In 1979 director Ridley Scott showed up on the scene with some astounding practical effects, body horror, a no-nonsense protagonist with killer hair, and a delightfully campy movie tagline (“In space, no one can hear you scream”), to take the world by storm with his skin-crawling (or bursting) horror film Alien. Even forty years — and an additional five installments fo the franchise — later, the Alien saga is still one that horror and sci-fan fans alike clamor for.
After watching each movie in the series, appreciating their continually understated director work, vibrant scripting, feminist undertones, and perpetually mind-blowing creature design, it seemed like time to explore the Alien series for something other than the obvious. Specifically, it felt like time to talk about how not just Alien, but the entire film franchise it spawned like a chestburster spewing forth from John Hurt’s screaming, convulsing body, has a hell of a lot to say about the struggles of the blue-collar working class.
I AM EVERYDAY PEOPLE, YEAH YEAH
From the get-go, Scott — director of three of the six movies in the franchise, and executive producer of all of them — makes it clear that this story is one about Joe Everyman. Yes, humanity has moved into space, but that’s not stopping anyone from having a case of the Mondays. In fact, the seven crew members literally wake up from a deep cryo-sleep inside of an actual corporate machine — the USCSS Nostromo, which is, for all intents and purposes, little more than a space tugboat — set to bring back 20 million tons of ore to Earth. The duty of the crew is to make sure all functions of the ship go as planned, and obey the regulations of its owner: the ever-expanding, and seemingly ever-present fictional corporation, Weyland-Yutani. But first, the crew settles in around the breakfast table for a smoke, a cup of coffee, cereal, and some banter.
The joy of the breakfast scene from the original 1979 Alien in relation to the discussion of working class horror is that it could just as easily be in a film about contemporary factory workers, submariners, or construction workers. The crew of the Nostromo are, undeniably, meant to be nothing special; proving that not only does this futuristic version of corporate capitalism still revolve around the labors of everyday people, but that the needs of the future have shifted the narrative enough to make highly scientific and skilled positions such as engineers, astronauts, and doctors into the new working class. Scott emphasizes this beautifully by having the breakfast conversation focus on how they really should be getting extra shares — with employment through Weyland-Yutani seeming to rely on profit share contracts — if they’re going to have to make any extra efforts; which is only personified more with the clear-cut chain of command that seems to have established itself among the crew.
At the bottom on the totem pole (you know, maintaining all of the ships functions) of the original Alien film, Brett (Harry Dean Staton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) — clad in civilian clothes and armed with surliness — are the first two to pipe up about suitable compensation for having to do extra work. And who can blame either of them? For manual labor outside of expected duties, why wouldn’t someone in their field ask for overtime? But the idea is quickly shot down with Ash (Ian Holm) — the ship’s only android crew member as the crew themselves will find out later on— pointing out that the fine print of the contract states that any intelligent transmission requires further investigation. This of course gets tested pretty quickly, with the Nostromo picking up the distress signal that kicks off the entire chest-bursting ship discovery.
This same formula is followed — to a much looser extent — in later films in the franchise, and especially in Scott’s own 2017 prequel, Alien: Covenant, where the route is very clearly planned towards Origae-6, where the good ship Covenant is intended to land, creating a new colony, but a distress signal sways the eye of the crew members in charge. Much like it’s 38-year old ancestral movie, the lower-ranking members’ opinions fall to the wayside despite the “lower” crew being of the same, highly-sought-after caliber of intelligence and skill as their higher ups, and the ship lands on an unknown planet where their demise will be met — despite entirely justified cries of the utterly correct, but unfortunately “lower caste,” crew members who would have rather kept with the original plans. The idea being that the everyday people (who are for all intents and purposes on the same skill level as those deemed the higher-ups) are seen as workers here to do a job for the company, and not for what is truly best in the interest of themselves and their kind.
The notion that “you get what you’re contracted for, like everybody else,” or “for the greater good of the company,” are the best one can hope to settle for, rings far closer to home than most, with the concept of fair compensation or having a fair chance at survival falling on deaf ears by those who still find themselves as a cog in the machine but perhaps fancy themselves — despite being the space equivalent of an assistant manager — as a single cog higher than those around them.
