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Non-Review: Alien Resurrection (Theatrical Cut)

To celebrate the release of Prometheus this week, we’ll be taking a look at the other movies in the Alien franchise.

I always feel a little hint of trepidation when I return to a movie that I know I didn’t like the first time. Part of me is reluctant to watch it again, even for the purposes of examining what exactly went awry during production, while some small part of me holds out hope that the film might be redeemed – that I might somehow magically get it the second time around. So, completing a marathon rewatch of Ridley Scott’s Alien and the sequels it spawned, I left Alien: Resurrection until last.

Unfortunately, it was just as flawed and messy as I remember it.

Reflecting on his behaviour…

Looking back, it seems like Alien: Resurrection all but killed the franchise. After all, the gap between the films had been (gradually) narrowing between the films. The fourth film was released only five years after the flawed Alien³, but there wouldn’t be another Alien sequel released four years after it. Indeed, the eponymous monsters only limped back to the screen with the support of another movie monster than had fallen on similarly tough times appearing in the somewhat banal Aliens vs. Predator. And then Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem managed to drive that franchise into the ground in record time. We’ll save that discussion for another time.

The flaws with Alien: Resurrection are quite apparent. It isn’t ever sure of what it is. It seems like the script wanted to go one way and the director wanted to go the other. I’m not convinced, based on what we see here, that either approach was entirely meritorious, but they would certainly have been preferable to the unholy mess that resulted from combining Joss Whedon’s irony-laden script with Jean-Pierre Jeunet stylish-yet-vacuous direction.

Egging the franchise on…

I’ve remarked before how one of my favourite aspects of the films is that each feels like a product of its creative force. Ridley Scott’s Alien is, after all, a spiritual companion piece to his Blade Runner. James Cameron’s Aliens covers quite a lot of the same thematic ground we’d see in Terminator 2 and Avatar. Hell, I’d argue that Alien³: The Assembly Cut even establishes Fincher’s much-maligned threequel as a predecessor to se7en or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Regardless of the writers involved, there is a very clear vision to each of those films.

Looking at Alien: Resurrection, you can see two very clear creative visions at odds with one another. There’s Jeunet’s very stylish direction with Whedon’s sardonic script. Neither feels even slightly comfortable with the other, and the result is a groteque mess, two flavours mingling that really don’t complement each other. That’s the fundamental problem with the film, but it’s not the only major misfire involved with production.

It’s certainly a jarring transition…

Whedon has been very quick to re-direct any blame for the movie’s faults. He has claimed, emphatically, that the problem wasn’t that his script was butcher, merely that Jeunet missed the irony of it. Indeed, Whedon’s script seems to exist primarily as a criticism of itself. It’s a pointless sequel to a beloved series of films that seems to openly lampoon the vacuous and transparent nature of such productions.

The movie is a bout a clone of Ellen Ripley, and indeed the movie feels like a clone itself – a soulless attempt to emulate the success of better films, resurrecting a franchise from the dead after it has already reached a conclusion. “Ellen Ripley died trying to wipe this species out,” General Perez states, reminding the audience that there’s no real need for a fourth film. “For all intents and purposes, she succeeded!” Ripley herself is literally no longer a human protagonist in an insane universe – she’s given super-human strength, acid blood and killer reflexes. All the attributes that originally made her appealing are lost, as she becomes an unstoppable killing machine.

The brains of the operation…

Whedon recyles lines and scenarios from the earlier films with a wry self-awareness, as if trying to get the audience in on the gag. To him, this is a joke of a movie, an empty attempt to cash in on a brand name that was once the high watermark of quality in the sci-fi and horror genres. Distephano commentary on Call could just as easily bee seen as meta-commentary on the executive priority to keep churning out bigger and bolder sequels to successful and intelligent material.

“The latest and best,” he comments on Call’s model. “They were supposed to revitalize the synthetic industry. Instead they buried it.”These endless and soulless sequels and remakes eventually wind up erasing even the fondest memory of the original. Appropriately the movie becomes an example of that self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s one of the most sarcastic and scathing scripts I’ve ever seen produced on a studio budget, and while its criticisms might be fair, one would ask what the point including them was? Surely Whedon could have subverted these conventions by constructing a good film, rather than satirising a bad one?

Somebody really should have asked “why(brid)?”

