As a genre, sci-fi could not be clearer about a certain recurring narrative point: Never trust the company. Practically every Philip K. Dick story was about the relentless sprawl of tech-fueled capitalism and its insidious, dehumanizing effect on society. Authors Octavia Butler, George Orwell, and Ursula K. Le Guin all tackled questions of class difference, dystopian societies, and political hostilities in their novels. And the cinema born of this literary tradition has mostly—and rightly—continued this skeptical perspective. Corporations are not people, no matter what the Supreme Court says, and they are not your friends.
Not Omni Consumer Products in Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop. Not the Tyrell Corporation in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Not Cyberdyne Systems in James Cameron’s The Terminator franchise. And certainly not the Weyland-Yutani Corporation in the Alien franchise. Not in Scott’s 1979 film; not in Cameron’s 1986 follow-up; not in the slew of varyingly good sequels that have been released since (David Fincher’s Alien 3, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection, and Scott’s Prometheus and Alien: Covenant); and not in Noah Hawley’s upcoming TV series.
In a July 2021 interview with Vanity Fair, Hawley raised eyebrows from the most consistently ignorant corners of the Internet with his description of his upcoming FX adaptation: “You will see what happens when the inequality we’re struggling with now isn’t resolved. If we as a society can’t figure out how to prop each other up and spread the wealth, then what’s going to happen to us?” The exact kind of people you would expect to yell loudly into their own idiotic Twitter silos about socialism and SJWs or whatever, did, in fact, yell loudly into their own idiotic Twitter silos about socialism and SJWs or whatever. The rest of us, though, nodded along with Hawley’s description of a film franchise in which the rich-people-are-killing-us subtext has always been the text.
Alien opens with Yaphet Kotto’s Parker and Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett arguing about their cut for time served on the Nostromo: “Before we dock, maybe we’d better go over the bonus situation. … Brett and I think we deserve a full share.” Alien 3 is set on a prison colony full of men whom society would rather turn into slaves than attempt to rehabilitate. Alien Resurrection includes the unconsented cloning of Ripley by the international United Systems Military organization, and the transformation of her body into a hybrid weapon against her will. Prometheus and Alien: Covenant poke questions at assumed human superiority, the servitude we demand from artificial intelligence, and the relationship between the maker and the made. All of those films do their part in building a franchise that is anti-establishment, anti-authority, and anti-corporation. But none of them does it as clearly, as angrily, and as thrillingly as Aliens.
Through the friction between Lt. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the avaricious Weyland-Yutani Corporation, who dismiss her stories of a vicious extraterrestrial creature as the ravings of a hysteric. Through the resentment of the U.S. Colonial Marine Corps toward their ineffectual commanding officer Lt. Gorman (William Hope), a man who hasn’t seen combat and who dissolves into cowardice. And between both Ripley and the Marines and Weyland-Yutani middle-management representative Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), the ultimate ‘80s yuppie villain, a man whose mild manners hide a reckless ambition. Ian Holm’s android Ash in Alien had been programmed to betray the crew. Burke, though—Burke chooses to do so. His acquiescence to the bosses was intentional, and his murder of hundreds of people was, too.
“All of this—this bullshit that you think is so important—you can just kiss all of that goodbye.”
Like all land that is bought, sold, commodified, and eventually destroyed, space is a place for money to be made in the Alien franchise. Inhospitable planets can be reconfigured, and their utility manipulated, and their native terrain transformed. Send in equipment, send in colonists, send in a team to retrieve the resources, and let the executives line their pockets. Some people will die, but they were going to die anyway. The money lasts, even if their lives don’t.
It is into this fever dream of unquenchable greed that Ripley awakes in Aliens after floating adrift for 57 years. In Alien, Ripley saw her six fellow crew members on the Nostromo brutally killed by a xenomorph the Weyland-Yutani Corporation cared more about capturing and monetizing than it did its human employees. Per “orders from the Company,” as Tom Skerritt’s Dallas would say, or per “Special Order 937,” as Ash would say, the Nostromo crew was supposed to bring the Alien back—but their deaths put an end to that idea.
