Do Androids Always Dream of Humanity?

My inspiration to take a look at representations of androids arose from the upcoming release of Prometheus. So it isn’t surprising that I specifically chose the “Alien Quadrilogy” to be a main source of analysis. However, it soon became painfully obvious that examples androids and themes that arise from their use are myriad. For my own sanity, I curtailed my study to include those from the Alien franchise, Blade Runner, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Battlestar Galactica, although the rabbit hole goes much, much deeper. As you can imagine, the use of androids primarily serves as a springboard to question inherent traits of humanity, the right to life and equality, and ephemeral nature of existence.

Ridley Scott’s Influence: the Mega Corporation

The Alien series is dominated by the machinations of the Weyland-Yutani corporation, who are involved in everything from planet terraforming to weapons manufacturing. A casual viewer of these films may fail to truly comprehend that the villain is not the Alien (or xenomorph), but is actually human in every single film. The Weyland-Yutani group (or, as in Alien Resurrection, the military) never gives up on the idea that the xenomorphs can be harnessed as a bio-weapon. It is easy to get caught up in the Alien mythology (and fun! with terminology like: space jockeys, chestbursters, facehuggers, and derelict spaceships) but the more philosophically enduring trait of the Alien franchise is that lives are always expendable in the pursuit of corporate advancement.


In Alien, the android in question is Ian Holm’s Ash, the science officer aboard the Nostromo. None of the human crew members are aware (at least initially) that Ash is an android. His presence on the vessel is to ensure that certain events play out – in conjunction with Mother (the ship’s computer). The human crew being expendable, Ash’s programming allows him to circumvent morality by facilitating this chain of events: Mother awakens the crew from their stasis when LV-426 (a planetoid that is given this designation in Aliens) comes into range, after intercepting an “unknown transmission.” Ash reminds the crew that protocols require investigation of these transmissions. Yet, foreshadowing that Ash is operating under his own agenda, he finds no difficulty in breaking the protocol that requires quarantine when the facehugger attaches itself to Kane’s face. Contradictions like this are explained when Ripley uncovers Ash’s orders, the Nostromo was always meant to stop here and collect the xenomorph specimen, as orchestrated by Weyland-Yutani. As Ripley discovers these orders, Ash begins to malfunction, revealing his android nature. This quote from Ash exemplifies his mindset (or programming): “I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” I find it interesting to consider that perhaps Ash malfunctioned because he could not operate properly with his hidden agenda while pretending to have morals for the benefit of his human counterparts. (As I will discuss below, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey malfunctions for a similar reason: keeping a hidden agenda from its human counterparts.)

“I may be synthetic, but I’m not stupid.”

In Aliens, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation is personified by Paul Reiser’s Burke. He falsely promises Ripley that the mission’s purpose is to wipeout the xenomorphs, when in actuality the corporation wants a specimen. The crew (except for Ripley) know that an android, Bishop, is onboard. Scarred by her experience with Ash, she distrusts Bishop’s intentions and reacts harshly when she discovers his nature: “You never said anything about an android being on board!” Burke answers: “It never occurred to me. It’s just common practice. We always have a synthetic on board.” And Bishop retorts, “I prefer the term ‘Artificial Person’ myself.” This implies that the use of androids has changed drastically since the days of the Nostromo. They are accepted as the norm. The film goes even further to clarify the changes as with Bishop’s reaction to Ripley’s negative experience with Ash: “I’m shocked. Was it an older model?…Well that it explains it then. The A2s always were a bit twitchy. That could never happen now with our behavioral inhibitors. It is impossible for me to harm or by omission of action, allow to be harmed, a human being.” It appears that androids can no longer perform the dirty deeds of the corporation. By the end of the film, Bishop aids Ripley, Hicks and Newt in escaping and achieves acceptance in the eyes of Ripley: “Bishop, you did okay.” Bishop: “I did?” Side note: Every time I watch this Bill Paxton’s quotes get better and better (“Quit your grinnin’ and drop your linen!”). From the brief video about David, Michael Fassbender’s android in Prometheus, it seems as if he looked to Lance Henriksen as an inspiration for his part; they both demonstrate an otherness in their interactions and expressions, marking them as outsiders. However, as David is an earlier model to Ash and prides himself on performing jobs that are considered unethical by human standards, I would imagine that he lacks the behavior modifications possessed by Bishop.

In Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, the importance of the android is superseded by the continued threat posed by humanity itself. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation are at the heart of Alien 3, dispatching a “rescue squad” to intercept Ripley before the alien queen in her chest bursts forth. Bishop is briefly used by Ripley to access flight information to determine what made her EEV crash. Knowing that he can never be put together again properly, Bishop implores Ripley to unplug him, preferring to “die” rather than operate at a diminished capacity. By doing this, Bishop is afforded a kind of human decency — the right to live (or not to live) on your own terms. In Alien Resurrection we learn that Weyland-Yutani is no more – the U.S. military is now pioneering efforts to use the xenomorphs as weapons. We also learn that androids created their own line of perfect androids that seamlessly blended into humans, so much so that when they were recalled, androids like Winona Ryder’s Call are undetectable unless they reveal themselves. Call, recognizing Ripley’s name, attempts to kill her before realizing it is too late– the alien queen has been harvested. Appearing the most human of all, Call exhibits the greatest desire to be human (or at least accepted as equal) of all the androids in the franchise.

In sum, the life span for Weyland-Yutani androids appears to be indefinite. In the absence of malfunction or alien attack, they would arguably have no expiration date. While initially conceived to perform tasks that humans might deem unethical or unsavory, behavioral inhibitors caused them to care for human life and eventually desire to be treated as equals.

“More human than human” is our motto.

In Blade Runner, another corporation is at the heart of the android business; this time it is the Tyrell Corporation and its androids are called Replicants. Unlike the Alien franchise (which understandably also has to deal with the alien threat), Blade Runner is more sophisticated in the commentary it attempts to make about androids. The Replicants were first conceived to lack empathy; it is such an overwhelming trait to lack, the primary test to identify Replicants, the Voight-Kampff test, measures empathy. The Nexus-6 models, in particular, are indistinguishable from humans, and after prolonged life develop emotions. As a safety measure, the manufacturers build into the models a life span of four years, eliminating the android before the emotions become complications. And even beyond the Nexus-6 models, they continued to experiment: if they implanted false memories into Replicants, they argued that they might remain stable: “We began to recognize in them a strange obsession. After all, they are emotionally inexperienced, with only a few years in which to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions, and consequently, we can control them better.” Blade Runner spurs an excellent philosophical discussion in what it means to be human. It raises important questions via the Nexus-6 Replicants and their furtive attempt to hold onto their lives, while making sound arguments about what it means to be sentient and have a backlog of real memories. Just by having memories, experiencing something no one else has, does that not make you real?

Eyes: another theme throughout the film

Conclusion: The Replicants in Blade Runner are more akin to BSG’s Cylons than the creations of Weyland-Yutani in that they are embroiled in a struggle for not only civil rights, but the right to exist. Unlike the androids in Aliens, the Replicants experience emotions just as humans do, thus making their desire to live and to love more desperate and more tragic. That they are locked in a race against time only makes their experience all the more similar to the human one.

Stanley Kubrick’s Androids

While he did not live to see A.I., Kubrick was instrumental in the groundwork for the film, involved in the creative process for decades. A.I. elaborates on ideas raised by Blade Runner, especially the human emotions they can experience. Like Blade Runner and BSG (and Alien surely) androids, Mechas, were created as an economic resource in a world where the ice caps have melted and resources are scare. A.I. concerns itself with an android’s ability to not only to love, but the question of whether a human can love an android as they would a fellow human. David is created solely with the purpose to love, to love a parent the same way a real child would. It is this enduring love that propels David throughout the film and becomes his sole purpose.  Other than sharing a name, I am going to wager that David from Prometheus and David from A.I. do not have much in common. Weyland Industries’ David prides itself on being able to take on tasks that humans may find unethical, similar to Ash in Alien. David in A.I. is built with the primary function of love: to love whoever rattles off the string of activation words that makes him imprint onto a person. In the movie’s case it is Monica and this love is all-consuming. His function (to love the person he imprints upon) makes it impossible for David to live any other kind of life. He is desperate to become human, not because he feels an over-arching need to, but because it will make his mommy love him. Because unfortunately for David, in the real child vs. Mecha-child war, he loses and Monica (displaying that love for Mecha can occur) leaves David in the woods instead of driving him back to be destroyed. David asks, “Why do you want to leave me? Why? I’m sorry I’m not real. If you let me, I’ll be so real for you!”

