That’s the beginning of the cold caution that Ash (Ian Holm) offers Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien. In terms of catchphrases and slogans, these two words might stand behind only “Get away from her, you bitch,” “Game over, man,” and of course, the famous tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream” as the most recognizable of the genre-bending series that branched out from Scott’s unimpeachable classic/sci-fi horror film.
But “perfect organism” also represents the most functionally useful two words spoken through the entirety of the ongoing series. Namely because “perfect” is such a strange term to apply in description of perhaps the most horrific film monster, and yet is unleashed with such confident textual precision in its application that we have to seek a contextualized definition.
We never see a Xenomorph make a decision in the way we think of decisions. Its existence is driven by violent instinct and fiercely pursued perpetuity. Even in David Fincher’s Alien 3, when the alien doesn’t kill Ripley because she’s carrying an embryo, the behavior doesn’t feel like a choice as much as a detection. The Xenomorph stands in a lonely spot in the history of sci-fi, a rare alien species contacted through intergalactic travel that is lacking intelligence and the ability to make tools or communicate its intent, history, or desire.
Much has been discussed about the suggestion of the creature’s design, the nightmare surrealism of H.R. Giger’s Necronomicon art brought to the film through special effects specialist Carlo Rambaldi, a pairing that would deliver both the 1980 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. The absence of eyes visually suggests the Xenomorph’s processing of senses and reaction to stimuli occurs on a sub-cognitive level. The Xenomorph’s dulled gray or cancerous black silicone flesh suggests the unwanted tones of cryptic X-ray discoveries or flesh submitted to cellular erasure, and its almost metallic, dripping saliva is distinctly anti-life, the sort of substance that carbon-based bodies would reject.
The sexual element of Giger’s original creature design has been embraced by Scott’s original film and only highlighted and multiplied in every subsequent chapter. The face-hugger was always meant to be discomfortingly recognized as oral rape. The chest-burster immediately recalls an erect penis forcing its way through flesh. And the fully-formed xenomorph, with its elongated skull and projectile, tongue-like second mouth is simply anthropomorphized sexual assault, a phallus-within-a-larger-phallus positioned where humans instinctively recognize the brain, the nervous center of cognition and behavior, to reside. A second rape is promised by the barbed tail, which extends from a rigid spinal column. The intent of the species is here in the design. The Xenomorph exists almost exclusively to fuck itself into existence, its biological baseline being an adoption of the understanding that life is a competition of forms, and that accepted warfare with other species is waged by its expedient and destructive life cycle.
And all of this developed in the vacuum of space, the dense and agnostic nothingness, an absence of environmental context which might typically drive evolution of a species over time. Because the Xenomorph carries characteristics of its host as it transitions from impregnating the foreign body to bursting through its flesh (hence, its bipedal and cranial body structure in its most cinematically common, human-borne form), the genetic through-line is capable of surviving in any environment where life already exists, even in vast nothingness, but always at the expense of that existing life.
This is what Ash, presumably a data driven android programmed to perceive information objectively (at least in service to the commands of his owning company), recognizes as perfection in biological form. And he makes the evaluation as an implied comparison. “Its structural perfection, matched only by its hostility…,” he explains, “I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Ash is enamored with the species because of its lacking defining human characteristics. And if the Xenomorph is seen as perfection for this void of cultural structure, then humanity has to be seen as an error of some sorts for inventing or needing this structure.
The Alien film series is one that has always been actively interested in the value of humanity. Its first three chapters pit a futuristic working class, military meatheads, and prisoners (three cultural groups distinctly marked in 20th century America for being dehumanized by their larger culture) against this perfectly inhuman hunter. And it’s necessary to distinguish that Ash’s initial observation of perfection is made when the organism shares certain characteristics with its human cocoon—if it’s perfect when accepting some of our form, then we must, at base, have some foundation for an eventually developed perfection within us.
And if we accept Ash’s classification as narrative truth worth threading through all subsequent films, the superlative distinction becomes most interesting and terrifying in Prometheus, Scott’s 2012 return to the franchise.
Where Alien presented a mysterious-if-violent haunted house story, light on expository explanation, Prometheus fell like a heavy-handed cinematic tower, a Genesis-and-Revelations tale combined into one hopefully sacred text written from existing franchise film material. There’s a Biblical subtext in Prometheus, in which a gospel-supporting narrative can be constructed by the remnants discovered by the Weyland-contracted scientific collective on LV-223. The tall, humanoid life-givers we see at the beginning of the film (creating man in their image, it seems) are found to have been massacred some 2,000 years earlier, a point in speculative history too specific to dismiss the outcome of the carbon dating.
This strange and wildly ambitious implication seems to provide a possible complete backstory for the Xenomorph. There’s just enough in Prometheus to theorize that the Creators architected the Xenomorph’s perfection—its ability to procreate thoughtlessly and without morality at the expense of all lifeforms in proximity—as their own weapon of mass destruction in retaliation against the species they created, perhaps for their murder of one of their own (this last assumption is the greatest logical leap in the interpretation, but the attempted destruction falling so close in proximity to the point in history in which Jesus is alleged to have been crucified feels too specific to ignore).
And so we get the most chilling measure of the Xenomorph’s perfection. Here, the Xenomorph proves to be more powerful, or at least sustainable (and on an evolutionary scale, is there a difference between the two?), than not just man, but also of his spiritual and religious stories, and the actual gods that created them both. The truth, as suggested by the entire series and punctuated by Prometheus, is that the biological material of all life phenomenon is more virulently persistent than the spiritual aspect, mythologized or actualized, of human life, and that the latter is actually an impediment to the first and perhaps destined to be eradicated by the continual improvement of biological evolution.
After Ash gives his warning, just before Ripley shuts him down, he asks for the last word. “I can’t lie to you about your chances, but…” he hesitates, “you have my sympathies.” And in James Cameron’s Aliens, Ripley tries to calm young Newt (Carrie Henn) by pointing to her doll as an example of strength and bravery. Newt replies, “Ripley, she doesn’t have bad dreams because she’s just a piece of plastic.” There’s almost a sense of textual envy here, returned to when the two prevail in their battle with the Queen Xenomorph and retreat to the franchise’s most common safe base, a state of hypersleep where it’s okay to dream numbly with the limited fabric of what the human mind knows now, while pushing outward into space and time and an infinity that guarantees that at some point, our species will either encounter or be destroyed by a more perfect amoral species or evolve to become it.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox