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Written by Mason Tabor
Scientific pursuit of the unknown
The horror genre as a whole is concerned with disrupting the audience's assumptions about our safety and our knowledge of what exists. That entails an integral attack on the promise of science, since science's goals are to understand natural phenomena well and to provide benefits to humankind through that knowledge.
Alien takes place in a world defined by its incredible scientific achievements, such as effective space travel along with technological advancements including artificial intelligence and androids. This future is ideal for many reasons, not the least of which is hinted at by the movies setting: Science has provided a way for incredible corporate and economic gain and growth.
This idealistic science-defined future is hindered by only two things: that humans are still destructive and unpredictable, and that in spite of unbelievable scientific achievement, there is still an "unknown." There is still a thing that 'goes bump in the dark.' That thing in Alien is the alien. Its threat is two-fold. Firstly, it is an immediate threat to the safety of the crew, and thereby also to the sense of safety the audience regularly enjoys.
Secondly, it threatens the audiences assumptions that the natural world is as science has defined it thus far. This is the heart of the horror genre; it seeks to tell a story which is plausible and terrifying, despite our social and scientific advances. Alien does this in three ways. (1) It shows us that people are not predictable, via Ash who is in fact an android governed by corporate interests. (2) It shows us that technology is not a sufficient weapon against the unknown, perhaps most notably in that the threat is organic, not technological, and that MUTHUR fails to protect Ridley. And (3) it shows us that we never know what we don't know. After all, maybe aliens are out there somewhere and we just haven't gone far enough to see them yet.
Technology and its limits
As illustrated above, the horror genre depends on science's inadequacy. Technology, broadly conceived here to be man's use of scientific tools for his benefit, is limited according to man's limits. Although Alien makes use of scientific motifs such as interstellar travel and artificial intelligence, technology as a whole is portrayed negatively in the film in a few ways.
Firstly, Ash's character acts very unpredictably in the opening of the film's conflict. When Ridley uses MUTHUR to discover Ash's ulterior allegiance to the corporation, he is discovered to be an android. This is a prime example of technologies benefits and downfalls: It's good because it can be used as a tool for learning (MUTHUR helps Ridley understand Ash's motives; Ash divulges information about his programming), but it's bad because it doesn't adequately prevent or extinguish threats. For instance, the alien has blood that will destroy the ship, so they have to be careful not to kill the creature.
Technology is also shown to be dark and unknown itself through Scott's excellent camera-work. Call to mind the scene where Captain Dallas is searching in the ships air ventilation system, and the beast is lurking in the darkness that frames him until he shines a light on it and is ambushed. Or consider that the computers are not primarily helpful to Ridley's survival due to technological failures and the human element of their programming.
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