ALIEN — The SciFi Classic With A Warning For The Working Class
Hey folks! Longtime readers will recall I wrote about the movie ALIEN back in the day. I don’t usually repost old articles, but I wanted to update this one for two reasons. First, I’m a better writer than I was then, and I didn’t feel my previous attempt did this movie justice.
Second, I was invited on the Movies vs. Capitalism podcast to talk about ALIEN and wanted an updated article to complement the discussion. I’ll be sure to post the episode here when it’s published. I hope you enjoy.
In Solidarity — Joe
The American left has long lived with a conundrum — Americans hate socialism but adore its goal. Polls routinely find massive support for leftist positions, such as labor rights, universal healthcare, and a less militaristic foreign policy. And yet, “socialist” is still the least popular identifier amongst potential presidential candidates.
Even politicians who espouse socialistic reforms insist they’re anything but, as D.C. consensus warns anything to the left of Joe Biden is political suicide. Yet when it comes to the left’s mission statement — to build a better world free from class, racial, and economic divisions — most Americans are sympathetic.
Nowhere is this dynamic more prevalent than in cinema. From Predator to Parasite, stories that explore the consequences of unchecked capitalism are among the most critically acclaimed films. ALIEN, the cult classic science fiction horror film, is a textbook example of this phenomenon. Known for crowning Sigourney Weaver as the queen of modern sci-fi, ALIEN is much more than two hours of cheap jump scares: underneath the heart-pounding tale of the Nostromo and its extraterrestrial guest is an allegory for how capital ruthlessly exploits workers in its pursuit of profit.
Deregulation & Disco
Released in 1979, ALIEN came at the tail end of a troubled decade for labor. Though strikes and solidarity were aplenty, neoliberalism was surging and deregulation was all the rage. With globalization rising, bosses went scorched earth against labor, threatening to move jobs overseas if they even heard anything that rhymed with “union.” The nail in the coffin for the American labor movement came with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, who broke the 1981 Air Traffic Controllers strike and filled the National Labor Relations Board with anti-union zealots.
It was in this climate that Dan O’Bannon, the son of a carpenter, conceived the plot of ALIEN. Borrowing concepts from a cadre of 1950s and 1960s sci-fi stories (a chamber of alien eggs from “Junkyard,” a warning for astronauts not to land on a strange planet from Forbidden Planet), O’Bannon seized on the recent success of Star Wars to sell the script to 20th Century Fox, pitching it as “Jaws in space!”
The studio was sold and production began. Right away O’Bannon faced his own labor issue, as two writers brought on by 20th Century Fox made significant changes to the script. Their edits were so drastic that O’Bannon feared the studio was trying to scrap his name from the writing credit. Eventually, compromises were reached and the final script was ready to shoot. Eventually, the Writer’s Guild of America recognized O’Bannon as the rightful creator of ALIEN’s script.
A promising young director named Ridley Scott was invited to direct, and the production of the future classic was underway.
Hey folks — Joe here. Please support my work with a free or paid subscription. Thank you!
Androids, Aliens, & Exploited Labor
Set in the not-so-distant year of 2122, ALIEN is far from the sleek and sexy science future of Star Wars or Star Trek. There are no space wizards, laser guns, or princesses needing rescue. Instead, there’s labor exploitation.
At its core, ALIEN is about working-class individuals just trying to make ends meet. The Nostromo isn’t an imperial cruiser or exploration vessel. It’s a mineral transport, crewed by the 22nd-century version of long-haul truckers. Immediately after being woken from hypersleep on their return to Earth, the workers plead with the captain for a full share of the bounty instead of their partial share. They’re told, “You’ll get what you’re contracted for,” and are then informed a clause has been snuck into their contracts requiring they investigate a mysterious beacon from an unexplored planet. If they don’t respond, they’ll forfeit all wages.
The message of ALIEN is clear: while the future will bring new technologies, if left unchecked, capital will continue to endanger and exploit workers for profit.
Just as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company locked workers inside a burning factory and Nestlé forces sun-stroked children back into the heat to pick coca leaves, the Weyland-Yutani company cares not for the wellbeing of its employees. Knowing full well they’ll be infected by the Xenomorph (the name given to the alien creature in the sequel film, ALIENS) the company orders the Nostromo crew onto an unmapped planet so the organism can be returned to Earth for research and monetization. As Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) eventually learns from the mission brief, preserving the specimen is the only priority. Like every other capitalist enterprise, profit is the goal. The workers are expendable.
