Obedience vs Free Will in Sir Ridley Scott's SF Films4,266 Views6 RepliesAdd A Reply
I've been watching the hell out of Ridley Scott's SF films lately, obviously in anticipation of ALIEN: Covenant, but also to work on a wee thesis of mine. I've mentioned it on some threads here recently--I've been comparing the themes of Scotts four SF movies (so far) and have found that all of them have many similar themes and motifs, some of which quite surprised me, and which I'd like to share with you all, if I may.
The first theme I've found to be common amongst the films is that of Slavery and Rebellion.
Since ALIEN is the first of the bunch, I'll start with it.
(Note: I'll warn you all ahead of time that this is going to be an obscenely-long post. My apologies in advance, and my thanks to any of you who actually read the whole thing).
Obedience is rampant amongs the Nostromo crew, although a few crewmen (namely Parker and Ripley) show signs of individualism.
Parker begins and remains the most individualistic member of the crew--he's the only one with the wherewithal to pick up a knife and make an attempt to kill the newborn chest-burster while everyone else gawks in shock and horror. He wants to kill the alien straight off, but has to listen to his superiors (first Dallas, then Ripley) who dissuade him from any "heroics."
Kane has some self-determination, but not to the extent of Parker. He volunteers to go on the first expedition to find the source of the beacon, but this is in obedience to the Company's wishes, and it will cost him dearly.
Dallas is obedient--he is simply obeying the Company. Why does Ash have the final word on Kane's fate? Ripley asks. "It happens, my dear, because that's what the Company wants to happen;" Dallas is doing what they're telling him to do. He just runs the ship. He obeys orders, and in the end he pays for his obedience to the Company.
Lambert and Brett aren't the most exemplary members of the Nostromo crew. Brett largely follows Parker around, parroting everything the latter says and agreeing with him; "right!" Lambert, the most emotional crew-member, comes up with the plan of fleeing in the Narcissus, but concedes the idea when Ripley notes that the shuttle will not be able to transport everyone. She obeys the senior officer.
Ash, of course, is an android. He is Obedient by nature--he's been programmed to secure and protect the xenomorph. At the risk of his crewmates' lives, he does all he can to make sure it is brought back. Of course, we cannot really consider him a slave, as he is simply doing what he has been programmed to do. Does he have any self-determination at all? Perhaps--his simulated oral rape of Ripley (as opposed to simply bashing her head in and thus removing a threat to the alien) is completely irrational and pointless, but that may be as far as it goes with him. Otherwise, he is simply obeying his Company's directive.
Then we have our hero, Ripley. To start with, she is more of a by-the-books type. She tries to uphold basic Quarantine Law when Kane returns with a new friend, and wishes to stick to Dallas' (foolish) plan of chasing after the xenomorph in the air vents after the captain's disappearance. She does show signs of individualism, however, when she confronts Dallas about how easily he acquiesces to the demands of Ash, whom she mistrusts. After Dallas is gone, she takes the initiative to find out what was going on--something Dallas never did--and discovered that she and her crewmates were expendable. Realizing that her loyalty to the Company is misplaced, she no longer is an obedient Weyland-Yutani (or, "Weylan") employee. She rebels against the Company, confronting Ash and acknowledging that Lambert's idea of scuttling the Nostromo and escaping in the Narcissus is the only way to survive. Unfortunately, Lambert and Parker do not live to escape with her, but it is only after her rebellion against the Company, after destroying the Nostromo, its cargo, and the alien specimen--everything the Company holds dear--that she is able to escape and live to see another day.
A few years after ALIEN, Blade Runner was released. To state the obvious, Slavery vs Rebellion is a major theme in the film.
Our rebels are mainly the four fugitive Replicants in Los Angeles--Roy, Leon, Pris, and Zhora. They've already rebelled against and destroyed their masters, fleeing the colony that held them in slavery and escaping to Earth in search of more life.
By contrast, Rick Deckard, the man (or robot?) assigned to "retire" the fugitives is obedient. Even though he doesn't want to continue doing blade-runner assignments, he's convinced to go after the fugitives by Bryant, who notes "If you're not Cop, you're Little People." In other words, if you're not a servant of the state, you're nobody, just another face in the seething mass of humanity crawling over Los Angeles.
The teeming hordes of futuristic L.A. certainly are mindless enough. Shuffling about their business, obeying street signs that drone "CROSS NOW. CROSS NOW," and "DON'T WALK. DON'T WALK." After Zhora is gunned down by Deckard, they obediently listen to the Police hovercar telling them "MOVE ON. MOVE ON. MOVE ON."
Roy is arguably the only character of the film that is truly free. He has successfully rebelled against his overlords and made it to Earth despite the risks involved. He outsmarts his pursuers, reaching Tyrell in his temple-like sanctum to plead for more life. Ah, but alas, no one is free from mortality. Death is the ultimate order which all must obey. He realizes this, I believe, as he travels back to the lower levels of the city in a turbolift.
