Face-Off: Ash (Alien) vs. David (Prometheus & Alien: Covenant)

The prequel series that Ridley Scott is building within the ALIEN franchise has at its core a villainous android called David, played by Michael Fassbender. But David isn't the first villainous android to be featured in a Scott-directed ALIEN film; the original 1979 film also had an android gone bad, with Ian Holm as Ash. This brings up the question, which is the better bad robot? The one who was there for the beginning of the series, or the one Scott has brought to us in PROMETHEUS and ALIEN: COVENANT? Let's have them face off with each other so we can find out.
Ash's human act is so convincing that his fellow crew members on the commercial starship Nostromo don't even realize he's an android until late in the film. He dozes on the sleep pods with them, he displays signs of anxiety, he seems like he's just a regular, middle-aged guy. The reveal that he's an android is a twist that I was not expecting at all when I first watched ALIEN.
There is no pretense that David is human. Everyone on the Prometheus science expedition is well aware that he's an android, and while they spend more than two years travelling in sleep pods he stays awake, filling his time by taking language lessons and appropriating Peter O'Toole's style. He doesn't feel human when he's interacting with people, there's always something artificial about him.
Ash is a company man through and through, he follows orders and does everything by the book. Even when it appears that he's breaking rules, he's actually doing exactly what his employers instructed him to do: capture the alien life form and bring it back to them at any cost. Even if that cost is the lives of his fellow crew members. It's all business for Ash, he's not really a malicious character.
David may be an android, but he has a (very off-balance) mind of his own. He feels superior to the humans who created him, and deeply resents the fact that they look down at him as a mere machine. As the humans on board the Prometheus seek to find out more about the alien race that created humanity, David turns against his own creators and starts creating things himself. This twisted character has a depth that makes him quite interesting.
Ash does his best to manipulate the Xenomorph situation to achieve his own goal without giving away the fact that he has a secret order from the company to capture it and keep it alive. When he ignores quarantine rules to let a crew member on the Nostromo despite the fact that they have an alien creature attached to their face, it seems like a human act done out of concern. He really just wants to make sure the alien gets on the ship. He then does his best to protect the rapidly growing, murderous beast he has let on the ship, but it isn't until the film's heroine figures out his secrets that he has to try to kill her with his own super strong hands.
David's villainous acts start out small. Intensely curious about the things the alien Engineers have left behind, he begins doing his own research and experiments with total disregard for human life. He slips a bit of black goo into a man's drink just to see what will happen - and what happens is that the man starts to go through a monstrous transformation. It's in the gap between PROMETHEUS and ALIEN: COVENANT that David really goes off the deep end. He continues his experiments and comes up with some very nasty things. He appears to wipe out an entire species while creating some new species of his own, including the Xenomorphs.
Holm is only given one scene in which to make Ash seem truly creepy, and he pulls it off masterfully. Suddenly this character we've been watching for most of the film seems to lose his mind and starts attacking the lead, coldly throwing her around while sweating a milky substance. Slamming her on a table, he starts spasming while trying to shove a nudie book down her throat. It's disturbingly sexual and extremely creepy, almost more troubling than anything that goes on with the Xenomorph.
Fassbender is given plenty of time make David come off as a creep, and does so quite well. The android doesn't even have to be doing anything particularly bad to be creepy, his artificiality can set you on edge anyway. David does a lot of terrible things, but at the end of the day it's just not that disturbing to me to see an emo android carrying out deadly science experiments and hating on his creators. Ash creeps me out more in one scene than David does in two movies.
It's very interesting to see just how much humanity Holm brought to the role of an android. He makes Ash a fascinating character to watch by throwing in little quirks like running in place to work out some anxiety or the weirdness he added into the attack scene. We can tell that Ash is hiding something, but we're not quite sure what, and most first-time viewers probably don't guess the answer that's given. Surrounded by iconic moments and characters, Holm makes Ash memorable in his own way.
Honestly, I'm not into the story Ridley Scott is telling with David in these prequel films, but that has no impact on my appreciation for how Fassbender plays the character. David may share traits with a petulant teenager, but never does this humanity-hating supervillain come off as being ridiculous, because the actor is able to make the material work. His performance has layers; David is both cold and overly emotional, and you can never quite be sure if he's telling the truth or manipulating someone.
Ash is a fantastic part of ALIEN, but when it comes to being bad David has him beat - and yes, it does help that David has played a prominent role in two films while Ash only had a supporting role in one film. I have plenty of issues with PROMETHEUS and ALIEN: COVENANT and don't like a lot of the things they've brought to the ALIEN franchise, but I have to give Fassbender credit. He has done a great job bringing this maniacal android to the screen.

Do you think Ash should have been the winner? Let us know your thoughts on these androids and the films they're in by leaving a comment below. If you'd like to send suggestions for future Face-Off articles, you can contact me at [email protected].



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