Alien Resurrection (1997)

D: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
S: Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder

This unnecessary fourth entry in the Alien series is by far the least interesting: which is not to say that it is not interesting at all. But against stiff opposition even from as flawed and uneven a film as Alien (cubed), this weird sci-fi fantasy had its work cut out to be something other than a disappointment. Unfortunately, it has decided to take a turn into self-parody in a desperate effort to be as different as possible from each of its predecessors whilst trying to borrow some of the things that made them worthwhile. This leaves some potentially interesting thematic material suffocating in the vacuum and tends to trivialise the surprisingly well-handled action scenes. This, coupled with a cast of contrived weirdo supporting characters and some irrelevant gloopiness in the effects department, conspires to deliver a film which is disappointing, but inevitable.

The story, which is not well developed, posits that 200 years have passed since the events in Alien (cubed) (okay, Alien 3, if you must). Technology has advanced enough to allow wacko scientist Brad Dourif (yep, once his name appears in the credits, you know what you're in for) to clone Ellen Ripley (Weaver), whose messianic suicide at the climax of the previous film was a fitting finale to the series. And though it cries out with religious overtones, and the advertising campaign played on them, Ripley's resurrection is a sadly quick and undramatic affair which simply serves as the deus ex machina which sets the plot in motion. Technology has advanced, but society seems to be much the same, (if a little more surreal than the clinical sub-gothic cyberpunk of 200 years before), with the usual evil conspiracy afoot to use the fearsome monster lodged in her chest to breed new age biomechanical weapons. Naturally, things go wrong, and the creatures get loose on a huge military ship populated by a mixture of soldiers and mercenaries ripe for gory death.

Adding a little variation to the formula is the new Ripley, who is not quite as she was. Now she's a genetic cross-breed of alien and human, with an altogether deadlier survival instinct than that which sustained her until she chose to kill herself last time out. Finding a way to orient to Weaver's character is the only real fun to be had here, and while it never really work itself out, she evidently has fun playing it. Actually, she comes off much like a kind of Native American scout in a seventies western, torn between loyalty to a breed with whom she shares biological heritage but also instinctive loathing, and the necessity to ensure her own survival. Scenes of her detecting the presence of the aliens by smell and psychic connections are cannily like those of a wizened Indian scout reading the tracks left by renegade ponies as the impassive cavalry look on.

The cavalry in this case is a band of designer rogues led by gravel-voiced Michael Wincott (and including Dominique Pinon and Ron Perlman; familiar faces to fans of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's previous films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children). They're not quite the blue-collar truckers of Alien, nor the hard-assed marines of Aliens, nor even the prisoner monks of Alien 3, and somehow, they're not quite as interesting either. There are too many dismissive one-liners and too often a sense of unreality about their antics for them to become believable or sympathetic within the confines of the Alien universe, and yet not quite as far out effective as the lunatics who populate Jeunet's films. Completing the dramatis personnaire is ever-fetching Winona Ryder, whose big character moment is way too predictable to work, and is not given the dignity it deserves. Had the film's conception of this futuristic society been clearer, many of the moments worked in between she and Weaver could have paid off, including the film's only flash of explicit religion (in a non-human close, and yet so far).

To its credit, Alien Resurrection moves along briskly, and manages some good moments (including a nicely intense underwater sequence). But there is a frustratingly good script lurking somewhere beneath what Joss Whedon has managed to cook up. The alien-human hybrid was a concept kicked around as far back as the planning of Alien 3, but then hijacked by the uneven but underrated Species. It works surprisingly well here, and the film manages to come up with a new monster to generate the proper feelings of sympathy and dread necessary for a successful audience reaction (not that H.R. Giger's original design is no longer effective, but it has suffered from repeated use). Unfortunately, the emphasis on gee whiz gloop and the lack of real atmosphere prior to its appearance make it seem just a little bit silly, which is by far too much in a film of this type.

Whereas its immediate predecessor was uneven roughly in halves, Alien Resurrection is consistently uneven, wavering between ridiculous and interesting throughout. The result is more disappointing than before because rather than abandoning its thematic explorations half way through, this film submerges them with quips and asides which kill any chance of real drama or tension before it has a chance to develop.

The one benefit of the film is that it turns attention back on Alien 3, which stands up quite well by comparison. One finds oneself searching out the serious drama which preceded the running and screaming and pleasantly surprised at its coherence. Though one might argue that the series has always been a product of postmodernism (Alien was a 50s sci-fi monster movie brought up to date in the wake of Jaws), only Alien Resurrection has the taint of insincerity and moral cowardice which continually stinks up American blockbusters of the late nineties. Of course, as ever, there are those who won't notice or won't care, and there have been worse films made recently (Mars Attacks! and Batman and Robin leap to mind). But it is rather dispiriting for fans of the series (and even the comic books) to see it come to this undignified juncture, and its implied protraction even beyond the point of tolerance.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.