Monday, 16 July 2012

Aliens: the pods that failed

I tried. I really did. I tried to like Aliens, James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, and watched it again when it was on tv this week, to give it another chance. Because it’s always felt like a much lesser film than Alien to me. I know some folk like it, prefer it to the first film even. But for me, where Alien wields the scalpel, Aliens wields the bludgeon. Where Alien is about interiors, tension, horror, Aliens is about spectacle, action, excitement. Alien is sharp, economical, surprising, and quite British; Aliens is forceful, long, unwinds to a fairly predictable conclusion, and is Hollywood spectacle sf.

That’s not to say that I don’t find things to admire in Cameron’s film. I like the audacity of hiding the aliens away for almost 90 minutes. The last hour is gripping, well-paced, and has some iconic scenes, particularly Ripley’s fight against the Queen. But the bad guy, company man Burke, is cartoonish in his yuppie malevolence; the Marines are straight out of central casting (weak, inexperienced but ultimately redeemed Lieutenant; cigar- and scenery-chomping veteran Sarge; a few expendable red-tops mixed in with blowhard Hudson, good man Hicks, and Chicano warrior-woman Vasquez); the film painfully under-uses Lance Henrikson as Bishop, who is off-stage for the majority of the film; the set-up, with Ripley’s ‘trial’, revelation about her daughter and kids/ families-in-peril schtick is all too mechanical; and, as ever in Cameron films, he loves him some hardware, a fetishism revealed in the opening pan around the empty hangar of the Sulaco which reprises the wandering camera at the beginning of Alien, but this time showing racks of assault rifles, missiles awaiting loading and the military drop-ship.

And yes, I know it’s meant to be a Vietnam allegory, but that doesn’t pay off either, above a toy-town political message that grunts are ill-disciplined, officers are useless, the system is bent, and the Others (Vietnamese/ aliens) are unknowable and implacably hostile. For all Cameron’s wish to introject an emotional arc into the film (Newt’s role, Ripley as mother and her lost daughter, Bishop’s ‘redemption’) I also think this is really where the film is at its weakest. The characters, their emotions and their motivations are one-dimensional.

The most powerful moment, I found, was when Ripley stands, not quite knowing what to do next, before the Queen in a chamber full of eggs. She wants to destroy, to revenge, but there’s a moment of stillness before the fighting-and-destruction of the last 20 minutes. It’s almost a moment of decision: do I become a destroyer? And, of course, she does choose this, having backed herself and Newt out of the chamber first. One of the things that Cameron does introduce is the sense that the conflict between human and alien is one between communities, not just a lone predator stalking and picking off the flock (in a sheep-fold named Nostromo). The storing of injured Marines in cocoons for later consumption introduces a conceptually different reading of the aliens’ social and biological organisation, as does the implied hierarchical relationship between Queen and drone aliens. The egg-chamber is mirrored by the cocoon-larder. Ripley wants to destroy both.

This leads me to something that struck me while watching the beginning of Aliens: the opening shots of Ripley’s lifeboat drifting through space, and the music over the end-titles when Ripley, Newt, Hicks and Ash are in hyper-sleep pods, is taken from 2001: A Space Odyssey, specifically the beginning of the Jupiter mission section when we see Bowman and Poole at their daily routines, running the circumference of the Discovery’s spherical command module or sketching colleagues in cryogenic hyper-sleep. I have since read that production over-runs meant scoring the film proved very difficult for James Horner, but the use of the 2001 score twice is significant, particularly as the sequences in both films concern the hyper-sleep pods. Interesting, I thought at the start of the film; maybe I’ve misjudged it. In point of fact, I don’t think Aliens is elsewhere capable of that kind of intertextual sophistication, or making you think: the film is designed to be much more visceral, a ‘ride’. But what did Cameron mean by using this piece of music?

