SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ALL FILMS DISCUSSED

Artificial intelligence (A.I.) is a theme that seems to fascinate Ridley Scott across his science fiction work. The manner in which Scott depicts androids varies from film to film. However, there is an overarching motif at play throughout; the marvel of life and its creation from the perspective of the created.

His first exposition of this theme was in his seminal work, ALIEN. It continued in the cultural powerhouse BLADE RUNNER. Scott’s return to the genre in his prequel works to the original ALIEN film, PROMETHEUS, and ALIEN: COVENANT, have solidified his utter fascination with the topic. It is important to note that this theme manifests itself with varying degrees of importance and intensity in each respective work.

Perfect Organism

In the case of ALIEN, its presentation comes across as almost beside the point. The character of Ash initially presented as just another member of the Nostromo’s crew, is revealed to be an android nearly three fourths into the movie. This twist is made with no build-up or even insinuation that he was anything other than a man. The title of the film, however, begins to apply if only tangentially to this particular plot thread.

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The central conflict of the movie revolves around humans attempting to kill and survive the presence of an unknowable “other” being. However, the revelation of Ash being an android and his motivation adds another layer of unknowable elements for the humans. Before being promptly roasted, the crew confronts Ash about his objective. He simply replies

“Bring back life form. Priority one. All other priorities rescinded.”

He then admits to a particular fascination with the creature, which he had previously studied albeit only in its face-hugger stage. Ash praises this creature as a perfect organism, unclouded by conscience or concepts of morality. Naturally, the characters (and the audience) see only a cold, detached and violent creature, far from being perfect. However, a question does present itself: are these traits just as easily applied to Ash himself?

Ridley Scott
You have my sympathies.

As a robot, Ash is detached from the emotional turmoil several members of the crew experience as their teammates are individually killed off by the Alien. He presents his explanations coldly, with no sign of actually wanting to help in dealing with the creature. Finally, his violent nature is revealed when he begins to malfunction and attempts to kill Ripley. One can only wonder if that was the result of a glitch or if he would have done that anyway but in a calmer state, under different circumstances.

Scott does not do much beyond presenting the possibility and letting the audience fill in the gaps with their interpretations. That being said, it would mark the beginning of Scott’s usage of the subject.

It is not an easy thing to meet your maker

BLADE RUNNER is by far the most prominent and thematically sophisticated in its use of A.I. The entire plot of the film centers on a police detective, the eponymous blade runner, hunting down replicants (the movie’s name for androids). The reason for this being that replicants are illegal on Earth and relegated to heavy labor and other demeaning tasks in off-world colonies.

Scott himself has said the film is his most complete and personal and his intention is laid bare in the manner in which the replicants are depicted.

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The replicants featured in the movie have returned to Earth for a singular purpose: to obtain a longer lifespan. As replicants are only built with a four-year lifespan, this group is nearing the end of its life. Thus they commit varying acts of violence to obtain their intangible desire.

Despite the violence of their acts, they are compelled by the most human want of all, which is to simply live more for no other reason than to do so. The fear of death has made them more human than actual humans. Replicants are shown to care about each other, contrasting with the cold indifference of the faceless masses that roam the streets of Los Angeles.

Ridley Scott
Star-crossed lovers

There is a further contrast with the machine-like dedication of the humans sent to hunt them down, which only serves to make the replicants plight easier to sympathize with.

The film, about the noir subgenre, never gives any easy answers and clouds all its characters in shades of gray. There could not be a more perfect thematic marriage as the replicants are meant to blur the lines between the human and the machine; so too does the film blur the line between what is correct and what isn’t.

PROMETHEUS

After three decades, Scott’s first new sci-fi film, PROMETHEUS, arrived in theaters in 2012. A prequel to his previous work, ALIEN, the film chronicles the expedition of the eponymous film’s crew as they investigate a planet which seemingly held alien life. The alien life that is alleged to have created humanity millions of years ago.

