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An ethics committee won’t let you scream

– the real story behind the Alien films​

Good, scary movies need a good monster, and there is no better monster than a gigantic, black hominid creature which has acid for blood, and which gestates inside  living humans before bursting out violently. These are the Aliens which have been the bad guys in a long list of films since the first hit the theatres in 1979. The latest and probably not the last of these space horror flicks being the 2012 film Prometheus, which is a prequel to the original Alien film.

So these creatures have been set up as the villains who, it would seem, have been genetically designed to either kill humans or use them as breeding chambers, but how much of this is true and how much is invention perhaps contrived to cover the tracks of the guilty? This is not to say that you would want to become friendly with one of these creatures but, as so often happens in our quest for the historical truth in science fiction, or perhaps speculative fiction as the genre is now known, the likely reality is considerably more complicated than the black and white versions depicted in the films.

Our forensic examination of this issue will look mainly at the first two films in the series, Alien and Aliens (1986), which are by far the best and certainly the most coherent of these films – but we can also tie in Alien 3 (1992) and the fourth film Alien Resurrection. To briefly reprise the plot of the first film, a space freighter detects a strange radio message and wakes up its crew to investigate.

The crew sets the ship down on the rock or planet, LV422, and three of them investigate the source of the radio beacon which turns out to be a derelict alien space ship. One of the crew members is attacked by a creature which implants and organism in him. This nasty alien, which has acid for blood, eventually bursts out of the crew member's chest. and runs away, to quickly grows to full size and start killing the crew.


Ripley discovers that the whole mission has been set up for the sole purpose of obtaining an alien specimen by the company that owns the ship (not named in the films, but logos with the name Weylan-Yutani are visible). The science officer also turns out to be an android with orders to protect the alien, and is killed by the crew.

Flight officer Ripley eventually gets in the ship’s shuttle, having set the ship’s engines for self destruction, and leaves just before the whole ship blows up, only to find that the alien is in the shuttle with her. A confrontation ensues in which this persistent creature is blown out of vessel. She and her cat then go into hibernation in what turns out to be a very long trip home. For the second film starts when Ripley is finally picked up 57 years after the events depicted in the first film, she and the cat having being accidentally left in hibernation that long, and has to explain herself to a board of enquiry. This is hardly surprising given that – among other departures from standard operating procedures – she blew up her ship to get this creature, but missed.

First off you will note that Ripley’s story is inherently unlikely. If the company she worked for had wanted to collect some alien specimens, and knew where the crashed ship was, then it would have organised an expedition to go there. Using a valuable freighter and trained crew who did not know they were going to be used as incubators for an alien species would seem to be an expensive and haphazard way to go about this task, not to mention a gross breach of corporate safety procedures.

Nor was there any need to be secretive, at least not in the long term. Using these creatures as souped-up soldiers, or selling them as mercenaries to other parties is not the sort of activity that can be kept secret. They have to be marketed to the right customers and, when used, would attract attention. Authorities would then want to know where they came from, and ask a host of ancillary questions that would keep in-house attorneys busy. What diseases did these creatures harbour? Considering that these creatures have acid for blood what safety precautions would be taken if they happened to be near complicated machinery – to protect both the creatures and the machinery? And so on, and on. Smuggling truckloads of arms into third world countries in exchange for blood diamonds is one thing, shipping companies of (hopefully) trained and house-broken creatures with acid for blood to far flung planets is quite another.

A more important consideration – the kind that keeps the corporation’s in-house lawyers up at night – is that social activists would soon realise that the creatures were clearly intelligent but were being kept as soldier slaves. This discovery would result in every do-gooder organisation imaginable on the corporation’s doorstep, demanding that the aliens be freed and returned to their homeland to reclaim their rights. Little things such as they were irredeemably hostile (the training only having just started), uncontrolled and violent, not to mention their preference for gestating their young inside living humans, would be brushed aside as cultural foibles to be understood rather than condemned. They are intelligent creatures with rights, the world would be told. A further complication, and one I shall mention once in passing, is that the creatures are shown as black. But let us return to the point about rights in a moment.

