Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Alien — concerning the expansive universe of a deadly species of creature known as a xenomorph. The creatures have thus far appeared four feature films, as well as two spin-off films, literature, comic books, and video games. For the purposes of this column we will be focusing on the primary Alien franchise – detailing the saga of Ellen Ripley’s involvement with the xenomorphs and the equally nefarious Weylan-Yutani corporation – and 2012’s Prometheus.
The Installment: Alien Resurrection (1997)
200 years have past since Ripley tossed herself into a volcano (basically) in order to wipe out the xenomorph species. You might wonder – why would that wipe them out? Weren’t there other xenomorphes elsewhere in the big universe? As it turns out, no. So scientists’ only hope in resurrecting the Aliens is cloning Ripley from blood samples found on Fury, and removing the Queen from Ripley’s belly. They succeed. But the cloned Ripley isn’t really Ripley, she is part Alien too. Meanwhile, a bunch of lowlife space criminals bring a stash of kidnapped humans in cryo-sleep to sell to the operation that has cloned Ripley. These unfortunate sleeping beauties are used as facehugger fodder. Now there are a bunch of Aliens. Shit goes wrong and the Aliens get out. People die. Then the Queen gives birth to Pumpkinhead and more people die. Then fake Ripley gets to Earth. The end forever!
Let’s just state the obvious: Alien Resurrection is a failure. But now that that’s out of the way, I can say that I think it is a noble failure. In this sense it sort of qualifies as being “interesting.” Hollywood has such a long track record of lazy ideas turning out predictably dumb that it is hard to get worked up when a weird idea turns out dumb. Say what you will about the film, but you can’t claim it wasn’t trying for something. It isn’t a lazy sequel. It is just misguided.
The Alien franchise’s most impressive statistic may actually be its track record for snagging up-and-coming filmmaking talent. It is like a fellowship program for gifted students; easily the most impressive film-by-film collection of directors of any franchise I can think of — Scott, Cameron, Fincher, and now Jean-Pierre Jeunet (coming hot on the heels of his fantastic French films, Delicatessen and City of Lost Children). While I’m not sure that Jeunet’s Terry-Gilliam-meets-Barry-Sonnenfeld style aesthetically fits into what this franchise is all about, I can’t fault 20th Century Fox for thinking outside the box and picking someone unique. The idea of using Jeunet for an Alien film is extremely intriguing. He turned out to be completely inflexible for the franchise, but he does bring flair to the project. The film has a seedy yet almost magical visual texture that makes you wish Jeunet had been able to rein himself in more tonally. Though he’s mostly way off the mark, in certain moments his light touch manages to strike a cord. I particularly love the bit where Dr. Gediman (Brad Dourif) sadistically fucks with the Aliens he has kept prisoner, followed up by Gediman’s comeuppance when the Aliens outsmart him (complete with the great idea that the Aliens will sacrifice a weak member of their corps, using its blood to eat through the floor). In these moments Jeunet’s proclivity for dark whimsy connects. And Jeunet isn’t totally without his exciting moments either. The first shot of the fully-grown Queen is extremely cool, and there are a couple solid set-pieces as well. I like seeing the Aliens swimming. It is the kind of fresh spin we need right about now, and the Aliens look surprisingly graceful under water. Point being, Jeunet was a noble failure as a choice for director.
Quite a few of you disagreed with my feelings that Sigourney Weaver didn’t feel overly excited about playing Ripley in Alien 3. This is all subjective (and I seem to be in the minority), but in my defense I will point out that Weaver would only agree to Alien 3 if they killed Ripley off, as she felt done with the character already, yet Joss Whedon’s script for Alien Resurrection got her excited enough to come back. The character of Ripley is weird and dark in Resurrection, and if there is one thing all actors absolutely love doing, it is playing the opposite of their persona or most famous character. I thought the Mirror Universe episodes of Deep Space Nine were cheesy and pointless, but they always had one thing going for them: you could tell the cast was having a ball. Same goes for Weaver here. We’ll discuss the terrible misuse of the character in the next section, but performance-wise Weaver is clearly having a fucking blast with Clone Ripley. There is relish here, and at times she improbably succeeds in drawing you in. Her performance makes me wish I liked what was happening in the film more. And that is worth praising.
