by Vaughn Swearingen
Alien, Ridley Scott’s 1979 directorial feature debut, is not only one of the most iconic science fiction films of all time, but one of the most iconic horror films of all time. Striking and unique design, a phenomenal cast, and genuine terror made for an instant classic that spawned a franchise that has lasted 41 years, spanning six movies, two crossover spinoffs, a video game, and a litany of other content including books and comics. Even the brilliant, slow reveal title design has made its way into movie history. There’s something alluring about Alien, something that constantly begs for a rewatch, something new always waiting to be discovered about the journey of the Nostromo’s crew. As the gritty industrial spaceship rumbles to life, and the pristine cryosleep pods blossom open, waking the crew, their journey towards a perilous fate begins.
The year is 2122, and interstellar travel has become commonplace for humans. There’s nothing particularly special or unique about being an astronaut, and for the crew aboard the USCSS Nostromo, they were simply returning back home after a job. After the crew is mysteriously awoken from their slumber, they eat a communal meal, and immediately begin to squabble over pay. Engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) are frustrated. Despite being on the same journey as their crewmates, they’re receiving far less compensation. It feels innocuous, just blue collar bickering, but it’s merely a small piece of a much larger puzzle that has yet to come into play. After the crew discovers the reason they were woken - a mysterious transmission from an uncharted planet - they fight to simply return to sleep and continue their journey home. After all, they are massively unqualified for a mission like this. It’s unreasonable for a group of industrial workers to investigate an unknown transmission on an unexplored planet in deep space. Parker emphatically disagrees with the idea of touching down on the surface of the planet (codenamed LV-426), citing his desire to “go home and party.” However, Ash (Ian Holm), science officer and mysterious company man, quickly interjects. He reminds the crew of a clause in their contracts, which indicates that should this situation arise, they are obligated to investigate or risk forfeiting being paid for their work. Parker rapidly changes tune at the threat of losing his money. Typical tools in the corporate handbook, leveraging money and utilizing complex contracts and legalese to obfuscate unreasonable obligations. Ash is simply a puppet for their mysterious employer (unnamed in Alien, but later known as the Weyland-Yutani Corporation), and he sets everything in motion. The true horror of Alien is not just the physical threat of the Xenomorph, but the existential threat of corporate greed, a monster killing with self-serving, money-hungry purpose. And at the heart of that is Ash, a constant reminder and a stand-in for that greed - a heartless, emotionless cog, a small part of a larger machine, whose singular purpose is to ensure the survival of the Xenomorph at all costs. The Xenomorph is merely a vessel of destruction, but Ash is Alien’s true monster.
Ash is at the center of each moment of turmoil throughout the film. Ash, cold and unflinching, never acts quite right when paid attention to - he’s just smart enough to stay out of the way just enough to avoid suspicion. The only crew member who suspects that things may be out of the ordinary is Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who maintains a healthy level of skepticism about Ash throughout the film. When Dallas (Tom Skerritt) leaves decisions regarding the alien to Ash, Ripley questions his choices. Dallas answers “it happens, my dear, because that’s what the company wants to happen.” Ripley responds by asking why that would be standard procedure, and his response is “standard procedure is to do what the hell they tell you to do.” Dallas doesn’t care enough to think independently about why the company tells him to do certain things, he just obeys until he gets home safe. This thought process is why he’s in charge - those who fall in line with the company’s orders get pushed up through the ranks. They’re good soldiers. People like Ripley, who ask questions, are a liability. Here we’re provided with an additional and extremely crucial piece of information. Dallas tells Ripley that he went on five previous missions with a different science officer, who was replaced two days before they left Thedus (the origin of the Nostromo) with Ash. What happened to the crew of the Nostromo was no accident. Weyland-Yutani had already discovered the transmission coming from LV-426 prior to the Nostromo leaving Thedus, and hatched a plan to ensure that the organism could be safely returned to Earth for further study. They replace the science officer with an android, programmed to obey them without question, implanted with Special Order 937 (we’ll return to this later), and set the Nostromo’s course to pass LV-426, “accidentally” intercepting a transmission and triggering MOTHER to wake the crew. From there, all Ash had to do was course correct if any crew members tried to make decisions that would get in the way of the mission.