It’s as well to remember the fate of those astronauts and scientists ‘sleeping’ within the pods at the beginning of 2001: HAL, of course, fearing for the mission and slipping into a kind of AI psychopathology, kills them as they sleep, turning off their life-support systems. This scene is perhaps more horrifying than the ‘murder’ of Poole: the intercut shots of the sleeping humans flat-lining, and HAL’s unblinking red ocular camera, indicates a lack of affect that is chilly even by the standards of Kubrick’s usual blank ‘human’ characters. 2001’s pods are no cocoons, places of transformation and life: they are technological coffins.
In Alien, the emergence from the pods at the beginning of the film is clearly a kind of re-birth, part of the continuum of ‘monstrous’ other(ed) forms of reproduction found throughout the film. The crew of the Nostromo even awake wearing a kind of diaper. At the end of the film, the pod is sanctuary for Ripley and the cat Jones, finally rid of the alien predator. In Aliens, this sanctuary is itself marked with death; awoken like Sleeping Beauty in the tower, Ripley finds that she has ‘slept’ for 57 years, and her 11-year-old daughter has lived until her mid-60s, then died prior to Ripley’s revival.

The emergence of human forms from pods uncannily calls forth images from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). There, the ‘pod people’ are ‘taken over’ by alien life, which extinguishes both individuality and emotions. A classic text of paranoia, famous for Kevin McCarthy screaming at the camera at the end of the film ‘They’re here already! You’re next!’, Invasion of the Body Snatchers represents ‘pod’ life as one of an emergent conformity and totalization. Pod people are like us, but uncannily other; they might be your next-door-neighbour; they might be me (or you). This erasure of difference between self and other, markers that are deeply significant in the Alien films and are highly visible in the forms as well as behaviour of the ‘xenomorph’, suggests that the 1956 Invasion may have its finger on the political pulse much more acutely than any of the Alien films. Even if one reads Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a Reds-under-the-bed allegory, its blurring of the line between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is very disruptive. (There’s a great scene in the film where Kevin McCarthy’s wife makes him breakfast, and there is much visual play with eggs. Eggs/ pods: Don Siegel was there first. In the mid-Fifties.)

If there were no Alien3, the ending of Aliens, with the music from 2001 suggesting the cold deaths of hyper-sleeping crew members, is an interestingly dark note for the film to finish on. While the Nostromo’s life-boat might drift through the ‘core worlds’ for 57 years and be found by a ‘one in a thousand’ chance, there’s not much likelihood that the Sulaco will be overlooked. What menaces these sleeping pod people, then? I think it’s genre itself, the space sf of ‘discovery’ traded on by Prometheus, where human beings in the vast vacuum of interstellar space are themselves vulnerable, organic air-breathing bodies inside metal shells. Pods inside pods inside pods. (In Alien, a human being is another kind of pod: a womb.) Little wonder that both 2001 and Aliens have scenes where the protagonist has to battle the violent danger of hard vacuum without a full environment suit: Ripley opens the hangar airlock, while Bowman has the blow the hatch of the Discovery’s own perambulatory ‘pod’ and get back inside the ship without his helmet. Out there, in space, no-one can hear you scream, because sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum. Human beings can, of course, but leaving their fragile ‘pods’ (usually) entails death: ‘For in that sleep of death what dreams may come’, dreams of aliens, and of what might become of us.

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Virginity of Androids, part 3: final thoughts

In this last post on Prometheus, I am going to concentrate more directly on the mythic or religious implications of the film, in particular the issue of Creation and the condition of innocence.

As I noted in part 2, one of the most ham-handed scenes in the film is where Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), in emotional discussion with her partner Holloway, reveals that ‘I can’t create’, breaking down in tears; reproduction as ‘creation’ of life leaves a kind of spiritual barrenness, the motivation perhaps behind the overt displays of faith (the crucifix she wears around her neck, for instance). Another way to read David’s experimental infection of Holloway with the alien DNA is to do something that he also cannot do, which is to create life (Shaw and David are paired throughout the film); not only is the android not a womb, the android is also barren: neither a mother nor a father can it be.  

