Sunday, July 27, 2014

Ridley Scott's Socialist Science Fiction Classic

Socialists have inflicted much impenetrable prose and lugubrious narrative upon the world, but their outsider status and  extensive reading of theoretical texts often give them insights denied to us drones in the mainstream. At the Socialism 2014 conference in Chicago last month, Nicole Coleson enthralled a packed room with her brilliant presentation on “Capitalism and Horror,” a connection that only seemed obvious to me once someone else had made it. She noted Upton Sinclair's early success in presenting capitalism as a horror story in The Jungle (1906), wherein work in an industrial slaughterhouse converted workers into machines or worse. Coleson then discussed the importation of Sinclair's themes into two seminal horror movies of the 1970s*, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (whose villains had themselves been slaughterhouse workers) and Alien.

In the latter movie, with which I suspect my readers are familiar, a nameless** Company demands obedience from its employees, even Captain Dallas – things on the ship Nostromo happen, he tells protagonist Ripley, “because that's what the Company wants to happen" – sets them against one another with a hierarchy of rank and pay, and sends them to retrieve a hideously dangerous but valuable alien species which uses human beings, in Coleson's words, “as its eggs.” This is figuratively true in the case of crew-member Kane, whom the juvenile alien “cracks open” in the film's most memorable scene. It becomes literally true in a scene cut from the original theatrical release, in which Ripley discovers that the adult alien has begun converting the captured Dallas and Brett into egg pods, presumably to incubate the “facehuggers” that restart its life-cycle.

The filmmakers intensify the characters' alienation from their employers by introducing two additional non-human characters who, we gradually learn, outrank the humans: the ship's computer, “Mother,” who informs the surviving crew members that they are expendable, and the science officer, a concealed robot who has been studying, protecting, and admiring the alien all along. Officer Ash's description of the alien as “a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality” reminds one of the profile and behavior of a modern corporation, like the Company. Arguably, everyone on the Nostromo has been working for an alien intelligence all along.

Ash the robot science officer is the model of a good employee***: he keeps his own counsel, obeys his orders, and admires the alien, which suggests he probably also admires the corporation which employs him. The others are less ideal: they decide in the end to blow up the giant factory-like ship in which they work, along with its payload – “the money,” as Dallas called it. Take that, capitalist swine!

Incidentally, Dan O'Bannon, Alien's scriptwriter, hated the idea of making Ash a robot and creating a conflict between the Company and its employees. To the extent that this conflict makes Alien a more engaging, more relevant, and more humanistic movie, the credit belongs to co-writers Walter Hill and David Giler, and to Ridley Scott, whose subsequent descent into crapulence should not obscure our appreciation of his earlier work. But, then, Scott began his career as a director of television commercials, so he knew rather more about capitalism and popular demand than the average sci-fi fan. If he has turned from thoughtful speculations on alienation and the human condition to mindless spectacles like Gladiator, perhaps this says more about audiences than directors.

*Coleson also discussed, at length, the novel and film versions of The Shining, both of which include a critique of American upward mobility: as the plot progresses, Jack Torrance becomes more loyal to his employers than his family, and eventually starts taking orders from the wealthy ghost-patrons of the Overlook. They reward him with a permanent invite to one of their parties. Stanley Kubrick always did like happy endings.

** Nominally identified in the film as “Weyland-Yutani,” but you'd have to look pretty close to catch that.

*** Not surprisingly, since the word “robot” means “worker” in Czech. It first received its modern meaning in Karel Capek's play “R.U.R.” (“Rossum's Universal Robots).” James Cameron, in the sequel Aliens (1986), took Isaac Asimov's robots, rather than Capek's, as the model for the android character Bishop. Notably, Bishop is much more concerned for his co-workers than his employers.