With the June 8th release of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus fast approaching, we thought we’d take a look back at the original Alien franchise with which it “shares strands of DNA.” Whether or not there are xenomorphs as we know them in Prometheus, it’s abundantly clear that it takes place in the same universe.
In the weeks leading up to the release of that film I’m going to revisit the four films in the Alien franchise (sorry, not going to subject myself to AVP) in order to gather my thoughts in anticipation of the new outing. Next up is Alien: Resurrection. You may recall that last week I revisited Alien 3 and discovered a lot to like.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Alien: Resurrection. When it was first released in 1997, the film was touted by the studio (and some critics and fans) as a return to form. I have no idea what they were talking about (other than that’s the kind of thing everyone says a few years after a disappointing franchise entry). It’s awful. Tonally, it doesn’t feel like an Alien film at all. And while the script by Joss Whedon contains an abundance of great ideas, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City Of Lost Children, Amelie) doesn’t even come close to executing them properly.
For those of you waiting for a movie that Mr. Disgusting and I really disagree on, this is the one. He holds a soft spot in his heart for this film, while I wish every existing print could be rocketed into the sun. Let’s talk more inside.
While most films don’t have enough ideas, occasionally a film will come along that has too many. I think the most extreme example of this condition can be seen in something like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, where we watch a talented filmmaker absolutely destroy his film with unchecked (and un-edited) ambition. While Alien: Resurrection actually has a clearly defined narrative (unlike that film), its ideas crush it. And what’s left is stomped to death and left in a ditch by the film’s tone.
I’ve always loved Joss Whedon and I continue to love him. It’s his bold, inquisitive nature that helped bring us “Buffy”, The Cabin In The Woods and The Avengers – all of which I consider landmark achievements in one way or another. And yes, those films (and that show) are full of ideas too – but they’re fully developed. They mean something and they work within the story. The ideas in Alien: Resurrection most certainly helped the film get made – they’re a development exec’s wet dream, an abundance of “what if” – but they pile on top of each other like a logjam in the film’s inexorable race to be the most clever thing on earth.
The xenomorph DNA being mixed with Ripley’s upon her revival via cloning. The Alien nest she falls into. The Aliens developing a human (-ish) reproductive system. And the “newborn”. It’s all too much. It feels like a 5 year old telling a story, “and then this happens, and then this happens, and then THIS happens!” But, it’s much ado about nothing. Do any of these developments raise the stakes for our characters? No. They exist for us to marvel at their very invention, but they’re vapid, reaching and have nothing to say.
Let’s start with the “new” Ripley, who is supposedly part Alien. What does this actually mean for the film? Well, aside from being able to beat Ron Perlman and his friends at basketball – not much. All it really means is that she occasionally gets to vamp around in these horrible little moments that are either supposed to exude menace or become some crowd pleasing one-liner. Take the following exchange:
Ripley: “There’s a monster in your chest. These guys hijacked your ship, and they sold your cryo tube to this… human. And he put an alien inside of you. It’s a really nasty one. And in a few hours it’s gonna burst through your ribcage, and you’re gonna die. Any questions?”
Purvis: “Who are you?”
Ripley: “I’m the monster’s mother.”
That’s a clever little bit of patter, but the only thing it really achieves – aside from a good trailer moment – is the utter alienation of the audience from the Ripley character. She would never say anything like that. It’s not her style and the film robs her of all compassion. I understand the logic within the film, she’s not the same. But I don’t understand the intent – why pay Sigourney Weaver millions of dollars to return to her signature role when the audience will no longer be able to relate to her? After the first few minutes of the film, once the superficial pleasure of seeing her back in the franchise wears off, there’s literally nothing to hold onto.
The Alien nest she falls into? It’s a cool image. But it also distances you from her character in a moment where the film badly needs you to identify with her. Everyone’s racing to get off the ship, stakes are high and she’s having this horrible ectoplasmic love-in. The Alien queen giving birth to the newborn without using an egg? Nifty. How does that increase the threat? The only thing it achieves is introducing a horrible new creature design. The “newborn” is stiff, cloying and needy-eyed. No matter how much destruction it’s capable of causing, it’s not scary or menacing in the slightest. I kept expecting it to say, “not the momma!” Even worse, it’s designed to create some pathos at the end of the film. Ripley’s been yearning and aching for a mother/child relationship for centuries now (albeit on and off), and this is the exact wrong way to address it.
But it’s not just the script that’s misguided, it’s also the direction. Jeunet’s whimsy amplifies the failures of all of these concepts to a deafening roar. His precocious wackiness and Rube Goldberg machinations suit some of his other films quite well, but here they smother any moment of the film’s running time that hasn’t already been rendered impotent by the script. No one in this film even remotely behaves like a human being. Except for perhaps Winona Ryder’s Call, so kudos to Jeunet if Resurrection is actually some kind of treatise on the humanity of androids.
But everything else in that regard is out of hand. If Alien 3 suffered from its characters being too indistinguishable from one another, Resurrection has the exact opposite problem. Its characters are so eclectic and diverse they literally pop off the screen, but they emerge as twee French archetypes rather than actual people*. It’s like watching the supporting cast of a Wes Anderson film scurrying around a ship with monsters chasing after them (don’t get me wrong, I love Wes Anderson, but there’s a time and a place for that stuff and it’s not in Alien: Resurrection). Dan Hedaya, Ron Perlman, Gary Dourdan, Brad Dourif and the others work together to create a weird alchemy that feels much better suited to a SyFy television series than an installment in the Alien franchise.
The only truly great moment in the film is when the xenomorphs sacrifice one of their own in order to create an acid pool large enough to free them from their cage. Aside from that, Resurrection even gets the Aliens wrong. They’re oddly weightless, composed of horrible CG half the time, and have none of the mean-spiritedness of their earlier counterparts.
A film as annoying as Gary Dourdan’s dreadlocks within it, Alien: Resurrection is to be avoided at all costs. If you have fond memories, keep them that way. It has not aged well. There are some people who regard this as a more worthy entry than Fincher’s Alien 3. I have only one question for them, “what are you thinking?” At least that film had some heft and remotely felt like an Alien movie. This is more like Micmacs with monsters.
*Why does Dourdan’s character choose to plummet to his death after cutting his tether when he could have just as easily grabbed another rung on the ladder?