Brushing aside Ripley’s rather lame story, a much more likely explanation is that the crew knew perfectly well that they were going to collect alien specimens and contrived the incident of responding to a distress beacon. Of course that meant they had to know the crashed alien ship was there, and it is more than likely that a senior executive with some oversight of operations was involved. There is some indication from the most recent film, Prometheus, that the secret of the ship’s origins would have been hidden in corporate archives. Perhaps this sponsoring executive stumbled across those files in the early part of his or her career and then waited until he or she had enough pull to rig a mission – that is, ensure that the space freighter’s flight path was subtly altered and that the right personnel, with some additional equipment, were assigned to its crew.

Just what the sponsoring executive intend to do with this alien creature once it had been retrieved, given the problems mentioned above, is a matter for speculation. Rather than training alien armies, perhaps there would have been something to gain from taking a close look at what was a state of the art piece of bio-engineering by an advanced civilisation. The creature was, after all, a marvel of adaptation with a skin able to contain extremely active acid.

Whatever the reason for this clandestine venture, once the crew was at the alien space ship everything went wrong. Perhaps the company records were incomplete and the crew and their sponsor did not realise just how dangerous the creatures were? Whatever the reason, Kane was attacked and became infected or impregnated. Attempts to extract the embryo implanted in Kane’s stomach killed him but left the infant  creature alive. With Kane dead, the rest of the crew, in true mercenary fashion, decided to carry on. They disposed off the body, concocted a story about an accident and all but one would have gone into stasis, or hypersleep as it is called in the film, for the trip home. They no doubt planned to quietly turn the creature over to the shadowy other parties, before they got all the way to earth with its tiresome quarantine regulations, and collect the rest of their money.

This explains why the creature was able to grow to full size on the spaceship. As noted, one of the crew would have stayed out of hypersleep to look after the creature, and feed it. They must have known something about its diet and habits but perhaps not enough. We can surmise that when the creature had grown large enough after, say, a couple of months, it out smarted its minder and killed him or her. The rest of the crew would have been quickly woken from hibernation but perhaps they still under estimated the creature, and separated to look for it, with inadequate weapons. The flamethrowers shown in the film were undoubtedly already part of the equipment, and had been brought along with some such emergency in mind, but using any weapon on board a spaceship is not a very good idea at any time. Also the creature was probably very much smaller than depicted in the film, allowing it to slip into air ducts and odd corners.

Whatever the reason the creature – undoubtedly a very dangerous one, despite its small size, as it was quite hostile and highly intelligent – was able to kill the crew members one by one, to leave Ripley and the science officer Ashe. At this point Ashe, whom the crew knew all along was a robot and a representative of the sponsor of their illicit side mission, wanted to get the ship’s AI (known as mother in the film) to broadcast an endlessly repeating distress message cum warning, get into the shuttle and leave. Ripley had similar ideas but wanted to cover her tracks. By that time, everything had gone too far. No story could be constructed to fit all the recorded facts that would keep Ripley out of jail. The only course was to destroy the evidence, somehow block the ship’s log from downloading into the shuttle as it would do automatically, and leave. The alien was way too dangerous to mess with any further. So Ripley murdered Ashe – it was not self-defence as shown in the film but just how she murdered him is not important – and sabotaged the engines.

Ships blow up quite easily in films, but it is difficult to see why, in real life, any engine would need a self-destruct sequence. In fact, a lot of thought and design work goes into ensuring that they don’t blow up. However, if you feel the need to get rid of a space ship, point it at a star, disable the engines and let gravity do the rest. As an experienced flight officer Ripley would have known how to sabotage the engines in order to blame the alien for the damage. Having covered her track, Ripley got into the shuttle and left the ship, but probably did find that the alien had come with her – the creature was very intelligent – and had that final, dramatic confrontation.


ALIENS (1986)


The next instalment of this saga opens, as previously noted,  after Ripley has drifted for 56 years in hypersleep before being picked up. Considering the vast distances involved that might have been how long it took the shuttle to get within distress beacon range of commercial shipping routes. Ripley might have anticipated a few years, rather than 56, but perhaps in her haste to get away she miscalculated the route. In any case it is far from surprising that that the employing corporation (which by the time she reappeared, must have been quite a different company to the one that had originally employed her) convened a court of inquiry. Apart from any other considerations there was the question of 56 years worth of back pay, the destruction of a valuable piece of company property and a series of complex legal actions.

