At least Alien3 has its die-hard defenders, particularly with the advent of The Assembly Cut. Alien Resurrection appears destined to remain the unloved, ugly and reviled newborn of the original quartet, a sequel that’s full of ideas (probably more than the rest put together), but fails to deliver them in an entirely satisfying way. It doesn’t even end properly, something that could at least be relied upon previously (with the consequence of “now get-out of that rewriting” for the sequels), making the fact that it was never followed up additionally cruel. Neill Blomkamp even wanted to retcon it and Alien3 out of existence; fortunately, Ridley appears to have nixed his gorilla fingers.
On top of which, Joss Whedon has lambasted it; whatever is wrong with Alien Resurrection is not his fault, let that be clear to everyone. But you know what? I kind of like the movie. I don’t think it’s great by any means, but if Alien3 is more of-a-piece tonally, then Alien Resurrection is just flat-out weirder and more interesting.
I can’t say I was especially impressed with it on first viewing, however. The newborn was a particular sticking point, and still is. And for all the thematic ideas thrown in, there’s a schematic quality to the structure that ensures Alien Resurrection consciously feels like the first of the series to come in the aftermath of Alien videogames. But I like the picture’s goofy tone, love the visual sensibility Jean-Pierre Jeunet and cinematographer Darius Khondji bring to the table (of the sequels, this wipes the floor with the others in visual lustre), and on a scene-by-scene basis, it offers some of the most engaging moments in the series. It just doesn’t hang together very well, even the extended Special Edition cut (which I prefer, despite the daft CGI bug that kicks it off).
This is not, however, Joss Whedon’s fault. Or so he’d have you believe. I’m a fan of much that Whedon has contributed to TV and movies, but there’s little doubt he’s a bit over-protective of his oeuvre, launching into those he perceives to have messed with his creations (another being the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie).
In the case of Alien Resurrection, his self-righteousness is hardly justified, particularly as many of the picture’s problems revolve around the fingerprints of his particular style of character and dialogue; if anything, we’re lucky to have Jeunet throwing that into relief as much as he can. I can only imagine how generic and knock-off the picture would have been, had Paul W Anderson, for example (who was approached, and of whose Alien vs. Predator Whedon has suggested he liked), had been employed. Incidentally, in the run-up to Alien 4’s making, I was most intrigued when Danny Boyle was flirting with the project, although he and John Hodge ultimately decided they couldn’t thrash out a mutually agreed concept with the studio.
Maybe that’s its biggest problem. Alien Resurrection can’t escape the feeling of a picture produced by corporate mandate; whatever the pros and cons of Aliens and Alien3, they bear the intent of makers who had a clear idea of what they wanted to bring to the screen. Jeunet happily admits he tackled the project as a director for hire (“a very long commercial”), so while he layers it in terms of design and tone, he isn’t invested in it conceptually.
And Whedon is simply pulling a rabbit out of the hat as justification for Ripley’s return. The plus side is that he manages to run with it, making it coherent thematically while only occasionally resorting to the glib throwaways of his character building; we’re certainly lucky this is set hundreds of years in the future, as it limits his yen for pop-culture dialogue, but unfortunately, his general manner and cadence are insufficiently curtailed.
It’s notable, and notably odd, that the most oft-quoted Whedon take on Alien Resurrection is that he wrote it as “playful, tongue in cheek” or “camp parody” and the director chose to “play it straight”. You can even find reviews built around this say-so. But such a reading simply doesn’t make any sense, to the extent that I wonder if someone had their wires crossed or was being purposefully misleading.
I cannot see how anyone would mistake what Jeunet is doing with Alien Resurrection as playing it straight; virtually his every choice is in the service of exaggeration and an inclination to go OTT, be it in performance, design or editing. Besides which, you have to ask why Whedon, as a disciple of the series, would want to undermine it? Jeunet’s another matter; he can’t resist bringing his Gallic sensibility to bear (there are times this feels more like a kindred spirit to Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element than a part of the Alien universe). As he said, “I can’t avoid humour”.
