Ian Holm as Ash in Alien.
|Created by||Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett|
|Portrayed by||Ian Holm|
|Species||Hyperdyne Systems 120-A/2 android|
Ash is a character in the movie Alien, who was portrayed by actor Ian Holm, who, although known in the U.K. as a stage actor, was at the time unknown to American audiences. Ash serves as the secondary antagonist of the first film. The character is the science officer of the Nostromo, who breaks quarantine by allowing Kane, a member of the crew, back on board after he has been infected by an alien life form. It is later discovered that Ash is not human at all, as he appears, but is in fact a Hyperdyne Systems 120-A/2 android, who is acting upon secret orders to "Bring back alien life form. Crew expendable."
At the beginning of the film, Ash is depicted as quiet and logical, greatly adherent to company regulations. However, he breaks quarantine protocol (disobeying Ripley, the ship's ranking officer, in the process) and allows the infected Kane aboard the mining ship, seemingly out of compassion, and is later seen marvelling at the creature attached to him. At one point, Ash assaults Ripley, attempting to kill her by forcing a rolled-up pornographic magazine down her throat. But it is Ash himself who is killed, as two other crewmembers arrive and rescue Ripley. He is struck over the head twice with a canister, the first time causing him to malfunction and the second decapitating him; and he is then, when even that fails to kill him, electrocuted with a cattle prod. His severed head is reactivated to provide the crew with the truth about the creature. Ash complies, revealing that the company installed him to ensure that the creature was brought to them, with the crew's lives being expendable. After informing them of all he knows about the creature, Ash tells the crew, "You have my sympathies," regarding their chances of survival. Ripley then unplugs him and Parker incinerates his head with a flamethrower.
The character of Ash was not in the original script that Dan O'Bannon unsuccessfully pitched to 20th Century Fox. He was added by Walter Hill and David Giler of Brandywine Productions, who at the same time changed the sex of Ripley to female. Kaveney characterizes Hill's and Giler's "menacing robot" as a counter-revisionist robot, from an era where the image of the robot in science fiction was reverting to its pre-Isaac Asimov characterization of "a competitor to humanity who would sooner or later turn on us or pass for human and mis-lead us". Ash does not adhere to the Three Laws of Robotics and is menacing not by accident or mistake but because he has been programmed explicitly to be menacing.
Interpretation and analysis
The revelation that Ash is, in the words of crewman Parker at the crux of the fight scene, "a goddamned robot!", is a pivotal point of the plot of the film, that forces, for the audience, a retrospective wholesale reinterpretation of all his prior actions. Moreover, as Nicholas Mirzoeff observes, with Ash, Alien recapitulates the idea central to Invasion of the Body Snatchers that "the most frightening monster is the one that looks exactly like other humans" and that "the replica human is almost as threatening as the extraterrestrial itself". Indeed, in a direct echo of Body Snatchers, when Ash is first hit by the canister, causing him to go berserk, he emits a high-pitched squealing noise, just as do the aliens in Body Snatchers. Like the alien organism itself, Ash (and indeed the sentient ship's computer, named "Mother") is presented as, in the words of M. Keith Booker, a "distinctive mode of intelligent existence that seems alien to our own", and is in fact (if one counts the dead pilot of the crashed spaceship) one of a number of sentient non-humans that humanity encounters in the film.
James H. Kavanagh places Ash in a Greimasian semantic rectangle to show how the drama of the film is structured around the notion of "human". Ripley is the human (with the Griemasian signifier ). The alien organism is, naturally, the anti-human (signifier ). Ash is the not-human (signifier ). And the anti-not-human () is the ship's cat.
Roz Kaveney observes that the revelation that Ash is not human is "in a sense no surprise". It comes as a shock to the characters in the film, however. Byers disagrees and places the revelation as one of the film's "most shocking scenes", where Ash's difference from the other crew members is shown to be a difference not simply of degree, as the audience might have theretofore supposed, but one of kind. To that point, one might have supposed Ash to be simply disagreeable and loyal to the Corporation to a far greater degree than the other crew members. (It is Ash who points out, at the start of the film, that their contracts with the Corporation require, under penalty of total forfeiture of shares, the crew to investigate any signs of intelligent life. It is Ash, not yet revealed to be an android, who follows the secret Order #937 stating "crew expendable", apparently, at that point, loyal to the Company even to the extent of sacrificing his own life.) Ash's unmasking shows him to be a traitor, who has been working in the Company's interests all along, because he has been programmed to do so. Worse still, the theretofore benevolent Corporation, that supposedly mandates its crews to rescue spaceships broadcasting distress signals, is revealed as a profiteering entity that cares not at all for human lives, and considers them to be commodities of no more inherent worth than the android machine that they programmed to capture and return a specimen of the alien.
