So we’ve finally reached the final installment of the Alien franchise, released a full 18 years after Ridley Scott’s original hit theaters. The one thing that I focused on in my review for James Cameron’s Aliens was how different it was from its predecessor. The series as a whole has not let me down in that regard, and part of what makes each successive film so exciting is not just in returning to the exploits of Ripley and the alien, but in seeing how each new filmmaker brings their own unique spin to the material. From Scott’s relatively low budget horror film, to Cameron’s intelligent actioner, to Fincher’s moody shocker. Now we have director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, most famous for the relatively light romatic comedy Amelie, at the helm of a film written by Joss Whedon (The Avengers). I’m not going to lie to you: there’s a whole hell of a lot that doesn’t work here. That’s probably why most people consider this the worst of the franchise, in spite of David Fincher’s poor handling of the third installment. Yet I saw this movie on Wednesday – it’s almost Sunday now – and I’ve been unable to get it out of my mind. Alien: Resurrection doesn’t always work, but it is the most conceptually daring, beguiling episode in the continuing saga of Ellen Ripley.
What doesn’t work isn’t what I want to talk about, though it does constitute probably a majority of the film. Winona Ryder is terribly miscast as Call, a classic manic pixie dream girl before the term was ever invented, and severely out of place in a bizarre science fiction film rather than a romantic comedy. Whedon’s original script had a much lighter tone than the final product (or so I’ve read on IMDb Trivia), which may explain some painfully ridiculous scenes such as when Call rifles through a keychain of tiny spray-cans because, in this version of the future, locked doors are opened by recognizing the breath of authorized personnel. In addition, Brad Dourif (the voice of Chucky) shows up as a scientist obsessed with the alien creature; he is given the task of announcing aloud the significance of a plot twist late in the film, a choice which feels uncomfortably shoe-horned into the film. And then there’s the matter of the prologue, which even now perplexes me, and let’s not even get started on the stock characters (e.g. the wise-cracking wheelchair guy) who serve no purpose other than spouting out one-liners – each and every one custom-made for inclusion in the trailer. All of this added together makes for a cast of characters we couldn’t care less about, acting in unbelievable and/or incomprehensible ways, and confidently spouting lines that may have sounded cool on the page, but hilarious when spoken aloud. In these ways, I can easily sympathize with those who leave the movie feeling unsatisfied.
And this is a big “but”, which is why I put it in all caps and bolded it, if you’re able to look past the numerous missteps, there’s some kind of insane genius behind this. The story picks up some 200+ years after the events of Alien³ – which, if you’ll remember, ended with [SPOILER] Ripley diving into magma, Terminator 2 style, sacrificing herself to destroy once and for all the creature she’d spent so much of her life already trying to eliminate. So here we are, centuries later, and the evil corporation Weyland Yutani has somehow gathered DNA fragments from her charred carcass and gone about cloning her and the alien that was growing inside her body. How a piece of Ripley’s corpse can also re-create the alien that was inside her is kind of sketchy, but I said I’m done discussing the negative aspects of the film – add this to the list of complaints in the previous paragraph. In any case, after seven previously unsuccessful (and gruesome) attempts at cloning our heroine, Number 8 provides a clone who acts like a fully functioning adult, and who has somehow retained all of the original Ripley’s memories. Again, the how??? of the situation is neatly side-stepped, but this is hardly important because the bigger picture is this: a woman who gave up her life attempting to eradicate this murderous creature has been cloned again and again, her DNA blending with the alien’s, until she finally returned to life – with almost super-human powers as a result of careful cross-cloning with the alien. Talk about becoming the thing that you hated.
This is an extremely intriguing premise, in my opinion, only made more interesting by the hinted autism that Number 8 suffers from as a result of being cloned repeatedly. When a crew member is torn apart in front of her by the alien, she cocks her head slightly and exhibits no emotion. Is this because she suffers from a form of Asperger’s, or is it simply the unfeeling nature of the beast that has intertwined in her mind? At one point, she stumbles across a laboratory where the horrific past attempts at reanimating her lifeless body are stored, a stunning moment visually and dramatically, and allegedly the scene that convinced Sigourney Weaver to put on the Ripley mask one more time. Actually, there are a great number of scenes that apply a splendid visual artistry – through strange angles, careful lighting, extensive close-ups – to make the film a treat in spite of there being few constructed sets. And speaking of the dramatic resonance of the revelation of those previous cloning attempts, even though Winona Ryder doesn’t seem fit for her role, there are challenging questions about the nature of humanity raised by her actions which make 2012’s Prometheus look like child’s play.
Then there are the aliens themselves, more slimy and hideous than ever before. The creatures are far more front-and-center in Resurrection, as much a character in the film as Ripley and her crew, not just relegated to status as monsters to appear when scares are needed. We see a pair of aliens captured in a cell, we see them interact with their human captors from behind the thick glass – we see them plan and make decisions. The intelligence of the creatures was only briefly mentioned in James Cameron’s Aliens (“They cut the power? How could they do that, man? They’re animals!”), but it’s wonderful to see expounded upon here and makes for a much more exciting battle between the two factions. Of course, part of this may be as a result of their own connection with Ripley’s DNA; have they acquired some of her survival instinct? In addition to the aliens we’ve seen in previous films, Resurrection adds an enormous queen that the camera lovingly views from every angle and a new incarnation that’s perhaps more frightening than any that came before as a result of our inability to judge what it is capable of.
It all culminates in a climax which is maybe a bit too simple, yet nevertheless retains an epic scope despite the ease with which it comes about. The final moments are a fitting send-off to the character and the series, yet inevitably leave the door open for the possibility of a foll0w-up. For a series which is nearly twenty years in the making, it’s a major accomplishment to have handled the main character well (maintaining her bad-ass nature while instilling her with a new ruthless attitude) and re-introduced the same-ol’ monster in a radically different fashion, all while maintaining the series’ tone and stamping out your own vision of what the story should be at the same time.
So though Alien: Resurrection has some moments (and there are a lot of them) which are just awful, they’re balanced by, or “off-set”, or just less enjoyable to talk about, than the twisted scripting which brings Ripley back from the dead and questions how much of her is human, how much of her is who she was before, and what role the alien really plays in her artificially extended life. These are exciting questions in a film that is unafraid to break from the mold set by the previous entries in the series; that it is not well executed entirely is disappointing, but hardly damning. I feel the same way I did after watching Cameron’s take on the story: asking which is the best or the worst film in the series is beside the point. Each comes at the material from its own perspective, holding fast to the canon set in stone by the previous films, yet creating a new and exciting world all over again. Alien: Resurrection may be terrible, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t great.