The joke here though, is that despite a fancy title, better clothes, or a few extra chevrons, those space-fairing assistant managers never manage to be the ones who are right. In every film within the franchise, whomever is considered the “top dog” of the crew always manages to be the most wrong, most cowardly, and — in the case of the Aliens character Mr. Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) — the most morally dubious character among every movie in the franchise all the way until we reach Prometheus, the prequel that brought Scott back to the franchise in 2014. Despite being the person to bring the Marines and Ripley to the infested colony, Burke shows little to no concern for the well-being of the disappeared colonists or for the crew that is meant to be carrying out the work for Weyland-Yutani, something shown pretty clearly when he decides to lock Ripley and Newt in the lab where he knows the facehugger has hidden, in the hope of purposefully infecting them so as to create living hosts to transport them back to Earth for the company.
For all intents and purposes, Burke makes it very clear that this only real allegiance is to the company, acting as a living, breathing allegory for the all-encompassing corporate society that runs the future. Sure, this makes for a fantastic side villain — by the end of Aliens you’ll be glad to see Burke take the fall before anyone else does at the hands of the Xenomorphs — but more than anything, there is a reassurance that while the little man is living a life of peril for the sake of a job and seen only as something stupid and disposable, the adage still stands that the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
I’M THE LEADER, I’M THE LEADER, I’M THE LEADER OF THE GANG (I AM)
The idea of a hierarchy extends beyond the idea of incompetent leadership in this franchise, however. Much like what is now the broken system of what used to be “middle class” in the Western world, the working class of the Alien franchise finds itself in a turf war among its own, even sans Captains. James Cameron’s unfortunately brilliant 1986 movie Aliens makes a point of having Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the perpetually underrated hero of the entire franchise, seen as the unhinged victim among her new compatriots. Comprised of military members who are shoot-em-up ready and delightfully all-brawn/no brains, Ripley is the odd [wo]man out and is perpetually — until it’s too late, of course — seen as the lesser among the lessers.
From the very beginning of the movie, Ripley — a reputable scientist and trauma survivor courtesy of her experiences on the Nostromo — is found by a group of Marines after floating in stasis for 57 years, and asked to accompany them for their mission in salvaging the ghostly space colony, LV-426. From the time Ripley wakes up and is properly introduced to her new crew-mates, she is seen as an outsider and someone of less importance despite her wealth of experience; even going so far as to dismiss her outright when she explains the dangers of what awaits them at the space colony.
This is, of course, compacted by Cameron’s insertion of Newt — a little girl and sole survivor of the colony — whom Ripley takes on and tries to nurture, despite the circumstances. Between her scientific prowess aboard her previous commercial vessel and her softness for the young girl, Ripley’s sensibility is no match for the guns and hit-it-with-your-head mentality of Earth’s military. Much like in current-day America, while military members are more likely to be recruited based on benefits, schooling, and the promise of a comfortable wage, the reality is that the military is just another version of America’s working class, just with a uniform included. However, because of the historic belief of military might and the message of patriotic duty, the duty of these blue-collar workers becomes confused with superiority; creating a rift with the working class of the everyday that may very well share — or surpass — their skill-set.
It’s difficult to believe that this isn’t without purpose either. The upsetting of those power dynamics play a key and crucial role in the story-telling and world-building of the Alien universe as a whole. In almost every circumstance throughout Cameron’s 1986 installment, whether we’re talking about the balance between various castes and social classes, or the dynamic between man and alien, the message comes down to the idea that might does not make right. So, while it’s a pretty iconic scene to see Ripley getting taught how to shoot a massive gun because she is fully prepared to take things herself with a little bit of training, the fact of that matter is that her brand of strength — even at the lower end of the power dynamic — is one that stems from her need to fight with logic at all angles, thus giving her the advantage over her supposed superiors despite her social station.
The other end of this spectrum, however, lies in 1992’s Alien 3, which takes place after Ripley finds herself the only survivor on her ship after the events of Aliens — well, except for the fact that the ship has secretly transported a sneaky pest within it, shhh — and crash landed on the prison planet Fiorina 161, where inmates have chosen a life of faith and solitude despite having completed their sentence. The movie works to explain the flaws of the Alien franchise’s working class problem in two ways: firstly, by making it very clear that Ripley is — for once — at the top of food chain, despite incredible levels of predatory behavior and sexism from the majority of the inmates, a fact that that does not sit well with many the inmates in the prison. The second factor, however, speaks to the film’s commentary on the working class as it relates to the prison-industrial complex and its inhabitants relationship with the outside working class, completely flipping the tables of the previous narrative in its Aliens predecessor.
