Alien is a masterfully constructed horror film about unknown and escalating threats. Escalation of danger is one of my favorite things to see in a story, whether it takes place in a single scene (Spielberg executes this wonderfully in the opening of Raiders and in the first T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park), or over the course of the entire work. Alien is an exceptional example of the nature of the threat becoming steadily worse over the course of the film.
In many other stories–many of which I love–the animal, monster, demon, killer, etc. is completely or largely known from the beginning of the story, or even before that. Even if you hadn’t read the novel beforehand, the poster and previews for Jaws would let you know that the threat is a massive great white shark. Despite not seeing the shark for much of the movie, the only true and slight unknown is just how big the shark is, which we effectively learn when we hear of its “bite radius,” even before we get our first glimpse of it.
In A Nightmare on Elm Street we learn early on that there is a killer who can get to you through your dreams. That’s presented in the film’s trailers and early in the film. Later we learn the killer’s name and history, but none of those details change what he is and what he can do, which we found out before the film was ten minutes old.
Alien was different. I say was because by now we all know what the alien looks like, how intelligent it is, how it reproduces, the different ways it can kill you and so on. In 1979 these things were still mysteries to moviegoers. The trailer famously gives no true glimpse of the creature. The poster doesn’t reveal anything other than that it comes out of an egg, but even the look of the egg is different and much more mundane compared to what’s featured in the film.
Imagine being in the audience back then, knowing you were going to see a scary movie titled Alien–a probable creature feature–but not having any clue of what this monster will look like and how it will behave. Then the first alien you see is the corpse of the “space jockey.” Is that indicative of the type of creatures the crew of the Nostromo will face?
Then there’s the facehugger jumping out of the egg. Okay, so that’s the alien. Looks creepy, spidery and slimy, and it bleeds acid, so that’s no good, and it’s really not letting go of Kane’s face, which is also pretty bad, but at least it’s still relatively small and–oh wait, it’s already dead.
Well, it must have done something to Kane then. Did it possess or infect him in some manner? Plant parasites in him that will control him? Well, yes and no. It put something in him, but not to control him, but incubate and be born through him rather violently. And it is, of course, the memorable, signature scene of the film, but for audiences then, still, it would seem that this is finally the alien threat as we will know it through the film. A quick, dangerous creature that they’ll have a tough time finding through the ship, but is still small enough for their tracking equipment to mistake the cat for the alien…
That is until it descends upon Brett, and finally…finally the full physical nature of the alien is revealed. Still to come is the revelation of its cunning, on display when it successfully hunts Dallas, but at least now the audiences can let out a sigh at knowing what the villain of this piece really is.
Except there’s one more thing they don’t yet know, that is barely, absolutely minimally–if at all–hinted at before it is revealed.
As the story progresses we grow increasingly suspicious of Ash, just as Ripley does. He goes from being a bit disagreeable to being a foil and then to being untrustworthy and off-putting. And then we find out that he is a last minute replacement on this ship for the previous Science Officer, and that he knows things nobody else aboard seems to know. We find out that he’s even dangerous. But why is a single trickle of white milky…sweat? Is that sweat coming down his head in this time of stress or… what the hell is going with this guy?
Why is he so strong? Why is he going into this strange seizure after being struck to get him away from Ripley? Why is he projectile spewing more of that milk?
It is said that when Parker knocked Ash’s head off, an usher at one screening fainted. All the tension that had been built up previously had been at least tolerable to that man. This was the last straw. The thing previously thought to be human having its head knocked mostly clear of its body put that usher’s lights out, and I have no trouble believing it to be true, and that he wasn’t the only person this might’ve happened to.
The reveal that Ash is an android–that androids even exist at all in this universe–comes from just about nowhere. It’s not akin to the one in The Sixth Sense where you can go back and see the clues on a rewatch and it all lines up. It’s not like the end of Psycho which relies largely on something known to exist (or “understood” to exist at the time) in the real world: a “split personality.”
There is no indicator throughout Alien that humanoid robots exist in this universe. No, the fact that it’s a science-fiction film isn’t, by itself, enough to make it acceptable to presume the possibility of “robots that look and mostly act exactly like people.” You can’t just throw a time travel twist into a Star Wars film, for instance, just because, “Well it’s set in a futuristic science-fiction environment, so sure, why not time travel?” These things have to be established. Or at least they’re supposed to be.
The closest we have to the personification of an artificial intelligence is the “Mother” computer interface. And the best hint we get before the reveal that Ash might have more in common with Mother than with the rest of the crew is when he says that he and mother are still “collating” data in the face of the danger they’re in. That certainly comes off as something a robot would say…after you’ve seen the movie and know that androids are thing in this world. Beforehand, it just sounds like something a stiff, shady, emotionless Science Officer type in a science fiction story would say.
And I think it’s brilliant. It’s a bit of a cheat, to be sure, but who cares? It’s amazing, and there are times when something amazing completely overrides the fact that it might also be technically flawed.
It helps tremendously that Ash being a robot isn’t really the most critical revelation of the scene, even though it’s the most memorable one.1 This might be the most brilliant aspect of the moment: it takes a potentially more expected “twist” and enhances it by adding something almost impossible to guess, so that what you might have already sussed out feels less important than the part you didn’t know, even though the part you didn’t know is actually less important than the part you guessed.
Because you could predict that something was fishy about the crew’s early awakening from cryo-sleep, and you could predict that Ash was untrustworthy based on what’s laid out earlier in the film. His override of safety protocols, his protectiveness of the Alien, his testiness with Ripley, the fact that he’s a last-minute addition to the crew. These are all clues that he’s up to something, but are also cleverly presented as defensible. He overrode safety protocols, but he wasn’t the only one demanding that Kane be let inside, and you could say he was just following the orders of the captain. He seems fascinated by the facehugger, but he’s the Science Officer, of course he’s fascinated. He desperately tells Parker not to try to kill the Alien when it first pops out of Kane’s chest, but we’ve seen by then that it bleeds acid that could eat through the ship and get them all killed, and Parker’s looking to go after it with a knife. As for him being a late addition to the crew that the others have never worked with before, well, that’s not necessarily his fault.
Nonetheless it’s not all that surprising when he turns out to be the “human” villain of the piece, so the filmmakers added the surprise that he’s not human after all. But then, just to add to the horror and strangeness of it all, Ash is unlike almost any other android / robot anyone had ever seen in fiction before (or at least in recent history), and most that have been seen since. He is not metal and gears under human skin like Yul Brenner’s gunman in 1973’s Westworld. His wires and circuitry look more like strange veins and organs. He’s a callback to the original use of the word “robot” from the science-fiction play R.U.R. about synthetic-organic, artificial humanoids.
All of this makes the moment he is revealed to be a robot memorable. Yet, purely as a twist, it remains underrated, possibly even somewhat forgotten. Most lists of “Greatest movie twists ever!!” make no mention of it. Several subsequent movies have established that androids exist in the Alien universe, so if you see any of the series sequels or prequels before the original film, it’s no surprise at all what Ash is, particularly if you’ve seen Aliens. You might also have heard of the band named “Ash is a robot,” or read this article or one like it, which reveals a former secret that is now about as open as “Norman Bates is the killer” or “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are the same person.” There’s also the fact that Ash is not the primary villain or hero of the film, so of course when most people discuss it, he’s not the first thing that comes to mind. People think of face-hugging and chest-bursting and large obsidian monsters with acid for blood and second-mouths for tongues, and of Ellen Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo.
Still, for its time Ash being a robot was a moment powerful enough to make at least one man pass out upon seeing it. It deserves to be brought up more often among the great movie twists of all time.