Monday, June 25, 2012

Corporate Imaginations: In Praise of Weyland-Yutani

The films Alien, Aliens, Bladerunner, Terminator, They Live and Robocop were, in varying degrees, all formative films for me. This is in part their timing, all of the films were produced and released in the late 70s and 80s, and readily available in the decade of the VHS player. They are the films of my adolescence and thus helped me transition from my youthful love of robots and Star Wars into more sophisticated ideas of what science fiction was capable of. These films were gateway drugs to Philip K Dick and Frederick Pohl (and, much later, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ken Macleod, and China Mieville). In some sense this period was a kind of renaissance of sci-fi film, situated between the rise of special effects and the decline of the globalized film into sequels, prequels, and remakes, and I was at the perfect age to enjoy it. Beyond timing, these films all have one thing in common, they all deal with the corporation as something of an antagonist Weyland-Yutani, The Tyrell Corporation, Cyberdine Systems, and Omni Consumer Corp are as much the villains as the aliens, androids, and robots. My enjoyment of them was also a shift in my understanding of the world. They were my transition from evil empires to exploitation, from Star Wars to class war. 

Science fiction, at least in its more dystopian versions, can be divided into nightmares of the state and nightmares of the corporation. The two literary examples, at least the ones that are assigned in high school, 1984 and Brave New World, divide more or less along these lines. All powerful states and mega-corporations are scattered throughout the history of science fiction, defining its particular cold war. The first control with surveillance and secret police, the second with consumption and marketing. 

How does the corporation function in these films? More specifically how does it function in terms of the axes of estrangement and cognition outlined by Darko Suvin. At a most basic level the corporation, like any familiar institution or structure such as religion or the state, functions as a kind of figure of uneven development; the coexistence of the familiar and unfamiliar is an indication that not everything changes, or does so at the same rate. The coexistence of corporations and space exploration or androids could be understood as not just a dialectic of recognition and estrangement, but of the contradictions of relations and forces of production. More specifically, at least with respect to Alien, which is really my focus here, the Weyland-Yutani corporation functions less as a particular antagonist, which is why the label of evil corporation does not fit, than as a hostile environment (like space itself). This environment is not an antagonist, not an "evil corporation" as some claim, but a hostis in Tiqqun's sense, hostile or indifferent to the survival of the lifeforms (or forms of life) under its control. The level and degree of its indifference or hostility is at first unknown. The narrative of Alien is hinged between two unknowns, two specific mysteries. The first is what is the alien, or xenomorph, capable of? Its intelligence is always in question as it goes from a drooling predator to something more crafty and capable. In the first film, this mystery, the alien nature of the alien, is duplicated by the orders of the Weyland-Yutani, which begin as something indifferent to the well being of the crew, waking them early to examine a distress call, and becomes increasingly hostile as it is revealed that the xenomorph is the corporations goal, a goal in the service of which all life is expendable.  In Alien  the corporation is subject to several mediations, its commands and instructions pass from the ship's computer, dubbed "mother," and then through Ash, the android, underscoring its cold indifference to life. 

The subsequent sequels do not really add much to this, in each version the Weyland-Yutani corporation is hell bent on capturing and weaponizing the xenomorph, failing again and again. Two single minded creatures meet, each bent on exploiting everything in sight to expand territory, and the corporation loses again and again. 

Prometheus promised a return to the corporate backdrop of the films. As the following viral clip makes clear. 

This clip, which actually does a great job of satirizing the techno-utopianism of TED talks, suggests that   Prometheus will be as much about Weyland-Yutani as about the "space-jockey". Here, however, the corporation is unhyphenated, without the odd juxtaposition of "Weyland" and"Yutani," which suggests some unnatural coupling of West and East. This is one of the limits of the anti-corporate politics and ideologies, which often function on an axiology of size where large is bad and good is small. The large, the monstrous, is also presented as being an unnatural and unholy in its violation of the "natural" limits of nation and language. The company is also personalized, identified with its founder, and it is this personalization that is an indication as to how poorly anti-corporate sci-fi has survived the 80s.

I am not going to launch into a full scale criticism of Prometheus because I simply do not have the time. The review from Reverse Shot covers many of the film's flaws. I know that they hate everything, but it is warranted in this case. I want to focus on one angle, the representation of the Weyland corporation. Schematically Prometheus follows the basic plot structure of Alien, in each case there is a mission, an objective, that actually conceals a hidden mission. In Alien this is the shift from an examination of an alien "distress call" to capturing and weaponizing the xenomorph. In Prometheus, what begins as a search to contact aliens is revealed to be a personal mission by Peter Weyland to search for eternal life. The Weyland corporation is transformed from something alien and sinister to something human, all too human. 

This shift from Weyland-Yutani, the menacing corporation, to Peter Weyland, the individual, follows the general logic of the prequel, which doth explain too much. Prequels are predicated on the faulty premise that exposition is more engrossing than allusion. This is nowhere more the case than with the "space jockeys." Alien had at its center a frightening, and absolutely unexplained image, inspired by H.R. Giger, of a biological and mechanical alien, the "space jockey,"a sort of fossilized alien. Ridley Scott has stated that his inspiration for the film came from the unaswered questions about the space jockey, the crashed alien ship.   Prometheus  answers the questions of what the "space jockey" is, and why its ship has a cargo of xenomorphs, at least somewhat. The answers to these questions take the film full circle. It turns out that Weyland-Yutani's intention to transform the xenomorphs into a weapon, an intention that film series treats as narrow minded and doomed to fail, is not so wrong: they were weapons all along! The film's return to the mercenary corporate logic at the exact moment that it is supposed to be pondering the mysteries of the universe is perhaps an allegory of its failure.  The aliens, xenomorphs and space jockeys, were more frightening when they were unknown, not to mention more interesting. The same can be said for Weyland-Yutani. Explaining them diminishes them, especially as these explanations are really just acts of recognition. 


seymourblogger said...

Ah at last a very good review of Prometheus.

unemployed negativity said...

Thanks, I really just had to work through my disappointment.