Instead, Ripley learns at the beginning of Aliens, Weyland-Yutani now denies all knowledge of such a creature. When she is brought in for questioning by the corporation’s hegemonic board, they discount her story. They dare to ask her, a woman who had nearly six decades and an entire lifetime stolen from her as a result of their actions, to “look at it from our perspective.” They talk about the ship, the “rather expensive piece of hardware,” which she destroyed (to save lives, which they don’t care about) and how much it cost them ($42 million, which they do care about). They claim there was no physical evidence of the creature described; they misrepresent details of her account. (Weaver’s dry line delivery of “Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?” is a delightful indication of her ability for droll humor.) Despite her passionate despair, they close the file, strip her of her ability to work as a flight officer, and shun her to some dirty corner of Gateway Station to live out the rest of her days working on the cargo docks. She was their employee, and she is expendable.
Until, of course, they need Ripley, and they leverage their power over her past—and her present and her future—to get her on a ship to the xenomorph-infested Hadley’s Hope installation on planet LV-426. The company can reinstate her as a pilot, they can get her a job that pays, and they can forgive her for the transgression of keeping herself alive. All she has to do is go back to LV-426, a “shake-and-bake colony” now, outfitted with all the tech necessary to terraform the planet to Weyland-Yutani’s specifications. When Weyland-Yutani couldn’t bring the Alien to them, they went to it: the acid blood, the armor-like exterior, the double mouths filled with tearing, gnashing teeth, the unsettlingly vaginal Ovomorphs and penis-like Facehuggers. And in an expression of particularly callous cruelty and particularly commercial selfishness, they forced Ripley to go with them. “You’re going out there to destroy them, right? Not to study, not to bring back, but to wipe them out?” Ripley asks Burke—and the fact that she takes Weyland-Yutani at its word is the only unbelievable character moment in a film that otherwise understands that the grunts, the workers, and the everyman and everywoman are the ones who can sniff out corruption, who can sense artifice, and who die messily and unnecessarily for their trouble.
“You tell me, man. I only work here.”
Aliens replaces the Nostromo crew with a new gaggle of allies for Ripley: members of the U.S. Colonial Marine Corps, described by Burke as “very tough hombres,” another indication of Weyland-Yutani seeing space as the wild, wild west, and themselves as its conquerors. “There’s nothing they can’t handle,” Burke says, and when the spaceship Sulaco arrives at LV-426 and the Marines start waking up, that seems fairly accurate. In their little transport outfits, with their muscles, tattoos, and hoorah attitude on display, the Marines certainly strike a compelling pose: Corporal Dwayne Hicks (Michael Biehn), with his smirking eyes and his omnipresent cigarette. Private First Class William L. Hudson (Bill Paxton, a full decade before Twister), with his grinning insubordination (“How do I get out of this chickenshit outfit?”) eventually giving way to sarcastic panic (“Game over, man!”). And Private First Classes Mark Drake (Mark Rolston) and Jenette Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein, in unfortunate brownface), with their in-tandem physicality (that pull-up contest! Vasquez giving Drake that little slap to the face!) and impenetrable bond.
Practically all of them die, of course, since Weyland-Yutani didn’t really explain what they were getting into, and since Gorman freezes at the worst possible moment as the Marines go into the Aliens’ nest, and since the Marines, as prepared as they may be, are not prepared for this. Over and over, the Marines mention the limits of their power. They know they’re just bodies on the ground, and they’re being treated as such. They know they’re being tossed into a “bug hunt.” They know their guns are all the defenses they have, and so their guns are very, very big, and wielded by Drake and Vasquez in a humping, pumping, inarguably phallic motion that feels perfectly at home in a movie about Aliens impregnating humans as their means of reproduction. And they know, as they’re reminded over and over again, that they’re not getting paid by the hour. Their price has already been paid, and there’s no wiggle room.
No possibility of additional payment for how harrowing this job will be. No extra compensation for fighting an alien with acid blood, or for venturing into a nest in which hundreds of colonist bodies are suspended in resin and waiting to hatch, with an alien queen popping out egg after egg after egg, or for saving a woman and a child from a locked room in which two Facehuggers have been set loose to attack them, or for engaging in a last stand against a hissing horde of Alien antagonists. “We come here, and we gonna conquer, and we gonna kick some,” Master Sergeant Al Apone (Al Matthews) tells his squad, and Cameron lingers over each aspect of their suiting-up sequence—strapping on boots, putting on armor, checking each other’s guns and weapons, hyping each other up—as James Horner’s score evokes military drums. And later, Cameron’s screenplay subverts this moment by digging into the flaws in military hierarchy, a tactic he would also use decades later in Avatar. “We’re still Marines and we got a job to do. Keep it moving,” Alpone says before he’s attacked, cocooned, and made into an Alien incubator; “That’s an order,” Gorman says as he refuses to let the Marines fall back. The bosses are always wrong, and that goes for both public and private employ.