The cast isn’t as first rate as the previous three films, but there are still some definite highlights. It is hard to ever go wrong with Dan Hedaya, and he is in top goofy form here. Ditto on Brad Dourif, who milks his cocoon scene – “You are a beautiful, beautiful, butterfly.”- in true Dourif fashion. Ron Perlman is off his game, but even an off-his-game Perlman is worth having. As is the wacko presence of Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon (I like when Pinon gets carried around on Gary Dourdan’s back, like C-P3O in Empire Strikes Back). But Miller’s Crossing‘s J. E. Freeman shows them all up as the film’s central douche, Wren. Freeman seems to be having even more fun than Weaver being a dick in every scene. He can even eat a noodle like an asshole. His death is another nice bit of comeuppance: when Purvis (Leland Orser), who everyone knows has a chestburster inside him, kamikazes himself on Wren when said chestburter pops out, killing them both with one chest-burst. And though his performance isn’t necessarily anything to write home about, I was reminded of how much I like and miss Michael Wincott (The Crow, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). What the hell happened to that guy? Even in his thirties he sounded like Tom Waits and Lance Henriksen fucked in his throat, then both died there. Seems like his voice would just keep getting cooler as he aged. The man has a fantastic delivery.
The human/Alien Hybrid is obviously the film’s most absurd element, and the root of the concept is slightly intriguing. So much is made out of the fact that Clone Ripley is part Alien, that it logically follows that the cloned Queen is also part Ripley. The creature’s design does not work for me, and just keeps reminding me of Pumpkinhead. But its presence, with its big sad eyes and distractingly tiny twitchy nose, is so odd that I can’t completely dismiss it either. Like I said, they went for it. And there it is. The Hybrid’s death – getting sucked into space through a hole the size of a quarter – is legitimately great and gross though. Especially because I hated the Hybrid, so watching it die so slowly and painfully was cathartic.
For me, the most disappointing aspect of Alien 3 was that it wasn’t even trying to play with new ideas or push the franchise in new directions. Resurrection at least makes some effort. Aliens and Alien 3 made such a stink about what would happen if The Company ever got their hands on a xenomorph. So it only makes sense to finally get to that point (sort of, we learn that Weyland-Yutani is no longer in operation). But sadly…
What Doesn’t Work:
…the weaponization of the Aliens is only a launching point for now typical Alien mayhem, existing solely because the movie needed to find a clever way to get Aliens back into the world. And that logic is where the movie first goes wrong. I had never assumed that the Aliens on LV-426 were the last of their species. I always viewed the illogical retconning of putting facehuggers in the beginning of Alien 3 (how did the Queen lay eggs after we saw her painfully tear off her egg sack in Aliens?) as a necessity for keeping Ripley around, not for explaining why the xenomorphes hadn’t been completely wiped out. There was no reason to assume there weren’t more Aliens out there. But jumping through the monumental hoop of bringing Ripley back to life demanded a fairly specific context: the Queen in her belly had to be the last xenomorph. Otherwise why would anyone go to the trouble of cloning an unimportant space trucker? Credit to Joss Whedon, it is a clever way to bring back Weaver — if we have to bring her back. But it also highlights how pointless bringing her back is. Because if that Queen embryo was the last xenomorph, than that means that Resurrection again ends with the complete annihilation of the species, which again means that any subsequent sequel will have to jump through more hoops to undo things. Creatively this is a lose-lose scenario.
But, pragmatically, knowing how movies get made, Weaver needed to come back — those were the marching orders. So I can forgive the weird Clone Ripley/extinct xenomoprh launching point. What I can’t forgive is that yet motherfucking again the most dire threat isn’t the death of our characters (which isn’t very dire anyway; Ripley doesn’t even give a shit, and our other heroes are all criminals or assholes), but the possibility that Aliens will get to Earth. Are you fucking kidding me? We’re four movies into this franchise, our hero has died and come back to life, and our hero has essentially boinked the monster and had a baby with it, and we still haven’t gone to Earth? That’s three movies in a row where everyone gets all in a tizzy about xenomorphs getting to Earth. And then never getting there. Even Jurassic Park managed to tease us briefly with a T-Rex godzillaing its way through a city for 15 minutes. Worse, they really rub salt in the wound by showing us Earth in the final shot of the film. I’m so sick of seeing people running around in dank corridors. Couldn’t we have at least been on some terraformed planet with a small city? Trees? Sunshine? Or something different? Anything different? All of Whedon’s semi-cool ideas are undersold by how redundant the setting is. This is by far the strangest film in the franchise, yet it feels the most rote. That should tell you something is wrong.
