Alien, Blade Runner & Prometheus: Their Artificial Life

Alien, Blade Runner, and Prometheus all display an interest in AI. 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.”

One of the most poignant final lines of any sci-fi character? Almost certainly. That replicant Roy Batty evokes such sympathy in Blade Runners dying moments. This twist of emotion is even perhaps the greatest of all the conjuring tricks Ridley Scott managed to achieve in his 1982 classic. The film may be prized for its special effects and production design, but it’s the arc of Batty’s character – not to mention Rutger Hauer’s peerless performance – that gives Blade Runner its emotional weight.

Released three years after the similarly influential Alien, Blade Runner was the last of Scott’s science fiction films before his late-career return to the genre with 2012’s Prometheus and 2015’s The Martian. Of those four sci-fi films, three of them contain artificially intelligent characters: Alien‘s Ash, Blade Runner‘s Roy (among others), and Prometheus‘ David. They’re duplicitous, inhumanly strong, and sometimes capable of grotesque acts of violence. But Scott and his writers are careful to make them intelligent and sometimes noble too. 

Here’s a look at each of them in turn.

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Alien

Space heroine Warrant Officer Ripley in Alien now has a rightful place 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 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 – this is a bitter, cynical film for the age of post-Nixon, post-Vietnam, and the Three Day Week. 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 interesting 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 crew members, 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 is laced with hushed 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 humor 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.

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Of course, making Ash so human could simply be another part of the 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.

Blade Runner

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’ art deco buildings and film noirs of the 1940s and ’50s as it is by the neon glow of ’80s Tokyo. Blade Runner’s nominally an action thriller, but its pace is deliberate and 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 an 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 a way 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 Feb. 14, 2014). It’s little wonder that their behaviour is often so disarmingly, sometimes chillingly childlike.

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Deckard, on the other hand, is little more than a bystander in many of the unfolding events (“I’m a detective who does no detecting,” star Harrison Ford huffed on the set in 1982). Introduced as the Blade Runner, 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 Deckard from death atop a rain-drenched tenement building, the replicant emerges as the true hero, demonstrating as he does a capacity for empathy and forgiveness as well as anger and violence. Deckard may get to head off into an uncertain future with another replicant, Rachael (and it’s hinted that Deckard’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 Runners troubled shoot. It’s no secret that 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 Runners 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 Runners 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.

Prometheus

Released in 2012, Prometheus was Scott’s much-vaunted return to the Alien universe; a sci-fi horror prequel which fused body horror and theories about the creation of humanity ripped straight from the pages of Lovecraft and Von Daniken.

Of the eclectic cast of human neurotics that bumbled around the nightmare planetoid LV-223, is it any wonder that the synthetic was – once again – the most watchable character of the lot? Oddly yet engagingly played by Michael Fassbender, David is the great-grandfather of Ash; a softly-spoken space butler who serves the whims of decrepit company founder Peter Weyland.

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Although bent on discovering the secrets of eternal life on his creator’s behalf, David also seems to have his own agenda. He has both a fascination and a passive aggressive loathing of his human colleagues that carries distant echoes of Ash’s strangely sexual assassination attempt on Ripley in Alien. Look at the barbed exchanges David has with Holloway, a brattish scientist on whom he decides to test out his newly discovered extraterrestrial goo. Observe how he seems to enjoy telling archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw that she’s carrying an alien abomination in her stomach. This isn’t a machine carrying out company orders; it’s sweet revenge against a species that, having given him life, has chosen to treat him with such indifference.

For all its manifold flaws, Prometheus is of a piece thematically with Blade Runner. The crew of the Prometheus travel halfway across the galaxy to find out who created us and why. When they get there, they appear to discover that the gods that brought life to Earth are a mad, capricious race of giants who seemed to regret making us in the first place – how else do you explain the ship full of deadly black goo they were going to send to our planet? Like Roy Batty, Peter Weyland journeys to LV-223 in the hope of finding an extension on his rapidly dwindling life.

The Prometheus‘ crew head off on their journey with hope and expectation. What they find instead is existential horror and disillusionment (“It must feel like your God abandoned you”). To put it simply, the human characters become as David is: the imperfect creation of an imperfect race – a race of Engineers that has shunned them and actively resents them.

Follow this line of thinking, and it’s possible to conclude that Prometheus is David’s film, not Shaw’s or Holloway’s or any of the other largely two-dimensional, dislikeable cast. It’s surely significant that it’s David that Scott chooses to spend the most time with in the film’s hugely atmospheric first act. It’s him we see, alone aboard the Prometheus, watching his favorite movie, perfecting his hair, keeping things in perfect working order. We come to learn something about David’s interests and way of thinking; what do we really know about the rest of the crew, other than that they’re all largely motivated by their own disparate interests – scientific curiosity, money, a desire for eternal life?

Duplicitous though he is, David still emerges as a sympathetic character. When Holloway says, somewhat cruelly to David, “We made you because we could,” it’s possible to sense the droplet of anger in David’s response: “How would you feel if your makers said the same to you?”

Maybe, then, David’s experiments with alien goo aren’t a simple act of revenge. Maybe he too is searching for something: a means of becoming a real, flesh-and-blood creature, like his 19th century ancestor, Pinocchio. This could be the fire he hopes to one day steal from the gods.

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Alien: Covenant and Beyond

Ridley Scott’s sequel to Prometheus is almost here, and will be the first in a proposed trilogy of movies that will sit, like a crooked pathway, between events of the 2012 prequel and 1979‘s Alien. Scott has talked cryptically about Alien: Covenants plot, alluding vaguely to Milton’s Paradise Lost and at least a few answers to the questions posed by Prometheus.

What we do know is that David is back, and will in all likelihood be repaired after the extensive damage he received at the end of Prometheus. Tellingly, Fox’s synopsis only mentions David by name; Noomi Rapace’s Shaw is already confirmed by Scott as a returning cast member in Covenant, but it seems that her role will be relatively minor. It certainly lends weight to the theory that it’s David who’s the real star of these films, and you can rest assured there’ll be a lot more Fassbender to come – Scott’s stated that there’ll be more than one robot in his 2017 sequel.

We can only speculate as to what Shaw and David will find when they journey to the Engineers’ home planet. But we’re willing to wager that David will be the eyes and ears in Alien: Covenant, and whether Shaw can entirely trust his actions or not, we’d also bet that he’ll be the one powering the story forward.

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 assembled from bones and body parts, 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 toward 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.

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Blade Runners 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. And aren’t there shades of the monster in Prometheus’ David, too?

With Prometheus, Scott’s apparent interest in artificial life came full circle; Frankensteins 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. And maybe it’s that very human appetite for answers to seemingly unanswerable questions that makes Batty and David so fascinating.

They may not be human, but their failings and their fears closely mirror our own.

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.