It just feels a little too glib, a little bit too mocking. If Whedon didn’t think there was any point in returning to the franchise (and, to be fair, he might have a point), then why take the job? More than that, did the Fox executives reading the script completely miss the derisive subtext? How were they more upset by the scenes featuring Ripley lying with an alien than they were about the fact the script was consciously lampooning the strip-mining of a genuine classic?

That’s not to let Jeunet off the hook for the movie’s awkward misfire. He gives Alien: Resurrection a distinct visual identity, but it feels completely shallow and superfluous. Ridley Scott featured the Nostromo as a ghastly vision of mankind subsumed by technology, in a decayed and eroded future. James Cameron offered a more sterile and disconnected vision that complemented Scott’s. Fincher offered us a decaying and decrepit colony infected with lice and covered in graffiti. Jeunet’s version of the Alien universe… looks vaguely like every other science-fiction set built after Alien hit cinemas.

The good in the film is more than drowned out by the bad…

The CGI looks terrible – and I have a high threshold for this sort of thing. Really, it looks awful when measured against the stuff happening on television at the time. The CGI alien in Alien³ was nothing to shout about, but that was produced five years earlier. It feels especially pointless when Jeunet opts to use CGI for ridiculous shots, like grenade rolling along the ground. If you can’t make a grenade look better than that, then roll a real grenade along the ground. Do multiple takes if you have to.

There’s any number of awkward and cheesy sequences – sequences that might have worked if Jeunet had steered a little closer to the camp of Whedon’s script, or perhaps scenes completely beyond redemption. For example, it’s hard not to grown as Vreiss shouts a big “no!” while Wren prepares to shoot Call. He has time to do this in slow motion, instead of doing something more productive, like… y’know, killing him with that shotgun he’s carrying. Of course, Vriess eventually remembershe’s holding a shotgun and fires off a few shots, but not before Wren can escape and Call is in the water.

It’s a boy!

It seems like nobody really cared about the film, and that’s disheartening. There are countless minor issues that never add over the course of the film. For example, despite the fact there are eight potential hosts, Doctor Wren informs the crew that there twelve other monsters running around. Earlier, Dr. Gediman seems to be confused about the planet where Alien³ took place. These are minor plotting details that I might be willing to ignore or to try to rationalise if the movie ever engaged me, but it’s just too big of a mess to really try.

Jeunet gives the film an extremely trashy look. This, naturally, involves ridiculous amounts of gore and bloodshed. While the creatures themselves have arguably never looked better, I can’t help but feel like Jeunet is missing the point as he revels in hyper-violent absurdity. The three earlier films weren’t exceptionally graphic (chestbursting aside), and instead crafted a sense of dread any unease that made the audience more uncomfortable than any graphic decompression or chestbursting-through-a-man’s-head might ever do.

I am alien, hear me roar!

There are a whole host of other issues I have – they don’t really diminish the film, but I do wonder why the creative decisions were made. For example, the film abolishes Weyland-Yutani for some reason, when the early films established the company as a constant – no matter how human society changed, greed was always an essential ingredient. They aren’t a player here, and it’s heavily implied that they don’t exist. Dr. Gediman seems confused when Ripley makes reference to them, prompting Wren to explain, “Weyland-Yutani, Ripley’s former employers. Terran growth conglomerate. They had defense contracts under the military. I think you’ll find that things have changed a great deal since your time.”

Instead, the film focuses on the military, with talk of illegal experiments outside of “regulated space.”The idea is never developed enough to ever really be relevant, and the military serves the same plot function of Weyland-Yutani, so I wonder why they were omitted. It just seems like a slightly strange change to go to the effort of making an explicit change to the fictional universe, and I don’t see the benefit of it. Especially when commercialism is still shown to be a major part of human nature, with Call and company watching a late-night shopping channel and the revelation that people are trading in cryogenically frozen individuals.

Some of the cast are taking a swim in the death pool…

Still, despite these major flaws, there are some small nice moments to be found. For example, I actually quite like Call, despite the opinion many people hold of her. She makes a fitting successor to Bishop in Aliens, as the most human of her crew. As Ripley observes, “No human being is that humane.” The notion of “robots designed by robots” is an interesting idea, even if it’s never explored, and Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder work quite well together. (Even if, separately, these aren’t the finest performances on either actor’s filmography.)