So, here’s what Joss definitely had to say:
Whedon: Uh…you know, 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.
He also called it “A shitty Alien movie with my name on it” and gripes about Brad Dourif and JE Freeman’s casting as ruining the mystery of their characters. With all those sour grapes – a spoiled vineyard’s worth – on Joss’ part, you’d assume he’d written something dynamite (because, as he admits, they didn’t fundamentally change his script; it’s still there in the final product).
Ripley: I’m finding a lot of things funny lately.
Yet one can hear his glib dialogue tripping off Ripley’s tongue, as if she’s been siphoned from one of his TV shows or Marvel (interpretations of) characters. It’s there in her commenting on the alien queen (“You mean, my baby? I’m the monster’s mother”), what she did when she last ran into the aliens (“I died”), her death (“I get that a lot” in response to “I thought you were dead“; she’s not Snake Plissken, for goodness sake), the Betty (“This piece of shit is even older than I am”), and even just tired lines (“Who do I have to fuck to get off this boat?”; “Was it everything you hoped for?” on climbing out of the floor through the remains of Elgyn) or references to her unique appeal (“They’re curious. I’m the latest thing”).
Frankly, there’s far too much of the trademark Whedon smirk-talk (“Must be a chick thing”, “Earth, man. What a shithole”; “You’re programmed to be an asshole?”; “Since you were born without balls”; “All Aliens please proceed to level one”; the terrible, throwaway Walmart gag, making the series as disposable as everything else Joss lays his hands on – and as ephemeral as the cut idea the station is growing cannabis to finance its research: really? 200 years from now?) And, in general, the manner in which every character resorts to crudities is reminiscent of the constant cries of “Fuck!” in Alien3. If Jeunet isn’t playing up to Whedon’s predilections, that can only be a good thing. Indeed, the best compliment you can pay Alien Resurrection in that regard is that it doesn’t unspool like it’s a Whedon piece, even if the Betty crew’s similarities to Firefly have been pointed out.
I should stress that I’m not saying cloned Ripley shouldn’t have a sense of humour (handing Cal the alien innards as a souvenir is amusingly twisted), but you reduce her if her strangeness, and the altered state of her rebirth, is continually undercut by Whedon’s brand of one-liners. The humour I like in Alien Resurrection is very much the offbeat attitude Jeunet brings to the table – the aspect Whedon has no control over – be it through casting or line delivery or staging. Likewise, the sensual undercurrents are all Jeunet (Ripley and the newborn; Ripley and Cal; Ripley luxuriating in the alien nest; the glistening, fecund aliens themselves; even Elgyn and Hillard’s relationship). It’s something John Frizzell said he consciously emphasised in his (very good) score.
Jeunet casts the film wholly with an eye to colourful characterisation (the only decision he had no say in, besides Weaver obviously, shows in this regard: Noonie). They give substance to their 2D roles in a manner that recalls Cameron’s Aliens, but with an added penchant for zesty ham. No one is especially likeable in Alien Resurrection (even Ripley), but they’re all memorable (even Cal). Dan Hedaya plays General Perez as an imbecile so slow off the mark, he doesn’t even realise he’s dead until he perplexedly catches sight of his brains in his hand (Hedaya’s hirsuteness, however, is perhaps the most horrifying sight in the movie).
Fellow Coen Brothers veteran Freeman delivers Dr Wren as odiously as he possibly can, in what devolves into the Burke role (trying to get away and leaving the rest behind). Ron Pearlman, who previously worked with Jeunet on City of the Lost Children, embraces his inner oafish vulgarian, making it all the more surprising he makes it through the carnage intact (his funniest moment might be shooting a spider). Michael Wincott surprises for not being cast as the villain (amoral, certainly), and Jeunet lucky charm Dominique Pinon adds further texture to the ensemble. I’m also always struck by Kim Flowers in this, and left wondering what happened to her career.
