The Philosophy of the Alien Films: Interview with Jeffrey A. Ewing

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Released in 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien combined H.R. Giger’s disturbing aesthetics with a tremendous cast, most of whom were viciously slaughtered before the film was done. Alien pulled off the trick of adding new ingredients to a rich tradition in storytelling, reimagining a classic horror scenario whilst taking the bogeymen to a new level. Its sequel, Aliens, proved just as successful, though director James Cameron shifted the franchise towards exhilarating and full-bodied action. The series has since spawned another four films (not counting the Alien vs. Predator spin-offs) that have continued to offer a mix of violent action and brooding horror. This gory combination of genres has nevertheless resulted in films which touch on many philosophical and scientific issues, including reproductive rights and the right to life, the status of intelligent machines, and the relationship between genetics and freedom. And so a group of scholars have used the Alien franchise to explore a variety of ideas which are presented in Alien and Philosophy: I Infest, Therefore I Am, which was published a few months ago. As part of the process of reviewing the book I contacted its editor, Jeffrey Ewing, and asked him to discuss the concepts with me. Jeff kindly agreed, and our exchange lead to this wonderful interview…

Sci Phi Journal: The book describes you as a doctoral candidate, before sharing a very funny poem. Now we know you have a sense of humour, but can you tell us more about yourself, and particularly how you came to be someone who repeatedly writes about the crossover of philosophy and pop culture?

Jeffrey Ewing: I’m glad you liked my poem! I started writing about philosophy and popular culture in 2009 with my contribution to Terminator and Philosophy. I received a Bachelor’s in Philosophy from Eastern Washington University, and was also always deeply interested in science fiction and the thought-provoking elements of science fiction worlds. One of my mentors, Dr. Kevin S. Decker, happened to be co-editing the volume and suggested I should submit an abstract. I did, he and his co-editor liked it, and I was able to write my first chapter! From there, I just kept applying to and writing different chapters about works I loved. I enjoy taking a philosophical lens to pop culture because pop culture has such a large impact on people’s lives, and often has deep implications that illustrate something important about our world.

SPJ: You must have been to parties and had people say something like: “but it’s just a film!” How do you respond? Is it in some ways important to explore philosophical concepts using popular tropes? Or is this a way for philosophers to indulge themselves with a bit of nerdy entertainment?

JE: I’ve definitely heard that before. The meaning in film, like all art, is sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit. Often it is intentional, sometimes not. But these rich fictional characters, situations, and worlds can often help us reflect on our own world and its issues. You certainly can enjoy films only as entertainment, but I think it is important to also think through the deeper implications of a film.

Today we face many burning issues—is the state of our economic inequality ‘just’ or unjust? How should we treat each other? What are the philosophical or practical implications of technological developments like gene splicing or AI? These sorts of questions are especially important as we wade into uncharted territories with climate change, the threats of authoritarian states, artificial intelligence, and the like.

Films often make perfect ‘thought experiments’ for these issues, and philosophy can give us very thoughtful approaches to exploring them, so I would advocate both enjoying films and thinking deeply about them!

SPJ: The driving forces in the Alien franchise are Ripley, and the alien(s). However, some of the writers who contributed to your book placed their focus elsewhere, such as the androids or the Weyland Corporation. Stepping back and looking at all the works in the franchise, what would be the one philosophical concept that is most essential to the stories being told? If you had to write just one short essay about all the Alien films, where would the focus of that essay lie?

JE: The Alien films are set in a very rich science fiction world, allowing us to think through about the power of monopolizing corporations, our relationship to AI and androids, and all sorts of other important issues. If I wrote just one essay on the Alien films, I’d actually focus on a theme that many may not highlight, but that I think is important to understanding them—the films’ critique of the tendencies and side effects of capitalism.

In the Alien series, the actions of a powerful monopolistic corporation expose workers and soldiers to serious threats on multiple occasions. For example, corporate priorities endanger the crew of the Nostromo, exposing them to the derelict spaceship on LV-426. In Aliens the company endangered the colonists of Hadley’s Hope in order to try and recover alien specimens for profit.

The Weyland-Yutani Corporation is a great example of a profit-oriented, monopolistic corporation that has too much power in the absence of effective regulation or successful social struggle. It endangers its employees, it threatens to bring back cargo that would be deadly for life on Earth, but none of that matters against the possibility of profit.

SPJ: To be honest, I found this the weakest line of reasoning in the book, and said as much in my review. In the review I compare critiquing the ‘capitalism’ of Weyland-Yutani to critiquing nuclear energy by examining Homer Simpson’s safety record. They are not even straw men, because at least a straw man purports to be an argument, even if it is a lousy one.