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The film is not without the presence of A.I. in some form. As it was with ALIEN, the film features an android, named David, who is essential to the exploratory mission. During the crews’ long hyper-sleep, David was charged with learning and compiling all ancient languages of Earth so that he might be able to communicate with the alien beings the crew hoped to encounter.

David is, at first, not especially remarkable as far as robots are concerned. He merely goes about his tasks with the precision one would expect from a robot. However, his idiosyncrasies begin to manifest as the film progresses.

Ridley Scott
Creation meets destruction

For one, he seems keen on films and imitating their dialogues or even the looks of their characters. While it is hardly noteworthy in and of itself, it does play into a bigger theme of the film.

David, as a character, is distinct from his counterpart, Ash, in ALIEN. He is more akin to the replicants from the BLADE RUNNER movies. He is aware of his nature as a robot, and so is the crew. Despite his mimicry of human behavior, he comes across as stiff and uncaring, far more so than Ash in ALIEN who was not revealed to be a robot until 3/4s into that movie.

However, the situation in which David finds himself, a created being aiding his creators, is a strange one to him. During one conversation with Dr. Charlie Holloway, David admits he does not understand what they as humans hoped to achieve by meeting their makers.

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When Dr. Holloway responds that it is simply a matter of ascertaining why they were made in the first place; David brilliantly turns that question on his proverbial maker:

“Why do you think your people made me?” he asks.

Dr. Holloway simply smiles and retorts nonchalantly “we made you cause we could.” David seems to be wounded by the response and retorts in kind:

“Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?”

Dr. Holloway simply laughs off his response and assumes that David, being an android, cannot feel disappointment. As with all preceding Scott films, nothing could be further from the truth.

I Believe in Creation

ALIEN: COVENANT has, so far, come across as the culmination of the other three works as far as their depiction of A.I. Of course, being a sequel to PROMETHEUS and yet another prequel to ALIEN, it cannot help but be. That being said, it acts as the thematic conclusion to the plight of the replicants from BLADE RUNNER.

Whereas those characters merely sought to live longer, David has not only achieved a much longer lifespan than they ever did, he has moved on from simply being a creation; he now seeks to create.

Ridley Scott
Smiling at a dark future

David very actively takes the role of antagonist in this film through his actions and attitudes. His quest to create leads to the creation and refinement of the beings that will eventually become the xenomorphs from other installments.

By the time of the film’s events, David has wiped out a large city that belonged to the engineers. David does this using the very same weapon they intended to use to destroy humanity in the climax of PROMETHEUS.

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It bears mentioning that this particular plot point is somewhat haphazard in its presentation and its point. In PROMETHEUS, David is shown to have a certain apathy towards most humans (Doctor Shaw being the exception). However, in ALIEN: COVENANT, David is depicted as an outright sociopath with no qualm regarding the taking of any life, specifically through omission of action or information as some of the crew of the Covenant become his victims.

What gave way to this particular demeanor is not explained. That being said, it is one jarring element in a sea of many jarring elements. Of course, one could simply state that all A.I. present in Scott’s films lack the laws of robotics in their programming.

At the end of the film, through clever manipulation, David can board the massive Covenant vessel. He brings along two frozen alien embryos, their ultimate purpose much like the film itself, ambiguous but certainly sinister.

A.I.: More Human Than Human

While Ridley Scott’s film repertoire has been highly varied over several decades, his forays into sci-fi have been nothing if not consistent in their presentation of the topic of A.I. With his recent declaration to make a few more ALIEN films, it is safe to say that his unique take on A.I. will persist.

It is easy to understand why Scott would continue with this. Despite their artificial nature, androids are no less credible characters and thus metaphors for the human condition in some way or another.

What Scott will ultimately say through these characters in his future films is tinted in a rather bleak manner, given where he left the audience at the end of ALIEN: COVENANT. David’s penchant for finding beauty in violent creation, makes it seem that Scott is building towards something. One can only hope it is more creative than simply violent.

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