What would happen if either Gorman or Alpone hadn’t been so indoctrinated by “just follow orders” thinking? If they hadn’t thought Weyland-Yutani was operating in good faith? If they didn’t buy into jingoistic Marine Corps hoopla, and admitted that the mission was a bust? Perhaps Drake wouldn’t have been acid-burned. Perhaps Hudson wouldn’t have been dragged down by the Aliens into the colonist-installation’s grate system. And perhaps Vasquez wouldn’t have to die in the arms of Gorman, the guy she had earlier insulted as a “pandejo jerkoff,” as they detonated explosives together to blow up Hadley’s Hope once and for all.
From a cynical perspective: Change any of these things, and there wouldn’t be an Aliens as we know it. And consider, too, that this franchise has made a pattern out of killing off the “regular” people who have anything to do with Weyland-Yutani: the Nostromo crew in Alien, the LV-426 colonists and most of the Marines in Aliens, the prisoners in Alien 3, the crews in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. At a certain socioeconomic level, an affiliation with the corporation is a death sentence. Even, in the case of Carter Burke, if you’re “really an okay guy.”
“You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”
Feckless middle management, thy image is Paul Reiser’s Carter Burke. Pleasant, with all his “kiddo” endearments toward Ripley; accommodating, with his promise that the company has no plans to bring back a xenomorph; and incrementally, irreversibly slimy, with each movement on LV-426 betraying a nefariousness that thrives on initial disregard of Burke as a beta. At first, Burke seems to align himself with Ripley: encouraging the Marines to respect her as a “consultant,” listening to her description of the xenomorphs’ capabilities, and backing her when she ignores Gorman’s order to avoid going into the nest to help the stranded Marines. But as soon as Burke is able to attempt a power grab, he goes for it, with all the tried-and-true tactics of a company man.
When Burke reveals his plan (sending the colonists to check out the xenomorph ship, causing their deaths and the sending of Ripley and the Marines to LV-426, smuggling an Alien back to Weyland-Yutani for its study and weaponization), Reiser’s performance shifts into a different register. Each line delivery becomes more pointed, and more venomous. His facial expressions change from somewhat blank and agreeable to aghast and irritated. And just like those nameless corporation executives, Burke slips into a certain script. He emphasizes the cost of Hadley’s Hope: “This installation has a substantial dollar value attached to it.” Like Ash, he praises the Alien species for their singularity: “I don’t think that you or I or anybody has the right to arbitrarily exterminate them.” And when all that fails, he tries to pull rank: to assert dominance over “just a grunt” Hicks, who basically laughs in his face, and the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen), who readily admits to Ripley what Burke is up to in planning to bring the xenomorphs back to “the company labs” for “exclusive rights.” “No offense,” Burke had said to Hicks after insulting him directly, and how offended Burke himself sounds at the possibility that Hicks could be offended is a perfect distillation of the martyr complex of this character, and how well Reiser captures it.
Weaver does phenomenal work in Aliens, balancing satisfying sexual tension with Biehn’s Hicks and an affecting, emotional bond with Carrie Henn as the traumatized sole colonist survivor Newt. But it’s her work against Reiser that is truly exemplary: the steeliness of her gaze, the cool fuck-you quality of her diction (“They can bill me”), and the realization that plays upon her face when it finally hits her that Burke has never been on their side. Even in the final moments of his life, Burke is still trying to screw over the people he considers lesser-than by betraying their last stand against the xenomorphs—all for that goddamn percentage.
A fair amount of Aliens has become iconic in the 35 years since its release: Weaver’s “Where do you want it?” flirtiness, Newt’s brusque “They’re dead, OK?”, every facial expression Paxton makes as Hudson, and every component of the film’s two endings, from Ripley’s berserker attack on the Alien Queen’s ovipositor to their final “Get away from her, you bitch!” showdown. But equally important is how Cameron followed Scott’s footsteps in establishing an anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist tenor that would remain a core component of the franchise for four more films, and now a TV series, to come. “I hate this job,” Private First Class Ricco Frost (Ricco Ross) said in Aliens, and who can’t vibe with that?