Sunday, June 22, 2014

Alien Resurrection

The first three Alien movies are hard-boiled science fiction. Space operas such as Star Wars, despite the presence of robots and spaceships, are more in tune with fantasy, but the Alien series, with its emphasis on space truckers, colonial marine grunts, and convicts presents an unromantic view of outer space. The alien creatures are not highly evolved, highly technological visitors, but nasty, malicious giant bugs while the humans who battle them are figures we can recognize and identify with. They travel not on luxurious star cruisers but on crowded, smoke-filled, barely functional freighters or live on hostile, dirty planets. It is not about heroes battling an evil empire or explorers boldly going where no man has gone before but about flawed, human characters trying to live their lives, and they just happen to be in space.

Alien Resurrection (1997), the final entry in the series (or at least the last one to star Sigourney Weaver or lack a predator), jettisons the hard science fiction of its predecessors, and instead of a lived-in, plausible futuristic world, the filmmakers present us with a comic-book style action movie, complete with implausible set pieces, snappy one-liners, macho posturing, and a more jokey tone. There's still quite a bit to enjoy here, but while Alien had the novelty of being the original, Aliens expanded on the vision in a new way, and Alien3 developed a strong aesthetic and thematic approach, Alien Resurrection is undoubtedly the weakest of the series.

Two-hundred years after sacrificing herself to stop the xenomorph threat, Ellen Ripley (Weaver) has been cloned by the military, and the queen alien inside of her has been extracted (just go with it). Scientists (including Brad Dourif) breed the aliens using human cargo smuggled by a group of pirates (among the crew are Winona Ryder, Michael Wincott, Ron Perlman, and Dominuqe Pinon). Of course, the aliens get out and go on the rampage, leaving Ripley to team with the other survivors to get off the ship before becoming alien chow.

Remember how I said the set-up in Alien3 cheapened everything Ripley fought for in Aliens? This is much worse, almost as if the filmmakers decided they weren't even going to pretend to be plausible or consistent with the series. Forget her heroic sacrifice to keep the universe safe; we got a franchise to sustain, and that's what I think is fundamentally wrong with Alien Resurrection: it's just about a group of people running through a spaceship, getting chased by the aliens. Sure, we have some new elements - the military holding the aliens in captivity, the cloning, the genetic effects on both the aliens and Ripley, a new creature - but they feel more like gimmicks used to give the formula a new coat a paint than something the makers were interested in exploring.

I keep referring to Weaver's character as Ripley, as do the characters, but really, she's not Ripley and not just because she's a clone. This version of Ripley is a lithesome, aggressive, self-interested creature, who because of the cloning process, has ended up with acidic blood, great strength and agility, and some sort of mental connection with the aliens. Rather than the determined survivor and maternal figure of the previous films, she's more of a comic-book style action hero, who grins like the Cheshire Cat when she tells the others the aliens will break out and kill them. There is a question of where her loyalties lie, but in the end, this really doesn't go anywhere.

Still, Weaver seems to be enjoying herself and still makes for a tough, convincing heroine. The same cannot be said for Ryder, who is very out of place. For all intents and purposes, she is the co-protagonist with Ripley, but she really doesn't hold her own. Of course, she's not helped by a script that is muddled about her motivations, role, and attitude toward Ripley.

The rest of the cast is mixed, despite having quite an eclectic bunch of actors. Wincott, Perlman, Pinon, and Gary Dourdan are fun as the pirates (Joss Whedon wrote the script, and these guys are clearly forerunners to his sci-fi show Firefly). Dourif is just kind of weird and really doesn't hang around too long, and as the head military honcho, Dan Hedaya is too comically dopey.

Alien Resurrection was directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the same filmmaker who made Amelie and The City of Lost Children. He is a gifted, inventive filmmaker but more suited to light, whimsical fantasy than hard-boiled science fiction. Using a lot of wide-angle closeups, rushing cameras, and cockeyed angles, Jeunet's style is closer to Terry Gilliam's than Ridley Scott's or James Cameron's. Scott, Cameron, and David Fincher took their time establishing at least a plausible science fiction world, one that really gave thought to how these blue-collar types would operate in space, and encounters with the aliens were desperate, terrifying struggles to survive.  Jeunet's world is a zany comic book, and the battles with the aliens are cool-looking poses and stunts such as when Perlman dangles upside down to fire two pistols, an underwater encounter occurs with the aliens acting the part of sharks, and characters ricochet carefully aimed shots off walls to hit their targets.

Still, for all my issues with the film, I can't deny I was entertained by Alien Resurrection. There were parts that made me laugh, and some of the action scenes work in their own implausible ways. The production design of both the ship and the aliens is still top-notch, so it looks like an Alien movie even if it doesn't necessarily feel like one. It's not grueling, intense, or scary like the other movies in the series, but it is, in its own way, fun.

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