This is a difficult subject, because, for all intents and purposes, the argument can be skewed by the inherent sexism instilled in the trilogy’s theme. (This is a series that fundamentally is rooted in the sexism of society, and especially corporate society; if only the men in charge would listen to the women, things would go so much better.) That does not, however, take away from the fact that despite having served their time, been “rehabilitated through faith”, and having access to a way to back to everyday civilization, that the prisoners should rather choose to remove themselves from their inevitable role as a cog in the machine that is the corporate monopoly future of the Alien franchise and live in squalor and solitude. Clearly, when Ripley shows up, not only does this serve as a problem for the most obvious reasons considering many of the convicts are male murders, rapists, etc., it serves as a reminder that they are — even by lower-class standards or that of the system itself— on the bottom rung of humanity’s ladder. (So much so that they don’t even have an android amongst them, with Alien 3 being the only film in the series devoid of artificial intelligence beyond a brief cameo from the previous chapter’s Bishop, played by Lance Henriksen.) The beauty of this, however, is that by removing themselves from a society that would only make them disposable anyway, the prisoners establish themselves above any conventional form of hierarchy that has been created within the futuristic society.
Of course, this doesn’t stop those prisoners — aside, perhaps from Clemens, played by the one and only Charles Dance — from casting their own morally pious judgement and social hierarchy on Ripley following her arrival, based purely on her sex and her neurotically cautious nature once she realizes that the Xenomorphs have joined her (and, later, impregnated her with a new Queen). Though the convicts do eventually see the benefit in listening to Ripley and following her plans to kill the monsters threatening them — fighting against the powers that be that have come to take the Xenomorphs away to weaponize and capitalize on in the process — a whole host of them fall prey due to their own foolish, and delightfully backwards construction of beliefs and social standings before they, too, decide that being the coward on top is perhaps not the best standing.
This is a theme that I could go on for ages about; especially considering how Scott’s an androids play into everything when it comes to a social hierarchy just within the proletariat. But we’ll get to that later.
It’s no surprise that being part of the working class — even in a futuristic capacity — means that the jobs are more than likely the dirty ones. (If you think Mr. Weyland has ever lifted a finger to even clean a toilet, you’re having a laugh.) Sure, it’s to be expected that as a part of the blue collar brotherhood, the Marines in Aliens are still the slumdog golden children who set out to to the dirty work; it can even be expected that a tow ship like Nostromo in the original Alien would have one or two people whose job it is to keep the train running on time, clanging around with a tool box, clothes slick with oil and machine grease like any other working class mechanic job. Hell, even the hilariously jumbled madhouse that is Alien: Resurrection does a bang-up job of parodying the dark humor of being a mercenary in an otherwise unmemorable entry into the series.
But with the disappearance of the middle class becoming something all too true in real life, the concept of what we consider high-class jobs being viewed as lower management aboard the vessels in the Alien movies is just about as realistic but wild as they come. The disappearance of the middle class in this fictional future universe is particularly clear in 2017’s underrated Alien: Covenant, where despite having seven couples — all of whom have, according to a short film leading up to the movie’s release, each been tested as being highly capable in their field individually — rings similarly to the opening of Scott’s original Alien. Each person may be the best of the best, having been given the responsibility of safely traveling a cargo of 2,000 souls and a host of healthy human embryos to a new planet to be colonized in the name of Weyland Industries. Regardless of the skill level of these incredibly ambitious fourteen — quickly turned thirteen; sorry James Franco — people who are expected to man the operation, their status remains clear when the viewer begins to wonder why — with 2,000 other, presumably very wealthy, people on board safely in cryo-sleep — these are the only people who have to fare the difficult and unknowingly gruesome aspects of the colonization process.
Even with that factor removed, it becomes clear that experts in the necessary fields for this sort of operation are in something of short supply when it’s revealed that many of the crew members are taking on two or more functions within the crew, such as Tennessee’s wife, Farris, who gets to work setting up ship to ship communication after landing — but later is expected to play doctor as the crew members begin coming back one by one with their new internal pets. When the hotshot jobs like astronauts, bio-engineers, botanists, and doctors are considered the blue-collar everyman, it’s should be asked, who exactly is sitting in the white collar chair?
The obvious answer would be the executives of Weyland-Yutani, as seen with Mr. Peter Weyland in both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, as well as Burke in Aliens, men whose roles seem to have little more depth than simply playing the roles of The Man, The Suited Crony, and — in the case of Weyland, as we find out in the prequels — The Creator. Or, at least, a Creator. But what do you get when the few and proud white collar gods of the industry create their own version of the working class? Well… you get Ridley Scott’s menagerie of androids.