The cloning of Ripley is a classic case of misguided thinking. Fans loved Ripley. They of course loved Weaver for playing Ripley, but they certainly did not love Weaver more than Ripley. And by cloning Ripley and making her personality different, she no longer is Ripley anymore. Maybe it would have been different if Ripley’s personality and memories had simply continued on (though Weaver surely wouldn’t have come back for that). But as is, the continuity of Ripley’s life has been broken. This is a brand new character, also played by Weaver. This is about putting Weaver’s face on the poster, not continuing the Ripley franchise. Clone Ripley is an entertaining shake-em-up. But we didn’t need one. Let Ripley be dead, and let the xenomorphs carry on. We still have Weyland-Yutani to connect us with the previous films. (Hell, there could be more Bishop models to utilize, and Bishop’s creator was left alive at the end of Alien 3.) We still had pieces in play. Clone Ripley has her moments. Giving her acid blood was fun, and her big emotional moment, discovering the freakshow room of the previous failed Ripley clones, is solid. But this doesn’t feel like Ripley’s film. Weaver may be the “star” of the film, but the fact that Ripley barely cares what is going on prevents her from actually being the protagonist. So there is no protagonist. Who is this movie about? Ripley? Call (Winona Ryder)? Whedon is an undeniably great storyteller, but I think his sensibilities – especially at this early stage in his career – needed a little bit of Cameron-style hucksterism. Clone Ripley is more interesting than she is engaging. It is the kind of hero treatment that works great as an arc on a TV show. But for a movie we need some central focus. I’m glad Weaver had fun being so strange, but Resurrection comes off as a movie about no character in particular.
But the movie’s overall problems shouldn’t be placed solely on Whedon’s shoulders. The script is actually decent, especially considering the major hurdles Whedon had to surmount. I’ve always found Whedon’s take on Resurrection enlightening. In 2005 he did an interview with bullz-eye.com, and they asked him how drastically different his script was from the finished movie:
“It wasn’t a question of doing everything differently, although they changed the ending; it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines…mostly…but they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do. There’s actually a fascinating lesson in filmmaking, because everything that they did reflects back to the script or looks like something from the script, and people assume that, if I hated it, then they’d changed the script…but it wasn’t so much that they’d changed the script; it’s that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.”
Again, you can’t blame Fox for trying. Tonally, Aliens was an almost night and day shift from Alien. But is worked and people loved it. Maybe a City of Lost Children-esque Alien could work? But it didn’t. Jeunet’s Alien film reminds me of Ang Lee’s Hulk film. It feels like a filmmaker who is trying to make a good movie, but completely detached from its source material — at times offensively. Whimsy is not a tone that jibes with this franchise. Jeunet lends everything in the film a somewhat inconsequential vibe, like this is all for funzies, a zany romp. Aliens verged on cheesiness quite a bit, but you never for a second doubted that Cameron was taking things 100% seriously. You rarely get that impression from Jeunet. I mean, he cast Dan Hedaya as the tough general. The movie plays as a comedy most of the time, and that makes the few times it reaches for emotional impact feel out of step. “Oh, wait, am I supposed to be giving a shit now?”
This is a rare horror franchise that isn’t actually pinned by the monsters. It has always been about the ensemble of humans (and androids). Here the characters just don’t work. The ensemble is somewhere between Alien 3’s convicts and Aliens‘ marines, which only adds to the been-there-done-that feeling. Worse though, I don’t care about the space criminals, and I don’t care about the soldiers, and I don’t care about the scientists, and I don’t care about Clone Ripley. Everyone is outwardly unlikable to some extent, except Call — and Winona Ryder is horribly miscast. For one thing, she just feels entirely anachronistic to the franchise; I’m not sure what kind of character I could buy her as in an Alien film. But beyond that, she doesn’t work as a criminal or as the robot she is revealed to be — which is a weak twist to begin with (we already had that twist). I can understand why Whedon bitched about the casting and presentation of Resurrection, as I’m assuming his original crew of criminals had a very Firefly vibe. Jeunet turned them into a typical Jeunetian assortment of gonzo oddballs. Perlman would have been great as one of the thugs in Alien 3, but I grew to find him irritating here, with his constant vamping and overacting (which is clearly what Jeunet wanted).
Maybe even worst of all is that I find myself with nothing more I want to say. Which seems odd for a movie full of so many bizarre ideas and fuck-ups. But almost all the problems fall under the Jeunet umbrella. His tone makes everything feel substance-less; movie for its own sake. This was the installment that needed to pick up the slack left by Alien 3. It just created more, leaving you with the realization of how nice and tidy Ripley’s story would have been if they hadn’t brought her back for the third film. I wish she were living on Earth with Hicks and Newt.
Kills: 33 (though some scenes required a little guestimation)
Best Kill: General Perez (Hedaya), who gets jacked in the back of the head by an Alien’s second-mouth. Perez then reaches around the back of his head and retrieves a piece of his brain. He does not look happy to be staring at his own brain chunk.
Best Scare: This movie isn’t particularly scary.
Best Line: Offering Elgyn (Wincott) a drink.
General Perez: Drink, Elgyn?
How ‘The Corporation’ Fucked Up: Going out of business.
Should There Be a Sequel: Yes and no. There is no reason not to keep playing in this sandbox. But Ripley has been milked dry.
Up Next: Prometheus