Julie Gillis

Aug 13, 2021

7 min read

Ethical Leadership In Space

Photo credit unknown-from Alien

When I was about 11 or so, I watched (or attempted to watch because I got really scared) Alien, by Ridley Scott. Don’t think for a minute my mother took me to the theatre for this. No, she disliked movies and certainly would never have taken me to see horror with an over PG13 rating.

My aunt had a fancy channel called Home Box Office, or frankly it might have been Showtime since that was around at the same time, but I believe it was HBO. I’d stay late at my aunt’s house while my mother and she hung out, and I’d turn the TV on in the living room and set the volume to JUUUUUST barely loud and press my face up to the screen and watch whatever was on this fancy channel.

(SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN ALIEN AND WHY HAVE YOU NOT SEEN ALIEN????)

One time it was Alien. I got as far as the scene where Kane starts vomiting and the bebe Alien bursts through his chest.

I had an absolute loathing of vomit, a near phobia, and this scene kind of made me lose it. I sat crying in the living room, in the dark alone, while my relatives got snippy with each other over cheap chardonnay, ruminating over the course their lives took.

Oddly, it’s become one of my favorite films.

Each time I watch it, there is something new that reveals itself.

Because we are in a state of emergency here in my county, with absolute butt-loads of Covid19 cases overtaking the hospitals, and because our valleys is sunk in with toxic smoke, and because it has been over 100 degrees, going outside feels a bit like the Alien moon that the crew of the Nostromo landed upon-dark, filled with unknown terrors, dangerous.

This time, I watched an extended version and it was even more frustrating than the ones I’ve seen before. The crew is tired. Broke down. Working for the Company and just wanting to get their damn piece of the pie for salvage. Everyone has been in space for a long time. They want to go home. They want their money.

Awakened early by a beacon from a nearby moon, they figure that there might be a neat new haul out there, so let’s get more! All but Ripley. When pressed for commitment that they’ll receive compensation for taking this riske, she’s literally like, “Yeah Yeah, you’ll get what’s coming to you.” I’ll say!

Of course, a small team decides to check out where the beacon that awoke them is coming from. Of course it’s a derelict alien ship. Of course they go in, because human beings are ridiculously, stupidly curious. Of course they touch the egg pods and of course Kane gets a sweet warm tight hug from this….well, it’s a nasty little thing.

(Much has been written about the gendered aspects of Alien, from the phallic and vaginal imagery to the use of “Mother” as the computer, to the (seemingly) male synthetics that align with the (figuratively) male Company. That’s not for me to delve into this piece but it’s pretty wild stuff to dig into.)

As soon as there is trouble, they come running back to the ship and Ripley, wisely, is like “NO CAN DO YOU CANNOT BRING THE BAD THING INSIDE.” And Ash, goddamn Ash, just lets them all in, breaking QUARANTINE leading to the aforementioned vomit and chest-bursting scene which traumatized me earlier. The little bebe rushes about and grows big and strong like an unstoppable virus, er Alien, determined to burn a swath through humanity.

Get it? GET IT?

Ash breaks quarantine for a couple of reasons, come to find out. One appears to be sexism as he tells Ripley that he “forgot” she was commanding officer when the others were out of the ship. In actuality, he’s under secret orders to take the nasty Alien back to the company, crew expendable in the process, because of the perceived financial and military value the thing brings with it. Also, because Ash admires the monster’s “purity.”

So, first the crew is a little greedy and wants to get more salvage, next you find out that the Company is willing to kill them to get this thing because it’s greedy. And you find out that Ash is greedy, in the sense that he wants to see how this Alien works and he couldn’t give a good goddamn who dies while he’s watching and taking notes.

Ripley is so noble. She’s just trying to do the good and correct and pure thing right and left and she just gets crapped on for it in so many ways. It’s a study, in some ways, of ethical leadership vs toxic leadership (or no leadership at all). Her ethical universe is pragmatic and practical and caring. It’s about getting the job done correctly, with standards, and regard for the human lives around her.