The connection between Creation and space fiction is a very long one of course, and it is a signal feature of the ‘transcendent’ vein of science fiction that encountering the alien Other is represented through a register of Christian iconography: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Soderbergh’s Solaris, for instance, repeat the gesture between God and Adam on the Sistine Chapel frescos. (The inverse of this is when the alien entity wears the clothes of the demonic, such as in Event Horizon or, more bathetically, Star Trek V.) With its classical allusion, Prometheus seems to offer a variant on the Christian Creation, where the origin of human beings is founded on an external transgression (the theft of fire) rather than an internal one (the Fall). This would seem to suggest not that Prometheus re-situates human beings as part of a divine cosmology, but that it suggests human beings are a technical by-product of some kind of radically unknowable Engineering project. 
The myth of Prometheus is analysed by Bernard Stiegler in Technics and Time, who takes Jacques Derrida’s concept of the ‘supplement’ to analyse the relation between the human and the technical. In the classical myth, Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus are given the task of allotting different powers or attributes to mortal species by the Gods. Epimetheus persuades Prometheus to let him do the job; unfortunately so, as Epimetheus distributes all the attributes amongst the animals and forgets to leave anything for human beings. Prometheus is therefore forced to steal skill in the arts, and fire, to compensate human beings for this originary lack. For this, of course, he is punished.

Stiegler reads this myth as a founding discourse of the relation between the natural and the technical, and more specifically between ‘man’ and his tools. It also points towards what Stiegler calls ‘le défaut d’origine’ with regard to the human subject: an originary fault [défaut] or lack is compensated for by Prometheus’s gift, but exposes the foundational state of human subjectivity as one of a radical lack, and in fact, the defining characteristic of the human is a lack of characteristics.

Rather than being a compensatory addition to the human, the ‘defaut d’origine’ suggests that technics are the necessary and constitutive supplement to the ‘natural’ and ‘human’ at their very point of origin. In the words of friend and colleague Arthur Bradley, ‘technology is a supplement which exposes an originary lack within what should be the integrity or plenitude of the human being’. Human beings are characterised by an ‘originary technicity’.

Prometheus, I think, for all its failings, offers an imaginative rendering of a Stieglerian conception of human beings as technological artefact. It isn’t hubris or overreaching ambition that drives human beings to the stars (a transgressive quest for knowledge which informs Event Horizon and, it should be noted, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the most recent quasi-sf movie in debt to von Daniken), it is lack, begetting the questions: who, or what am I? Is this all there is?*

*I’m echoing Spock here, of course, from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). He’s talking about V’ger, the Voyager probe that returns to Earth to seek his own Creator and merge with it, transcending his own limited condition, satisfying the need to ‘evolve’. It’s noteworthy, therefore, that both Star Trek: TMP and Blade Runner displace these central questions on to artificial subjects, the ‘intelligent machine’ V’ger or the replicant Baty, thereby once again indicating the other is us. Where Kirk and Spock act as midwives and bring a new entity into being, Tyrell’s own failings result in his death at the hands of the ‘Prodigal Son’.

I don’t think Prometheus is equipped to handle these questions, as I noted in previous posts. The greatest sense of ‘lack’ is felt by a triumvirate of characters, rather than one (as with Roy Baty), and this disperses, rather than intensifies or makes more complex, the need to ‘meet one’s Maker’. The three characters are Weyland, David, and Shaw: father, son and woman, with Weyland’s actual daughter shunted unceremoniously (necessarily) off the stage at the end of the film. As friend and colleague Andy Tate suggested to me, there’s is too large a cast in Prometheus, allowing inadequate time for their characterisation and development, and this is most evident in this central triangulation. Weyland spends too much time in hyper-sleep for his own quest for knowledge (or life) to have much narrative traction: as viewers, there isn’t enough investment in him or his own lack. Combining his desire to confront his maker with David’s sense of wonder and engagement with universe would have paid considerably dividends, but would have made the composite android too close to Baty for comfort, perhaps: Blade Runner in space.

