Alert: Spoilers below for Alien, Blade Runner and Prometheus
Science-fiction is a genre which invites writers and directors to explore deeper topics and philosophical questions. No other director working today has better used Sci-fi for this purpose than Ridley Scott, renowned for Alien, Blade Runner, and Prometheus.
We see the human race as the world’s axis. Our species continues to grow and consume at an unsustainable pace, placing our demands above all other forms of planetary life. Western religion claims that we are the pinnacle of creation, moulded in the image of God. Outside the West, other philosophies and religions share the belief that humanity alone has been imbued with a soul, placing us apart from the rest of creation.
Alien, Blade Runner, and Prometheus are each a different premise where Scott questions our beliefs, and our hypocrisies about the value of human life.
Alien and ‘intelligent life’
Around 400 years ago, people still believed the solar system revolved around the Earth. Humanity has moved on since then, but we still perceive the universe from a self-centered perspective.
Today the world balances on the axis of humanity, and the universe revolves around our pull. In popular culture our forays into space commonly belong to three types: conflict, contact or isolation. In film, typically, humanity is found by another species with a familiar system of civilization and technology to our own. The arriving species may invade our planet, or guide us, or we attack them. The final two types are contact and isolation. Humanity comes into contact with something incomprehensible like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey or we wander the galaxy, completely alone.
Few have depicted a universe where humanity is inconsequential, even unnoticed. These works belong to Cosmic Horror, a genre formed by H.P. Lovecraft. Cosmic Horror topples the assumption we have held, from biblical times and beyond, that we have some measure of control on the world. Western thought has developed the idea that we were designed for a purpose, that we can master everything both tangible and intangible. Plato’s The Republic is the earliest work I know that claims we will eventually understand everything, becoming gods in our own right. Plato’s concept of the Philosopher-King, just like Nietschze’s Ubermensche, shares the belief that humanity’s pre-destined superiority over the world, and the universe, will arise.
Cosmic Horror challenges humanity’s sense of purpose and superiority. Across Lovercraft’s works, in the Universe beyond our understanding, characters come across forces far more powerful than ourselves. Humanity’s divine trajectory to masters of the universe is shattered, our species is shown to be at the whim of random, and often chaotic forces beyond our grasp.
Alien and Prometheus both draw from Cosmic Horror, although in different ways. Prometheus upends the Christian belief that humans were purposefully created. Instead humanity, just like Frankenstein’s monster, is the product of an experiment gone awry, feared by our creator, who is bent upon destroying us. While Prometheus challenges humanity’s purpose, Alien questions our superiority.
Alien exists in a future where space, the last frontier, has become tamer than a front lawn. The crew of the Nostromo are not daring adventurers, but space truckers who want to get home and get paid. The Nostromo’s crew stumble upon a life form that is the polar opposite of human beings. It makes no attempts to understand the crew, the alien is designed to kill and is driven to survive, at the cost of all other life.
The alien is not a monster, but the first intelligent life this universe has come across. The most chilling scene in the film is when the android Ash, gurgling from his detached head, admires the alien as superior to humans. To Ash, the alien is not a monster, but the ‘perfect organism… designed to survive… unclouded by delusions by remorse… or delusions of morality.’
Ash’s final words reveal the true horror of Alien. A being emerges from the depths of space, shattering the belief in our own dominance in the universe. Despite our technology and brainpower, the lifeform butchers the Nostromo’s crew in a few hours. By the end of Alien, humanity is no longer the masters of space, but weaklings in a universe where darker beings, just like the alien, may be lurking on forgotten planets. Space no longer tanatalises us with the chance of discovery and progress. The optimism we held for space in the 1960’s has been replaced, with a dread of what lies beyond our planet.
The alien is, like Ash states, intelligent life. If a being like an alien did exist, it would challenge what we consider to be intelligent alien life. It does not have our intelligence, or social structures, but it lives and strives to survive above all else. How would we value such a being, and more importantly, how would we deal with it?
By Saul Shimmin