Ash steps in to protect the safety of the Xenomorph more than once. As Kane (John Hurt), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), and Dallas journey to the source of the transmission, Ripley finally deciphers the transmission. Sitting next to Ash on the bridge, she tells him what she found. “Ash. That transmission… MOTHER’s deciphered part of it. It doesn’t look like an S.O.S. … it looks like a warning. I’m gonna go out after them.” Ash replies quickly and calmly, presumably having known the entire time that the transmission was a warning, “what’s the point? By the time it takes you to get there, they’ll know if it’s a warning or not, yes?” While smart of Ash to quickly dismiss Ripley’s concerns in favor of the expedition crew encountering the Xenomorph eggs (also known as Ovomorphs), it also feels indicative of corporate culture. With only profits in mind, corporations often go out of their way to ignore employee concerns. This is another glimpse at Ash’s true mission - continuing to put the company’s desires over the wellbeing of the crew. His reckless behavior in the name of “science” only escalates from here. The crew soon returns from their expedition with a wounded Kane, who is now host to the next stage of the Xenomorph, the facehugger. Once again, Ripley is the only one who follows the correct procedure - she understands that by letting them in it may endanger the rest of the crew, and asks them to quarantine until they know for sure it isn’t dangerous. However, despite being in charge of the ship while Dallas is gone, Ash disobeys Ripley’s order to keep the ship closed, and lets Kane and the facehugger in. The crew is becoming increasingly expendable. In the face of profit, rules, procedure and lives don’t matter. This is further evidence that this plan had been in place for some time - anyone who wasn’t a literal corporate robot would have obeyed Ripley’s orders and the Xenomorph would have evolved outside of the ship, killing Dallas, Kane and Lambert but leaving the remaining crew alive and able to return home safely. Never trust the man who represents the corporation.
Once Ash breaks quarantine procedure, there’s not much option for the crew other than to study Kane and the creature attached to him. After a quick examination, Dallas is eager to remove the facehugger, but Ash cuts in - “let’s not be too hasty,” he remarks. He tries to come up with reasons as to why they shouldn’t attempt to remove it, but for once, Dallas isn’t buying it, and commands Ash to remove it. This is where Ash gets lucky - as they discover the Xenomorph’s blood is highly acidic, so much so that it eats through multiple layers of the ship’s hull. Unfortunately, removing the facehugger is no longer an option, but it isn’t long before Ash, Dallas and Ripley return to check on Kane only to find the facehugger missing. After some searching, it falls from the ceiling, shocking Ripley. This is another crucial moment where Ash’s true nature shows through. Ripley screams, throwing the facehugger off of her, and falling to the floor. Immediately, Dallas comes to her rescue, jumping in front of her and asking if she’s okay. Ash, however, distant from any semblance of humanity, completely ignores Ripley and immediately goes to examine the dead creature on the floor. Company property over employee wellbeing. This is where Dallas decides to leave the facehugger in the hands of Ash rather than destroy it, leaving Ripley to question Ash’s motivations. This, however, is not the end, as much as the crew would like it to be. Unbeknownst to them, something far more terrifying than the facehugger now lies within Kane, and among them remains Ash, quietly protecting the corporate interest.
Of course, the most terrifying moments come from characters feeling like they’ve reached safety. A good horror movie rarely keeps its characters in direct peril for the entire runtime, it would be exhausting and the level of fear instilled in the audience would quickly taper off, if fear becomes normal it becomes boring, you need peaks and valleys, lulls that lead to a false sense of security to prepare for the next spike of intensity. Is there anything that feels more safe than a nice relaxing meal? Kane has woken up, the crew believes the creature is dead, all is well. They settle in for one final meal before they plan to return to cryosleep and head back to Earth. Not long into their meal, however, Kane begins to cough uncontrollably. The whole crew leaps to make sure he’s okay - except Ash, who stares coldly at Kane, uncaring. He couldn’t care less if Kane choked on his food, but he soon realizes there’s more going on, and as soon as he figures out that what’s happening to Kane is related to the alien he leaps into action. Kane shakes violently and blood bursts from his chest, and soon after a tiny creature emerges - an infant Xenomorph. Parker leaps to attack the creature with his knife, but Ash interferes, commanding him not to touch it. An action that could easily be misconstrued as protecting Parker, but in reality he is protecting the alien, which is potentially at its most vulnerable stage, ensuring it can evolve even further.