After all the company had created an unsafe working environment by insisting on her crew collecting an alien specimen, or so Ripley claimed. In some countries (including Australia) at the moment it is possible for employees dismissed for outright, provable theft to claim unfair dismissal and win some sort of payout – basically go away money. In a much more “advanced” space faring civilisation sabotaging a whole ship just to get one creature, and missing, would be neither here nor there. In any case, Ripley had covered her tracks, more or less, and there would have been nothing in the company records of 56 years ago to prove or disprove anything she said, unless the sponsors of the original, specimen-collecting voyage had been sloppy. Lawyers representing the descendants of Ripley’s long dead crewmates would also have came calling.

Although Ripley had various legal advantages, this unusual action was not have been plain sailing for her. A complicating factor was the rather odd and convoluted story she told, only a few bits of which could be corroborated from the shuttle’s log. That would have been suspicious in itself. Why weren’t several crew deaths and a rampaging creature logged in some way, and a copy of those log entries routinely downloaded to the shuttle’s system?

However, in all, rather than have this rats nest of allegations dragged into court, ancient history or not, the company would have been prepared to settle, perhaps not 50 years of back pay adjusted for inflation and expected promotions but certainly enough to make FO Ripley go away, stay away and, above all, shut up. The company had never been anywhere near the rock from which the alien species was allegedly taken (we will come to the supposed mining colony in a moment), and was quite happy to continue to stay away from it. All would have been forgotten, except for the fact that some fool in the company hierarchy filed a routine notification with the interstellar authorities. They were legally required to do so – they had some evidence of contact with an alien lifeform, albeit 50 plus years ago – but it is unlikely that the authorities would have found out about this piece of ancient history without the notification. With a settlement in the balance the other parties were unlikely to say a word, and the company was not about to put out a press release. No notification, no official attention. Unfortunately, some diligent, junior official sent in the relevant electronic form.

All hell broke loose. Officials of regulatory organisations with nothing much better to do, arrived in droves wanting to know about this alien organism and the exact circumstances of its removal of its “home” planet. Then came the non government organisations. One can image members of a futurist version of the American anti-abortion and native-rights organisations crossed with something like Greenpeace chaining themselves to furniture in the company lobby, demanding that the company restore the homeland of LV423 to its rightful owners, whoever they may be.

The company tried complaining that they had no record of any contact with this alien species and knew anything about it except for the testimony of FO Ripley, which did not stand up well to cross examination (this is hinted at in the film) and could not be confirmed, without going to this planet. If these aliens were still on that god forsaken rock then they were welcome to it. That might have worked up to a point, but then came the ethics committee. The promotional line for the first film was that in space no one can hear you scream, well when ethics committees come calling you may want to scream but don’t dare. Spanish inquisition ha! Such committees have reduced even the toughest lawyers and the hardiest adventurer to shaking jelly, with pitiless dissection of motives. Black letter law is one thing, ethical standards are another as they are set out in books that are almost unreadable to all but the trained ethicist, and can be reinterpreted on the spot. Ethics committee members are not subject to humour and do not care a jot for the reality of dealing with a major problem deep in space. In any case, as far as any ethics committee is concerned, the fault is on the side of a major corporation and its employees. Why was no attempt made to communicate with the creature after it had been removed from the planet, the committee asked? On what did FO Ripley base her assertion that the species was irredeemable hostile? Deaths of crewmates? Well, wasn’t the creature being attacked? It had just been gestated (by Ripley’s testimony) so its emotional state would have been fragile, and so on and on.

