Great Scenes: “Perfect Organism” from ALIEN
The Setup: When the crew of the spaceship Nostromo becomes the prey of a deadly extra-terrestrial being, Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) enacts an order to bring the “life-form” back to corporate headquarters, regardless of the danger in which it puts the ship’s surviving members. When Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) angrily confronts Ash about this, he attacks her until crew-member Parker (Yaphet Kotto) intervenes by smashing Ash’s head with a fire-extinguisher, nearly decapitating him and thus revealing him to be an android. In the subsequent scene, the crew converses with a severely discombobulated Ash, who hauntingly informs them that they are dealing with a force that they have little-to-no chance of defeating… and that they should accept their unavoidable collective fate as eventual victims of this creature’s seemingly unstoppable ferocity. Ripley and the crew are left with a choice: either lay down and die, or find a way to survive. As many of you already know, the eventual results vary.
Why it’s Great: With only one day to go before the long-awaited release of PROMETHEUS, I wanted to take another look at ALIEN to remind myself of the reason for all the fan-fervor surrounding the its supposed connection to director Ridley Scott’s self-described “non-prequel” to his 1979 blockbuster. While ALIEN is populated by numerous scenes of superbly-staged sci-fi terror, it’s this scene that, to me, makes the film deserving of all the passion from fans that generated enough popularity to turn it into a decades-spanning franchise.
While many will justifiably cite the final reel of ALIEN featuring a one-on-one battle between Ripley and the creature as the film’s greatest achievement, I point to this quiet yet terrifying scene as the key to its classification as a genuine horror classic.
Only three years later with BLADE RUNNER, Ridley Scott would dig much deeper into the theme of Robots vs. Humans. Here we get a chilling harbinger of that movie’s main idea; albeit one with a slightly more cynical portrayal of the Android being. Ash obviously lacks the capacity for the emotion known as “compassion” when he giddily spells out the certain doom that awaits Ripley & co. He appears to revel in the potential for their demise, causing one crewmember to accuse him of even “admiring” the beast.
The basic visual aesthetics of this scene (a decapitated robot covered in the milky fluid we assume serves as its blood) offers powerful, original imagery the likes of which we can assume no one had ever seen on screen. However, what makes the scene transcend the potentially laughable, gory, robot-freakshow it certainly might have become is the combination of the quality of both its dialogue, and of the exquisite manner in which Holm delivers it.
Although this scene offers no glimpse of the Alien itself, Ash’s chilling description of it (“perfect organism… its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility…”) makes the audience more afraid of the creature than it would be even if it were actually in the room.
Great “Horror” is not simply seeing Ripley run away from the Alien as it chases her from behind. On the contrary, truly great horror is the feeling we get when the Alien isn’t on screen at all. In this scene, Ash’s tribute to the creature and its lethal capabilities force the crew (and the audience) use its imagination in a way that conjures thoughts even more terrifying than the ones that are generated when actually confronted by the Alien itself.
Let’s hope that PROMETHEUS offers something with at least a fraction of this scene’s horrifying impact.