Ridley’s universal robots: artificial life in Alien, Blade Runner and Prometheus
Alien, Blade Runner and Prometheus all display an interest in artificial life. Here, we look at Ridley Scott's complex depiction of androids...
“All of those moments will be lost, like tears in rain... Time to die.”
Those final words marked not only the death of existentialist replicant Roy Batty in 1982’s Blade Runner, but also Ridley Scott’s 30-year departure from the science fiction genre. With Alien, released in 1979, and Blade Runner, released three years later, Ridley Scott established a visual style which would define the way sci-fi movies were shot for decades afterwards, and it’s little surprise that his belated return to the genre, with this summer’s Prometheus, has been the subject of so much scrutiny, and such intense anticipation.
It could even be argued that, in Scott’s career after 1982, he never bettered Alien or Blade Runner, despite the financial success of such movies as Black Hawk Down, Hannibal and Gladiator. The science fiction genre, it seemed, gave Scott the chance to exercise his own particular form of filmmaking, with all its texture and intense light and shade. But beneath the surface gloss, there’s something interesting going on with Scott’s characters, too.
The director introduced space heroine Ripley in Alien, and she’s long since passed into sci-fi lore, alongside such stock heroes as Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Captain Kirk, as one of the genre’s archetypal protagonists. But look again at her performance - and almost everyone else’s - at the start of Alien. There’s something oddly detached and distant about Warrant Officer Ripley and her fellow crewmembers aboard the Nostromo.
As they wake from hypersleep, we’re immediately aware that these space truckers aren’t the jovial, all-American space travellers of, say, Forbidden Planet or Star Trek. Below-decks engineers Parker and Brett grumble about their low pay. Captain Dallas is stern and terse. And then there’s Ripley herself, who bickers with Navigator Lambert, and tells Parker and Brett to go forth and multiply in one early scene. It’s only in the movie’s second half that Ripley begins to take command and establish herself as a potential survivor.
Part of the reason for the characters’ muttered exchanges and unclear motivations is obvious: it creates a realistic atmosphere, and Scott is playing a poker game with us - daring the audience to try to guess who, if any, of the crewmembers will survive, or whether they can be entirely trusted.
Among the faces on the Nostromo, though, there’s Ash, the science officer so memorably brought to life by Ian Holm. By now, it’s common knowledge that Ash is in fact an android, placed among the crew to carry out the orders of a heartless corporation. What’s notable about Ash, though, is that in spite of the absence of real blood flowing through his synthetic veins, he’s the most human, perhaps even relatable character aboard the Nostromo, at least until things start to go horrendously out of control in the third act.
Of all the crewmembers, it’s Ash who displays an intolerance to cold (notice how he stomps his feet and does a little run on the spot in once scene). It’s Ash who displays at least a modicum of childlike awe when they first arrive on the planet later known as LV-426 - while everyone else glumly gets on with their individual tasks, Ash is heard to say, “I’ve never seen anything quite like it” in a tone that, for a British scientist at least, is laced with enthusiasm. Even when his true identity is revealed, and his decapitated head is left perched awkwardly on a table, Ash hints at a sense of humour entirely absent from the colleagues he’s about to leave behind.
“I can’t lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathies,” Ash says, before signing off with a smug smile which even repeated blasts from Parker’s flamethrower can’t wipe off.
Of course, making Ash so human could simply be another part of Scott’s poker-faced storytelling - Ash’s jogging on the spot and oddly passive-aggressive remarks (for a robot capable of injuring the colossal Parker in a fight, it’s interesting to note how scared he is of Ripley) can easily be dismissed as mere misdirection. At the same time, it’s hard to shake the impression that Scott is more interested in the possibilities of Ash’s character than the humans who surround him.
Now, taking Alien on its own, this would probably seem like a flimsy argument. But if there were hints of this android fascination in Scott’s 1979 film, his next sci-fi is an entire opus dedicated to artificial humans.
Ridley Scott’s 1982 film is a collision of opposites. Blade Runner’s set in the future, but with an aesthetic rooted in the past - it's as influenced by Metropolis’s art deco buildings and film noirs of the 40s and 50s as it is by the neon glow of 80s Tokyo. Blade Runner’s nominally an action thriller, but its pace is often meditative.
The story’s ostensibly about Deckard (Harrison Ford), a retired police officer, hunting down a group of artificial humans (or replicants) who’ve illegally travelled to Earth from an off-world colony. What Blade Runner’s really about, though, is Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the leader of the outlaw replicant group who wants nothing more than an extension on his painfully brief lifespan. He’s in Los Angeles to find his creator, Tyrell, who lives atop his corporation’s gigantic building like Zeus on Mount Olympus.
At the start of the film, Batty and his gang’s violent behaviour seems reprehensible. But gradually, we learn the motivation behind it: they’re running out of time and becoming desperate. Batty’s trying to find away to save himself and Pris, with whom he appears to have formed a close relationship. It’s worth noting, too, that although they have the bodies of adults, they’re only about four years old (Pris’ incept date is listed as 14th February 2014). It’s little wonder that their behaviour is often so disarmingly, sometimes chillingly childlike.
Deckard, on the other hand, is little more than a bystander in many of the unfolding events. Introduced as the hero, his actions are, if anything, more disturbing than the creatures he’s hunting. After all, this is a singularly grumpy man who thinks nothing of shooting an unarmed, barely-dressed woman in the back.