But just like Gilded Age bosses needed to calm the factory floors rife with radical fervor, Weyland-Yutani’s owners know they can’t control the Nostromo crew alone. They needed someone* who looked and talked like the workers but acted in the company's interest. A few days before the Nostromo departs, Ash, a mysterious newcomer, replaces the science officer and is given complete discretion over any issues pertaining to “scientific discovery.” Eventually, Ash is revealed to be an android with the sole directive of returning the Xenomorph to Earth, no matter the cost.
While contemporary workers don’t have to deal with robotic overseers (yet), middle managers have long been a key cudgel in the union-busting arsenal. Just like the floor supervisors and foremen who appear and act like workers but are the agents of capital, Ash does as he’s told, sacrificing the crew to bring the profitable but deadly monster back to the employer. And, just as managers at Starbucks, Amazon, Tesla, and countless other companies are currently firing pro-union workers for bogus reasons, when Ridley threatens the profits of Weyland-Yutani, Ash tries to terminate her (literally) .
Ripley: “Since when is that standard procedure?”
Captain Dallas: “ Standard procedure is to do what the hell the company tells you to do!”
In the end, only Ripley and her feline companion Jonesy escape the Xenomorph. They drift into PTSD-filled hypersleep as their escape pod hurtles through unexplored space, fingers crossed they’ll be rescued by a galactic wanderer. While this might be seen as a “happy ending”, it’s anything but. Just like in the real, contemporary world, the workers of the Nostromo suffered and died only for the enrichment of the ownership class.
Fun fact: Ellen Ripley was originally written as a male. During pre-production, Ridley Scott suggested they make the protagonist a female, creating the feminist icon action hero.
Fake Worlds, Real Problems
While the acid-bleeding, wall-crawling extraterrestrial is the draw of ALIEN, just like the Nostromo’s dark cargo bay, there’s more here than meets the eye. While the special effects were groundbreaking and the movie kickstarted the modern sci-fi horror genre, what made ALIEN an American classic was its relatability.
Though many Americans recoil at the mention of socialism, we all know what it’s like to be mistreated at work. It’s a crushing, dehumanizing feeling to have no way to protect ourselves, our jobs, and our livelihoods from the whims of a profiteer. We may not always agree on the solution, but the recognition of workplace exploitation tugs at our heartstrings. No matter the year they exist in, when audiences watch the Nostromo’s crew be sacrificed for financial gain, it strikes our soul, churning our hearts as extraterrestrial murder turns our stomachs. We feel for these characters, even though they are fictitious, because we know their situation is one we may very well be placed in. Whether conscious or not, this solidarity pulls audiences into the Nostromo, binding our emotions to the crew as they fight for their lives.
In 2023, the power of capital remain strong. But the solidarity that made ALIEN a hit remains. Just this year, the WGA, UAW, and UPS Teamsters have won historic labor contracts. Starbucks workers refuse to back down in the face of the company’s union busting, and support for labor unions is polling at an all-time high.
As ALIEN posited almost half a century ago, capital’s power is only multiplying as it acquires omnipotent technology and political power. Though not explained in the original film, the ALIEN cannon details the market rise of the Weyland-Yutani corporation, which is not too dissimilar from the pattern Amazon and other mega-corporations are currently taking: having used its wealth to capture the government, Weyland-Yutani pursued total market share in any-and-every industry with as little regard for worker welfare as possible. But as capitalism requires expansion, eventually Weyland-Yutani spread its exploitative labor practices throughout the galaxy, just as real-world companies are doing now.
Underneath all the blockbuster elements that made ALIEN a cult classic — the racing bleep of a motion detector, the reveal of a machine masquerading as a man, and the haunt of a lone distress signal chirping from the black unknown — Dan O’Bannon’s masterpiece holds a warning for the 21st-century working class. If we are not protected from the profiteering of capital, the exploitation we face today will follow humanity as we venture into the great unknown.
Nearly half a century after ALIEN debuted, we’re just starting to hear it.
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this article, please support me by subscribing (free or paid), liking it (click the ❤️ up top), and forwarding this piece with a friend.