In a new weekly column called Beyond the Screen, author A. J. Black unpacks what we’re all discussing from the world of cinema and television. This time, in the wake of online reaction to news of the latest Alien TV series, he unpacks the political & economic aspects of the legendary saga…
An old complaint from the broader fandom community reared its head once again this week after an interview given to Vanity Fair by Noah Hawley, the writer and show runner of FX’s in development Alien television series.
Hawley had discussed the socio-political underpinnings behind his intended approach to the material, and how particularly post-Covid 19 the ever-present commentary in the saga feels all the more apparent.
On some level it’s also a story about inequality. You know, one of the things that I love about the first movie is how ’70s a movie it is, and how it’s really this blue collar space-trucker world in which Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton are basically Waiting for Godot. They’re like Samuel Beckett characters, ordered to go to a place by a faceless nameless corporation. The second movie is such an ’80s movie, but it’s still about grunts. Paul Reiser is middle management at best. So, it is the story of the people you send to do the dirty work.
The response to this, in the social media space, from certain sections of fandom, was to reject the notion that Alien is a political series, or ever was, even going so far as too accuse Hawley’s intended take with the popular moniker these days of ‘woke’. This is, frankly, ludicrous.
Hawley’s understanding of the series makes complete sense given the economic depression of the 1970s. Though the 1970s may have given us Star Wars, in essence the yardstick and epitome of science-fiction and fantasy, it was an aberration and response rather than a cultural norm. Star Trek emerged out of a 1960s filled with optimism, escapism and a post-WW2 rejection of reality, but Star Wars was rooted at the end of a decade in which the scales had very much fallen from the eyes of American society. Star Wars took place in a galaxy far far away, long ago—those people were not us. Star Trek exists in a world to come, a hopeful realisation of humanity’s achievements. Events of the late 1960s and the 1970s had brought consumers of media and entertainment crashing back down to earth. That’s where Alien was born, a franchise rooted in a capitalist future ideal.
The irony of course is that Alien, and the immensely successful and popular franchise it spawned over the next forty years, would never have existed without Star Wars. 20th Century Fox green-lit Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett’s script directly off the back of their cultural moment from George Lucas, and the incredible response to the world he developed, despite the fact the writers already had toiled the science-fiction field some years earlier with their script for Dark Star, an early John Carpenter picture. This too was an aberration. The ’70s was not a decade for science-fiction and fantasy. Cinema just wasn’t going there until Star Wars changed the paradigm. Within two years, Star Trek had been relaunched into its own cinematic franchise and Alien had been realised. Cue decades of popular science-fiction which would dominate mainstream, blockbuster cinema.
Alien has since been widely regarded as one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made, a film which launched the careers of several of its stars (most notably Sigourney Weaver) and director Ridley Scott. Though while it exists because of Star Wars, Alien almost feels like a signature reaction to the world of space escapism and space fantasy. Spacecraft in Alien don’t fire lasers or phasers, nor do they fly about space with super-powered engines faster than the speed of light. Their ships aren’t sleek cruisers exploring the galaxy, nor are they fighter craft capable of loop the loop rolls and strafe manoeuvres. Their crews are not naval officers, freedom fighters or scoundrels, and only a few of them are scientists. The world of Alien presents a future grounded in the cultural and sociological reality of the 1970s. It could almost been seen as a breakwater between earthy, paranoid ’70s American cinema and the escapist, fantasy resurgence we would see in the colourful 1980s.
There is of course debate as to whether Alien should be classified as a science-fiction film at all. Many consider Scott’s film to be a haunted house ghost story, or indeed an out and out horror movie. There is a strong case for both of these arguments. The world Alien presents is not a world where the heroes save the day and escape cleanly in the nick of time. There is no Luke Skywalker with Jedi powers to aid these characters. There is no starship Enterprise than can beam them out before the ship explodes. The people in Alien could very readily be us. None of them look or sound like ‘future people’, as Starfleet officers in Star Trek (particularly post-1960s) frequently do. They don’t ascribe to archetypes, perhaps beyond Ellen Ripley. If anything she helped formulate one, being a key example of ‘Final Girl’ theory in horror film criticism and study. Alien could be the 1970s, were it not for the fact it is set in deep space.
In actuality, the events of Alien take place, in all likelihood, in the year 2122. This comes from a non-canonical, apocryphal source, and is not mentioned in the original movie. Ridley Scott created numerous legends for O’Bannon & Shusett’s characters but, in line with the sparsity of a script which only gives away details necessary for narrative momentum, these didn’t come to light until a DVD release decades after the film’s release. It confirms there is a mythology underpinning the world of Alien which is steadily, if haphazardly, built on in sequel Aliens all the way through to Scott’s recent prequel Alien: Covenant, even partially extending out to encompass the Predator franchise into the Alien saga. Built on a house of cards by a stack of filmmakers it may be, but if you dig deep enough, Alien depicts a world very different to that of traditional escapist space fantasy, one far more appropriately rooted in 1970s conspiracy and foreboding about the future.