As with Ash in Alien, it’s the replicants in Blade Runner who emerge as the more compelling characters. And by Blade Runner’s conclusion, in which Batty ultimately accepts his fate and saves a wounded, dangling Decker from death atop a rain-drenched tenement building, the replicant emerges as the true hero, as he demonstrates his capacity for empathy and forgiveness as well as anger and violence. Decker may get to head off into an uncertain future with another replicant, Rachael (and it’s hinted that Decker’s not human, either), but it’s Batty who resonates most strongly throughout the film.
The reasons for this could be to do with Blade Runner’s troubled shoot. It’s no secret that Harrison Ford and Scott didn’t get on terribly well on set, and that the director got on much better with Rutger Hauer. Indeed, Scott and Hauer’s working relationship was so close that Hauer was able to contribute to Blade Runner’s script - the “Tears in rain” sign-off mentioned earlier was his. Interviewed for the 2000 documentary, On The Edge Of Blade Runner, Hauer compared his character with Ford’s thus:
“The replicants were all such great characters, and Harrison Ford's character is such a dumb character. He gets a gun put to his head and then he fucks a dishwasher and falls in love with her. He doesn't make any sense. He's introduced as the detective hero, but he is not the hero, he is the bad guy. His world didn't seem to fit him, or he couldn't make it fit - I know that that was going on and I don't know why, but if he would have been stronger, I wouldn't have been so shiny, you know?”
While the behind-the-scenes conflicts may have contributed to Hauer’s greater prominence, it’s inarguable that Blade Runner’s themes - carried over, in part, from Philip K Dick’s source novel, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? - would have remained. And although the finished movie diverges a little from the shooting script written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, what we see on the screen is still close to what’s on the printed page.
And so we come to this summer’s Prometheus, a movie so many of us are hoping will live up to our expectations. While we’ll have to wait until June to see it, there’s one thing we do know for certain about Ridley Scott’s latest: that an android once again plays a central role in its events.
Michael Fassbender plays David 8, a synthetic human who’s the technical grandfather of Alien’s Ash. And like Ian Holm’s performance back in the late 70s, Fassbender’s is full of detail, humour and pathos. He walks with an awkward gait which lies somewhere between a butler and a penguin - something Fassbender acquired, he’s said, from observing the movements of Olympic diver Greg Louganis, as well as certain characters in movies such as Lawrence Of Arabia and The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Whether David will prove to be duplicitous, as Ash was in Alien, or more benign, like Aliens’ Bishop, is again a secret we’ll only learn when the finished film comes out. But once more, it’s an android who emerges as the most intriguing character in a Scott movie. It’s no coincidence that, of all the characters picked out for a viral Internet promo, it’s David and not Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw who was chosen - and Shaw’s thought to be the nominal lead among Prometheus’ ensemble cast.
Whether the rest of the Prometheus main players will get videos of their own over the next few weeks or not isn’t yet clear, but we’re willing to make a prediction: if they do, they won’t be anywhere near as compelling or disquieting as the one featuring David.
In the space of just two-and-a-half minutes, the promo introduces this serene, faintly melancholy character, and Fassbender’s performance is subtle enough to pose all sorts of questions. What are the ‘unethical’ tasks he’s willing to carry out for his masters? How deeply does he think? Were those tears like those of a child’s doll, or perhaps even genuine?
The Frankenstein connection
The creation of artificial life has existed in stories for hundreds of years - the Jewish legend of the Golem, a humanoid creature formed from mud, is but one example. But Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is perhaps the most familiar such story in modern fiction, and although published in 1818, the novel’s influence can still be readily found. Its most significant contribution to culture is the creature itself - Victor Frankenstein’s humanoid is assembled from bones and body parts, and brought gasping to life with electricity.
Like Frankenstein’s monster, the artificial people of Alien, Blade Runner and Prometheus are both alluring and disquieting. And like Frankenstein the novel, they pose the same questions: if androids were indistinguishable from humans, what would our responsibility be towards them? Would it be cruel to give an artificial human the same emotions as us? And if we did, would they be more moral and kind than we are, or would they attempt to destroy us?
If Ridley Scott's more interested in android characters than human ones, that's probably because we all are, on a subconscious level - that's why the Frankenstein story has been so endlessly retold, both in official adaptations and in movies influenced by it.
Blade Runner’s Doctor Eldon Tyrell is essentially the 20th century relative of Victor Frankenstein; a scientist who creates life but is then indifferent to the suffering, both physically and mentally, of his creation. Batty is therefore his monster, a powerful yet proud creature who comes back to haunt and ultimately destroy its creator.
With Prometheus, Scott’s apparent interest in artificial life comes full circle; Frankenstein’s subtitle was, after all, The Modern Prometheus. In Scott’s film, the crew of the Prometheus ship head off into space to find the key to all living things - something Victor Frankenstein was looking for when he created his monster.
Right now, only Scott and his fellow filmmakers know what role David will play in the inevitable suffering that will unfold in the film; as both Greek myth and Mary Shelley warn us, there’s a terrible price to pay when humanity messes with The Things It Was Not Meant To Know, and it’s clear there’s something dreadful afoot for the people aboard the Prometheus.
And although aliens are going to be a big part of the film’s narrative, we’re sure that Michael Fassbender’s David - a character simultaneously enigmatic, amusing and vaguely menacing - will play pivotal role in all of it.
After all, as a synthetic rather than true sentient being, he’ll have his own vested interest in discovering - and perhaps even stealing - the secret of life, the universe and everything...