Alien Movie Review: Display Technology

On my work blog I have a series of limited perspective movie reviews. These reviews, inspired by a Letterman bit, look at only one narrow aspect of a movie.

SPOILER ALERT: These reviews assume you have seen the movie.

Here’s InceptionBreaking Dawn, and Star Trek.

I watched Alien with a friend recently and was struck by [the ship computer] Mother’s display. This (SPOILER) review has the best (SPOILER) image I could find — unfortunately, green text on black is particularly susceptible to JPEG compression artifacts. In the movie, the actual display is extremely high-res (perhaps “retina”), with no pixels visible on my friend’s large screen showing the Blu-ray edition. On the other hand, the display is a green screen and fairly small. It’s an odd vision of the future.

My guess for the choice is that this was the best they could do in 1979, but I’ll try to make sense of it in the context of the movie, which is made quite a bit harder by Prometheus. In Prometheus, there are full-fledged holograms, so I’m guessing they have color displays. It was only 29 years earlier, so it’s hard to explain a display regression that wouldn’t also affect space travel technology. The only explanation is conscious choice on the part of the ship builder.

Here are our clues:

  1. The computer doesn’t seem to be able to display anything other than text.
  2. It can’t receive any input other than keyed in text
  3. It has a natural language interface
  4. The computer is offline with respect to Earth

My guess, actual Earth computers of this era are 100% speech driven with no displays. This disruptive innovation has decimated the display market.

Like now, the voice recognition requires a connection to server farm to pull off. As a hack, when you have to go offline, they give you some of the AI client-side, but can’t understand speech anymore so they slap on a display.

There’s, of course, no such thing as a display with less than retina quality as that bar was passed a while ago. However, since displays aren’t used by mainstream tech any more, they had to use a batch of small displays from some niche supplier — perhaps a line of hipster, retro digital alarm clocks.