In terms of storytelling, Weyland-Yutani is a recurring plot device; its greed explains why human beings are repeatedly put into life-threatening situations they would otherwise choose to avoid. Being a device, Weyland-Yutani could be replaced by Space Nazis or the Space Khmer Rouge. All that is needed is an authority that is willing to sacrifice individual lives in order to pursue some ‘higher’ goal, like scientific progress, or victory in a war. Weyland-Yutani’s goal is meant to be profit, but the films tell us nothing about the economics of the future, so the audience has to make assumptions and project their own values. But as capitalists go, this corporation is run by buffoons: their amateurish attempts to capture aliens always result in the destruction of their own valuable assets, including the Nostromo, the Hadleys Hope colony, and the Prometheus. But irrespective of their bumbling, the only way for a corporation to make a profit is by selling something to a customer, and the audience never learns who is the customer for Weyland-Yutani’s weapons division, or what the weapons will be used for. That was the aspect of the stories that I felt deserved more philosophical scrutiny. Why is this future so militaristic, when there is no apparent enemy? Do the military themes offer another way to emphasize that Ripley is a woman in a man’s world? Or should we be talking about a future version of what Eisenhower referred to as the military-industrial complex?

JE: I definitely agree that the political life and day-to-day economics of the Alien universe are not fully transparent, and to get an expanded picture requires considerable reconstruction, particularly of the former, and so we definitely have to understand the world through our own inferences. Surely Weyland-Yutani is used as a plot device, but I think it is important to ask WHY THIS plot device rather than Space Nazis, etc. What is the role of The Company in the plot, and what does that role suggest about the social meaning of the Alien universe?

We do know from sources such as the Alien: Covenant companion Weyland Industries site, the film Alien, and beyond that the company is a large, multi-industry for-profit corporation. Their workers work for wages, and they are concerned with costs (such as Burke’s emphasis in Aliens on military restraint because of his concern for the ‘dollar value’ of destroyed installations). They may be run by buffoons—a statement I definitely agree with from their constant attempts to control the evidently uncontrollable—but they are a for-profit capitalist company even if their market is unclear and their success rate is mixed at best. I think their role in the Alien films as a consciously chosen plot device is meant to imply a statement that an unchecked pursuit of profit is a dangerous endeavor, and the consequences of that tendency, like the xenomorphs, cannot always be contained. I would like to know more about the militarism of the world as well, though. We don’t know enough about the military relations of the Alien world, so that could be a factor in a high military ‘market’, and we also know that they’ve been engaged in interstellar travel so it is possible there are enemies we’re not aware of. Perhaps they should do a spinoff film focusing on the military in the world, maybe branching off from Aliens. At any rate, it seems like the relationship between the military and Weyland (at least in this division of the company) could appropriately be described in terms of a military-industrial complex—their interrelations seem tightly intertwined.

SPJ: It’s tempting to think of Ripley as the central character because she is the survivor of Alien and is central to the sequels. But anyone watching Alien for the first time wouldn’t assume she was the central character. In fact, that film follows a pretty standard horror formula: introduce a bunch of characters and keep the audience in suspense about which one will die next. Ripley isn’t an especially likeable character either – she tried to stop Dallas and Lambert from bringing Kane (with facehugger) back on board the ship for medical care. However, Ripley is somewhat redeemed by her subsequent actions. Considering all the characters in all the films, would you think it fair to generalize that every human character is one or other kind of a-hole, and the only difference between them is that some live long enough to be redeemed, whilst the others die before they can? Does that make the alien(s) some kind of divine force of justice, squeezing what little good can be extracted from the human race?

JE: I have a hard time judging the crew of the Nostromo (even though I may not want to work with many of them), because through most of the film they’re forced into many positions that, personally, I’d never want to be in. They’re stuck together on this deep-space hauling mission, woken up before their destination, and they seem deeply concerned about even getting paid for the work they do (and honestly, I doubt they’re paid well enough). Just when they get accustomed to this supposedly random side-mission, they encounter a danger that they’re ill-equipped to handle. I mean, I doubt their training includes ‘What to do if you encounter a predatory parasitic nigh-invincible organism?’

Now, Ripley grows a lot in the film and throughout the series, and we definitely don’t get the privilege of seeing that of other characters. But truthfully, if I got stuck on a side-mission, unsure if I’d be paid for my labors in the middle of space, then had an invincible killing machine thrown at me, I’d either be pretty cranky about it or just stow away in the back of the ship spending time with the cat. In the context of the Alien world, it is quite possible that a xenomorph let loose in a Weyland-Yutani boardroom might approximate the hand of divine justice instead!

SPJ: In Aliens, the characters of Ripley and Newt are so tough that it’s difficult to think of any film which presents two women who kick ass so hard (Newt was the only colonist who survived – and she did it ‘without training’) whilst also being so unashamedly engaged in a surrogate mother-daughter relationship. As the film is set in 2179, does this make Ripley a post-feminist hero?

