Trust the French to ruin a perfectly good franchise…
Who made it?: Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Director), Joss Whedon (Writer), Bill Bedalato, Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill, Sigourney Weaver (Producers), 20th Century Fox.
Who’s in it?: Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, Dominique Pinon, Gary Dourdan, J.E. Freeman, Leland Orser.
Tagline: “Witness the resurrection.”
IMDb rating: 6.2/10.
“It wasn’t a question of doing everything differently, although they changed the ending; it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines…mostly…but they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do. There’s actually a fascinating lesson in filmmaking, because everything that they did reflects back to the script or looks like something from the script, and people assume that, if I hated it, then they’d changed the script…but it wasn’t so much that they’d changed the script; it’s that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.”
– Joss Whedon
Alien Resurrection is the most creatively-bankrupt instalment in the quartet. What was once credible, masterful science fiction had been turned into a run-of-the-mill comic book; a defining example of style over substance. The style is notably fantastic but that only gets the film so far. Its making was dictated by greed rather than a desire to continue a story adequately concluded in Alien³. Resurrecting Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) came at a cost – the series was now pure, unadulterated fantasy.
200 years after the events of the third film (a rather ludicrous gap), military scientists on the vessel USM Auriga create a clone of Ellen Ripley using DNA from blood samples taken before her death. They are able to harvest an alien queen from Ripley who isn’t quite how we remember her. Naturally, the boffins hope to generate a new batch of xenomorphs to use in their fiendish schemes, recruiting the crew of a mercenary ship, the Betty, to deliver them unwitting human hosts. It isn’t long before the xenos are up to their old tricks and running amok on the ship, forcing Ripley to team-up with the Betty mercs and stay alive long enough for them to reach home base: Earth.
There’s a distinctly studio feel to the fourth film that detaches it from the three that precede it. That might be because Fox exerted more control over the picture, diminishing the creative involvement of regular producers Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill and their Brandywine Productions. It was also the first to be shot out of the UK, taking the costlier root of Hollywood soundstages. On top of that, the director was perhaps the most theatrical of them all; French visualist Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who was best known for his foreign hits Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995). He was chosen at the behest of Weaver, whose rise to co-producer ensured that her demands would be met. Jeunet was an out-of-the-box thought but an inspired one. He just shouldn’t have made a black comedy.
Everything about Alien Resurrection seems to parody the other entries in the cycle. Their sense of realism is replaced by arch humour and a wink-wink-nudge-nudge mentality that puts it at odds with Alien, Aliens and Alien³. Fanboys will tell you that is down to the work of screenwriter Joss Whedon, whose trademarks are readily apparent (he would start his much-loved TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the same year). Are we to believe him when he says his script was executed poorly? Given his fantastic work directing his own material in Serenity (2004) and The Avengers (2012), both of which exude comedy without weakening drama, it is more likely that Jeunet simply misinterpreted the precise tone the geek god was aiming for. Considering Jeunet barely spoke a word of English at the time, and had a translator for the entirety of the shoot, it’s an interesting question. For once, the choice of director was completely wrong for the series in my own worthless opinion. Jeunet’s style is just too whimsical, making you wonder what original choice Danny Boyle would have done with the material.
Alien Resurrection‘s faults are legion, beginning with the characters – the most important element in any Alien film. The occupants of the Auriga and the Betty range from ridiculous to implausible. Let’s start with the military lot, who don’t represent the Company seen in the previous films. Weyland-Yutani have long since disbanded. The big bad is now the United Systems Military, and they’re more of a Mickey Mouse outfit. Lead scientist Dr. Wren (J.E. Freeman) is a snarling pantomime villain who has none of the subtleties of former baddy Burke (Paul Reiser), or even Lance Henriksen in his fleeting appearance as the “real” Bishop at the end of Alien³. We know he’s a rotten apple from the start, making his inevitable double-cross something of a face-palm moment. His underlings are also wildly over-the-top, led by the strange Dr. Gediman (cult star Brad Dourif), whose big scene in the film is spent pulling silly faces at an encased alien. There’s also the laughable General Perez (Dan Hedaya) who seems to have no control over a seemingly important military vessel. In the prior films, this idiot would have been below decks cursing his lot in life.