Faced with the horror of ethics committee cross examination, at some point both the company and FO Ripley caved in. The company would make amends by spending colossal amounts of money setting up a presence on this rock, wherever it was, to make sure the alien species was safe and comfortable or whatever. Communication with this species was not possible until they got to the rock, but there must be a way to set up operations in a rights-respecting, non-confrontationist way. Perhaps the ethics committee could recommend consultants who would, for a handsome fee and without having to leave their offices, outline a course of action. Ripley had to come along, as part of the ethical settlement, or kiss her handsome legal settlement goodbye.

As you can see we have now deviated some way from the plot of the second film. Certainly Ripley had no wish to return to the scene of her earlier crime, as the alien species was dangerous (in that respect the films are correct), and certainly did not want to do so with representatives from the ethics committee, but with a contingent of colonial marines on hand and a lot of money in the balance the risk was worth the prize, or so she thought. In the second film the base is set up as a colony and operating for years without the colonists discovering the site of the crashed alien ship, and Ripley is devastated when she is told by the inquiry chairman that there are families in the colony. As a result of her testimony, a company official who turns out to be the villain of the second film instructs the colonists to check out the site, without any warning of what was there. Then the trouble starts.

This can be dismissed as nonsense. One of the first tasks of any colony would be to photograph or at least radar scan the whole planet’s surface, and have the data checked by advanced software systems looking for anomalies. A crashed alien spaceship would be noticed.

No. The base that features in the second film must have been constructed to investigate the crashed alien ship. A crashed ship from an extra-solar civilisation would have been quite a find. As it happened the colony was set up primarily to investigate the crashed ship, but no doubt mining was the eventual aim. A major share of the resulting mineral royalties would permit the new species to make its way in the galaxy. A not incidental result of this whole exercise was to give a number of highly paid civil servants a new purpose. They would have something to put in the departmental annual reports, and would be eligible for humanitarian awards.

In this we can see the seeds of the looming disaster. The members of the ethics committee, which ran the whole show, may have been transported across space but they were still thinking in terms of negotiating with American Indians or Inuit or Australian aborigines, and not with alien organisms with acid for blood. Warnings that they creatures were very dangerous and difficult to house break – after all, Ripley was the only survivor of the original crew – was dismissed as prejudice. Cutting edge theory on education by positive reinforcement and a caring, nurturing attitude would do the trick.

A major barrier between these public servants and their humanitarian awards, was that there were no adult members of the race in question when the expedition arrived on LV422 – just a bunch of eggs in a derelict space craft. No good. Eggs can’t be consulted or sign royalty agreements, and are not of much use at award night dinners. In itself  this would have proved a knotty ethical problem but, as noted, the expedition had already purchased a great deal of the best advice on this issue, and the experts laboured very hard, on a substantial hourly rate, to give the civil servants the answer they wanted. They had also brought the expertise required to get one of the alien face huggers to couple with a duplicate human organism (the body but not the brain of a human).

So here we have all the elements of the tragedy in place. Gestation and nursing of very dangerous creatures, combined with an insistence that the creatures must be involved in the decision making process concerning their own treatment. Sadly the creatures did not understand that the consultative process was two way, or that the ethics committee members also had rights. Again, Ripley demonstrated her superior survival skills by ignoring the ethics committee and getting out of there when things turned sour. The bit about turning up at the base after the main massacre, as depicted in the film, can be dismissed as fiction. Why didn’t the colonists send detailed status reports and warnings when they realised what was happening? Ripley was there from the start, and got out with a few of the colonial marines that had been stationed at the base, in case of any trouble.

Those who remember the films will recall that in Alien III(1992) Ripley ended up at a remote penal colony, which is hardly surprising given the likely real sequence of events, and Alien IV or Alien Resurrection (1997) featured an attempt at creating and controlling a group of these aliens as super soldiers, with predictable results. The exact sequence of events would have become confused over time and, in any case, treated with some artistic licence.

The real moral of the whole story is that it is better to let sleeping aliens lie and anyone who watched the latest film in the sequence, the prequel Prometheus, which deals with the launch of the alien spaceship would agree. If a particular crewmen had had sufficient sense to back away from an alien snake creature, when it was obviously enraged, rather than insist on playing with it, a lot of trouble would have been avoided. Ripley may have been criminally inclined, having murdered the science office Ashe, but at least she knew enough to run away from danger.