The Virginity of Androids, part 2

Before I turn to Prometheus, a quick word about the androids in the other Alien films. The excellent Lance Henriksen plays Bishop in James Cameron’s noisy Aliens (1986), and was seen at the time as a revision of the android figure, almost an apology for Ash. Ripley is deeply suspicious of Bishop throughout Aliens, but he is ultimately revealed to be a redemptive and heroic figure. In the ‘knife trick’ scene, Henriksen puts his hand over that of the ‘grunt’ Hudson and whirrs a combat knife between their fingers: ‘trust me’, he says to Hudson. During the course of the film, Ripley does indeed come to trust Bishop, though she is antagonistic for much of the film, and on first realising Bishop is an ‘artificial person’ (his preferred term) had threatened him and told him to stay away from her. That Bishop insists upon self-definition, not as robot but as ‘artificial person’, indicates a subjectivity that is denied to Alien’s Ash, and this subjectivity is an index of the android’s redemption in the figure of Bishop.

At the climax of the film, Bishop is himself violated by a spear-like appendage of the alien ‘mother’ and then torn in half, but his dismembered, abjected body carries on heroically until it is itself saved by Ripley. Henriksen makes a small appearance in Alien3, which otherwise concentrates upon the dynamic of the female body within a strictly homosocial environment; in Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection (1997), however, one of the cast members is again revealed to be an android, but again, in a revision of the malign role of Ash, one who is helpful to the human survivors. This time, the android is Annalee Call, played by Winona  Ryder. Call is a youthful member of a crew of the mercenary ship Betty that becomes involved with the cloned-Ripley and the military operation that attempts to produce aliens as weapons.

One of the many disappointments of Alien Resurrection is its failure to completely develop Call’s role, or to fully construct an android subject which does not fall into the malignant/ helper binary that inflects their representation in the other Alien films. When Call recognises Ripley’s name, she proceeds to try to kill the cloned being to prevent the use of her DNA to make more weapons. When Ripley awakes, Sigourney Weaver’s performance gives the ‘new’ Ripley, created from spliced alien and Ripley DNA, an uncanny physical presence and alien attentiveness, against which Winona as Call is ‘normalized’. As Ripley takes the role of uncanny other in Alien Resurrection, even down to squirming in a Lovecraftian tentacular embrace, Call is established as the ethical being who takes it upon herself to stop the alien predators, a role Ripley herself played in the first three films. The placing of Call as the subject is confirmed in a deleted scene from Alien Resurrection, where Call confesses to Ripley that she dreams, a suggestion of interiority and autonomy radically at odds with the depiction of Ash. Even here, though, there is a missed opportunity: Call’s actions suggest both individual autonomy and a secret knowledge that must have come from elsewhere. Alien Resurrection could have established the androids as the repository of ethical behaviour repressed by the military and scientists aboard the Auriga, ‘artificial persons’ who took on the moral attributes of the ‘human’ which are placed in contradistinction to the creature without ‘conscience, remorse or delusions of morality’ in Alien. Is there a kind of secret organisation of androids, a guild or even sect that seeks to do good? This would truly displace human beings from the ethical centre of the narrative.

And so, to Prometheus. I have to confess that I loved the opening couple of minutes of David (Michael Fassbender) aboard the ship Prometheus while his human colleagues remained in stasis. The shots of him cycling the spaces of the ship (and shooting hoops while he did so), or watching Lawrence of Arabia, brought to mind the one- or two-hander scenarios of classic ‘serious’ space fiction: 2001: A Space Odyssey, inevitably, with Bowman and Poole running around the circumference of their living quarters on the Discovery, or Sam Rockwell’s tics and habits in Moon, or the rather less calm demeanour of Bruce Dern as the ecologist (and murderer) Freeman Lowell in the geodesic domes of Silent Running. David’s imitation of Peter O’Toole as TE Lawrence is at once touching and disquieting, because it bespeaks a kind of yearning for subjectivity on David’s part (a performance that, like Ash’s, may be indistinguishable from human) but also a callow narcissism: the shot of David brushing his hair while watching O’Toole could be used to illustrate Laura Mulvey’s Lacanian arguments about the cinematic apparatus and the spectator’s mis-recognition of the ideal image of the subject.  

What struck me most about Fassbender’s appearance was not the imitation of O’Toole, however; it was how much David (significantly named) resembled the ill-fated alien of Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie). I’ve written previously about the film and book on this blog, but Bowie’s portrayal of Newton clearly stands behind the rather uncannily stylish David. Newton's  weakness is all-too-human (addiction an index of his true humanity, despite the fact that he comes from another world) and his slow-motion betrayal of himself, his family and his homeworld renders him a pathetic figure by the end of the narrative. Newton’s alienation is expressed most deeply in his succumbing to the temptations of human vice (especially alcohol); this blurring of the divide between human and alien, the ‘man who fell’ offered as the focus of sympathetic identification and pathos, suggests a revision of the potentialities of the android as narrative focus.  David is the emotional ‘hero’ of Prometheus, but one whose agency is consistently repressed in the narrative, and in fact the film consistently fudges the fact of David’s centrality by reinstating a human/ other binary. If Ash is a marionette operated by the Company, David is a costumier’s mannequin, albeit one who understands his own condition to be deficient in comparison to human beings. (The Pinocchio motif returns to haunt the Alien films in Prometheus.)

