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#AlienDay 2020: Corporate Dystopia in the ‘Alien’ Franchise

Since the late 1970s, the Alien franchise has terrified audiences with its iconic and nightmarish extra-terrestrial creatures, but, since that very first film, a far more insidious horror has always been present throughout the series. While it’s easy to understand why the xenomorph and its blood-chilling life cycle have always stood out as the defining fiend of the franchise, there is no argument that Weyland-Yutani (often referred to simply as “The Company” in a sign of their monolithic absolute dominance over human society) is the true monstrous presence throughout the film series, most notably when it comes to the first three entries and the story of Ellen Ripley (portrayed by Sigourney Weaver).

“Priority one
Insure return of organism for analysis.
All other considerations secondary.
Crew expendable.”
—MOTHER’s order directives

The signs of corporate dystopia are present from the very first scenes of 1979’s Alien, with demonstrations of Weyland-Yutani’s controlling power and the over-riding motivation for commercial profit present in some of the very first discussions heard between the crew of the M-Class starfreighter and commercial towing vehicle known as the USCSS Nostromo. Often described by director Ridley Scott as “space truckers,” Ripley and the rest of the crew are clearly meant to represent the blue-collar working class of this vision of the future, manning the commercial hauler as it transported ore and oil refineries between outer colonies and Earth. The work is clearly exhausting, grimy, and time-consuming. In fact, the “haul” is so long, the crew is put into hypersleep for the majority of the journey and only find themselves awoken by “Mother” (the MU-TH-UR 6000 AI Mainframe that communicates orders to the crew and maintains The Company’s interests throughout the journey as a form of the ultimate in “Big Brother” supervision) when a potential distress signal is picked up during their trip home. Discussion among the freshly woken crew quickly becomes focused on the “bonus situation” (a topic the dialogue makes clear has been discussed at length before), where class tension is immediately revealed between Parker and Brett, the ships two engineers, and the other members of the crew regarding inequity of pay for the job done:

Parker: Uh, before we dock, I think we ought to discuss the bonus situation.
Brett: Right.
Parker: Brett and I think we ought to, we deserve full shares, right ,baby?
Brett: Right. You see, Mr. Parker and I feel that the bonus situation has never been on a, an equitable level.
Dallas: Well, you get what you’re contracted for like everybody else.
Brett: Yes, but everybody else, uh, gets more than us.

This struggle for equal pay is quickly pushed aside when it becomes clear that “Mother” has received a potential alien distress call from an unexplored planet and has taken the crew off course out of the crew’s contractual obligation to investigate. To be clear, the crew of the “space tug” have no real expertise regarding matters of this sort, but due to their employment by The Company, there is a clause in their contracts which specifically states “any systematized transmission indicating a possible intelligent origin must be investigated.” The result for ignoring this contractual obligation is a total forfeiture of shares, or as Science Officer Ash puts it, “No money.” The callous nature of The Company contractual forcing its employees into potentially dangerous situations is only over-shadowed by the later revelation that corporation (or some faceless executive member within the organization) has covertly coordinated this entire “happenstance” in an effort to acquire the aggressive and deadly xenomorph in an obvious effort to financially benefit off the “perfect organism.” In pursuit of this goal, the employees have been determined as expendable, and it should not be ignored that both Science Officer Ash, who turns out to be a company-placed android, and Mother (both who are co-workers and superior to much of the crew) are revealed to to be complicit in this quest at the expense of their fellow crew members’ lives.

