Why the outdated technology in the Alien series makes sense

Why the outdated technology in the Alien series makes sense
(Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

The Alien series is one of the most influential sci-fi horror movie franchises in the history of cinema. Since it started in the 1970s, there have been countless movies, games, and other forms of media set in the Aliens universe – movie buffs will definitely want to check out our list of Alien movies ranked, worst to best. We’ve been taken from a claustrophobic film set in basically a single spacecraft to a grandiose space/horror epic with characters who don’t know how to run diagonally.

Having started over 40 years ago, some of the technology depicted in the original trilogy has ended up with something of a retro-futurist aesthetic in the eyes of many. After all, the original came out in 1979, and they used technology that would have made sense at the time. However, many fans argue that it just doesn’t make sense for a spacecraft to be using clunky keyboards and analogue tape storage so far into the future, especially when the ship in 2012’s Prometheus was so advanced. 

Despite this, there are many reasons why the types of technology used in the Alien series make perfect sense. From those colossal air ducts big enough for people to climb through to computers that look more at home in an old episode of Tomorrow’s World, it’s all perfectly explainable. So, if you’re ready to fall in love with Giger’s most well-known creation all over again, then read on to discover why the outdated technology in the Alien series makes sense.

Let’s talk about computers

Keyboard from Alien (1979)_20th Century Fox

(Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

When it comes to talking about technology in the Alien franchise, the first issue that many people point to is computers. Despite being equipped with an advanced A.I. program called ‘Mother,’ the crew of the Nostromo converse with their digital helper via the help of a keyboard that might as well have been ripped straight from an Apple II. Considering the movie was released in 1979, it very well could have been. 

The apparent reason for the inclusion of such a cumbersome bit of kit was because it was what they had available. However, the big issue comes in when we take a look at Prometheus. Set 30 years before the first Alien movie, the titular ship in said film sports high-tech equipment that looks more in-line with what we’re used to these days, rather than the clunky microcomputer look that we got in the original film. 

Primarily, there are two reasons why we find outdated tech before Prometheus: reliability and affordability. If you’ve ever worked in a research or industrial setting, you probably know that the machinery being used tends to be a fair few years out of date, as do the computers controlling said machines. This is because older computers are less prone to breaking down and easier to fix. In the earlier days of microcomputers, parts were larger and typically if a component blew, you could just get a new one and solder it in yourself relatively easily.

Monitors from Aliens (1986)_20th Century Fox

(Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

If you need any proof of this, just take a look at the Commodore USA Facebook fan page. In 2016, they posted a computer still being used to run an auto shop after a quarter of a century. This is despite it being covered in grime and having survived a flood in that time. When you’re traveling in the depths of space for an extended period, you need to know that your tech will last out against both time and the dangers of deep-space radiation. 

There’s also the argument of affordability. The Nostromo in Alien and Hadley’s Hope in Aliens are intended to be profitable ventures for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation who financed them. So, it makes sense that the tech these companies funded would have been as cheap as possible to cut down on overheads. Incidentally, this also explains why the technology in Prometheus is so much more advanced, despite being decades before the first movie. The titular ship is a top-of-the-line research vessel funded entirely by an eccentric billionaire. It’s the space equivalent of a yacht, hence the up-to-date tech and the more comfortable appearance of the ship itself.

On tapes and air ducts

Alien (1979)_20th Century Fox

(Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

There are some other elements across the series that also get called out for being either outdated or unrealistic. Namely, air ducts and, to a lesser extent, tape data storage which is seen occasionally throughout the series.  Given that there is terraforming in the Alien universe, the presence of such outdated tech does seem odd, but both of these elements actually do fit quite well in-universe when you think about it.

The air vents are seen quite a lot in the original Alien film, as there’s an extended sequence of Dallas crawling through them with a flamethrower. The best evidence for why these huge open ducts actually make sense is found in the movie as well. As Dallas crawls down through the sprawling network of huge metal tunnels, he has to repeatedly stop to open gateways. While these gateways could be there to control the flow of air, fans and grills make much more sense for that sort of task, so why are these here?

The most obvious answer is that these aren’t just air ducts, they’re maintenance tunnels. Clearly, they’re intended for the crew to use in the case that one or more doorways are blocked or disabled. If you need to do essential maintenance while your doors aren’t working, having a way to get around the ship is of the utmost importance, especially for all those nooks and crannies. No matter how advanced your tech is, those accessways are vital, and hence the huge human-sized tunnels throughout.

Tape player from Alien: Isolation_Sega

(Image credit: Sega)

The reasons behind the magnetic tape as seen in much of the franchise’s side media such as games and comics are much more incidental. Magnetic tape is more durable and reliable than many other forms of data storage. It’s going to last a long time and is way less prone to failure. Even if tape snaps, you can repair it with minimal data loss. That’s why companies still use magnetic tape for long-term data storage to this day. If you’re a worker journeying through space, you need storage media that will last a long time and won’t break too easily, not to mention it needs to be cheap. Put these three things together and you have the hat-trick of reasons why analogue tape is still found in the Alien universe.

Check out the franchise

If you want to come to your own conclusions about the technology featured in the series, you’ll have to check out all of the movies for yourself. You can find most of the movies available for online streaming these days, even the bad ones that everyone likes to pretend don’t exist anymore. Our Alien Streaming Guide will point you in the right direction. 

If you enjoyed this article exploring the science in sci-fi, you’ll love our 5 most realistic space movies article, too, as well as reading about the science behind Destiny 2’s Lorentz Driver weapon or thinking about how realistic is Ant-Man’s quantum science?

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