Like the films which are its inspiration, Alien and Philosophy: I Infest, Therefore I Am is not a book for the fainthearted. It may be the latest in a successful series that draws on popular culture to explore philosophical concepts, but the writers broach ideas that stretch in many different directions. They collectively name-check every intellectual from Arthur Schopenhauer to Noël Coward amidst a series of contributions that cover education, feminism, aesthetics and all sorts of other topics. Alien and Philosophy will please readers who already give deep consideration to the rights that John Locke might have thought natural for a species which has acid for blood, and who wonder at length if Sigmund Freud would dare to use psychoanalysis if confronted with a synthetic person that obsesses about Lawrence of Arabia. If you enjoyed the film Alien and its sequels then you may want to dive into these scholarly essays, using them to further your intellectual curiosity.
The strongest contributions in this collection tend to be found in the later chapters. In “The Alien as Übermensch: Overcoming Morality in Order to Become the Perfect Killer”, Robert Mentyka offers a refreshingly sharp analogy between the fearsomely effective alien monster and Nietzsche’s conception of the superior man. Mentyka also does an excellent job of using events in the film to illustrate Nietzsche’s ideas. This is followed by an essay entitled “Why Do You Go On Living?: Ripley‐8 and the Absurd” which features an engrossing study of the central character in Alien: Resurrection, the clone of Ripley that has also absorbed some of the alien’s characteristics. Written by Seth Walker, this essay does a superb job of reiterating the question in Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and relating it to Ripley’s circumstances. Walker shows some flair by providing as good an answer, and as difficult an answer, as Camus might have offered.
The essays that succeed are those which remain close to the characters that drive the plot of the films: the various incarnations of Ripley and her alien antagonist. These articles are solidly rooted in the actual films, and so deliver the most satisfying results. This movie franchise is not an obvious choice for thoughtful analysis, because it heavily relies on violence and the basic desire for self-preservation. However, the films also boast some intriguing recurring themes that explore the relationship between a mother and her child, or between a creator and their creation. The philosophers that address these themes find plenty of fertile territory, allowing them to use the Alien films as a means to discuss the rearing of children, the status of women in society, and when it becomes acceptable to kill.
Other essays feel exploitative, using the Alien franchise as an excuse for the writer to indulge their pet interest. The collection finds its nadir during a sequence of essays that attack the ethics of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, using this as justification to excoriate capitalism. This is misguided. The Alien films are as much about Weyland-Yutani as Hitchcock’s films were about McGuffins. Whilst a plot may require the imposition of an arbitrary force to motivate characters to behave a certain way, there is little value in trying to philosophize about a staple technique for creating tension in stories. The Alien films are not about economics, or businesses. We lose count of the number of people who are slaughtered, but it is difficult to think of a single business negotiation or commercial transaction that occurs in any of the films, although characters do sometimes refer to their pay (or lack thereof).
James Okapal acknowledges that the ‘evil’ of corporations has become the stuff of cliché, but then continues to opine about the faults of Weyland-Yutani. However, Okapal does redeem himself by making some interesting points, such as asking whether the Ripley clone in Alien: Resurrection might qualify as more human than the YY-prisoners of Alien 3. In contrast, Alejandro Bárcenas concludes his essay by hoping “the ghost of Marx will be haunting the spaceships of the future”. Even the most devout Marxist might question whether Weyland-Yutani is any more pertinent to a critique of the flaws of capitalism than citing Homer Simpson’s safety record whilst assessing the risks of nuclear power.
Despite its title, not every essay in Alien and Philosophy is concerned with philosophical matters. Greg Littmann does a tremendous job of relating the horror of Alien to the storytelling principles adopted by HP Lovecraft. Martin Glick applies Noël Carroll’s theories about art-horror to similar effect. These essays may come as a relief to some readers who feel weighed down by some heavy philosophizing in the pieces that precede them. They also help to remind us that the subject is a popular movie franchise, and should not be taken too seriously.
Fans of all the films may be disappointed to learn this book makes no mention of Alien: Covenant. It seems that the publication of Alien and Philosophy was timed to coincide with the release of the latest film, meaning none of the writers had seen it before submitting their work. However, nobody will complain that the Alien vs. Predator spin-off movies were completely ignored.
In conclusion, if you took equal pleasure from watching Prometheus as you did when watching Aliens then you may also gain equal pleasure from every chapter of Alien and Philosophy. Most of the rest of us will find there are chapters we will want to read again, and others we decide to skip over. Like the Alien franchise, the good parts of this book are more than sufficient to compensate for a few missteps. Most intelligent purchasers will know what to expect from the title on the cover, and they will not be disappointed.
Philosophy involves dialogue, and SPJ was thrilled that Jeffrey Ewing, Editor of Alien and Philosophy: I Infest, Therefore I Am agreed to give an interview about his book, the films, and the reasons to use popular culture as a way to examine ideas. You will find that interview here.