Indeed, Weaver seems to be practically sleepwalking through the role. This was, after all, the first Alien movie to be filmed in America, as Weaver did not wish to travel overseas to shoot it – an indication of how completely disengaged she’d become from the franchise. It’s a shame that it came to this, given that Weaver won her first Oscar nomination for playing Ripley, and how important the character is in the tapestry of science-fiction. On the other hand, one can understand why Weaver was less than engaged with the material, as it transformed Ripley from an ordinary person trying to make sense of a chaotic universe into something approach a goddamn superhero. A lot was lost in the translation, and Ripley does deliver when it matters – in the odd interaction with Call or even that scene involving the failed clones. The problem is that she spends most of the rest of the film on something close to auto-pilot.

Calling her out on it…

But – returning to Ripley’s companion for this adventure – I like the idea that Call continues Bishop’s logical application of Asimov’s rules. In Aliens, Bishop articulated the first rule of robotics, assuring Ripley, “It is impossible for me to harm or by omission of action, allow to be harmed, a human being.” As such, Call’s attempt to murder Ripley might seem like a violation of that rule. Of course, you could argue that, given her acid-for-blood and unnecessary super-strength, Ripley doesn’t really qualify as strictly human anymore, but I prefer to read it as an application of Asimov’s “zeroth” law: that a robot cannot through action or inaction allow humanity to come to harm, overriding even the first law. I think that’s a cute idea.

It seems like Alien: Resurrection also allow Whedon to explore some ideas of his own. In particular, it seems like a clumsy practice run for Firefly and Serenity. The crew of the Betty seem to mirror the cast of his later science-fiction show quite closely, particularly down to the “working outside the establishment” aesthetic. “We expecting any trouble?” Christie asks. His Captain replies, “From Perez, I doubt it, but you never know. We’ve been there before.” Extending the idea even further, this Ripley clone seems like a counterpart to River Tam, managing to deftly blend childish innocence (or “emotional autism”) with a brutal killer instinct.

Just a soulless clone…

And, in fairness to Jeunet, there are some impressive sequences. They aren’t jaw-dropping or astounding, but they’re effective enough. None of them compare with any of the sequences in the earlier three films, but taken on their own merit the underwater chase and the ambush in the alien “nest” are effective and thrilling set pieces. It’s just a shame that they aren’t tied together by a stronger storyline or tighter direction.

I do like the general idea of anchoring Ripley to the monster, although I think The Assembly Cut of the third film did a much better job in linking to two conceptually. Here, we get a variety of smaller touches that work quite well – a scene with an alien drone that could almost be a love scene, a C-section in which the doctors seem to cut what looks like an umbilical chord between Ripley and the chestburster. The problem is that Jeunet and Whedon become increasingly heavy-handed towards the end of the film, including the hybrid. I know Ripley’s lost children, but her grief at the death of the creature seems more than a little melodramatic, not to mention that the creature seems completely unnecessary.

He just wants to be loved…

Alien: Resurrection is a mess. It feels like a waste of time for all involved, without any of the passion that made the first two films (and, to an extent, the Assembly Cut of the third) such a pleasure to watch. Alien: Resurrection seems to exist just how soulless and empty the franchise has become, hallowed out by the pursuit of a big-budget movie cash-in. It’s no wonder the film sounded the death knell for the series.

You might be interested in our reviews of the other films in the Alien series:

2 Responses

  1. Again, you did a valid summation of the film and its problems. It TRIES to be a good movie, but it’s all over the place. I read Whedon’s script before the movie came out and quite enjoyed it. It was essentially a long chase scene in space, more of an adventure film than the previous entries (though closer in tone to “Aliens”). When I saw the movie, my jaw was left hanging open numerous times due to the direction. I enjoyed Jeunet’s previous films and thought he was perfect for an “Alien” film, but he added so much goofiness that it completely undermined the wit of Whedon’s script.

    I disagree with you about Weaver’s performance, however. The character was vastly different than what we’ve seen before, which is why she agreed to do the film, and I felt that she invested a lot of emotion and power into this role. An example is the fact that she practiced to make the behind-the-back hoop shot (the ball went out of the frame, but it’s not fake).

    Also, I need to point out that the creature in “Alien 3” was not CGI, but rather a puppet. That movie came out in 1992, a year before the ground-breaking CGI character effects in “Jurassic Park.” The puppet (controlled by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gills, who also did the effects on “Resurrection”) was filmed in front of a blue screen and added optically–very badly. The lighting didn’t quite match, and all too often it had a weird oily look. When people complain about poorly-done CGI, I think about all the terrible traveling matte shots that came before, of which this is an example.

    • Cool. I actually figured the whole thing was CGI – it was edited in so badly. Thanks for the info!

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