Technology with attitude

Prepping for PROMETHEUS: Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ALIEN: RESURRECTION (1997)

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–Note: to read Part One on Alien (1979), click HERE. For Part Two on Aliens (1986), click HERE.  For Part Three on Alien3 (1992), click HERE.

And then, we come to the end.  Or is the beginning?  That‘s my main problem with Alien: Resurrection.  Say what you will about the first three Alien features – taken together, they form a solid narrative arc.  The Alien movies aren’t really about the xenomorph; they’re about Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, who starts to resemble an even more doomed version of Rip Van Winkle, waking only to experience the worst things that will ever happen to her.

The first time she comes out of hypersleep, an alien creature infiltrates her ship and murders all her co-workers.  The second time, she learns her daughter is dead and she has to face thousands of Said Alien Creature.  The third time: her new surrogate family dies (violently), and she discovers that a facehugger has impregnated her during her slumber.  Ripley’s entire existence is a “bad parts only” abridgment, and building to her death in Alien3 – a moral victory against both the xenomorph as well as the multinational Weyland-Yutani company that would exploit the alien at great risk to all humanity – gives her suffering purpose.

Naturally, the first thing the 20th Century Fox suits did when contemplating a fourth Alien installment was to devise a way to bring Ripley back.  Because nothing says “dramatic resolution” like rebooting an entire franchise.

Thus, we have Alien: Resurrection, the most nakedly commercial vehicle in the Alien series.  Every major beat seems constructed to appeal to the lowest common denominator.  We killed off our heroine – no problem!  Let’s have the Company clone her 200 years in the future so they can get the Alien Queen in her belly.  People thought Alien3 was too depressing – easy fix!  We’ll combine the audience’s favorite bits from Alien and Aliens (Alien‘s trapped-on-a-doomed-ship claustrophobia, Aliens‘ multiple xenomorphs and wisecracking team of heroes).  This setup is starting to read like a shameless cash-grab – I’ve got just the prescription!  Hire some beloved independent film director – the great Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who had just made an impact on the arthouse circuit with his surreal fantasies Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children and was only four years away from his critical/commercial smash Amélie – to give Alien: Resurrection street-cred with the artsy-fartsy crowd.

Here’s the thing: even if you use the choicest meats to make a hot dog, at the end of the day, it’s still a f—king hot dog, and is no good for you and me.

Pretty much nothing works about Alien: Resurrection.  Since all the major plot points have been telegraphed from the first two films, nothing about the picture genuinely surprises (and really, how exciting can you get when you stick to the “scientists mess with aliens, aliens escape, heroes try to escape aliens” template?), and most of the (too) large cast is so rote, you don’t even care whether the characters live or die (each person gets exactly one note to play, whether it’s J.E. Freeman’s scheming scientist or Leland Orser’s panicky civilian or Winona Ryder blandly soulful android).

Furthermore, the dying doesn’t even have the punch of the previously Alien movies; Alien: Resurrection trades in the expressionistic mayhem of parts one through three for an almost pornographic attention to detail: the many chunks of bone and brain that spray from crunching head wounds; an alien disemboweled through a quarter-sized hole in its back.

And Jeunet’s quirky vision, hate to say, doesn’t survive the transition from French to English.  He’s either indulging in odd, unfunny slapstick (Brad Dourif and Dan Hedaya’s grimly mugging weirdoes; having horrible things happen to the legs of Dominique Pinon’s paraplegic mechanic) or mucking with the xenomorph design in ways that render the creatures mostly unthreatening (giving the aliens canine incisors; showing them in full-body CGI renderings; covering them in so much slime and goop you’d think Costco was selling lifetime supplies of K-Y Jelly).  Worst of all is his “Newborn” alien – an alien-human hybrid – which Fox’s press machine kept hidden in all the film’s marketing elements, not because the final product was instantly iconic (à la Stan Winston’s Alien Queen), but because it looked like a bargain-basement version of Skeletor from the 1987 Masters of the Universe abomination.

By my estimation, I counted three elements of note: the performances from Weaver and Ron Perlman and “Firefly”/“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”/“Angel”/The Avengers mastermind Joss Whedon’s script.  Given an impossible part to play – a human/alien clone that enters the film possessing the emotional intelligence of a five-year-old – Weaver manages to eke out real pathos and depth.  This isn’t our Ripley anymore, but Ripley 2.0 is interesting just the same, sexy and playful and forever uncertain about how to balance her genetic makeup.

Weaver suggests levels that the script barely develops, including a subtle angst regarding where her loyalties truly fall – to the xenomorphs, or to the humans.  By comparison, Perlman doesn’t do anything that revelatory, but his mindless brute Johner is actually funny, the only bit of comic relief in Alien: Resurrection that connects.

As for Whedon….well, The Great One’s script is awful (blame Fox and Jeunet: Whedon claims they compromised otherwise good work), but it is fascinating in that it provides a dry run for characters he’d later refine in his great “Firefly” program.  The number of similarities between A:R‘s heroic space pirates and “Firefly’s” heroic space pirates is striking: Michael Wincott’s Elgyn is a proto-Malcolm Reynolds; Ripley is River Tam; Pinon’s Vriess is Kaylee; Gary Dourdan’s Christie is Zoe; Ryder’s Call is just as boring as “Firefly’s” Simon; and Perlman does a perfect Jayne.

Across the board, “Firefly” elements keep asserting themselves, and for that alone, I value Alien: Resurrection.  It might be s—t, but it helped Whedon develop the anti-s—t.

Scariest scene: One of Alien: Resurrection‘s rip-offs (okay, I’ll be charitable and use “homages”) works.  Ripley and the other survivors have to swim through the spaceship’s expansive flooded kitchen (don’t ask) on their way to the space pirates’ docked vessel, and just when the normal drowning-related perils couldn’t get any worse, our heroes realize that aliens are following them through the water.  Jeunet directs the hell out of this sequence (it’s a credit to his and DP Darius Khondji’s staging that the underwater stuff is as nerve-wracking as the alien stuff); it’s only later you realize he and Whedon cribbed it straight from The Poseidon Adventure.