Every sci-fi fan is familiar with the Alien movies. With four films in the original series, crossover and prequel movies, and countless comics, novels, and video games, it's one of the best-known franchises out there. Though some of the later sequels and spin-offs weren't as well-received, the first two films stand as icons of sci-fi horror. The title monster, often referred to as the Xenomorph, is a terrifying opponent, keeping tension high throughout both films. And the emotional weight that Sigourney Weaver brings to the role of Ellen Ripley keeps audiences invested. However, behind the destruction that the titular monsters wreak in both Alien and Aliens, there's a more sinister foe lurking.
In both films, the Xenomorph itself isn't acting with any malice. The ones who put Ripley and her companions in danger in the 1979 and 1986 movies are the ones who want to use the creature for their own ends, and are willing to sacrifice others in the process. Those who believe they can profit off the Xenomorph are determined to keep it alive at all costs, and by capturing and attempting to contain it, are responsible for all the death and destruction it causes.
Midway through the first Alien film, Ellen Ripley makes an unsettling discovery upon accessing the ship's computer. Through a series of overrides, she is able to open a file previously visible only to the ship's science officer, Ash (Ian Holm)— who has been acting suspiciously ever since the creature was discovered. Ripley discovers that the crew were lied to about their mission's purpose. After being rerouted by the company that hired them, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, their new job (unbeknownst to them) was to secure the Xenomorph and bring it back to Earth. Ash's orders state that securing the life form is his number one priority, and that the company has determined that the crew is expendable.
It's easy to view Ash himself as the enemy, as the impetus for all that happens. He is the one who lets the alien face-hugger onboard the ship despite Ripley's orders; it is his subterfuge that keeps the crew from attempting to kill the creature and results in the deaths of Kane, Brett, and Dallas. But as his death reveals, Ash is an android, and his actions are the result of programming. Weyland-Yutani programmed Ash to secure the Xenomorph at the expense of the crew — probably, as Ripley speculates, so that the company could use the Xenomorph's acid to produce and sell weapons. Thus, the andriod and his actions are symbolic of a much greater enemy: corporate greed.
Alien portrays a world in which a corporation weighs the value of six human lives against the value of a potentially unstoppable bioweapon, and decides that the weapon is more important. If it weren't for the greed of those who sought to capture the alien, the creature never would have wreaked its destruction upon the crew and killed all of Ripley's shipmates.
Alien portrayed the enemy through a man-made, dangerous android, but in the franchise's second film, corporate greed has a human face rather than a robotic one. Weyland-Yutani representative Carter J. Burke (Paul Reiser) might seem nice enough at first; however, his charming smile hides sinister plans.
While Burke, Ripley, Newt, and the marines are attempting to save themselves from the monster, Ripley learns that Burke has plans to keep the eggs alive and sell them for profit. She also learns he was the one who ordered the planet's colonists to investigate a derelict ship full of alien eggs, ultimately resulting in their deaths. When Ripley confronts him and holds him responsible, he defends his actions by trying to convince her of the potential profit, claiming that the money to be made from bioweapons research was worth risking the lives of the colonists. He even goes so far as to tell her, "I thought you'd be smarter than this," implying that Ripley lacks intelligence or common sense for refusing to put profits first.
This isn't where Burke's plans end, either. While Ripley and Newt are resting in the colony's medical laboratory, Burke seals them in and releases facehuggers. The Xenomorphs attempt to attach themselves to Ripley and Newt as they did to Kane (John Hurt) in the first film, which resulted in the iconically grisly chest-burster scene. Burke is more than willing to let the same fate befall Ripley and Newt — the latter of whom is only eight years old. As long as he can see potential profit in the creature, collateral human lives mean nothing to him.
After being rescued, Ripley claims that Burke's goal was to smuggle alien embryos past customs by "impregnating" her and Newt, after which he could continue with his plans to sell the eggs for profit. His attempts to deny her accusations are flimsy at best, especially considering Ripley brought up the customs issue in their argument before. Thankfully, Burke gets his comeuppance almost immediately, as the aliens attack and kill him after this confrontation.
The Corporate Dystopia
Despite presenting similar themes, each of the franchise's first two films portrays the corporate antagonist in different ways. In Alien, viewers were one step removed from the real enemy; the corporation that programmed Ash never appeared onscreen. Weyland-Yutani was hands-off, sacrificing strangers' lives while they stayed safe and watched from their ivory castles. In Aliens, meanwhile, audiences see the lows to which human beings will stoop in their hunger for profit. Burke watches while Ripley and Newt are attacked, and appears to feel no remorse. Viewers see up close the face of a cold and calculating corporation, the type of person who sacrificed lives for profit and felt it had been worth the risk.
When Ripley confronts Burke after nearly being killed by facehuggers, she tells him: "I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them ****ing each other over for a goddamn percentage." It's a simple, but powerful way of summing up the real conflict in the films. The Xenomorphs are acting on their biological instincts to reproduce and to defend themselves; the movies' human characters are the unfortunate victims of those innate drives. Weyland-Yutani, meanwhile, are the ones who put others in the position to become those victims. They willfully endanger others in the hope of securing the dangerous creatures and, in doing so, making a quick buck.
MORE: The Case For The Xenomorph and Ellen Ripley In Dead By Daylight