Corporate Exploitation and Cosmic Perversion in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979)

By Benjamin Sunday

A corporate computer named Mother, operated from a control room that suggests a mechanical womb; an android from the same company named Ash, whose sweat resembles something between milk and semen; a wage slave astronaut named Gilbert Kane writhing in agony as a phallic head bursts from his chest, like a horrific pregnancy coming to term…throughout Alien (1979), Ridley Scott imposes human reproductive imagery upon the vessels of an amoral corporation as well as a series of space monsters, neither of which possess any humanity of their own. The result is a Freudian nightmare wherein a business’s greed is equated to an alien’s desire to procreate, culminating in either case with the consumption of human life. Whether it’s a company abusing its employees for profit or a cosmic beast using their bodies as a breeding ground, the inhumane imperative that drives both antagonists is one and the same.

Alien opens with the transmission of an extraterrestrial signal to a spaceship called The Nostromo, which rouses the vehicle’s systems and its crew from their months-long hibernation. Like the flickering displays and beeping consoles around them, The Nostromo’s staff are just one of many instruments at the disposal of Mother and Weyland-Yutani, the corporation that created her. Unlike utopian sci-fi that depicts the elimination of labor by new technology, Scott presents a future where technology intensifies labor obligations and expands the corporate structure to encompass even the maternal role. The result is an unqualified group of men and women being forced to follow an ominous signal to an alien nest, simply to guarantee their wage. The high-tech search for new life, which is so romanticized in works like Star Trek, is thereby reduced to an overworked employee’s search for honest pay and an unsympathetic corporation’s search for new revenue.

That expedition takes a predictably disastrous turn when an alien organism latches onto Kane’s face, initiating the first step in its reproductive process. The attack “paralyzes [Kane], puts him in a coma, then keeps him alive,” inducing a peaceful slumber as the victim’s body lies in a medical pod. The strange calm of the scene evokes the film’s opening, in which the entire crew is seen resting in their hibernation chambers. The months upon months spent in that state, along with the symbolic birth the team experiences when they’re awakened for work, shows their lives have been fully subsumed by their employer. The characters’ sparse backstories only deepen this effect, turning their jobs into their sole reason for being. They are each caught in a life cycle that is circumscribed by their occupations, beginning and ending with what they can provide to Weyland-Yutani. Before any of them are impregnated with a parasitic alien, the parasite of the corporation has already adjoined itself to them.

The equivalence between the alien and Weyland-Yutani is further underlined when, after the deaths of multiple colleagues, Ash tries to stop the survivors from killing the creature. As white fluid seeps from his pores, the android batters the heroine Ellen Ripley before attempting to suffocate her with a rolled up magazine. The seminal and phallic imagery of the scene recall the rape symbolism of Kane’s impregnation, placing Ash and Weyland-Yutani alongside the alien on the same abhorrent spectrum of sexual violence. Beyond the physical harm they cause, they each dehumanize their victims and treat them as a resource to be consumed for their own growth. In both the alien’s life cycle and the corporation’s cycle of profit and expansion, morality and compassion are discarded in favor of a single imperative to reproduce, and all else that lives and breathes becomes fuel towards that end.

Some time after the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, which supported the idea of corporate personhood and its relationship to political speech, Psychology Today published an article entitled “Why Corporations Are Psychotic.”[1] In it, writer David Noise says, “If corporations are indeed ‘persons,’ their mental condition can accurately be described as pathological. Corporations have no innate moral impulses, and in fact they exist solely for the purpose of making money.” That sense of corporate psychology is present and even amplified in Ridley Scott’s Alien, which imbues the Weyland-Yutani Corporation with a recognizable consciousness and then pushes its past the point of any recognizable humanity. Even if humans run it, the corporation’s relationship to humanity is solely that of predator to prey, and the only companion it may find in the universe is a monster as dark as space whose violence and inhumanity can successfully match its own.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-humanity-naturally/201103/why-corporations-are-psychotic

Ben Sunday watches too much TV.

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