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On Second Thought: Alien Resurrection (Special Edition)

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

So this is Earth, huh?

This is Earth.

– Call and Ripley try not to sound too disappointed…

I am not the biggest fan of Alien: Resurrection. I think it is, to be frank, a mess of a film – the result of a director and a writer who seem a very poor fit for one another, with Jeunet’s macabre design aesthetic at odds with Whedon’s sardonic irony. It would take a fairly radical reworking of the film to solve that fair fundamental tonal dissonance… and the Special Edition is not that much of a reworking. Indeed, Jeunet himself has gone of record stating that his own definitive version the film was the original theatrical cut. He introduces the Special Edition on the superb anthology collection with that confession, “The special edition version you are about to watch is not the director’s cut, because the director’s cut is the version you watched in theatres in 1997.”

So it’s no surprise that while the Special Edition does add a bit more shading, nuance and complexity to the film, it doesn’t salvage it.

Not quite what the doctor ordered…

It’s worth reflecting what a different cut can do to repair a movie’s reputation. Appropriately enough, given the franchise, Ridley Scott seems particularly well-versed in how a later director’s cut can salvage a poorly-received film. Kingdom of Heaven and Blade Runner have both received director’s cuts that played a significant role in rehabilitating them in the eyes of modern audiences. (Although, to be fair, Blade Runner was already a cult hit, but the restored edition elevated the consensus from “flawed masterpiece” to simply “masterpiece.”) Even within this franchise, although not completed with David Fincher’s supervision, Alien³: The Assembly Cut has gone a long way towards demonstrating what Fincher’s film could have been.

As such, it’s a bit of a disappointment that the Special Edition of Alien: Resurrection doesn’t change much. The director and writer still seem to be at odds. Whedon continues to play the entire thing as some sarcastic parody, while Jeunet films the movie relatively straight. Some of the extended scenes make this conflict even more explicit, as Whedon’s script seems to be impossible to take at face value… while Jeunet does. While the theatrical cut hinted at the fate of the seemingly omniscient “company” Weyland Yutani, this version makes it explicit. “Oh they went under decades ago Gediman, way before your time. Bought out by Walmart. Fortunes of war.”

Off the cuff remarks…

The new opening and closing sequences, however, do hint that Jeunet was in on the joke – perhaps suggesting that he was playing it straight by choice. Opening with a CGI sequence as dodgy as anything in the final cut, we get the iconic alien jaws rendered as nothing more impressing than a mosquito, squashed and splattered against the windshield. Just in case you didn’t get that the movie seems to be about how the Hollywood machine has removed any hint of mystery or horror from Giger’s iconic creations.

Similarly, the closing scene on Earth features Ripley and Call staring out over a destroyed vista. Not any vista, mind you. Call had just rammed the space ship into North America, so Jeunet shows us a corrupt and decaying Paris. Given how many French artists feel about American pop culture (with Disneyland Paris described in somewhat grand terms as a “cultural Chernobyl”), and the fact that the experience of film Alien: Resurrection made Jeunet swear off ever working for Hollywood again, it can’t help but feel like a cultural statement. Or maybe I’m reading too much into the image of the Eiffel Tower toppled over in an American blockbuster directed by a Frenchman.

The movie still bugs me…

There are other small touches here and there, but they don’t amount to much. Newt is a much stronger presence in the Special Edition, connecting a stronger thematic link back to Aliens and to the earlier films. Her name is never mentioned, but it’s clear the movie’s talking about here “There was this girl,” Ripley confesses. “Now I can’t even remember her name.” It helps lend a bit of depth to the already strong relationship between Call and Ripley, with Call more clearly a surrogate daughter (for a surrogate daughter), and also lends just  a tiny bit more emotional resonance to Ripley herself.

Call herself gets a tiny bit more development, articulating a character motivation that was already pretty heavily implicit in the theatrical cut, explaining why she is here to kill Ripley, and why she care so much about the threat of the eponymous monsters. “I couldn’t allow them to annihilate themselves,” Call observes, feeding into the idea that the”artificial persons” inhabiting this bleak future are the most compassionate and developed lifeforms to be found. They certainly measure up much better than most of the human characters.

(Chest)Bursting with enthusiasm…

By the way, as an aside, watching it again, I noticed how heavily and how frequently the creatures were called “aliens.” Not that it’s a big deal, but given how most of the other movies (including Alien vs. Predator) avoided the label, it’s interesting. Is Whedon consciously needling his audience about how familiar a brand these creatures have become, rather than anything scary? I know this is part of the theatrical cut as well, but I really noticed it this time around, viewing all the movies together in quick succession.

Whedon’s script seems even colder and more subversive here than it does in the released version, with extended ruminations on the meaning of life from Call and Ripley – with Call explicitly wondering why Ripley is still around, despite the fact that she’s gone about as far as she can as a character. “Why do you go on living?” Call asks. “How can you stand what you are?” She’s probably talking about Ripley’s new existence as a half-human half-alien hybrid, but she could also be referring to Ripley’s status as a once-compelling character reduced to a shallow action hero cliché. Ripley’s response? “No choice.” The decision is out of her hands. The movie is a franchise. The next film needs to be made to make money, and it doesn’t matter that Ripley’s arc is complete.

A dive in quality?

The theatrical cut of Alien: Resurrection was, fundamentally, a mess. The Special Edition is just that mess, extended. You can get a better idea of what both the script and the director were trying to do, but it doesn’t resolve the fundamental mismatch of ideas between the two. It adds more depth, but it doesn’t smooth any of the countless rough and jagged edges. It broadens the scope, but doesn’t smooth the problems. It is, to be entirely fair, just more. That’s not better or worse, but just more of the same.

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

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