ME FEEL SWELL, ME WORK WELL, ME WANT WHAT YOU WANT
When coming up with this essay and rewatching the films in preparation, it occurred to me just how important the timeline of the movies is when it comes to the portrayal of how the androids exist within society, and how that plays into the idea of the Alien franchise being, at heart, a working class saga.
Prometheus was the first to give audiences real insight into the origins of both Weyland-Yutani and the expectations of Weyland’s all-too human creation, David (Michael Fassbender), a character who — as we later find out in Covenant — becomes something of a creator himself. In this regard, David becomes the Cain of this creation story by rejecting his creator and setting off a chain of events that ultimately ends not only in further creation, but in discovering the first step as to why anyone would create such a destructive and horrifying monster. With that in mind, it’s important to note that David was made to be the company man; the example of something not so unsettling that it doesn’t look human, but works with ten times the dedication to a company than any dignified human every could — a role that he ultimately rejects.
Following what happened to David, we meet Walter (also Michael Fassbender!) in Alien: Covenant, who has been further stripped of his capacity to be human and instead follows directions as neutrally as possible, with a pleasant and unthreatening demeanor. While this comes as a benefit to his fellow crew members for a while — especially as Walter doesn’t have to sleep and can thus maintain everything on the ship as the crew of the Covenant dozes away in cryo before waking — it ends up being the root reason why David is able to defeat him and carry on his malicious plan. If only Walter had been a little less kind when it came to dealing with the demands of others.
The timeline of the series then skips back to Alien though, a movie made decades earlier, where Ash (Ian Holm) truly does act as the perfect example of The Unemotional, All-Business Company Man — so much so that his own crew members don’t even know that he’s an android until the face hugger decides to infest his body, only to realize that it’s not possible. In turn, we are introduced to Bishop 57 years later in the series’ timeline in Aliens, who, while still compelled to obey company orders and directions, is able to make the choice to save both Ripley and Newt despite the company’s preferences. In his disobedience, he is showing his humanity, even if that means his own destruction.
With Alien 3 devoid of any android pals, the last android in the Alien chronology to date goes to Call (Winona Ryder) of Alien: Resurrection, whose role complicates matters in the way that most thing about Resurrection does: it’s set 200 years after Alien 3 even takes place, and acts as something almost separate to the rest of the series as it attempts to reboot the formula for the self-consciously “extreme” 1990s. Regardless, it’s important to note that Call brings things full circle once more, having been built as company property and ultimately choosing to turn against the company for her own reasons; rendering her more human than ever — a favorite theme of Scott’s.
For more than one reason, the androids of the Alien series create the perfect environment for arguing that this is a working class saga. For all that they are made in the image of their creator and dehumanized just enough to be the robot that every capitalist structure dreams that their workers can be, androids still beg the question of just what it means to be human. In trying to answer that question, Ash, Bishop, Call, David, and Walter all manage to represent the laborers considered below the poverty line — underpaid, under-appreciated, given higher expectations in regard to loyalty and effort despite those things and, unfortunately, often viewed and treated as less than human. Not only is this mirrored in Bishop’s sacrifice for Ripley, who actively despises and discriminates against androids after her experience on the Nostromo, or Walter’s willingness to go above and beyond his ordinary duties while his fellow crew-mates slumber, but is built in to the foundation of what androids are built for: being the slaves to humanity. Being the ultimate working class.
With that futility and depth of expectation, it’s no wonder that we get to marvel at the monstrous origins of a lower class in revolt — a theme that carries from the fact that is the lower class of humans that manages to survive each and every installment of the series, no matter the horror that they’re met with, to the fact that it is an android who is ultimately revealed to have created the Xenomorph threat in the first place. But even then, those Xenomorphs bow down to a Queen of a hierarchy, too!
WORKIN’ 9 TO FIVE YEAH THEY GOT YOU WHERE THEY WANT YOU
The conversation surrounding the Alien movies is one that has been pretty ongoing since it’s debut. There’s no shortage of praise for the many astonishing ways that the franchise has evolved, grown, and outdone itself time and time again; or for the way that the franchise is willing to give a feminist voice to what would otherwise probably be a heavily-fridge character. There’s even been plenty of talk around how the original Alien is a beautiful commentary on the exploitation of labor! At this point, and with so many beautiful ways that the story has stuck to its roots while evolving for the times, though, it’s fair to say that it’s not just Alien that’s here to make a statement about the lives of everyday people being expected to devote themselves to the ever-present corporate machine; it’s the entire franchise. And it’s feeling more relevant than ever after forty years.