“You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.” – Ripley

In director James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens, 57 years may have passed before Ripley, the sole survivor of the Nostromo‘s crew, is found drifting in stasis in the space tug’s escape shuttle, but things have changed very little in regards to Weyland-Yutani’s absolute control over their employees’ lives and their desire to acquire the xenomorph for corporate profit at any cost. Since the Nostromo disappeared, it seems whoever was specifically involved in giving special order directives to Ash and Mother have moved on to other endeavors, considering the lost ship and presumed-dead crew nothing more than one of many failed business ventures. When Ripley shows back up, she finds herself blamed for the destruction of a hugely expensive spacecraft and stripped of her rank and flight status, along with skepticism regarding the creature she describes and insinuations that she may have dispatched her own crew and blown the ship as an attempt to hide the evidence. Once again representing the working class of the future, Ripley finds her employment options reduced and is forced to working the cargo docks in the futuristic exoskeleton equivalent of a forklift known as a powerloader. As the initially friendly Weyland-Yutani representative Carter Burke (played by Paul Reiser) explains, it’s the only work Ripley could find after her return put her in poor footing in regards to The Company’s graces. Plagued by PTSD-fueled nightmares of her experience onboard the Nostromo and living in a cramped, windowless apartment with only Jonesy, the Nostromo‘s onboard cat, to share her isolation with, The Company keeps Ripley desperate and needy under the corporate boot – a situation one has to imagine is not reserved for Ripley alone, but is actually the fate of many unfortunate souls in the world of Weyland-Yutani. And it’s this discouraging and hopeless existence that allows The Company to manipulate Ripley into returning to the planet where the Nostromo‘s crew picked up the xenomorph, promising her the safety of a Colonial Marine escort and dangling her reinstatement as a flight officer and her company contract as a lure to get her to once again put herself in a potentially fatal situation for their financial interests (this time as an advisor to an investigation of a terraformed colony on the planet that has lost contact with Earth since Ripley’s return). Our hero is tempted back into hell with the promise of relief from her economic hardships, a situation that many in our own reality may find far too relatable these days.

Burke is one of the first human faces that we see represent The Company onscreen, and the character, and Reiser’s fantastic performance, give us many subtle insights into how the corporate world works under Weyland-Yutani. Self-deprecating and seemingly kind-hearted, Burke initially comes off as one of the few friendly faces (or possible the only one) on Ripley’s side upon her return. While the character’s charm is always laced with a hint of his corporate smarminess, he establishes himself early in the film as one of the few who believe Ripley’s account regarding the ill-fated voyage on the Nostromo and “an okay guy” who just happens to be working in the belly of the beast. Still, as Special Projects Director for Weyland-Yutani, apparently, Burke has access to Ripley’s monthly psychological evaluations and uses her trauma to push her towards cooperating in the investigation of the colony now present on the planet of LV-426 where the Nostromo set down. It’s not until later in the film that it’s revealed that his interests in Ripley and LV-426 extend beyond The Company’s financing of the terraforming colony present there and Burke eventually reveals his complete disregard for human life when he’s shocked to discover that Ripley refuses to ignore his hand in the death of 60-70 colonist families in exchange for the two of them being financially set up for life by delivering alien specimens to The Company’s bio-weapons division. Burke’s statement to Ripley that “I expected more from you. I thought you’d be smarter than this” speaks to the core of his character and mentality that, unfortunately, is present in much of corporate America today.

While it’s never spelled out in full in the films, Burke’s actions seem to signal that The Company, while massive and inescapable in many ways, is not so monolitihic that it operates as one single entity with uniform goals and aspirations. Instead, as with corporations in our own reality, there may be some pursuits and interests that unite the various individuals operating within Weyland-Yutani, but the true unifying element for employees like Burke seem to be continued pursuit of professional success driven through greed, self-interest, and complete dedication to the bottom line of the corporate balance sheet. While on LV-426, it’s Burke who argues against nuking the colony from orbit because of its substantial dollar value and pushes back against exterminating a “very important species” (of which he has a financial interest) despite the massive death incurred by the working-class colonists and colonial marines. Furthermore, it was Burke who initially sent the colonists to investigate the derelict coordinates described by Ripley with not so much as a warning about what they may find, and he does so in this manner in an attempt to avoid any other parties cutting in on his personal gain. As he explains to Ripley, if he had given an indication about the potential dangers, “…everybody steps in. Administration steps in, and there are no exclusive rights for anybody; nobody wins.” Burke considers the decimation of the colony at the hands of the xenomorphs nothing more than a “bad call.” Another failed business venture like what happened on the Nostromo. While Burke clearly has interest in furthering The Company’s interests, his actions suggest that his main motivation from keeping his true interest confidential was his desire to personally and professionally benefit from this situation and, one must assume, that this speaks to a pervasive culture present within Weyland-Yutani. It’s not enough to merely profit off the commercialization and/or weaponization of a deadly species with the potential to kill in horrific and inconceivable ways, but one must ensure that, while doing so, the best “percentage” is achieved, no matter the cost. The universal corporate culture present in the Alien franchise is a world where, for many, personal gain through ruthlessness, greed, and loyalty to company interests is valued over all else.