The crew begins to plan, trying to devise a way to track and kill the creature. They split into teams and begin searching the ship, and the now fully grown Xenomorph begins aggressively hunting, no longer needing to fight for survival. Brett becomes its first victim, and we get our first glance at the alien. Now aware of the Xenomorph’s size and the danger it presents to them, the remaining crew rework their plan, and Dallas returns to MOTHER to see if she has any answers. Of course, she doesn’t, returning all of his inquiries with simple answers of “does not compute”, and “available data insufficient”. As MOTHER is also an AI created by Weyland-Yutani, it’s entirely possible that she was intentionally instructed by the company to not provide the crew with any information regarding the alien. This is another moment that feels very reflective of corporate culture, wherein corporations fight tooth and nail to dismiss employee concerns and leave them to fend for themselves. Employees are merely pawns, and transparency begets questions. As the crew proceeds with their newest plan, Dallas enters the air shafts in an attempt to flush out the alien, but instead becomes its second victim. The crew panics, but Ash remains silent in the background, until Ripley engages him. She asks, “any suggestions from you or MOTHER?” Ash’s reply is short but interesting, “no, we’re still collating.” Referring to himself and MOTHER as “we”, it implies a sort of kinship, as he likely can easily interface with the ship’s onboard computer, since they are both artificial. The likely reality is that Ash has already analyzed and evaluated the Xenomorph completely, and is merely keeping the information to himself. But Ripley, ever the rebel, refuses to accept Ash’s answer, and now that she is acting captain of the ship, she heads to interface with MOTHER to get answers of her own. MOTHER tries to shut Ripley down, regurgitating more boiler-plate “unable to clarify” bullshit, but Ripley won’t accept corporate hand waving. She digs deeper and discovers Special Order 937, Ash’s directive from Weyland-Yutani. It reads: NOSTROMO REROUTED TO NEW COORDINATES. INVESTIGATE LIFE FORM. GATHER SPECIMEN. PRIORITY ONE: INSURE RETURN OF ORGANISM FOR ANALYSIS. ALL OTHER CONSIDERATIONS SECONDARY. CREW EXPENDABLE. Ash tries to placate Ripley initially with words, as he’s done before, by telling her there’s an explanation, but Ripley has had enough.
Ripley rushes to tell Parker and Lambert the information she’s discovered - that this was all planned, that Weyland-Yutani’s priority is the alien, and not them, that they’ve been betrayed by Ash, but he isn’t ready to let that happen. This is corporate warfare, fighting to silence those who seek to expose heinous actions and criminal activity. Ash looks at Ripley, unflinching, and we get a final subtle look at his true nature as a bead of white synthetic fluid rolls down his brow while blood drips from Ripley’s nose. As they fight, Ash tries - literally - to silence her, suffocating her with a rolled up magazine. Luckily Parker and Lambert finally return in time to save Ripley, and Parker successfully knocks his head off, finally defeating their true adversary, the alien that’s been among them all along. In search of information, they reconnect his decapitated head. He repeats his special order, and Parker asks a question they should have been asking a long time ago, “the damn company! What about our lives, you son of a bitch?” In response, Ash reminds them of his directive: “all other priorities rescinded,” and then leaves them with his parting words about their fight against the Xenomorph, an almost poeting message. “I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality. I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies,” cracking a malicious smile, his first show of emotion, before Ripley finally disconnects him. Ash’s final words are more than just malevolence and a wistful admiration for a destructive, violent alien, they’re indictivate both of Ash’s true nature and of Weyland-Yutani’s, because not only does Ash’s admiration come from a place of connection with the Xenomorph, but it represents how corporations exist under unchecked capitalism. In a world where greed and ruthless business tactics are rewarded, corporations themselves turn into the Xenomorph - survivors, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality. Weyland-Yutani didn’t give a solitary thought to any of the crew aboard the Nostromo, their eyes set on the potential weaponization of a ruthless and seemingly unkillable alien and the profit it may bring.
As Ripley, now the sole survivor of the Xenomorph, finally returns to cryosleep, heading towards familiar territory, she reminds us that there is only one solution to our corporate driven nightmare. To question authority, to fight back, to do what is right instead of what you’re told to do. 41 years later, Ridley Scott’s masterpiece remains a phenomenal piece of anti-capitalist cinema, an aggressive, angry, and all too relevant reminder that our lives are often not entirely up to us, that larger and stronger forces have their own plans, and that they will stop at nothing to achieve their goals, devoid of conscience or morals. Ash, played to perfection by the late great Ian Holm, is a distillation of Scott’s message, a representation of oppression, greed and the soulless nature of capitalism. Truly, a perfect monster.