Film * Ridley Scott * Hidden Corporate Dystopia * 1979
Alien is one of those things where I watch it, and enjoy it, and appreciate it, but never find myself evangelizing for it. Never mind that I like similar things which hearken back to this particular movie in spirit, or use it for inspiration. I dunno, it’s like how I feel about The Pixies. Like, I get it. I like some songs. They were a major influence on pretty much every band that came after them that I fucking love. I’m just never going to put them in a personal top 10… or 20… or 50. Likewise with Alien. I like it a lot. But I pretty much fall asleep during the first 45 minutes or so every time I try and watch it. Maybe I should try not watching it after a long work week lying down on my comfy, comfy couch. But also maybe the movie should move its ass a little bit. Anyway, this time the same thing happens that always happens. I try to stay engaged, but the protracted, quiet, and dark scenes in the beginning lull me into a doze. Then something loud happens! And shit, I missed the scene where they discover the weird egg lair again. But then it’s quiet for another long stretch and here comes sleepytime again. Then bang! Oh shit it’s just the cat. Alien is a Pixies song, is what I’m saying.
I have actually seen this entire film before. Several times even. So if you’re new to what this even is, it’s basically a pure horror movie. Yeah, yeah, it’s set in a spaceship and takes place in outer space and the movie is called Alien, but the science fiction elements are an effective setting as opposed to the actual point of the movie. Well, that’s not entirely true, but we’ll get to that later. Anyway, Alien is first and foremost a horror film. The setting is a commercial, industrial-ass spaceship staffed with seven blue-collar spacers. They’re in transit back to earth after doing their space-mining or whatever. However, they’re awakened early because the ship detected a distress signal and therefore the crew of the Nostromo is obligated to investigate the source of the signal. If science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that this is always a terrible idea. As it happens, the distress signal is not human in origin. The crew crash lands on a small… moonlet? Asteroid? I dunno, some scary and sterile spacescape. Anyway, they decide they have little else to do but check it out.
Obviously this goes poorly for them. While I generally take care regarding spoilers, this movie is the same age as me, which means it is ancient. Also, I’m pretty sure that most of the story was pretty well telegraphed by the promotional materials when it came out. Anyway, while out on the planetoid, they discover a creepy, H.R. Giger designed, goth-boy den of nightmares. They find a suggestive alien skeleton and a bunch of gross slimy eggs. One of the crew members falls in and contracts a… thing. The crew then recovers him, and despite being comatose with a huge crack in his helmet’s faceplate and some kind of heretofore unknown alien creature attached to him, the decision is made to bring him back onto the ship. Great idea! The only source of rational thought in this entire situation comes from our protagonist, Ripley. Everyone else is either evil or a fucking ding-dong. I mean, it’s a horror movie, there are many bad choices made throughout. Eventually, the cute little baby facehugger alien turns into a terrifying slimy devil-monster that stalks and kills its prey and is also like impossible to kill. It’s all very scary and cool, but let’s take a minute to figure out why Alien is also indicative of a horrible corporate dystopia.
Actually, it’s not that difficult to figure out, considering the motive behind bringing the pitch black nightmare creature on board is a critical plot point. Towards the end of the film, Ripley is getting fed up with the stonewalling of the ship’s science officer, Ash. The dipshit captain, Dallas, was just killed so now Ripley is in charge and is demanding answers as to how to finally kill this fucking acid-blooded death-demon. Ash is still refusing to answer questions, although it’s clear he knows some shit and is being a prick about it. So Ripley goes into the ship’s weird analog computer room, designated such because it is mostly white with a bunch of random blinky lights and a very 1979 computer monitor. This is MOTHER, which we’ve already seen when the aforementioned Dallas tried to figure out what the hell was going on and received an extremely helpful “cannot compute” answer from this weird future’s version of Google. Anyway, Ripley is getting nowhere with MOTHER until she uses her emergency override and discovers the truth of the matter, which is that “the company” set this all up from the get-go and that the crew is expendable.
Somehow, Alien has managed to create an entire dystopian society with seven characters, some impressive set design, and a few lines of text. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered another movie where the sets have done so much narrative work. Obviously the ominous, claustrophobic, dreadful atmosphere is projected throughout the film by the dark, dank, grim corridors of the Nostromo. It’s clearly industrial in nature, which deftly communicates not only what kind of craft it is, but what kind of society it comes from. It’s basically a space-faring oil rig, at least aesthetically speaking. In tandem with the various conversations between the characters, it’s clear that labor politics are alive and well in the distant future. Most of the early dialogue, before the alien starts really tearing shit up, is either mundane chatter or bitter complaining about “shares” by the underclass, represented here by the maintenance crew. Clearly we’re dealing with a society that is not much different than ours, and that everything is still mostly dictated by sheer corporate capitalism. This sentiment is punctuated by Ash’s secret orders, Special Order 937, which explicitly states that the company has sent them to capture the nightmare devil-monster for research purposes.
Obviously, Ripley is none too pleased with this information, which implies that the society she comes from has at least the semblance of personal freedom attached to it. We’re given precious little other information to make this determination, however. Ripley seems shocked and betrayed by this corporation’s behavior, as well she would be, so perhaps this kind of secretive, evil behavior by corporations isn’t common knowledge. Not that it needs to be to constitute a dystopian corporate state, of course. Generally speaking, totalitarian society liberally uses propaganda and misinformation to disguise their true natures, and it follows that corporate overlords use the same kind of tactics. From what we’re given in Alien, it’s impossible to say what kind of Earth Ripley is returning to. However, considering that “the company,” always referred to ominously like that, I don’t believe that it’s out of left field to think that the Earth of Alien is probably more like that of Blade Runner than what we have going on right now. Essentially, the pressures of late-stage capitalism have motivated a corporation to sacrifice human life in order to acquire an extraterrestrial of unknown capability and to bring the thing to Earth, regardless of the consequences. That’s hubris typical of behemoth corporations, but it’s also indicative of the great social divide between the workers and the masters, and the contempt in which the latter hold the former.