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Crew Expendable

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Message BK Faunce

Alien Crew
Alien Crew
(Image by Home Cinema Choice)
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Who would have thought Alien, Ridley Scott's horror / sci-fi masterpiece, would re-emerge as a cautionary tale for 21st Century audiences, forty-one years after its theatrical release?

The film takes viewers inside the Nostromo, a commercial starship returning to earth towing a refinery carrying 20,000,000 tons of mineral ore. The ship is only half way home when its main computer ("Mother") picks up a "transmission of unknown origin" and wakes the seven crew members from hyper-sleep. Contractually obligated to investigate, they land on a desolate, wind-swept planet and promptly dispatch a team to locate the source of the transmission. The crew (and the audience) have been led to believe they are looking for intelligent life, but what they find is a derelict space craft and, tunneled below it, an enormous underground chamber full of "leathery objects, like eggs or something." One of the search team takes a closer look, is impregnated by a facehugger and, once back on board, gives "birth" to the title character ("Kane's son"). The alien matures rapidly and goes looking for food, grabbing Brett in the bowels of the ship and Dallas, the captain, in the air ducts. Ripley, the next in command, accesses Mother in a desperate attempt to fight back, but instead discovers "Special Order 937": "Nostromo rerouted to new coordinates. Investigate lifeform. Gather specimen. Priority one: insure return of organism for analysis. All other considerations secondary. Crew expendable." Ripley eventually defeats the alien, but not before everyone else is either killed or cocooned and the Nostromo destroyed.

"Crew expendable."

It's a startling revelation that turns the film upside down. The purpose of the mission wasn't towing mineral ore back to earth; it was to gather a specimen for analysis. There was no "unknown" distress signal; the company knew all about the acoustical beacon. The Nostromo wasn't rerouted because of the possibility of intelligent life; the ship's computer was programmed to reroute before departure. The company appears to know a lot about the structure and character of the organism's progeny ("structural perfection" . . . matched by "hostility"), which suggests it has some understanding of how the organism reproduces. If so, the company knew one or more crew member would end up serving as unwilling host, and would then suffer a horrible death "birthing" the monster. In fact it sent Ash, its technological son, to make sure the birthing took place. The company wasn't concerned with legalities or ethics or morality or basic human decency. It was concerned with managing resources. Ripley, the crew, Ash, even the alien the company was so interested in analyzing, were little more than disposable commodities in a vicious capitalist exchange.

Sound familiar? It should. It's a spot-on metaphor for the predatory economic system Americans struggle with today, a neo-liberal, Ayn Randian tangle of debt, lost wages and home foreclosures spun by successive administrations to ensure corporate control. Then again, maybe you're thinking the film is a flight of fantasy and comparing it to real-life circumstances waxes something of an exaggeration?

Flash back to 2009. The entire country is engaged in a serious discussion on how to reform a wildly dysfunctional, for-profit health care system. Millions of Americans do not have health care insurance, millions more are under-insured, and over 40,000 Americans die every year because they can't afford health care. Still, Republicans (and some Democrats) fight like crazy to keep the ACA from becoming law. Rep. Alan Grayson (D Fl) responds by taking to the House floor and declaring that Republicans actually do have a health care plan, and it's very simple. If you get sick, "Die quickly." He was not tongue and cheek.

Neither was the backlash. Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, head of the Republican Study Committee, drafted a "resolution of disapproval" condemning Grayson's conduct. Then-RNC Chair Michael Steele called Grayson's comment a "smear." Rep. Jimmy Duncan (R Tenn.) said Grayson's comment was "the most mean-spirited partisan statement" he'd ever heard on the House floor. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R Tenn.) demanded Grayson "return to the floor and apologize." "He's out of control," Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R Wash), vice chair of the House Republican Conference, told reporters.

More than a decade later, as more and more Americans are infected with the Covid-19 virus and the White House and a GOP-led Senate continue to demonstrate historic incompetence, the party is again being accused of criminal neglect, of not caring whether American citizens live or die. To her credit, RNC Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel attempted to push back: "Republicans do not want to see people suffering from this pandemic," she told Face the Nation. Unfortunately, she's not kidding, and the joke is squarely on us. It's not that Republicans (and some Democrats) don't want people to suffer; they just don't want TO SEE them suffering. So they look the other way as their policies inflict a great deal of suffering. What a clever use of language.

The truth of the matter is a number of prominent Republicans have been articulating murderous nonsense about "acceptable deaths" for a while now. A few examples:

**Fat Boy Fat (aka Chris Christie), former governor of New Jersey: "it's like WWII . . . there are going to be more deaths." The rabble, the people doing the actual dying, will just "have to" accept it.

**Greg Abbott, Governor of Texas, orders his state to re-open even while admitting it will spread the virus and lead to more deaths.

**Dan Patrick, Lt. Governor of Texas, when told opening the state will kill people, responded: "there are more important things than living."

**Trey Collingsworth, Rep. from Indiana: saving the "American way of life" is more important than "saving lives" . . . letting people die is the "lesser of two evils."

**Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, demands K-12 schools re-open, with no national plan of action and no federal assistance. As predicted, her sadistic indifference has led to a surge in infections.

**Jared Kushner, Trump's greasy son-in-law, made a nation-wide plan to combat the Covid-19 virus go "poof" when he discovered it was spreading in mostly Democratically-controlled states.

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BK Faunce is a retired Associate Professor of English (UMW / UCSC) specializing in British Romantic Literature, Film Theory and Writing. His recent work examines the use of state power and its impact on visual culture.

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