Baty, as played by Rutger Hauer, manages to combine both a childlike energy and capacity for wonder with a fundamental sense of his own mortality; in him, innocence and experience exist side by side, and this gives the concept of his character both power and pathos. Baty is not a fallen being, despite the (altered) quotation from Blake he offers to Chu: ‘Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc’. His is not an Infernal subjectivity, a fallen angel in search of redemption from his God. Rather, Batty is outside sin itself: ‘I’ve done... questionable things’, he confesses to Tyrell, which isn’t much of an acknowledgement of sin. Baty commits acts of monstrous violence but remains a child: when he looks down, at the end of the film, at Deckard hanging on to the girder by two fingertips, and says ‘It’s painful to live in fear, isn’t it?’, his face betrays curiosity rather than anger, lust for life rather than world-weariness.

David’s innocence is of a different kind, but similar order. As an explicitly technical being, defined by lack but not driven to compensate for it, David is not subject to the myth of lost plenitude that haunts the Fall, the desire to redeem lost Eden. He is not driven by Baty’s rage against mortality, to demand ‘more life’: his agency (such as infecting Holloway) is without defined purpose or end. He simply does and observes the results. David occupies a space of radical innocence, the innocence of the Alien other, unconcerned with ‘conscience, remorse or delusions of morality’. This, then, is perhaps why Ridley Scott could not make David, as he should have done, the centre of the narrative, paired with Shaw as the human, desire/ quest-oriented subject, and excluded the redundant ensemble clutter. 

Bizarrely, it might have taken Spielberg to do so, to narrate through the point-of-view of the child, to more fully grasp that sense of wonder: but I suppose he had, in a way, already done that with AI. And the failures of that film, in finding an adequate ending to a narrative of a being in search of his maker (while fully embracing the Pinocchio story), indicate the difficulties of this kind of sf film. I find AI a stomach-churning, heart-wrenching experience, and probably the darkest thing Spielberg has ever done, though again, I wish he’d been even more bleak; and of course, in Haley Joel Osment’s artificial boy, there we find another David, another innocent abroad in a world of terrible, unknowable, hostile forces.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

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.

The Virginity of Androids, part 1

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus: ‘a ruinously incoherent, inept dustbin of bad sf ideas, and in Clute’s words, a real shaggy God story.’ That’s what I wrote on Twitter after seeing the film, which was a very great disappointment for someone who loves both Alien and Blade Runner and teaches both on a course on science fiction. I’m not going to recapitulate what has already been written about the film, and in particular will avoid (a) its Lovecraft-via-von Daniken story (b) the atrocious editing (c) the gaping plot holes (d) the ludicrous portrayal of scientists (e) its seeming validation of Creationism (f) the appalling and nonsensical ending (g) the risible deaths of many of its characters, particularly poor old Charlize Theron who (h) had absolutely nothing to do in the film but be the shoulder-pad-bitch, one of many under-written parts which only served to highlight the deftness and skill with which Scott once presented an ensemble cast in Alien, but which was entirely lacking here. I can only presume, for instance, that Benedict Wong was cast as some kind of nod to Sunshine, which I have grave misgivings about (see previous post) but which is a work of genius compared to Prometheus. Michael Wood’s recent reviewof Prometheus in the London Review of Books offers an insightful reading of the film and is more positive about it than I ever could be; in this blog post, I would like to concentrate on Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the android David, and the failed opportunity to do something interesting with the condition of the android which is symptomatic of all four Alien sequel/prequel films proper (not counting the dire Predator crossovers).