And then there’s Leland Orser, offering a terrifically dedicated performance as a doomed, alien-infested walking dead. He manages to tread the line between terrified and humorous with great skill; of particular note is the scene where it seems the alien is about to burst forth, before the moment passes and Purvis pushes away the guns aimed at his head. Most gloriously ridiculous is when it actually does burst forth, and he attacks Wren; the alien goes through him and out of the doctor (incorporating a CGI dive down Purvis’ throat to witness the alien creature stirring – Jeunet loves his slapstick crash-zooms). It’s very patchy, but it’s so whacky, it’s hard to resist.
Gediman: She is giving birth for you, Ripley, and now she is perfect.
My absolute favourite performance is Brad Dourif as Gediman, though, furnishing his mad scientist with just enough genuine enquiry to make him… not sympathetic excactly, but not totally reprehensible either. He’s consistent, that’s what’s great about him; even when he’s cocooned, he’s still analysing, marvelling at what is, to any sane person, a horror show (“You are a beautiful butterfly” he informs the newborn). The scene where he is baring his teeth at the alien, misguidedly believing he can find a means not just to understand but control the star beast, is fascinating; the picture finds itself on a genuinely different and distinctive track during these passages (and it’s in this area where Whedon shines, rather than with his quick quips).
Dourif is masterful at playing someone who is fascinated by Ripley (willing to interact and discuss with her, rather than treat her purely as an object), and by the alien. Gediman’s the most interesting character in the movie (and, like Dance in Alien3, you miss him when he disappears, and perk up briefly when he returns). The actor doesn’t need to be given funny lines to being amusing; it’s all in his character’s unbridled, ghoulish enthusiasm. Although, there is the scene where the alien hand grabs him from below, just for yuks stakes. It isn’t quite Dallas in the ducts as far as shock encounters go: closer to Gremlins.
Perez: You brought a terrorist aboard a military vessel.
And then, of course, there’s Noonie. I tend to be a defender of Winona – forever, in fact – but when she’s miscast, she’s as miscast as prime Keanu. Not because she appears plankish, but because, if she’s not (wasn’t) the ingénue, she’s playing something her physicality and manner simply isn’t up to. So here, you get a synthetic that doesn’t make any sense. Cal is nervy, terrified, whiny, but also, apparently, took on the determination to put an end to Ripley when she accessed the main frame. She’s a hodgepodge of a character, Whedon looking for something to mark out a different artificial person to those we’ve seen previously and only succeeding in making one less singular (all he’s really got is that he’s doing a trademark “strong” female role).
The only aspect of Cal that’s artificial is that she doesn’t die when she’s fake-out killed (oh, and she’s plugged into the ship, which is called – way to go, Joss – Father). Which makes her seem like a twist reverse-engineered into a character.
Mostly, she’s there to respond to the sexual innuendoes of the male members of the crew, or just to other characters generally, with a less than scintillating riposte (“Fuck you!”). Or make banal remarks (“Why don’t you just kill yourself?”) Or treat Ripley as a vaguely surrogate mother when she’s gotten over wanting to kill her. It’s a shame – I remember rooting for Ryder when she was announced. After all, here were two of my favourite genre actresses sharing the screen, and she evidently loves the series and overcame challenges to make it (her fear of water after a childhood drowning incident). But Cal is undoubtedly the weakest link among the characters, as is Ryder among the cast.
Ripley: No matter how bad the dreams get, when I wake up, it’s always worse.
Despite his feeding Weaver some lousy lines, Whedon does succeed in taking cloned Ripley to interesting places. He commented that the alien-ness of the character grew in consultation with the star, and while I don’t think Alien Resurrection succeeds in defining her clone (that was for the aborted Alien 5, presumably) it creates a fertile ground for material. Ripley’s central to some of the best scenes in the movie, from the grandstanding basketball-court encounter, establishing her new fearless, barbell-resistant persona (and famous for Weaver actually getting a slam dunk) in the face of a gang of hard nuts, to the beautifully grim scene in the cloning room, as the sight of various grotesque still-borns suspended in glass lead to a nearly-not-quite mutation pleading “Kill me”.
