Thursday, January 30, 2014

New Checklist and Rulebook Casefile: Morally Ascending in Alien

I’ve updated the Checklist road test for Alien and you can check it out here. Now let’s look at one of the new answers in more depth:

On the one hand, the basic situation in Alien would seem to the typical “man up” story, of the type I complained about before:
  • There’s first contact with an enemy that is humanoid but seems to be devoid of feeling. When deaths ensue, there are those who are reluctant to kill their enemy because he’s a living creature, but the ones we agree with say, “Who cares? It’s clearly a monster so let’s just kill it.” Over the course of the story, those who wanted to maintain contact are proved to be wrong and hypocritical, and the “kill it with fire” side is vindicated. Our hero is a woman, who starts out unassertive and then become more assertive as she realizes that she has to kill the creature mercilessly.
But of course it’s far more complicated than that. The seemingly right-wing narrative above runs in tandem with a far more left-wing narrative:
  • The ship is run by an evil corporation, acting with complete impunity with no government in sight, and sacrifices its workers one by one in the interest of developing a new weapon. When the workers ask for better pay, their demands are dismissed with the same language that will later be used to justify sacrificing them to the alien.
The two narratives contrast nicely and counterbalance each other, keeping it from seeming overly-strident either way.

But let’s focus on Ripley’s arc. Even though the culmination of her arc is, “let’s just kill it and blow everything up,” it still feels like morally ascending, not descending. She starts out the movie as a drone, blandly defending standard procedure, but she becomes more human as the story progresses, and ironically, as she decides to kill the alien, she becomes a more compassionate person, endangering her life to literally “save the cat”.

Usually, coming to value one’s own survival over the values of one’s society is a moral descent, but in this case it’s an ascent: Serving the needs of her society is actually a terrible idea, because her society serves death, demanding its workers sacrifice their lives for company profits. In discovering that she values herself more than she’s allowed to, she becomes more fully human, and more empathetic towards others, as shown by her belated protectiveness towards the cat.

In this movie, and in many subsequent anti-corporate stories, we’ve exposed the hidden sub-basement of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, below self-preservation: profit. Moving from that level to cold-blooded self-preservation feels like a rise, not a fall.
This helps explains why journeys like Walt’s on “Breaking Bad” feel oddly uplifting despite the hero’s horrible actions. The twin evils that launch Walt’s quest, (a for-profit health care system and income disparity that pays a chemistry entrepreneur billions while paying a chemistry teacher less than a living wage) outrage us more than his crimes. Tellingly, it was only in the final season of that show, when Walt’s business finally became consistently profitable and he took on employees, that the audience started seriously rooting for his downfall.

1 comment:

Da5id said...


-Robert McKee, author of 'Save the cat' meme.