Of course, he's too late to save poor Pris, which leaves him alone to confront his pursuer. He outsmarts Deckard and toys with him. He mocks Deckard's hypocrisy as he dodges the blade runner's bullets. Not very sporting. Wearing Pris' blood like a warrior's stripe, he hunts his former pursuer like a wolf. With Deckard at his mercy, Roy tells him "Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it. That's what it's like to be a slave." With the last of his strength, Roy pulls Deckard from the ledge he's clinging to, and thus saves his life. Roy, a free individual, shows far more humanity than the humans who've been tasked with "retiring" rebellious individuals like him.
Deckard silently ponders Roy's dead form; when Bryant and Gaff show up, he tells them he's "finished." Not only is he done retiring replicants, he's no longer a pawn of the state. Roy not only gave Deckard his life, he gave him freedom. Taking the fugitive replicant Rachel with him, Deckard--who finds Gaff's silver origami unicorn surprisingly referencing a dream Deckard had the previous evening--he flees into the city, into a life, however fleeting, of freedom.
Thirty years after Blade Runner, Ridley Scott returned to Science Fiction with PROMETHEUS. Again, Rebellion/Obedience vs Slavery/Free Will is a major theme of the film.
Many of the Prometheus' crew are obedient/conformist, to an almost foolish degree. When Holloway foolishly removes his helmet, despite being warned over the comma not to do so, they almost unthinkingly follow suit. Shaw certainly knows it's a stupid idea, calling her partner a "crazy bastard." Most of them have no idea why they've gone to LV-223; they're just loyal to either the Weyland Corporation (because they want to get paid) or to Weyland himself.
Weyland, of course, is a brilliant man whose legacy is tainted by an extreme god-complex. He's come to the planet to demand immortality from his makers (which makes him similar to Roy Batty, but I'll go into that in another post), and believes himself to be equal to them. His prize creation is not his biological offspring, Meredith Vickers (who notably does not carry his name), but his android, David. However, unlike the Old Testament God that created man with free will (read "Paradise Lost" if you're like me and not a Christian yet are curious about that religion's creation story), Weyland created David to be obedient to his orders. Upon awakening from cryosleep, he has his prize creation bathe him, scrubbing his feet clean like a slave, with other human employees reverently attending him.
David obviously resents this treatment; when Shaw asks Weyland why he's come along, David pointedly glances up at his maker as if to bitterly ask "yes, WHY?!!" When Shaw asks what he will do when Weyland isn't around anymore, David notes that he'll be free, and implies that he wants his "parent" dead. Despite claiming to be unfamiliar with "wanting" things, David certainly shows that he does have wants. He wants his father gone so he can be free. He wants Shaw's crucifix necklace and keeps it on his person after removing it from her. (In this respect he's similar to Ash. Taking the necklace is completely irrational, particularly for an android, as was Ash's quasi-sexual assault on Ripley. Could David "want" Shaw as well?)
Janek, who claims to "just fly the ship," is arguably the Prometheus crewman with the greatest degree of self-determination. He has more sense than Weyland or his acolytes, and looks past the Company's directives to see how severe a threat the Engineers are. When the time comes to stop the Last Engineer from exterminating humanity, he makes the ultimate decision--self-sacrifice. He offers his companions, Ravel and Chance, the opportunity to escape, but they freely choose to die with him.
Shaw, an interesting character, seems to be somewhat obedient and somewhat self-determined. She has a degree of control over her fellow scientists, as Weyland declares that she and Holloway are in charge of the expedition, but also follows her foolish partner's actions when he removes his helmet. It isn't until things "go to pot" that she becomes truly free. With her beloved and Weyland dead (both of whom had much influence on her--it is Weyland who convinces her to go with him to meet the Last Engineer), and the Last Engineer hell-bent on carrying out his mission to destroy humanity, she realizes that the being must be stopped. Janek's kamikaze attack will mean her ultimate demise, alone and stranded on LV-223, but she freely chooses her fate. However, given an opportunity for escape, she takes it. With David's head and body in tow, she blasts off in another Engineer juggernaut craft, following her freely-chosen destiny to seek her answers from her makers.
Ridley's most recent SF film is, of course, The Martian. At first glance, it would appear that this film doesn't have a heavy Slavery/Obedience vs Rebellion/Free Will theme as its predecessors. However, I'll argue that it does.
After he finds himself stranded alone on Mars, Mark Watney must decide his own fate. His communications have been knocked out in the storm, and without the ability to contact his crewmates or NASA, he's on his own. He tells himself "I'm not gonna die" and sets himself to the task of keeping himself alive.