The only reservation I have about this is that, given Ripley’s compassion, is she really going to condemn “herself” to a horrible fiery end? Surely blowing her clone’s head off would be much more humane? Perhaps it was in there because you have to have a flame thrower in an Alien movie. There’s even a – intentionally? You never know in this movie – funny moment where Ripley gets a face hugger in the face and reacts to it like Frank Drebin being attacked by a towel in The Naked Gun.
While some of the ideas Whedon comes up with are simply logical for the series’ cynical-corporate environment (the Betty’s cargo being stolen cryo sleepers, taken to a ship outside of regulated space), others are genuinely inspired. I’ve mentioned Dourif’s experiments (“So, you’re a fast learner”), and the scene in which two aliens escape their cell by killing another and exiting through the hole in the floor is a lovely bit of ingenuity that suggests their smarts in a believable, practical way. Less so, pressing the red button on Dourif, although that’s at least off-the-wall.
And, as set pieces go, the underwater sequence is a bravura exampleof staging and execution. One might argue it’s let down slightly by the CGI aliens used in some of the shots, but I’d argue they work reasonably well in this environment; it’s in corridors or up ladders that they’re rendered in a particularly unflattering light (having them spit CGI acid is an odd decision also).
Where they’re traditional guys in suits, however, the creatures are their most effective since the original; the black, glistening look of the creatures in Dourif’s cells are arresting in a manner the xenomorph hasn’t been since it was scaring the bejesus out of Jonesy that first time. The alien queen also looks better than in Aliens, although I’ve never been overly keen on the design; each new maker wants to lay their stamp on Giger’s original, and each variation achieves diminishing returns. Until, eventually, you get a Predalien, God help us.
Which brings us to… the newborn. I mean, it sort of works. Sort of, in that Jeunet was aiming at something unsettling and freakish, with an emotionally fragile, infant component, and all of that comes across. The real eyes achieve the intended effect, even if the snuffle snout is a step too far.
The problem is that, while the design works in that sense, it’s still a terrible design; from The Making of the Alien Anthology documentary, it was clear that the crew weren’t coming up with what the director wanted, but the design that eventually inspired Jeunet was still way better (because it was alien) than what we have. Weird and grotesque simply isn’t enough; it should be uncanny, if you want to continue the original’s impact. What we get is a killer mutant baby that is odd and ugly but also derivative; it killing its mother (rather than grandma) is perhaps the highpoint, the low being sucked out of an airlock through its bottom. To the extent that its presence works, it’s mostly down to Weaver selling the emotional content of those scenes.
Alien Resurrection has much to enjoy in it – relish, even – but it ultimately feels that Whedon never nailed the screenplay, much as he’s wont to blame the execution. He has a series of strong vignettes, but they’re hung on a linear narrative that feels like a greatest-hits package, one that might have come out of the Alien Trilogy computer game along with characters and motifs from the previous instalments. Running around corridors as per Aliens, trying to reach the ship in time, up against aliens and turncoats and androids, showing the cocooned character that always ended up getting cut before (Dallas, Burke), even returning to Earth (always mooted). It’s Alien fan fiction.
The strongest element is the one forced on Whedon by the return of Weaver (he originally had Newt coming back), and he duly makes the most hay with that limitation. But even there, there’s a sense that the picture fails to meet its ambitions. At least in the Special Edition, Ripley makes it back to Earth, ensuring it’s the preferable cut for that reason alone; it would be a shame, whatever Ridley Scott’s personal views on this entry, to forget about it now it seems he’s in sole charge of where the franchise goes with umpteen potential sequels he may or may not helm before he hits 100.
There may be a feeling, though, that with two successive imperfect pictures, they don’t want to return to Ripley well at all. When Scott talks about another trilogy, I presume he means post- this quartet, since forever living behind them would be a cop out (something Star Trek has been doing for fifteen years now). The challenge would be to move forward and make Alien Resurrection meaningful to the series, even given that it looks destined to remain its greatest tonal anomaly.