Prometheus opens this weekend, heralding Ridley Scott‘s welcome return to the Alien movie franchise he started. The original movie plays so frequently on cable TV, and is so well made, that it’s surprising to think it was made in 1979—a long time before directors could use computers and CGI to create special effects.Alien was certainly one of the best horror movies ever made. Its measured pacing, coupled with Scott’s refusal to fully show the audience what the alien actually looks like until the very end, give it the power to scare viewers even on repeated viewings.
But the movie raises a lot of business and economic issues too, mostly about the role that corporations, profits, employees, robots and stock might play in the future. Alien‘s macroeconomic predictions aren’t pretty, but 32 years later they look eerily accurate.
In the movie, the alien is brought aboard when it attaches itself to the face of one of the crew. He is initially treated--and thinks he's cured--in the ship's medical unit. It turns out the infection has simply gotten more complicated and more dangerous, of course.
The movie has a strong medical motif--there's a quarantine rule in the beginning that gets broken, and the crew attempt to kill the alien with sterilizing flamethrowers.
Alien was made before the HIV epidemic, but it is prescient: While AIDS is now under control, our healthcare systems are constantly threatened by new, more virulent 'superbugs,' like MRSA.
At the start of the movie, the crew of the spaceship Nostromo are awakened from a deep sleep during their years long journey back to earth in order to investigate what appears to be a distress call from a mysterious planet with a hostile, stormy climate.
Once the alien arrives on board the ship, the heroine (Sigourney Weaver's Ripley) and her crew must rid the craft of its stowaway before attempting to return to their hypersleep pods.
The Alien franchise returns repeatedly to the notion that to get anywhere in space, humans will have to sleep in suspended animation for periods of years--otherwise we'll grow old too quickly on the journey.
Richard Branson may believe he can make space travel into a glamorous source of tourist dollars, but the early scenes in the movie--when the crew awakes groggily in their underwear--make space travel look decidedly unpleasant.
This is a corollary of the previous point. Life aboard the Nostromo is dirty, hard and ugly. The crew argue about who gets paid what--indicating that some of them may be underpaid for their labour.
Today we regard space as the province of adventurers and scientists. But if the history of the automobile is any guide--it was once a rich person's toy but driving as a business is now the job of truckers--space may be for the blue-collar classes.
In the future we're still dependent on mining, drilling and extracting our resources from increasingly inhospitable environments.
The premise of the movie is that the commercial towing ship Nostromo is returning to Earth from Thedus, pulling a refinery and several million tons of 'ore.'
It would be nice to think that in the real future we'll be getting our energy needs from clean sources like the sun, wind and tides, and that our on-Earth recycling efforts will be so sophisticated that there will be no such thing as garbage--we'll just make everything we need out of everything we don't need.
But that dream hasn't come to pass despite three centuries of capitalism. Alien suggests it'll just get harder and dirtier for us all.
In the movie, the women initially appear to be equals with their male coworkers, and the Ripley character, of course, carries the entire show.
But the subtext of the picture--with its references to eggs, impregnation, gestation and bloody birth scenes--is that getting pregnant can ruin your life.
Perhaps the worst part of the movie is the killing of Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), who is essentially raped to death by the monster.
Humans have gotten pretty used to being at the top of the food chain and the abundance that comes with it. We're not limited by our environment, the way some species are.
But this luxurious period may be coming to an end. We've exploited the planet so thoroughly that Earth may be on the verge of collapse. If things go wrong, we may not be the ones best-equipped to survive.
Alien posits a similar situation. The crew are trapped on a large vehicle in space with enough resources to survive, but only if they conserve them properly, and only if other species aren't better-equipped than we are to take advantage.
One of the great twists of Alien is the death of Ash, who turns out to be an android programmed to betray his colleagues.
If your laptop has ever crashed, taking with it an entire week's work, you'll understand the feeling.
Until recently, space was dominated by governments, whose agencies were the only ones with vast enough balance sheets to fund missions beyond Earth. Our goals so far have been lofty: Science and exploration.
But now private companies such as SpaceX and Virgin are stepping in with grubbier motives (money) and more pedestrian goals (tourism).
In Alien, the company that owns the Nostromo is willing to kill its own crew to bring a sample creature back to Earth, and its ship is dark and devoid of human comforts.
Life on board the Nostromo is cramped, dark and damp.
Just like a New York apartment.
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