Where Call dreams, David taps into the dreams of the hyper-sleeping scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) as a kind of voyeur, but this somewhat sinister act signifies a curiosity and sense of wonder that is entirely absent from the rest of the human crew of the Prometheus. Indeed, the crew are a group of unattractive and barely-credible yahoos (especially the scientists) who seem to have no reliable methods, practices or intellectual frameworks through which to grapple with what they are encountering. In Alien, the collective ignorance of the crew in the face of the alien creature is understandable and commensurate with the fact that the crew are all working stiffs, subject to ‘the contract’, and ultimately expendable. In Prometheus, there is no such rationale; no-one seems to know what the hell they should be doing. When David asks Shaw’s partner Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) why human beings made androids, the reply is ‘because they could’. David’s rather dismissive response, that human beings might be disappointed if they received the same reply from their Creator, reveals the shallowness of Holloway’s appreciation and insight into the nature of being: Holloway simply assumes that David is significantly inferior to human beings, as a ‘robot’. Considering David’s self-possession, and the significant fact that he saves Shaw from some kind of pyroclastic storm-front soon after they have landed, such assumptions on Holloway’s part are self-evidently unfounded.  The scientists in Prometheus wear ideological spectacles as dark as an arc-welder’s visor.

Although I think Fassbender is the most impressive part of the film, his casting in this role, and the connections to O’Toole and Bowie, destabilises any sense that David might be a mere ‘butler’. Where Ian Holm was physically small and slight, no-one’s idea of a leading man (or villain), downplaying his significance, Fassbender is tall, imposing, aquiline, glamorous: a literal star/man. Not only that, but the film goes out of its way to mark David as the only true repository in the film of one of science fiction’s oldest motifs: a sense of wonder. When he penetrates the fallen ship of the ‘space jockey’, recognisable from Alien, David is able to follow the holographic ‘ghosts’ of the Engineers (an unexplained and rather convenient phenomenon, one might add) to start up the ship’s navigational array. The circular rostrum of the flight-deck becomes an illuminated globe, a star-map, and here the film switches into the register of classic space fiction: David has made an awe-inspiring ‘discovery’. Again, David is placed in the role of the masculine hero, and in many ways, he conforms to Vivian Sobchack’s characterization of the astronaut that I discussed in part 1: ‘superb physiques, wooden movements, hollow cheerfulness, and banal competence ... cool, rational, competent, unimaginative, male, and sexless’ (107). Not unimaginative, though: it is difficult to imagine any other character in Prometheus responding with such awe and delight to the universal star-map.

The question of virginity, however, is important to consider in relation to David; while there is no Ash-like symbolic oral rape, he does end up in a parodic reich der zwei with Shaw at the end of the film, and as I noted above, saved her from the storm earlier in the narrative. What does David want? Not sex, perhaps, but romance.

David’s spiking of Holloway’s drink with alien DNA, thereby killing the scientist, seems to place him as just another android villain, as bad as Ash had been. However, if we remember that David has seen into Shaw’s dreams, surely he must know that she is incapable of conception, that she is unable to ‘create’ (revealed in one of the most weakly scripted scenes in the film). By poisoning Holloway, David is able to romance Shaw at one remove, to give her what she wants, what Holloway cannot: a baby. This is the romance of the virgin android. That the fetus is alien and monstrous is, in a sense, irrelevant; the fact of pregnancy is enough. It is telling that the word that the film cannot use in the scene where Shaw uses the surgical pod to remove the alien embryo is ‘abortion’, for this is, essentially, what she conducts, a termination by Caesarian section. Unlike Kane, or Bishop, Shaw circumvents her own role in monstrous birth, and returns her own body to a state of astronaut 'virginity'. Where Alien represented the body of the woman as the body of the alien, Prometheus represents the body of the mother as itself a techno-body, eventually stapled together and sprayed with antiseptic paint.

Ridley Scott himself staples together elements of Blade Runner with the Alien series in Prometheus’s emphasis on meeting with one’s maker, but the aged Weyland is no Roy Baty, and cannot demand of the Engineer ‘I want more life, father [fucker]’ (though this is clearly what he’s after). In fact, he cannot even speak the Engineer’s language; this is left to David, who receives a pat on the head for his efforts like a schoolboy, before he suffers the same fate as Ash and Bishop. The Frankenstein motifs that give Blade Runner such depth, and the meeting between Baty and Tyrell such awful resonance, are thrown away in Prometheus, largely because the meeting takes place between the Engineer and a character who has been largely absent (secreted away aboard the ship in hyper-sleep) in a language that remains untranslated. There is no grandeur, no horror, no climax, and the Father visits fatal violence upon the sons (rather than vice versa); the transgressive kiss that precedes Tyrell’s murder becomes a scene in the Headmaster’s study, where the patriarch Engineer metes out appropriate punishment to errant young ‘uns.  

‘It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker’, says Baty, but David has already done so, every day. The question he asks Holloway is moot; perhaps he is already disappointed. For a human being to meet their maker is to undergo an extremity of terror and violence, in Prometheus; but not for David. His is a quotidian revelation, and he faces it calmly. As the film ends, in sanguine fashion, he contacts Shaw as the one being left alive who can re-attach his head to his body. Bathetically, she dumps the body out of the alien craft before zipping David’s smiling head up in a holdall. The dialogue between the two almost made me break out in awful laughter in the cinema; when David wonders about having (and not having) feelings, a crude marker of species difference in Alien, Shaw tells him that he cannot understand and that ‘I’m a human and you’re not’. This reductive binarism, if not an ironic undermining of this particular Final Girl's appreciation of all she has experienced (and I deeply suspect it is not), is a betrayal of all that was challenging and interesting about the Alien films in the first place, and it almost felt as if I were David in that holdall, about to be zipped up.  ‘Know your place’, ‘be quiet’, don’t ask questions’, Prometheus tell us: or you’ll find your head in a bag.


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