Kaveney states that, nonetheless, the film does play fair with the audience when it comes to Ash. All of the signs of Ash's true nature are presented earlier in the film, even if the audience is too distracted to pay heed to them. Ash shows no sign of any concern for Kane's welfare, when he is treating him. (Thompson observes that in hindsight it is clear that Ash is in fact beginning a scientific analysis of the alien, for the Corporation, in these scenes, to which Kane's welfare is largely irrelevant. Ash is acting as the midwife for the organism within Kane.) He is anxious when monitoring the activity of the rescue party, and violates protocol in order to ensure that Kane, with the alien inside him, is brought aboard the Nostromo. He wrings his hands and almost breaks into a sweat, in contrast to his lack of apparent emotion at other times. However, it is easy for the audience, at first viewing, to mistake Ash's behaviour as signs of human compassion and concern. It is only later that the audience realizes that Ripley, who was prepared to make the harsh choice of sacrificing her crewmates in order to follow the correct protocol and not put the ship in danger from alien life forms, is the hero and in the right, and that Ash, who demonstrated (apparently) compassion and a willingness to break the rules for the sake of his (purportedly) fellow humans, is in fact a wholly evil character.
Loyalty to the Corporation
Ash is, in the words of Per Schelde, the "perfect Corporation man". He reflects the Corporation's views, and is its functionary. He is an inhumane science officer who lacks human values, an example of the "mad scientist" or "mad doctor" stereotype of fiction. However, from the character's own viewpoint, according to Mary Pharr, he is neither. He is aware that he is Corporation property and comfortable with his programming, confident and purposeful. He cares neither for the human crew of the Nostromo nor for the humans of the Corporation (who, Pharr notes, would have received a very unpleasant surprise had Ash been successful in transporting the alien back to Earth). His interest is in "collating", the collection of knowledge. When Ripley and the other crewmen power up his head in order to question him about how to kill the alien, he expresses admiration for it. It is, he says, "a perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. ... I admire its purity: A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality." Pharr states that here Ash is in fact describing his ideal self.
Sexual metaphors and undertones
Other commentary focuses more on the sexual metaphors and undertones of the character. Gerard Loughlin notes that Holm's "subtly prissy" performance of the role conveys a sense of "otherness" for Ash. This was suggested yet further by material that never made it into the released film. Ridley Scott reveals, in the DVD commentary, existence of a deleted scene where the two female characters discuss Ash, where they discover that neither have had sexual intercourse with him. "I never got the idea that he was particularly interested", states Lambert to Ripley. Loughlin observes that this is suggestive of homosexuality on Ash's part, although he is revealed to be far stranger than that when he attempts to kill Ripley with the pornographic magazine, an act which is both an echo of the way that the alien "facehugger" infests its victims, and a sexual symbol of phallic penetration and rape by an android that, even if he did have a phallus (which is not specified in the film) would probably have been sexually non-functional.
Thompson relates the assertion, echoed by Gallardo and Smith, that Ash's use of the pornographic magazine against Ripley "relat[es] pornography to violence against women", but disputes it, stating that this analyses the scene by itself, without taking into account the larger context of the rest of the film. Thompson points out that this is a clumsy and inefficient way to attempt to kill Ripley, as evidenced not the least by the fact that it takes long enough that other characters are able to turn up on the scene and intervene. Thompson states that rather than relating to pornography and the nature of the magazine, Ash's assault is structured as it is by the filmmakers in order to allude to the "facehugger"'s infestation of its victims, as observed by Ash in an earlier scene where Kane is being CAT scanned. Although not in itself explicitly sexual, it does involve the creature's reproductive cycle. Thompson argues that Ash is here simply emulating the creature that he so admires. Ash's instructions from the Corporation, Thompson argues, did not explicitly state that he kill any member of the crew, and it is possible that Ash acquired his notions of the proper way to kill a human being from observing the alien. Thompson qualifies this interpretation by noting that it is not one that is likely to occur upon a first viewing of the film.
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