Parker, Ripley and Ash in AlienIn Alien (1979), the android is Ash, played by Ian Holm as the ‘science officer’ (shades of Spock) who, as the film nears its climax, is revealed to be a totally amoral agent of the Company, pursuing the delivery of the alien species and mindful of the necessity that all ‘other priorities’ (the survival of the human crew, for instance) have been ‘rescinded’. It is Ash who countermands Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and allows the ‘impregnated’ Kane (John Hurt) back onto the ship, in direct contravention of protocol; it is Ash who researches the creature and declares it to be ‘perfect’ in its hostility. That Ash is an android is a shocking revelation in Alien: he is presumed by all to be human (even if a Company man). The scene where Ash’s true otherness is revealed is when Ripley threatens to blow up the ship after the death of Captain Dallas: he attacks her physically, then attempts to choke her by inserting a rolled-up pornographic magazine down her throat, in an act which is at once a recapitulation of what the face-hugger does to Kane, and a symbolic oral rape. As the two struggle, Parker (Yaphet Kotto) tries to stop the violation, eventually smashing the back of Ash’s head with a gas cylinder, decapitating him. Ash oozes white liquid, an echo of the white milk he drinks but also a sign of his otherness, his abjection: his internal structure is non-human, repellant. ‘Ash is a God-damned robot’, shouts Parker, though this is a word that (to me) signifies a mechanical entity, and a word that recurs in Prometheus; while Ash differs from the flesh-and-blood replicants of Blade Runner, he is clearly a fleshly rather than metallic being, even if that flesh is other and disgusting.

In ‘The Virginity of Astronauts’, from which I have stolen the title of this blog entry, Vivian Sobchack writes about the sexlessness of science fiction. This has a double dynamic. Women and sex are ‘denied all but a ghostly presence in the genre ... as if such a potent semiotic relation poses a threat to the cool reason and male camaraderie necessary to the conquest of space, the defeat of mutant monsters and alien invasions, and the corporate development and exploitation of science and technology’ (103); at the same time, the ‘male heroes who dominate almost all science fiction films are remarkably asexual ... about as libidinally interesting as a Ken doll’ (107). Sobchack reads Alien as a text that erases gender in the figure of Ripley, ‘not marked as either woman or sexual’ until the very end of the film, when in a ‘disturbing and horrific’ sequence Ripley believes herself to have escaped the alien threat when boarding the ‘lifeboat’ and undresses, down to skimpy pants and t-shirt, before realising the alien is also on board. I have always found this scene deeply uncomfortable and seemingly out of keeping with the rest of the film in exposing Weaver’s body to the camera’s gaze, but the logic of presenting the body of the mother at this point in inescapable, particularly as a means by which to reassert normative human reproductive biology in the face of the monstrous reproduction (Kane’s ‘chest-burster’, the ‘rape’ of Kane and Lambert) found elsewhere in the film. Sobchack argues that Ripley ‘exchanges one kind of power for another, her sudden vulnerability at the narrative level belied by her sudden sexual potency as a visual representation on the screen’ (106). In becoming a woman at this point, Sobchack states, Ripley becomes a victim; but she also becomes ‘an irrational, potent, sexual object – a woman, the truly threatening alien generally repressed by the male-conceived and dominated genre’ (107). 

In Sobchack’s Freudian reading, the film here tips its hand: the symbolic relation between the abject otherness of the body of the alien and the abject otherness of the body of the woman is revealed. (Barbara Creed has persuasively investigated the film in Kristevan terms in a number of well-known articles.) I’d like to add to this reading; if Ripley is rendered sexless or genderless by costume choices, the way the character is written, and the sexist and homosocial environment of the Nostromo, then there is also an uncoupling of gender/ sexual biology and assumptions about power and victimhood: Kane’s male body is the first victim of rape. The most significant markers of difference in Alien are not between male and female human bodies, but between that of the human and that of the android. Alien’s Ash and Prometheus’s David are both agents who abet the impregnation of human bodies by alien embryos; but they do not experiment upon themselves. Unlike the human body (male or female), the android body is not a womb.

