Alien is one of the greatest horror movies ever made. It slowly and suspensefully builds to moments of sheer terror. The first act of the film is an uneventful character study of people working in a spaceship, which introduces the characters and sets the scene for what’s to come. We see the crew working, sharing meals and talking. It establishes the ordinariness of working in a spaceship, before that ordinariness is shattered by a horrific turn of events.
I’ll simultaneously assume that you have seen the film and that you don’t want any annoying spoilers. If you haven’t seen Alien, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s one of my all time favourite films, if not my favourite film.
The more I watch, the more I appreciate the many different levels that the film works on. One of its strengths is that, despite the fact we only see the events on the Nostromo and LV-426, there is a believable, rich future society that produced these characters and whose social conventions guide their actions.
In the future, there will be shit jobs
The future society of Alien is one where there are still shit jobs. Humanity may have reached into space, but there are still people who do difficult, unpleasant, largely manual jobs in dangerous conditions. This is not a shiny, optimistic vision of the future, like Star Trek or Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. This is a dirty, grubby, hard future to live and work in. Working in the Nostromo has more in common with working in the heat and dirt of a Victorian steam train than living on the Enterprise or a Culture GSV.
From the film, we get a sense of what the social and economics and society of Alien are like. For working people, a significant amount of their income is provided by incentivised pay on top of their wages. This is why the crew are so concerned about the “bonus situation”, clearly the basic income they get from doing their jobs is not enough to meet their needs or to justify by itself working on the Nostromo.
There is also a clear hierarchy amongst the crew, with the engineers on the lowest rung (Parker and Brett) and the more technically skilled workers (such as Ripley, Kane and Ash) above them and the ship’s captain (Dallas) at the top.
Technological change doesn’t mean social change
This all shows that technological change doesn’t mean social change. The social structure of today’s workplace – with manual labour being less valued and lower status than technical labour or management – are preserved in the future. The workplace of the Nostromo is the same as today, only in space.
This shows that more advanced technology and means of production (such as spaceships) will not ultimately bring with it equality or an end to workplace hierarchies. The extra income made from more advanced means of production (again, such as spaceships) have not made everyone better off as there are still shit jobs in space. This extra wealth has been captured by the Weyland-Yutani company and not the people who work for it.
Lessons for today
Here Alien has important lessons for today. If we expect that more technology – robots, AI, etc. – will automatically make us a more equal society as they make society richer, Alien shows us that it’s perfectly possible that there will still be shit jobs in the future. We know that the society of Alien is wealthier as it produced something like the Nostromo, which is too expensive for current human society to produce, and this is not considered remarkable or unusual.
The extra wealth generated by technological progress has been captured by the rich owners and senior managers of the Weyland-Yutani company, so there isn’t more money to make working in industry better paid and thus workers rely on bonuses to meet their needs. The wealth in their society is even more unevenly distributed than in ours.
This is why we need wealth redistribution to make sure that the benefits of technology are not captured by the wealthy. Otherwise we will end up in a society like Alien, which is much wealthier but still there’s still shit jobs and not everyone has benefitted from technological progress. We need wealth redistribution or we’ll all end up working shitty jobs in a spaceship, before being butchered by dangerous aliens.
Memory: The Origins of Alien
These thoughts came to me when I recently watched a new documentary about the making of Alien called Memory: The Origins of Alien. You can hear me talk about Memory and Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Irishman, in the audio player below.