Alien at 40: in space no one can hear your plea for workers’ rights

How Ridley Scott's classic sci-fi grounds its outer-space terror in a credible vision of blue-collar working life that still feels authentic four decades later.

Alien (1979)

‘In Space No One Can Hear You Scream’. This schlocky, B-movie-style tagline betrays the subtle, creeping dread of Alien (1979). Much like its terrifying titular creature, it’s a film that gets under your skin.

Forty years after its release, Ridley Scott’s 1979 chiller is rightly regarded as a sci-fi horror classic. It has aged beautifully – its industrial yet futuristic production aesthetic retains a cutting-edge realism, H.R Giger’s creature and ship designs are unsettling yet perversely beautiful and Dan O’Bannon’s naturalistic dialogue is memorably understated.

Alien’s pervading, gloomy atmosphere and sense of lonely terror ensure it remains a touchstone in ‘haunted house’ cinema. As in other genuinely frightening films, less is more: by cutting his camera away early, Scott leaves much in the minds of audiences. We fill in the blanks by conjuring up nightmarish thoughts and images.

Much commentary on Scott’s film justifiably focuses on the film’s technical achievements – direction, cinematography, music and the fearsome alien creature. What’s less remarked upon is how its tension is amplified by Alien’s realism, its sense of everyday life turned upside down. Yes, this is science fiction and this is outer space, but Alien feels real.

Alien (1979)

Although we’re far into the future and far from Earth, the film feels palpably naturalistic and relatable, which makes the ensuing horror even more disturbing. By presenting engineers, technicians and navigators – regular, blue-collar workers complete with hierarchical and contractual disputes – audiences more easily engage with the story. This is something that Lachlan Walter argues in his article ‘Apocalypse Soon-Ish: Blue-Collar Science Fiction and the ‘Ordinary’ Worker As Hero’:

“When science fiction stories are focused around characters employed in these kinds of occupations – characters who consequently live more blue-collar lifestyles and, stereotypically, have more down-to-earth attitudes – our ability to engage with them is strengthened because we have so much more in common with them.”

Breakfast in deep space

The opening of Alien is quiet and muted. An enormous spaceship resembling a hulking oil refinery glides silently into the frame somewhere in deep space. Jerry Goldsmith’s eerily melancholic score plays as simple white text informs us we are looking at the Nostromo, a commercial towing vehicle containing 20 million tonnes of mineral ore and a crew of just seven.

Alien (1979)

The ship’s course is simple: return to earth. We are not looking at the Death Star or some other operatic vessel; this is a workplace.

As this sequence continues, an omniscient camera guides us around the ship. The living and communal areas are clinically white while the ship’s bowels have a gloomy, steam-filled, industrial look, all pipes and metal. We first glimpse the Nostromo’s crew awakening from hypersleep, meeting them properly as they sit down to a no-frills meal of what looks like cereal, cups of hot coffee and cigarettes.

Ridley Scott’s camera moves fluidly around the smoke-filled room, languidly focusing on each character as they share easy conversations. The crew are diverse – white, black, younger, older, British, American. Engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) argue their case for equal bonus payments compared to the other crew, providing an early indication of the film’s working-class subtext.

This breakfast scene performs two vital roles. Firstly, it reminds us that while the Nostromo is a spaceship, it’s also a workplace, with character’s discussing job dissatisfaction and other grumbles. The Nostromo’s crew are a group of regular people doing ordinary jobs in the future. The setting may be deep space in 2122, but it’s easy to picture scenes like this in fishing vessels, oil rigs, submarines or factories anywhere.

Secondly, unobtrusive camerawork and the naturalistic ensemble acting starkly presents the idea of normal people who will face extraordinarily nightmarish circumstances. Though nothing malevolent has taken place yet, the sense that the Nostromo’s crew is doomed is pervasive and inescapable.

Realistic surrealism

Impeccable directing, acting and music aside, Alien’s ‘look’ is perhaps its most memorable feature. While otherworldly, surrealistic art may seem a far cry from workers and realism, it’s worth emphasising again that were it not for Alien’s remarkable visual style and unshowy presentation of employment in space, the film’s impact and enduring qualities would be much diminished.

Responsible for designing the seductive yet deadly alien, the insectile ‘face-hugger’ creature and the forebodingly derelict alien ship was Swiss surrealist artist, Hans Ruedi (H.R) Giger. Much like in the ‘body horror’ films of David Cronenberg, such as Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986), Giger fuses human and machine, with his sleekly imagined biomechanical mash-ups of bone and metal resulting in images that take on a kind of disordered symmetry.

Giger also designed the surface of LV-426, a sunless, boulder strewn, god-forsaken planet where brutal winds never stop blowing and jagged rocky outcrops, almost phallic in appearance, punctuate the landscape. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) and the ill-fated Kane (John Hurt) are the unfortunate trio responsible for traversing this unforgiving place, heading towards the source of the unknown transmission and Giger’s next triumph of nightmarish design.

The alien ship known simply as the ‘derelict’ looms into view, the horseshoe-shaped vessel towering over the landscape of LV-426. Like much of the film, this image of the derelict ship is disquieting in its melding of futurism and ancient mystery. The inside of the ship is more unsettling still, as vast passageways and infinitely-sized atriums foreshadow the anatomical design of the alien we see later. Everything is made up of ribbed spines, hooks, grooves and often a coating of translucent gloop.

Alien (1979)

Alien’s visual centrepiece is the alien itself, inspired by Giger’s 1976 print Necronom IV. It’s a truly hideous creature, replete with a long, smooth phallic skull, a set of razor sharp teeth and a second set of pharyngeal jaws similar to those of an eel, which shoot out, stabbing and penetrating flesh.

The creature also appears to have no eyes, but we know it sees, and its gender is never revealed, though it displays both male and female characteristics. The creature’s hands are monstrous and dragon-like, with long fingers and claws, but its body resembles the cross-section of some complex industrial machine, with human-like ribs lying externally over a mass of coils, springs and what look like hydraulic mechanisms.

Life onboard the Nostromo

Areas of the Nostromo are reminiscent of various blue-collar workplaces, a counterpoint to the sleek spaceships imagined in much science fiction before Alien. In his article ‘The set design of Ridley Scott’s Alien’, Christopher Aguiar explains that this approach had rarely been seen in science fiction before 1979, which adds to the quality of trepidation: “Fear is built largely from the camera prowling around the empty spaces of the Nostromo ship – a battered, truly ugly spacecraft, unlike the Death Star or USS Enterprise… instead of being outside and exploring the world as sci-fi often wants us to do, we’re largely stuck inside the rundown, twisted corridors of a ship. That immediately works as a way of Scott installing fear and uneasiness.”

Alien (1979)

The passageways and corridors where engineers Parker and Brett spend much of their time are steam-filled, labyrinthine places, like the darkest corners of a cargo boat. Another area known as the ‘claw room’, containing the Nostromo’s giant landing leg and where Brett becomes the alien’s first victim, is filled with chains, dripping water and industrial machinery.

It’s easy to imagine some warehouse staff or council workers operating heavy machines in a room like this. The ships in Alien and, later, Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009) both have sections of wall covered in pictures of naked women cut out from magazines, emphasising the idea of a blue-collar, male-centric workplace like a garage or mechanic’s yard.

Outland (1981)

The workers living quarters in Peter Hyams’ Outland (1981) have a similar unpolished quality. There are no futuristic bedrooms with views of the planets; these are humble dormitory-like areas containing mazes of cramped pods made from metal and chain-link fencing. The canteen is another downtrodden place with workers sitting together eating basic food. The mining outpost also has a bar, where the tired miners sit drinking beer, looking at girls dancing on stages.

In the workplaces of blue-collar sci-fi, there’s precious little that’s flashy or superfluous. Alien, Outland and Moon present their stripped down visions of the future to suggest that one day normal people may be working in places just like these.

The wages of fear

Alien’s ‘Weyland-Yutani Corporation’ or ‘the company’ had hoped to bring the creature back to Earth to use as a biological weapon or for other financial gain. Late into the film, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) discovers the company’s chilling Special Order 937: “Priority one – insure return of organism for analysis. All other considerations secondary. Crew expendable.”

Before they meet the eponymous xenomorph later in Alien, the Nostromo’s crew are awakened from their trip back to Earth by what first appears to be a transmision of unknown origin from mystery planet, LV-426. Initially the crew are reluctant to respond, with Parker once again raising job dissatisfaction and speaking for the engineers, the lowest ranking workers on the ship: “I hate to bring it up, but this is a commercial ship, not a rescue ship. It’s not in my contract to do this kind of duty. What about the money?”

As Ash (right) in Alien (1979)

Ash (Ian Holm), later revealed as the android insider for the company, informs Parker and the crew that, according to their contracts, refusal to respond to such a transmission results in “total forfeiture” of their shares and no pay. The crew have no choice. Alien’s crew of hard-working individuals must risk their lives, going above and beyond, for the whims of their paymasters.

Sci-fi cinema has a long history of ruthless and evil corporations, including the Tyrell Corporation in Scott’s subsequent Blade Runner (1982), Cyberdyne Systems in the Terminator films (1984-), Omni Consumer Products in RoboCop (1987) and the Soylent Corporation in Soylent Green (1973). The interests of these conglomerates, often inspired by real-life organisations, lie entirely in profit, operating with a total indifference towards the welfare of their employees. The companies at the heart of blue-collar science fiction such as Alien, Moon and Outland are similarly ruthless.

Moon (2009)

Moon’s Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), who has a three-year contract mining for helium-3 on the far side of the moon, is effectively enslaved by Lunar Industries. The company clones its contracted workers to avoid paying for the training and transport of new astronauts when the contracts end. The clones have a three-year life expectancy and, each time Sam reaches the end of his contract, a new clone takes his place and the cycle continues. Bell will never see his family again, but Lunar Industries are unconcerned so long as productivity stays high and money is saved.

In Outland, Conglomerates Amalgamated operate a titanium mining facility on one of Jupiter’s moons. Working conditions are poor with workers supplying their own oxygen to breathe. Though shifts are long and arduous, productivity is at a record high and bonuses are being paid to workers. However, we soon realise the company is supplying powerful amphetamines to staff, resulting in increased productivity but eventual psychosis, often ending in grisly death by decompression.

Describing the creature in Alien, Ash hails it as “the perfect organism… its structural perfection matched only by its hostility… a survivor – unclouded by conscience or remorse or delusions of morality.” There is a clear allegorical link between this chilling description of the alien, the evils of the companies in Alien, Moon and Outland, and those of real-world big businesses. This feels all-too-relevant today, with workers on the lowest rungs of the ladder, including those in the gig economy, accusing businesses of hostility, a lack of remorse and conscience, and a deluded, disingenuous sense of morality.

Alien (1979)

Viewers watching Alien 40 years later may have little trouble recognising the practices of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation; the way it controls its poorer workers with unfair and dangerous working conditions. Grounded in Scott’s gritty, blue-collar vision, it all seems both credible and familiar. As in 1979, 2019 and so in 2122, money is the ultimate goal, not worker’s rights or their wellbeing.

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