This is where we return to capitalism because the world of Alien, in particularly the original Scott and James Cameron movies, holds true to a neoliberal world where wealth remains at the heart of the economic function of humanity’s ‘future history’. During promotional duties for Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, Scott intimated that his 1982 dystopian cyberpunk future-noir Blade Runner is set in the same canonical universe as the Alien franchise. Though not directly confirmed, an Easter Egg on the Prometheus UK steel book contains a blink and you’ll miss it log entry from Peter Weyland—erstwhile founder of the Weyland Corporation which later amalgamates into Weyland-Yutani Corp we first see in Aliens—suggesting his mentor to be Dr. Eldon Tyrell, founder of Tyrell Corporation who of course create the synthetic replicants Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard pursues in the original movie.
They are part of a pattern in the connected mythology of these movies in which these worlds are driven by flawed, egocentric geniuses, ruling over mega-corporations that have replaced the traditional paradigm of nation states and control over the direction of the humanity, through the march of capitalism. Much like Star Trek used technology in order to help employ a utopian future, the Alien franchise (we’ll bracket Blade Runner under that banner for ease too) does the reverse; technology becomes the vehicle in which ‘the Company’ as they are simply known in the first two Alien movies, later Weyland-Yutani, manage to control populations, the workforce, and particularly the exploration and exploitation of deep space. This isn’t a world where humanity work for the betterment of a unified, utopian galaxy. This is a world saved only from dystopia by the cold, hard grip of corporate hegemony.
The mythology of this world also ties into religion and worship, but from a capitalist standpoint it’s a franchise which very much employs the kind of inequality and disparity that neoliberalism and late-stage capitalism is accused by many of propagating. In Aliens, in a deleted scene on Cameron’s director’s cut, we see Ripley using holographic technology not a world away from the holodeck Star Trek: The Next Generation would invent just a year later, proving by the 2170’s—Aliens having jumped half a century ahead after Ripley enters deep freeze at the end of Alien—that the Company have invented the kind of technology they are capable of exploiting for profit. When we see them, they are not a progressive council of explorers, researchers or scientists, they are white men in suits—corporate board members representing different strands of the same economic structure, various branches and divisions.
Aliens does more work than Alien in building out the world Scott first initiated from a capitalist perspective. The odious Carter Burke, the purest representative of corporate greed you can find in a science-fiction franchise, talks about “interstellar commerce commissions”, “colonial administrations”, “insurance companies”—variations on terms and societal structures you imagine would have no place in a progressive futuristic society. Words like ‘commerce’ and ‘insurance’ in particular suggest the Company are only interested in what they can gain, or what they can write off, from the expansion into deep space. Their concern about the fate of the Nostromo, the mining vessel on which the events of Alien takes place, is not for the lives lost to encountering the alien ‘xenomorph’, but rather the cost of the ship itself: “42 million in adjusted dollars, minus payload”. This cost indeed almost seems rather quaint from a 21st century perspective, given how NASA projects run into the billions; one could rather imagine the Nostromo costing a few trillion dollars by the late 22nd century.
Cameron’s sequel is pointed liberal-minded in how it responds to the Company, who are considered in many respects the true enemy underpinning Aliens. While the xenomorph ‘Queen’ is certainly a literal, inhuman force for Ripley to take down during the film, she early on rails against the corporate self-interest of the Company when they intend on returning to LV-426 In order to try and safeguarding their colonial investment on the planet. She makes the point that their corporate “bullsh*t” doesn’t matter, throwing up papers and suggesting they can “kiss all that goodbye” if they should encounter the alien menace she previously faced. This is a classic idea in fiction, and one which Aliens popularised—a short-sighted, often corporate capitalist organisation or body trying to exploit a resource for financial gain, only to reap devastating, often fatal consequences. Hollywood seems frequently committed to suggesting the sole pursuit of wealth at the expense of humanity can lead to your downfall.
Which is, of course, a great irony given the entire Hollywood system of movie-making is driven by the importance of box-office returns in order to fuel a cycle of ever more expensive star salaries, special effects and cinema profits. Much like many of the major corporate systems in the world today, Hollywood too feels bursting at the seams with gimmicky cinematic innovations (3D, 4DX etc…) and rising costs of tickets and food which are pushing more and more people away from the cinematic experience. It almost feels like filmmakers have been warning about this in allegorical form for decades now, about how neoliberalism and an ultimate capitalist exploitation of the workforce simply cannot sustain itself. The world of Alien suggests Earth’s own depletion of natural resources isn’t enough to prevent the march of corporate control into space, but does suggest once we venture out and attempt to replicate our own economic system in the stars, a primal alien menace waits to rip that very system apart.
There is another irony, in fact, in the very slogan used by Weyland-Yutani: “Building Better Worlds”. This is a classic piece of corporate propaganda to disguise their expansion into terra-forming alien worlds into colonies as being little more than a colonial, corporate domination of the galactic landscape akin to how these mega-corporations consumed governments, through capitalism, to dominate and subjugate a population under their heel. Part of the joy of the Alien movies is to see, frequently, these corporate entities and the visionaries who control them meet a sticky and violent end. The point remains: capitalism one day will break, and humans will have the opportunity to change the paradigm of their society. In each case, the trigger is often different.
This is what Hawley understands about Alien. It is why his take on the series stands, potentially, to define it for our modern era. And it is why the fans who don’t believe Alien is a political series are wrong. Everything is political.