Monday, May 15, 2017

Summer School: 'Alien: Resurrection' (1997)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

I've already admitted to liking Alien 3, so here's an even more unpopular admission: I also like Alien: Resurrection, and always have. It's not quite as formally accomplished or thematically rich as Alien 3, but it's stylish and entertaining, and it manages to take the series in yet another new direction. I love the progression of Ripley in the four core movies: First, she's hunted by an alien. Then, she hunts aliens. Then, she gestates an alien. And finally, she is an alien. Ripley's return here doesn't feel like a cop-out, and it doesn't negate anything that happened in the previous movies (including Ripley's death). Instead it moves the story and the character forward in an intriguing way, while still allowing for the basic set-up of humans getting stalked and killed by aliens.

And there are a lot of aliens in this movie -- maybe not more than in Aliens in terms of sheer numbers, but they show up early and often and are more integral to the progression of the storytelling than in other movies. Two hundred years after sacrificing herself to prevent the birth of an alien queen, Ripley has been cloned and revived, in order for scientists to extract the queen that was gestating inside her. Her DNA and the alien's have been mixed during the cloning process, and so this Ripley is at least part alien, with slightly corrosive blood and a detached, animalistic personality. It is in many ways a new character, and Sigourney Weaver tackles it with as much depth as she brought to the previous movies, mixing Ripley's typical no-nonsense manner with a sort of primal, instinctual energy that comes from her newly alien origins.

The rest of the characters are not nearly as compelling, even Winona Ryder as the android Call, who gets a lot of screen time but manages to be less interesting than previous androids Ash or Bishop. The early Joss Whedon screenplay sometimes seems like a test run for his later work on Firefly, with a ragtag crew of space pirates quipping their way through danger. But French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, making his first English-language movie (and his first without previous co-director Marc Caro), is the wrong choice for a dialogue-heavy script in English (he reportedly barely spoke English at the time, and required an interpreter on-set), and most of Whedon's jokes and bits of wordplay fall flat. There are still some great lines (Ripley saying "I'm the monster's mother" is one of the best moments in the whole series), but Jeunet and the actors mostly fail to do Whedon's writing justice.

Visually, Jeunet fares much better, bringing the same kind of whimsical grotesquerie as his first two movies (directed with Caro), Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. The military science vessel is a labyrinth of dank corridors, and the characters' weapons and other equipment are elaborate, impractical-looking contraptions. Jeunet shoots with plenty of skewed angles and odd close-ups, and the acting is exaggerated and sometimes cartoonish (although really no more overstated than Bill Paxton's performance in Aliens). It all goes a bit too far in the finale, when the alien queen gives birth to an alien/human hybrid that looks really silly, making for a completely unconvincing threat to be defeated by the remaining heroes. There are some interesting ideas here about reproductive power and the ethics of human cloning (a very Cronenbergian scene of Ripley looking at the failed previous clones is pretty harrowing), but Jeunet and Whedon kind of glide past them in favor of excessive gore and clumsy one-liners. Resurrection may be the weakest and most inconsequential of the Ripley movies, but it still holds up the intelligence and risk-taking of the franchise as a whole.

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