In Space, Can Anyone Hear Your Philosophy?
A Look at Alien and Philosophy with Editor/Contributor Jeffrey Ewing
By M.B. Sutherland
One measure of a good story is how much time you spend thinking about it after it ends. Does it make you wonder what the characters were thinking? What motivated them? Does it make you ponder your own life? The measure of a great fictional universe might be whether more than 20 philosophers can create an entire book exploring its moral and philosophical implications.
The world of the Alien movie franchise is rich with moral dilemmas and societal implications and the new book Alien and Philosophy explores most, if not all, of them with an engaging combination of humor, history, philosophical concepts, and questions left unanswered. The authors use the first four Alienmovies and books and the prequel Prometheus as canon to explore six major themes within the franchise.
Identity and Mortal Considerability explores personhood and value. Do androids qualify as people? Do they have rights? What about the many unfortunate employees of Weyland-Yutani? The authors try to answer these questions and reveal parallels between attitudes in the fictional world and our own.
Ethics takes us from Kant to Mill to Marx to ask what the franchise teaches us about business ethics and who the true villains in the movies are (hint, it’s not the aliens). But far from simply pointing fingers, this section explores the idea of human machinations and the importance of action vs. beliefs.
Moral Psychology discusses military necessity and asks if the widely quoted suggestion in the second movie to “nuke them from orbit” is actually the right thing to do from a moral standpoint. This section comes the closest to actually giving advice based on Socrates’s notion of exposing children to violence and acts almost as a parent’s guide on whether or not your children should watch these movies. And interestingly, it brings us back to Marx to give a possible explanation for why the entire crew of the Nostromo fared so badly against just one alien on their ship.
Horror gives us a peek into the work of Lovecraft and how he inspired the look of the aliens. It also explores the idea of contamination and bodily invasion to explain why these stories and the aliens themselves do such a great job of scaring the hell out of us. It deals with my own least favorite [film] in the series, Alien 3, and discusses the notion of impurity and contagion along with motherhood and suicide.
Sex and Gender takes a deeper dive into motherhood and its role in motivating characters—particularly Ripley, whether she’s defending a cat or a child. In a more provocative sense, it also explores the motherhood of the alien queen and the dysfunctional MU/TH/R-ing of the Nostromo. More provocative still, it discusses various definitions of feminism to ask if Ellen Ripley fits the bill and even suggests that the alien franchise may do our own society some good in helping men who have never been victimized to better understand rape and rape culture.
Continental Philosophy delves into the tricky waters of superiority and whether we or the aliens can claim the high ground based on our behavior. It looks at Ripley and Call’s struggles to come to terms with who they are in Alien Resurrection and even goes so far as to ask us to have sympathy for the plight of the alien queen.
While this may seem like a lot to take in, it’s not a difficult read and it doesn’t assume you know about the various philosophers but instead presents everything to a wide audience. Like all good philosophy, it doesn’t assume that anyone knows anything, but instead holds up a mirror and poses questions, many of which still have me pondering.