1992's Alien3 marked not only the death (by suicide) of its popular
protagonist, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), but, in many ways, the Alien
franchise itself--box office receipts were anemic, thanks to poor audience
word of mouth; and the critics who rallied around the first two
installments, 1979's Alien and 1986's Aliens, savaged David Fincher's slog
of a sendoff (myself included). Hence, Weaver, director Jean-Pierre
Jeunet, and the others behind Alien Resurrection faced a two-fold
challenge--not only somehow resurrect Ripley, but also rescue this
once-profitable series from the scrap heap. Despite the odds, they have
succeeded, even if the entertaining new installment does not measure up to
the excellent first two.
Writer Joss Whedon devises a quick, easy, and painless answer to the dead
Ripley problem--clone her, which is what shady military scientists do using
some blood left behind on Fiorina 161, the prison planet of the third film.
That done, the _real_ challenge presents itself--what do with her. Alien
introduced Ripley as smart and resourceful; Aliens simultaneously toughened
her up and made her more vulnerable, exploring her maternal side; Alien3
saw her undergoing the seven stages of death. What could be next? Whedon
comes up with a clever spin: since the original Ripley died while
impregnated with an Alien queen, the blood used for the clone is also
"infected" with Alien DNA. So the new Ripley is, indeed, new--a
human/Alien hybrid blessed with heightened instincts and strength, a
psychic bond with the deadly species, and a more predatory attitude.
Unfortunately, that is where Alien Resurrection's clever streak in writing
stops. The Alien series is known for having stronger stories than most
creature features. But the story in Resurrection is more of an
afterthought. The movie begins with a plot involving some military types
attempting to train Aliens to do their bidding, but once the creatures
break free, it is once again Ripley and a ragtag crew (this time a bunch of
interstellar smugglers, including tough waif Call, played by a game Winona
Ryder) trying to exterminate them. And the Alien Ripley scenario is
ultimately not exploited to its full potential; I would have liked deeper
exploration into the quandary of becoming one of the species she has spent
her entire life trying to destroy.
While the settling into tried-and-true formula is a little disconcerting,
the formula is tried-and-true for a reason, and Jeunet tackles the
proceedings with giddy abandon. The Alien, after all these years, is still
terrifying, and a new breed that is introduced is no less so. The violence
is appropriately grisly and extreme, and the action set pieces are
suspenseful and exciting, most notably an extended underwater sequence.
The film is absolutely mesmerizing visually, thanks to the solid work done
by production designer Nigel Phelps and cinematographer Darius Khondji. As
technically adept as Jeunet's direction is, perhaps his (and, for that
matter, Whedon's) greatest contribution is the infusion of humor into this
notably downbeat and serious series. A sense of humor may seem to go
against everything this horror show stands for, but the self-awareness of
the excess just adds to the fun.
No, Alien Resurrection is not the great film that Ridley Scott's Alien or
the even greater film that James Cameron's Aliens was. But after the
dauntingly slow gloom and doom of Fincher's Alien3, Jeunet's Resurrection
is a welcome return to its roots as a wild, reckless thrill ride. That is
what made the Alien series so popular in the first place, and that is what
will keep the series popular in any future installments.