawl and gets the adrenaline pumping. As Scott observed, Ash doesn’t have male genitalia so he cannot rape or reach orgasm. His metaphorical orgasm comes after an act of violence against Ripley. The sexually analogous imagery of Alien, as well as the subtext, becomes blatantly obvious here. In Alien, sex can be equated to violence.
The capper to this whole stretch of the film is the exchange between a temporarily revived Ash and what’s left of the Nostromo’s crew:
Ripley: Ash, can you hear me? Ash?
Ash: [speaking in an electronic, distorted voice] Yes, I can hear you.
Ripley: What was your special order?
Ash: You read it. I thought it was clear.
Ripley: What was it?
Ash: Bring back life form. Priority One. All other priorities rescinded.
Parker: The damn company. What about our lives, you son of a bitch?
Ash: I repeat, all other priorities are rescinded.
Ripley: How do we kill it Ash? There's gotta be a way of killing it. How? How do we do it?
Ash: You can't.
Parker: That's bullshit.
Ash: You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.
Lambert: You admire it.
Ash: I admire its purity. A survivor... unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.
Parker: Look, I am... I've heard enough of this, and I'm asking you to pull the plug.
Ash: [Ripley goes to disconnect Ash, who interrupts] Last word.
Ash: I can't lie to you about your chances, but... you have my sympathies.
Again, the aesthetic and design choices are striking, especially how the film visualizes artificial intelligence. Ash’s insides are not made of up gears, wires, microchips, and circuitry. Scott favored organics over machinery, creating a weird amalgam of the two. Ash’s blood is a milky white. His rubbery, translucent tubing looks more like veins or a nervous system than wiring. Scott also has some interesting ways of reminding the audience that synthetic doesn’t equal human or living. The tubes are dotted with tiny specs of light. His voice has an eerie reverb/echo that makes him seem less (or maybe more) than human. It also resembles a voice from beyond the grave. The exchange feels more like a séance than anything.
Ash’s observations about the xenomorph resemble Quint’s story about the U.S.S Indianapolis in a Jaws, a film which clearly had a big influence on Alien. Though Ash doesn’t tell a story or offer a firsthand account of a historic event, he does describe the xenomorph in a way that is reminiscent of Quin’t description of great white sharks. The exchange also reveals something else that the guys over at Now Playing Podcasts smartly pointed out. The Xenomorph isn’t the only alien in the film. When Ash describes it, he may as well be describing himself. Perhaps he doesn’t protect the creature out of mere compliance with company orders, but also out of a sense of kinship. Ash acts according to his programming and orders in the same way that the xenomorph acts according to its primal instincts. They are kindred spirits.
As has been observed many times, Alien is rife with sexual subtext. In essence, it’s a film about rape: the oral rape of Kane, the attempted oral rape of Ripley, and the metaphorical rape of the Nostromo. The xenomorph has free range of the giant ship once it’s hatched. It moves about like a virus, killing off crew members like blood cells. It’s a contaminant, the product of rape. Such ideas, and the visuals accompany them, chill me to the bone. But nothing, for my money, beats the surprise of finding out that Ash is not only a robot, but a sexually criminal one at that. I don’t know where the makers of Alien got such ideas, but my imagination is all the better for it, even if I don’t like such ideas roaming around me brain.