“937”

So, I wanted to talk about the Alien movies before I see Prometheus tonight. This is the tip of the iceberg as regards things I want to say about these movies, but it’s a start.


Of all the things I love about the Alien franchise (and there are many), the thing I might love most is how well the disparate directors have maintained the illusion that the aliens are the bad guys.

Don’t get me wrong, the aliens are antagonists. And frankly, their acid blood and their oddly-aggressive bloodthirstiness for a species that can only incubate in the bodies of others is the least of this. What sets them apart in the alien-monster genre is that, overtly psychosexual in form and function (never have so many genital suggestions been present in so many forms on a single being), they’re a living, breathing rape metaphor. In each installment of the original trilogy, there are additional spectres raised; the forced-pregnancy of Alien’s chestburster (a visceral moment that imitation and parody haven’t lessened), the subtext of the alien queen’s fixation on capturing (and impregnating) Newt in Aliens; the stomach-churning moment in Alien 3 when Ripley realizes the horror that happened to her while she was unconscious. (In the second-cousin-no-one-talks-about of the franchise, Alien Resurrection, Ripley – now part-alien herself – is resurrected against her will, euthanizes previous abortive attempts to clone her, impregnates the alien, and kills her own offspring.) It’s half a dozen psychosexual nightmares rolled into one, examining the horrors of masculinity, femininity, motherhood, isolation, outward incredulity, the inescapable.

But the aliens aren’t the real enemy. Weyland-Yutani is.

Weyland-Yutani, who sends the Nostromo on a cargo mission that it knows will pass by LV-426, with a mole in the crew and Special Order 937 in the files; who orders the colonists of LV-426 to check out the abandoned ship in hopes of growing more samples for return; who sends Michael Bishop to coax the queen out of Ripley, bar nothing.

Ellen Ripley, one of science fiction’s most ruthlessly badass heroines, learns this early. Sitting in the command center, demanding answers of Mother, she learns about Special Order 937, giving Ash the imperative to bring back the alien, crew expendable. This moment, more than the violent birth of the first alien, more than her standoff with the alien queen in the second film, more even than her sacrifice at the end of Alien 3, defines Ripley as a character, solidifying not only her arc, but the entire shape of all three films and their subtexts. (One could make a case that Alien Resurrection’s biggest flaw was that it brought along the Macguffin while forgetting to bring the villain; however, that seems like only one of many ingredients in the Flaw Soup that is Alien Resurrection, so we’re going to ignore it as hard as we can.)

It’s after learning about this detached corporate betrayal that Ripley is assaulted by Science Officer Ash (a flawless Ian Holm), revealed to be an android in a moment more profoundly othering than the revelation of the alien itself. (The alien does only what’s in its nature to do; Ash’s duplicity has been calculated, his undermining deliberate. The alien is the monster who makes you jump in your seat; Ash is the villain who makes you distrust those around you.) It’s Ripley’s wariness of Weyland-Yutani’s motives (personified in Aliens by Paul Reiser’s Burke) that saves the lives of anyone at all aboard the Sulaco – and the closest she comes to dying after she underestimates how far the company is willing to go to keep its discovery secret, and wakes up to find herself locked in a lab with a facehugger. Alien 3 is so awash in nihilism that Bishop’s appearance is not so much a betrayal of anyone’s faith, but rather a betrayal of Ripley’s experience with the Bishop android she knows and trusts, who went against company protocol out of loyalty to her. Seeing that experience so violated and othered by the new Bishop is a keen echo of the first film, and the final nail in Ripley’s coffin – a confirmation of everything she had feared about the tireless, heedless greed of the company men.

In this context, the Alien trilogy becomes the word’s grimmest workplace drama. Truckers, Marines, prisoners; each cast provides the same backdrop for the interplay of corporate cruelty. The company is the machine in which Ripley and her fellows are trapped, and the aliens are merely the device with which management shows its disdain. (Alien is the blue-collar crew who get caught up in someone else’s boardroom battle; Aliens is the contentious attempt to unionize in the face of executive action; Alien 3 is the postmodern deconstruction of the inherent evil of the corporation.) The supporting characters in each film are defined by how they react to one another within this ersatz office, and more importantly, how they react to Ripley, who, in the face of of Weyland-Yutani’s seriously questionable business practices, has become the world’s most intimidating auditor. She is the character who, at first through circumstance and then finally by choice, forces others to confront the company and compels them to fight against its objectives, almost exclusively at the cost of their own lives.

This paves the way for another layer of horror underlying this dynamic – credulity. As a natural leader and strong tactical thinker, Ripley against the aliens is, in its own twisted way, something of a fair fight. (By Alien 3, her history with the monster is so fraught that there’s a flicker of disappointment when she realizes that, because of her incubation, the alien stalking the prison isn’t actually a threat.) The moments of abject terror Ripley experiences are those spent in lone conversation with one of the Weyland-Yutani men, being told that, if she tells others what she knows, no one will believe her. (Notably, that same sureness of purpose that draws others to Ripley gives the lie to this threat; the realization that Ripley is a whistleblower people actually believe is why each company man resorts to an attempt on her life.)

No one who has seen the movies will deny the deep satisfaction of watching Ripley suit up and torch an alien in the shuttle engine, face off against the queen in nothing but her cargo loader, or doing a swan dive into a pool of molten lead with her hands wrapped around her chestburster to keep it from escaping. (We’ll bring Alien Resurrection out of the basement long enough to acknowledge Ripley’s blood burning right through the floor – it’s symbiotic, not antagonistic, but serves the same purpose of assuring us that Ripley’s up to the task.) Much has been written about her status as action hero, as feminist role model, as science fiction stalwart. She is all those things and more. However, Ripley’s relationship with the aliens is fluid, complex.

It’s the company against whom she bears the grudge; it’s Weyland-Yutani that’s her true enemy. She recognizes its evil the first time she ever sits down at Mother and pulls up Special Order 937; and the company proves her right, every time.

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