JE: I think it’s fair to say that Ripley is among the toughest heroines or heroes in any scifi or action film I can think of, and Newt (as you mention) is also very impressively tough. I like the fact that they bond so well, because it shows that you can be warm, compassionate, and emotionally connected and be a complete and total badass. In that regard, a post-feminist interpretation is really tempting, since they so clearly blow the patriarchy out of the water (or, perhaps, out of the airlock). But my interpretation of Ripley is that she’s a strong-willed feminist heroine, who still faces injustices and issues as a woman in this future society.

Take, for instance, that scene in Alien where Brett and Parker drown out her speech with steam, challenging her authority. On the one hand, they’re working-class employees subverting workplace hierarchies, yet on the other hand her authority is challenged here in ways that none of the men in positions of authority are. Or in Alien: Resurrection, where Ripley is cloned, and these clones are used to reproduce an alien embryo – her clone’s reproductive autonomy taken in a dramatic, traumatizing violation. Ripley is a very strong character, but she still faces challenges in the future that I think are best understood through a feminist lens (in Alien and Philosophy, Alexander Christian’s article provides an interesting exploration of some of these issues).

SPJ: I take your point about Brett and Parker being working-class men who challenge the authority of a female boss, but Lambert challenges Ripley too. When it comes to gender stereotypes, Lambert’s role is that of the overly-emotional woman, as contrasted with Ripley and the relatively cool-headed men. But were the film-makers guilty of playing on similar stereotypes when casting the synthetic characters? David and Ash are the most robot-like of the robots, being emotionally withdrawn and only capable of thinking logically. In contrast, the most ‘human’ of the machines takes a female form: Annalee Call.

JE: I do think the filmmakers wrote androids that largely meet gender stereotypes, and personally I find characters more interesting when they break stereotypes—case in point, Ripley. Your question does provoke an interesting thought about androids, however (both in the film and otherwise). Makers of androids would likely program them with some gendered understanding hardwired into their consciousness, and we see this all the time in science fiction portrayals of them. Why would an android’s inventor or manufacturer give them a gendered personality? Or perhaps they wouldn’t, but science fiction writers merely have difficulty imagining otherwise? It is an interesting question.

SPJ: Ripley calls her ship’s computer a “bitch”. She calls the alien queen a “bitch”. Is Ripley projecting her feelings about herself on to others? Is Ripley the ultimate bitch? Or is she lacking in feminist solidarity?!?

JE: Another interesting theme in the Alien series involves the theme of motherhood. Interestingly, the feminine-voiced computer in Alien is named MU-TH-ER (aka ‘MOTHER’), who is at face value charged with the care of the crew and their mission. MOTHER betrays them, “all other priorities rescinded” in favor of corporate objectives. Ripley calls MOTHER a ‘bitch’ when MOTHER prevents her from aborting the ship’s self-destruct processes—endangering her life and escape. This contrasts with the great lengths Ripley goes to in order to save the life of the cat Jonesy, who MOTHER also threatens. Similarly, Aliens is largely about a battle between motherly figures—Ripley as a motherly protector of Newt versus the alien Queen’s desire to protect her own monstrous children. When the alien Queen threatens Newt, Ripley screams “get away from her, you bitch!”—the Queen threatening the young girl she’s gone to so much trouble to protect.

In a sense, then, the use of the term ‘bitch’ comes out when a failed ‘mother’ figure threatens Ripley or vulnerable individuals Ripley cares for (Andrea Zanin’s chapter “Ellen Ripley: The Rise of the Matriarch” provides great commentary on these sorts of issues).

SPJ: One of the essays I most liked in your book was by Robert M. Mentyka, because he did an excellent job of exploring the Nietzschean aspects of the alien that Ash describes as “perfect” and “unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality”. Do we like the Alien because it is so terrible, in contrast to the flaws and pettiness of the mediocre people it slaughters?

JE: I think it is easy to be in some sort of awe over the xenomorphs—they’re nigh-invincible killing machines that can inhabit a body, transform inside it without its knowledge, destroy it in the ‘birth’ process, then proceed to cause havoc anywhere it lives. Its life cycle is so foreign, its biomechanical form is terrifying, and it is so dangerous it is hard to fully grasp. It is invulnerable where we are vulnerable, single-minded where we are conflicted, dangerous where we are impotent. So in a way, yes, I think it is so terrible and awe-inspiring and different that, in a way, we’re forced to admire it.

SPJ: Suppose you’re offered the opportunity to nuke the aliens from orbit, rendering their species extinct. Do you?

JE: Well, as per my chapter, I don’t think we should assume that xenomorphs have no moral value at all just because they’re not humans. I make the strong case that perhaps the xenomorphs have a right to self-defense and survival just like we do. That said… I can hardly think of a species whose existence poses more potential danger to the universe. As Ripley says, maybe nuking them from orbit may be the only way to be sure we’re safe… so it is an understandable consideration.

