Released in 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien combined H.R. Giger’s disturbing aesthetics with a tremendous cast, most of whom were viciously slaughtered before the film was done. Alien pulled off the trick of adding new ingredients to a rich tradition in storytelling, reimagining a classic horror scenario whilst taking the bogeymen to a new level. Its sequel, Aliens, proved just as successful, though director James Cameron shifted the franchise towards exhilarating and full-bodied action. The series has since spawned another four films (not counting the Alien vs. Predator spin-offs) that have continued to offer a mix of violent action and brooding horror. This gory combination of genres has nevertheless resulted in films which touch on many philosophical and scientific issues, including reproductive rights and the right to life, the status of intelligent machines, and the relationship between genetics and freedom. And so a group of scholars have used the Alien franchise to explore a variety of ideas which are presented in Alien and Philosophy: I Infest, Therefore I Am, which was published a few months ago. As part of the process of reviewing the book I contacted its editor, Jeffrey Ewing, and asked him to discuss the concepts with me. Jeff kindly agreed, and our exchange lead to this wonderful interview…
Sci Phi Journal: The book describes you as a doctoral candidate, before sharing a very funny poem. Now we know you have a sense of humour, but can you tell us more about yourself, and particularly how you came to be someone who repeatedly writes about the crossover of philosophy and pop culture?
Jeffrey Ewing: I’m glad you liked my poem! I started writing about philosophy and popular culture in 2009 with my contribution to Terminator and Philosophy. I received a Bachelor’s in Philosophy from Eastern Washington University, and was also always deeply interested in science fiction and the thought-provoking elements of science fiction worlds. One of my mentors, Dr. Kevin S. Decker, happened to be co-editing the volume and suggested I should submit an abstract. I did, he and his co-editor liked it, and I was able to write my first chapter! From there, I just kept applying to and writing different chapters about works I loved. I enjoy taking a philosophical lens to pop culture because pop culture has such a large impact on people’s lives, and often has deep implications that illustrate something important about our world.
SPJ: You must have been to parties and had people say something like: “but it’s just a film!” How do you respond? Is it in some ways important to explore philosophical concepts using popular tropes? Or is this a way for philosophers to indulge themselves with a bit of nerdy entertainment?
JE: I’ve definitely heard that before. The meaning in film, like all art, is sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit. Often it is intentional, sometimes not. But these rich fictional characters, situations, and worlds can often help us reflect on our own world and its issues. You certainly can enjoy films only as entertainment, but I think it is important to also think through the deeper implications of a film.
Today we face many burning issues—is the state of our economic inequality ‘just’ or unjust? How should we treat each other? What are the philosophical or practical implications of technological developments like gene splicing or AI? These sorts of questions are especially important as we wade into uncharted territories with climate change, the threats of authoritarian states, artificial intelligence, and the like.
Films often make perfect ‘thought experiments’ for these issues, and philosophy can give us very thoughtful approaches to exploring them, so I would advocate both enjoying films and thinking deeply about them!
Read the rest of the interview at the Sci Phi Journal here.