The Betty crew, who are our main protagonists, don’t fare any better. They are a bunch of ragamuffin space pirates in the mould of Han Solo. You could say they predate the characters in Whedon’s far superior television series, Firefly. Each character is given little to distinguish themselves beyond surface traits. The Captain, Elgyn (Michael Wincott), is a no-fucking-around-guy who can talk his way out of most situations; Christie (CSI‘s Gary Dourdan) is an ace shot with any firearm; Vriess (Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon) is a paralysed mechanic who we assume will be the first to go; Hillard (Kim Flowers) is the airhead screwing the Captain with no discernible plot function; and Call (Winona Ryder) is a whiny weakling who may be more than she appears. Naturally, she turns out to be the franchise’s trademark android – a waste of a novel spin on tradition. Call is an Auton – “a robot designed by robots.” Her mission is to stop the spread of the alien, but between Ryder’s unconvincing performance and the character’s lack of any real importance in the narrative, Call doesn’t deserve to be the film’s second lead or even share the poster with Weaver.
Thank god, then, for the brilliant Ron Perlman and Leland Orser. Perlman is at his most magnetic as the foul-mouthed heavy, Johner, a disreputable fellow you can’t help but root for despite his acute lack of people skills. He bags most of the best lines in the film, and can be considered a prototype for Firefly‘s Jayne. Orser is also great as the unlucky Purvis. Impregnated with an alien, it’s just a matter of time before his innards hit the floor. The famously twitchy character actor – who specialises in hyperventilating – relishes a throwaway role, and his sub-plot has one of the better (if nonsensical) pay-offs in the picture.
Rising above them all, expectedly, is Weaver as a new breed of Ripley (no. 8 to be exact). She isn’t the heroine we remember – a half-human, half-alien cross-breed with acid in her blood. She also has increased agility and an empathic link with the aliens, allowing Weaver to show new sides to a character she’s all too familiar with. While the argument for Ripley’s involvement at this stage in the game is weak, there’s no denying the co-producer gives it her all. We just won’t dwell on her strange semi-sex scene with the aliens, which is easily the most offbeat moment in the quartet.
If the characters are a mixed bag, at least the “money moments” offer sleek entertainment. Jeunet actually has some panache with staging action (a rarity in his work), displayed best by the underwater sequence. The aliens have flooded a section of the Auriga, allowing the director to show the xenomorphs in fresh surroundings. It turns out they are just as deadly when submerged. If there are flaws that stop the scene from being a classic, it’s the simple fact that CGI aliens aren’t terrifying. Jeunet commits the cardinal sin of showing them way too often and in clear, unbroken view. It also strains credibility that our heroes could fight aliens underwater whilst holding their breath for almost five minutes. That just about sums the film up – fun to watch in fits and starts, but dumber than a bag of hammers.
Like the previous entries, the film is technically accomplished, and fans are right to focus on its audio-visual merits. The cinematography is polished and the sound design is boisterous. Kudos should also go to Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. once again, since their practical alien effects hit a degree of perfection here that shouldn’t be overlooked. There’s also some solace to be found in the typically-brilliant score by John Frizzell, which deserves a better movie to showcase it. If you want spectacularly-made rubbish, Jeunet’s film succeeds admirably.
What to make of Alien Resurrection all these years later? Do we include it as canon in this venerable franchise or as a comic book-style “what if?” scenario? It is so disconnected to the other films that the latter might be closest to the mark. It isn’t a “bad” film in the traditional sense – this is a competent bit of eye candy that had the misfortune of following three distinctly superior movies. As an Alien sequel, Resurrection is a disaster. As a ludicrous sci-fi monster flick content to deliver some cheap thrills, it has some worth. That just isn’t good enough when you’re following Ridley Scott, James Cameron and David Fincher.
Ripley comes across the failed clones before her, numbered 1-7, in a secret room on the Auriga. Out of compassion for one still left alive (also Weaver), she torches the place. It is the only vignette in the entire picture that produces an emotional response, and the star provides a beautifully anguished moment. Sadly, no embeddable video from the infamously-tight Fox.
- Sigourney Weaver was paid $11 million to come back as Ripley, more than the entire cost of Alien.
- Joss Whedon originally scripted the Newborn creature seen at the end of the film as a deadly four-legged, eyeless, bone-white creature with red veins running along the sides of its head. It had an inner jaw, similar to the all the other aliens. It also had a pair of pincers on the sides of his head. These pincers were used to hold its prey still as it drained the prey of blood with its inner jaw. The creature was also larger, nearly the size of the queen alien. In later script revisions, the creature was changed into a “more believable” hybrid of human and alien.
- Ron Perlman nearly drowned while filming the underwater sequence. At one point, when trying to surface, he hit his head on a sprinkler in the ceiling, knocking him out cold. He was rescued by nearby film crew members.
- Weaver made the behind-the-back half-court basketball shot successfully after two weeks of basketball practice, tutored by a basketball coach. Her conversion rate during that two weeks was about one shot in from every six.