While some people criticize the use of Gigolo Joe (Jude Law’s “companion” Mecha), I think he aptly illustrates the Mecha struggle in Kubrick’s vision. Although David is our guide, he is designed to retain a child-like nature; Joe has already grasped and adeptly understands the human perception of Mecha. Astutely, he serves as a guide for the film audience to dissect the human apathy toward Mecha. As he tries to explain to David about Monica:

She loves what you do for her, as my customers love what it is I do for them. But she does not love you David, she cannot love you. You are neither flesh, nor blood. You are not a dog, a cat, or a canary. You were designed and built specific, like the rest of us. And you are alone now only because they tired of you, or replaced you with a younger model, or were displeased with something you said, or broke. They made us too smart, too quick, and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us. That’s why they hate us and that is why you must stay here, with me.

And when the police finally catch up to Joe, his parting words to David are: “I am. I was!” Just like the Replicants in Blade Runner, the Mecha of A.I. are trying to make the point that they are living things, on par with the humans. They maintain memories, learn, and feel. They leave a tangible impression on the world. Monica will remember David her entire life; any one of Joe’s customers will retain memories of a night with him years later.

In sum, the Mecha are built for a variety of reasons. Initially as an economic resource and then as a filler (for things like human children). Although they demonstrate the same capacity as the Replicants, Mecha do not have a shortened life span. Flesh fairs are created for human entertainment and to whittle down the numbers of Mecha but as we see with Davd, he lives many years into the future. Eventually, as predicted by Joe, the Mecha are all that is left, outliving the human race.

Before any of these ideas there was 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick’s masterpiece in filmmaking. While HAL is not an android, the computer still represents an important exploration of artificial intelligence that deserves recognition. The film draws a line under HAL’s inability to commit error. But just like the Nostromo’s ship computer, HAL is operating under different orders, unbeknownst to the crew. This contradiction leads to HAL’s unprecedented malfunction, resulting in the deaths of crew members in stasis as well as a crew member sent outside on a false report. What results is deeply unsettling as HAL descends into error and then attempts to reassure Dave that he is fine: (“I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you”). Putting too much power into artificial intelligence can lead to disastrous consequences, especially if an entire ship is controlled by a central computer. HAL demonstrates the most human trait of all, the tendency to err.

A Long Form Exploration: Battlestar Galactica

Like Replicants, Cylons were created by humans as a worker race. Going into the history and creation of Cylons is convoluted (which is a consequence of its long form nature) but if you embrace BSG’s mantra (“All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again”) it becomes clear. Mankind is locked in an endless cycle of creating artificial life, only to have it rebel and destroy both sides.  The human race had spread out among the stars but BSG does not originate on our Earth. Similar to Blade Runner, sleeper agent Cylons (like Boomer) have false memories, to such a large scale that until activated they believe themselves to be human and actively despise Cylons. Because BSG had numerous seasons to ruminate on the relationship between humans, humanoids, Cylon Centurions and Raiders, it offers one of the most complex android stories to date. It is a fight over the right to exist, over the ability to practice a certain religion, fanaticism and compromise.  It fascinatingly portrays the numerous issues that dominate human/android coexistence. BSG offers the most hope to its race of androids; it opens up the possibility that the Cylons can intermingle with humans to create life, to make a hybrid species to unite them with humans once and for all.


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About Staciellyn Chapman

Grad student at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. This blog is an attempt to condense the craziness that is my TV viewing habits (with the occasional aside into film, music, and general life).

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