Ash's decapitated head in Alien
The android, then, is the emblem of what Sobchack identifies as the sexless techno-body of the astronaut, the embodiment of the libidinal economy of the genre: ‘science fiction denies human eroticism and libido a traditional narrative expression and representation’ (103). It’s interesting, therefore, that in her article, Sobchack analyses Ripley, but not Ash: the android’s body is itself repressed, even in Barbara Creed’s essays, where Ash is mentioned only in passing (for his eulogy for the alien’s purity and perfection). Ash’s body is a third term that disrupts gender binaries in terms of reading Alien, aligned neither with the terrifying potency of the alien nor with the reproductive vulnerability of the human, even if Ash acts to sacrifice the human crew to ensure the predator’s survival. Ash seems to signify an in-human and obscene logic that takes no compass-bearings from human ethics; indeed, the alien’s very absence of ‘conscience, remorse or delusions of morality’ is something that Ash confesses he admires. When Ash, with the blackest irony, offers the remaining crew his ‘sympathies’ in their fight against the perfect killing machine, Parker demands that they ‘pull the plug’, and returns to incinerate Ash’s decapitated head. This faked inhabitation of human emotion is, for Parker, even more obscene than the physical fact of Ash’s bodily abjection, and he attempts to erase both with fire.

Like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, then, Ash seems to occupy a position of otherness-to-humanity that is threatening and destructive, because he operates according to the dictates of a logic that bears no signature of human emotion or sympathy. Like HAL, too, though, to see Ash as simply a version of The Terminator’s Skynet or The Matrix’s machines, implacably hostile non-human ‘machine’ entities bent on the destruction of the human race, denies the possibility of desire, libido, want, even subjectivity itself. For Ash, a (dangerous) libido is hinted at in the sexualised attack upon Ripley. It is impossible to ask the question ‘what does he want?’ of Sobchack’s astronaut, as libido is repressed to an extent that evacuates desire; is the same true of the android? What does Ash want?

One answer is, of course, that he only wants what the Company wants: the return of the alien to the Company’s R and D division. Desire and agency is thereby external(ised), introjected into Ash as a set of commands. Ash would be no more than a marionette, operated from a distance. Little wonder, then, that Parker calls him a ‘robot’. But we might wonder that the crew had no suspicion that Ash was not human before Parker decapitates him. Either his own masquerade as human is near-perfect, or the other crew members also occupy the same sexless condition of Sobchack’s astronaut, so cannot tell the difference. In terms of the dynamic between the characters in Alien, I don’t think this is true: there is clearly some kind of relationship between Dallas and Ripley, and Lambert is the ongoing recipient of crude innuendo by Brett and Parker throughout the early part of the film. Ash might seem uptight and buttoned up, but no more so than Ripley: they wear similar jump-suits at one point in the film. If Ripley is returned to the economy of libido at the end of the film, indexed by her nakedness, does Ash remain outside desire? One thing that Ash does not want is to be human; Alien does not trade on the Pinocchio trope (unlike AI, or Star Trek:TNG’s Data). This certainly marks a difference in conception between Ash and Prometheus’s David, and also a difference to Blade Runner’s replicants: Ash has no need to meet his maker, to demand ‘more life, father’ (or ‘fucker’, depending on which version of Blade Runner you’re watching). Ash seems to accept his fate while also accepting the deaths of his crew-mates. His ‘evil’ is that of an absolute empathic blankness.

While both Aliens  and Alien Resurrection attempt to develop the figure of the android, it is only with Fassbender’s David in Prometheus that a really intriguing revision takes place, although, as I will argue, the opportunity to do something radical with him is lost. In the second part of this entry, I will turn in detail to David and Prometheus.

Vivian Sobchack's 'The Virginity of Astronauts' and Barbara Creed's 'Alien and the Monstrous Feminine' are both collected in Alien Zone, edited by Annette Kuhn (Verso, 1992).