The crisis occurs and because she’s not actually in charge of the ship (nor frankly did she want to be), she can’t override the very bad decisions. She confronts Dallas, the captain, about the breach in quarantine protocol, and he’s just over it with her. He doesn’t want to hear about her standards, he just wants his cut of the money and to get home.

Now we have a big problem, because the Alien is huge and hungry and “pure” and everyone is dying left and right, and finally, after a massive fight and huge horror tension, Ripley is the final girl and she boots the damn Alien out of the shuttle (after blowing up a BAZILLION dollar ship and BOY isn’t the Company gonna be mad about that), and she floats off into hypersleep knowing with surety she did the right thing and will be back at home with her daughter soon. Right?

WRONG.

What’s life without a sequel! Or a number of viral variants!

In all seriousness, the film spoke to me strongly this week because of what it says about human nature, leadership, and the frustration of being pulled into a leadership position you didn’t want or ask for. We are facing a lot of similar issues to Ripley right now. Greed and impatience and a desire to be in a cycle of fixing problems that we ourselves created has led to climate change, for an example. The smoke outside my window, painting the vista a dull brown, is connected to forest fires, which are connected to a dearth of moisture in the air and in rain, and forest management practices and so forth and so on. I am no expert here, but I note that in 2000 it was not drought-ridden. Fires were infrequent, heat was lower.

We are seeing floods in places that don’t flood, heat waves where there usually aren’t, full state freezes where freezing doesn’t happen. Climate scientists are like…we’ve got about 30 years left because we have tipped the point.

We’ve got this virus raging through the world. It entered, took hold, reproduced and passed through country after country with speed, effectiveness, and didn’t care who you were. We did not contain it, it breached quarantines (and many places didn’t really even have those-we didn’t truly lock-down in the US). Now it’s reproduced little variants like Delta which are (SPOILER ALERT) way way worse, and what looked like raging through the world before, now looks like a cake walk.

We have another virus raging and it’s disinformation. People literally believing the virus isn’t real, or vaccines have chips in them, or masks will kill you. People seem to “catch” rage and anger in groups, or in the damn grocery store being asked to wear a mask. People are screaming at teachers and nurses about rights, when viruses don’t care about your rights (masks don’t oppress you, they just don’t). Viruses are pure reproduction machines.

(Do I admire its purity?

No. I hate it and I wish it would go the hell away.)

What do you do though if you are a Ripley type? If you see injustices, point them out, cajole people into paying attention to another way of doing things, if you have standards that you think should be kept, but you don’t have actual authority in the system?

You wind up in multi-million dollar movie franchise, that’s what you do!

No, that’s not what you do.

You try and fight as best you can. Sometimes you realize that you can make a change and it’s worth it. Sometimes you move on to another city or situation, because you can’t make a change. Sometimes the battles are pretty small and mundane (but they still have impact), sometimes the battles are huge. You realize that people don’t see things like you see things and that often hurts a little bit, or a lot. You’ll see people just going along to get their cut. You’ll see corruption under the guise of “just doing the Company’s orders.

You will try to get the job done, correctly and with standards, with regard for the humanity around you, but if you are pushed too hard, you may just end up blowing up a ship to save earth

No.

You won’t do that, but the symbology is clear. You should try to keep people safe, even if the cost is very high. And that cost is high, especially if there aren’t a lot of Ripleys replicating themselves in the world.

Ash is a great enemy in the film, aligned with the evil Company as he is, but the more problematic people in the film, in my estimation, are the ones who just go along to get along and get theirs.

Be a Ripley, as best you can. Because if there were more Ripleys, it would wind up being a hell of a lot easier on everyone. It makes sense to have a “hero” for a franchise, a final, final, final girl who is as imperiled as Pauline, only in space. But, it doesn’t work well in real life. Everyday ethical leadership, standards, and regard for others matters a LOT.

I may watch Aliens this weekend and see what lessons I can glean. Or I might just watch Ted Lasso because it seems like it would go down easier with all this smoke.

Take care out there.