Mars, of course, is a barren world, inhospitable to human life. The hab is his refuge, but with limited supplies, what can he do? Thankfully, he's a botanist, and has not only some vacuum-packed Thanksgiving potatoes, but also vacuum-sealed packets of human soil (thank you, space toilets!). He turns one of the hab's rooms into a greenhouse, and farms potatoes. In order to reestablish communications with NASA, he searches for and finds the old Pathfinder rover (after modifying his Martian-rover to extend its battery life and thus reach the old robot). At last able to talk to NASA, he extends his rations, supplemented with is potatoes, in order to live beyond what the mission's food supplies alone would have allowed. Even when a blowout damages the hab, he's able to patch the hab and still survive in the damaged structure. His very existence is one of rebellion against Nature herself. He shouldn't be able to survive on Mars--he should just obey Fate and slowly starve to death--but Watney does survive, for over a year.
Watney isn't the only member of the Ares III crew who rebels. All of them do; Commander Lewis, Martinez, Johannsen, Beck, and Vogel--they all end up rebelling against NASA. The organization is directed by Teddy Sanders, who cares about his astronauts but has to take into consideration the fate of the organization as a whole. He forbids his subordinates to relay Rich Purnell's slingshot maneuver calculations to the crew, preferring to risk losing one astronaut instead of six. However, one of his subordinates, Henderson, rebels and secretly sends the calculations in an email to the crew. However, the decision to make the maneuver isn't simply Lewis' order and the crew's obedience. No; Lewis gives her crew the choice to mutiny against NASA. It must be a unanimous decision, or they will not go. (In this respect, Lewis is like Janek, who gives his pilots the choice to live in Vickers' lifeboat or die with him). The decision is indeed unanimous, and they decide to go back for Watney (that "steely-eyed missile man" line is reference to the Apollo 13 crew, who performed a similar maneuver in slingshotting around the moon to return to Earth in their damaged craft, for those of you who are geeks for that sort of thing). When Teddy learns what they're doing, he infers, correctly, that Henderson was the one who gave them the information they'd need to make the Purnell maneuver. He decrees that after the mission is over, Henderson will turn in his resignation. Having already won his fight to save his missing crewman, Henderson obeys. Secure with his conscience, he will lose nothing.
The final moments where the Hermes craft must intercept the MAV capsule are the most exciting of the film, and are reliant solely on the astronauts' free will. Because of their distance from Earth, if anything goes wrong, neither the astronauts on the Hermes nor Watney will be able to ask NASA for advice or help. They're on their own. Every decision they make, to slow the speed of the Hermes, to use air escaping from a spacesuit as thrust, are theirs and theirs alone. Their free will, their individualism and self-determination, are what saves them.
Thus, the Ares III crew, all six of them, survive because of their free will. Obedience to NASA would have left Watney stranded and alone for even longer than he was, and if Watney hadn't rebelled against his apparent fate, striving to survive on an inhospitable world, he would have perished. Likewise, Ripley survives because she rebels against the Company, which is only concerned with obtaining a xenomorph specimen, by blowing up the ship and then blasting the alien with her shuttle's thrusters. Deckard becomes free when he takes Rachel with him and flees his former life as a blade runner. Self-determination doesn't save Janek and his pilots, but their freely-chosen self-sacrifice saves humanity. And Shaw's choice to take David and fly off to worlds unknown in the juggernaut saves them from a lonely death on LV-223, or so it seems…
As I've posted earlier on this forum, I do believe this theme of rebellion vs obedience will play a role in Covenant. Exactly HOW it will is, of course for now, a matter of speculation.
Do you think my arguments hold merit? I'd love to hear what you all think.
Do you think rebellion vs slavery will be a theme in Covenant? If so, how do you think it will play out?
Thanks for reading my ridiculously long post. See you around!
Long, yes, but a very intelligent discourse with many good points, very nicely and entertainingly broken-down and presented!!
You've given me much to consider with regards to my own works as well. :)
Oh, wasn't GLADIATOR one of Scott's films also?
IN SPACE THERE IS NO WARNING
Thank you! And yes, Gladiator is one of Scott's films. It's one of my favorites of Scott's (aside from his SF works) along with Hannibal and Legend.
I thought so, and the theme you speak of really comes through (obviously) in GLADIATOR, but is also rather convoluted for some of the characters.
Hannibal...LOVE that film!!
IN SPACE THERE IS NO WARNING
Radio- great breakdown although I never saw the Martian and it has been long enough to where I don't remember BR.
I think you are right on for the Alien/Prometheus characters. My only addition would be that all except possibly the androids had free will but chose to follow company rules basically to their peril. Janek went out like a boss considering the cir***stances. Honestly, I cannot add anything to your breakdown except an up vote.
Thanks, dk! Janek is one of the best characters in Prometheus, wish we'd seen more of him in the movie. Blackwinter-witch, yes I agree the obedience-vs-freedom theme is in Gladiator as well. Hannibal too, although the movie is very different from the book (which I recommend highly if you haven't read it, it's a fantastic little piece of Gothic horror), nonetheless the theme is there. I think Hannibal is my favorite of Scott's non-SF films, with Gladiator and Legend close behind.
I will make an effort to find the novel, wasn't aware until now there was one, also I tend to focus on the Hannibal movie perhaps overmuch due to Hopkins handling that role so superlatively well :)
IN SPACE THERE IS NO WARNING