“When they first heard about this thing, it was crew expendable. The next time they sent in marines; they were expendable, too. What makes you think they’re gonna care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass-end of space? You really think they’re going to let you interfere with their plans for this thing? They think we’re crud, and they don’t give a fuck about one friend of yours that’s died. Not one.” – Ripley

The concepts regarding the franchise’s corporate dystopia are continued throughout the third film in the series, director David Fincher’s Alien 3. While Ripley finds herself marooned on the planet Fiorina “Fury” 161 with individuals The Company couldn’t care less about (a nearly forgotten prison colony and a handful of administrative staff), the nearly stone-age accommodations reflect much of the value, resources, and interest corporate America demonstrates when it comes capitalizing on and maintaining institutions like prisons, schools, and other normally public or government services. It’s here that our hero makes her last stand and, as is quite appropriate in the context of her battle against her corporate overlords, her final triumph is not about romantically destroying Weyland-Yutani or living happily-ever-after. In fact, no one in the third film makes it through to the end without suffering or death. Even the naive-yet-goodhearted prison guard named Aaron (played by Ralph Brown), who is a consistent believer in his employer and often waxes about being saved by The Company and reunited with his wife and child, meets his end, not at the hand of the deadly xenomorph, but rather at the end of a Company bullet. Ripley, now carrying an Alien Queen inside her, also perishes in the final moments of the film by choosing to sacrifice herself to the flames of the prison’s gargantuan furnace, with her victory being simply to deny The Company its current goal in hope of sparing the deaths of millions via the spread of the alien species. In the end, opposing corporate totality is the ultimate heroic action that can be taken by our protagonist.

The theme of corporate dystopia is a vital component of the “DNA” of the Alien franchise, and the battle against it continues on throughout the other films in the series. While this editorial won’t examine the remaining films here in this context, it’s notable, given how real-world corporations have now expanded into various genetic fields including the surreal concept of gene patents, that the fourth film, Alien: Resurrection, strips Ripley of her agency of even taking her own life by cloning her from Weyland-Yutani recovered DNA samples and converting the hero of the film series into a commercial (or, in this case, military) product that is owned and can be manufactured at will. While a horrifying fate and a concept worth its own examination and discussion, all of the films in the franchise speak to the ultimate message of Ripley as the blue-collar hero who leads her own personal rebellion against the injustices committed against her and her working-class brethren by their corporate employer, and there’s a reason these stories continue to resonate nearly half a century after they began. The stories in the Alien franchise paint a chilling depiction of where our world is heading (and has already reached in many ways). The concepts present in these films are more than just exciting premises for a science-fiction film.

Fanbase Press has spent much of 2020 discussing why #StoriesMatter as part of our 10th anniversary initiative, and the Alien films stand out in this regard, providing the basic tools for discussing corporate overreach in the general public and warning us of a future that seems all too likely when our own Supreme Court has granted corporations many of the same Constitutional rights as citizens, corporations continue to control more and more of our lives, corporations and their executives receive massive government tax cuts and bailouts while citizens struggle to make ends meet, public services are under consistent attack and pushed for privatization, and company loyalty has become a one-way street where nearly every employee fears being discarded at a whim if their company believes they can save a dime for the bottom line. The four-decades-old lessons of Alien’s corporate dystopia are even more prescient than ever given that, as this piece is being written, massive corporations are furloughing hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers after paying company executives millions of dollars, and the drum beat has begun even stronger in regards to the fear of loss of profits over loss of human life. It has been asked over the past few years why the cyberpunk genre, which often focuses on corporate dystopias, has remain unchanged for so long, and the key conclusion may, in fact, be that our fears and anxiety around the corporate takeover of our lives has only increased in the past few decades. Which begs the question: Are we, the people of this planet, accepting corporate dystopia as our inevitable future? If Ripley and the Alien franchise can teach us anything, perhaps it should be that, even in the face of absolute destruction, there is a path forward. That human life has more value than what financial gain it provides on the corporate spreadsheet. And that, no matter what nightmares hide in the dark shadows, they’re nothing compared to evil the human species is willing to commit against one another in the pursuit of power and wealth.  


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