At the same time, it would be beyond regrettable—as far as we know, the xenomorphs haven’t mastered space travel on their own. Consequently, wherever they are in the universe they are contained, unless a space-faring civilization brings them elsewhere. In other words, if they were left alone, maybe we wouldn’t have to kill them after all.

So perhaps we can strike a compromise between our own security and their right to exist—instead of nuking them, defend the area around them to contain them in their own region of space. Although “create a defensive perimeter, it’s the only way to be sure” doesn’t have quite the same poignant ring.

SPJ: But suppose we don’t give you the luxury of deciding how society will behave. Let’s make you Corporal Hicks, and put you in a society where not just Weyland-Yutani but whoever is the most senior commander of the Colonial Marines has ordered you to bring an alien specimen back with you. Having seen what the aliens can do, should you not just disobey orders but also render them extinct?

JE: It would be hard to be an officer in that position. The one thing you shouldn’t do is bring an alien specimen back. Faced with the knowledge that they’d likely keep trying to bring back dangerous specimens (the opposite of the quarantine that is necessary) the most moral thing may in that situation be to eradicate them before they become some bio-weapon of unimaginable power. That’s too terrible a thing to rest in the hands of any individual or government, in my opinion.

SPJ: Ripley tries to extinguish the species a second time in Alien 3, throwing herself into the cauldron to kill the alien incubating inside her. Is this action as morally repugnant as nuking all the aliens from afar? Is it worse?

JE: I would say it depends on your ethical framework! From a strict utilitarian standpoint, focused on maximizing some positive state like happiness, your calculus could hypothetically be that the existence of xenomorphs threatens life throughout the universe, and therefore killing more xenomorphs is an ethically superior action! On the other hand, one may have a deontological ethic (judging the rightness or wrongness of an action independently from its consequences) that does or does not include xenomorph life as valuable, and therefore either option could be thought of as morally wrong. These are, of course, just examples—but, in short, it’s a complicated question!

In this context, I don’t think we can be fully confident that xenomorph destruction is the right thing to do. But I do think Ripley is right to not want her body to have this parasitic and deadly entity growing inside her! So I would say it’s a solidly ethical choice, whereas mass-xenomorph destruction is more problematic. (My co-editor’s chapter on “Contagion: Impurity, Mental Illness, and Suicide…” really digs into the issues around this choice, and I’d definitely recommend it for the interested reader.)

SPJ: There’s not much religion in the Alien franchise until we get to Prometheus. The exception is the religion of the YY-prisoners in Alien 3, with Dillon being their pastor. Whilst most characters want another paycheck, those prisoners need to avoid temptation, and they seek salvation. Is Dillon’s sacrifice – letting himself be torn to shreds by the alien in order to provide a distraction – a way for him to finally achieve that salvation?

JE: I think it is. Like many of the inmates on Fiorina 161, Dillon had a troubled, predatory past. He found religion in jail, and I think that he did seek to sacrifice himself for Ripley and to kill the alien, finding some sort of redemption.

SPJ: Do we need the threat of murderous aliens to restore some meaning to our dull, safe lives?

JE: I think there is a sense where, for many of us in the developed world, much of life is rather mundane. We still have dangers, like “what if I forget to lock the car” or “what if I can’t pay my student loans”, but those are somehow both stressful and boring. We get up, clock in to work, clock out, pay our bills and taxes, and repeat until we die. One of the appeals of larger-than-life films, with epic heroes, treacherous villains, dangerous monsters, etc., is that it gets our blood pumping in a safe way. We get to ‘feel’ more alive for two hours, yet without endangering our own real lives. So, in short, I think that the audience at some level does need these aliens, treacherous androids, crashed spaceships, and the like. Ironically, watching something so alien may make us feel human after all!

SPJ: Your book covers all the Alien films but the latest, Alien: Covenant. Is there anything you would change or add in light of Alien: Covenant?

JE: One theme that Prometheus and Alien: Covenant highlight that exists in a more limited way in prior films is their focus on the ethics of creation/being a creator. So many philosophical issues connect to the Engineers’ relationship to their creations, Weyland’s relationship to David, and David’s relationship to his experiments—what do we owe our creations? How should we treat them, and how should they see us? What creations are too dangerous for the world (and should not be created?). After Alien: Covenant, I’d like to dig into these issues to a greater extent.

SPJ: Does that mean there might be a sequel to your book?

JE: Perhaps! In the future there very well may be, and I’d welcome it. Alien and Philosophy covered a wide range of ground with some truly talented philosophers, but the Alien world is rich with philosophical implications, including the ones opened up in Alien: Covenant! There is a lot more to be said.

Ray Blank
Ray Blank is the Executive Editor of Sci Phi Journal. You can learn (a little) more about him here.

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