Revisiting the Reviled – A Modest Defense of ‘Alien: Resurrection’

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It’s very rare for film franchise to follow a chronological path from best to worst. You could say that’s true with Robocop and a handful of others, but for the most part there’s a bit of a rollercoaster ride in quality – a perfect example of that would be the Indiana Jones films. It’s even rarer that each individual installment of a franchise carries with it the unique feel of the director behind it. Not only do the Alien films peak with their first installment and slowly go down in quality from one to the next, they’re each unique in the way they take on the trademarks of their respective directors. But the fourth Alien film, the much maligned Alien: Resurrection, takes on the visual tendencies of its director, the Frenchman Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and the thematic elements of its writer, the reigning king of geekdom, Joss Whedon.

Whedon was hired to do the script before Jeunet was on board. The conclusion of Alien 3 put Whedon in a cornfer as Ripley, Sigourney Weaver’s iconic role, was killed. The death of Ripley was extremely unpopular, but so was Alien 3it’s not a bad movie – and a number of those unpopular decisions were at the behest of Weaver who was one of the film’s producers. Anyways, the idea behind Resurrection was to have Ripley cloned 200 years after her death. How her genetic material was cultivated for cloning is explained in a line of expository dialogue shorter than this sentence. It’s not a wildly imaginative idea, but the story is much more focused on the repercussions of the cloning, not in how it was executed. But we’ll get to that in a little bit. Jeunet was coming off a successful run with Marc Caro, directing two visually lush, original films that were destined to become cult classics – Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children. The duo would part ways before the start of Alien: Resurrection, with Jeunet eagerly awaiting the challenge of a Hollywood film and Caro wanting no part of it. As we’ve seen before, and as Whedon discusses in an old interview with The AV Club, the language barrier can hurt a film by certain nuances of language being lost in translation.

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What makes the Alien series so special is that each installment is wildly different from the next. That’s the reason Neill Blomkamp’s statements about making his Alien film a continuation of the first and second films disappoints, though he’s not omitting the third and fourth films as earlier reported (or so he says now). Much in the same way the resurrected Ripley is hybrid with the queen she carried, Alien Resurrection takes elements from all three that precede it and turns it into its own weird abomination. You have the action set on a space cruiser from Alien, a space military contingent from Aliens, and the degenerate criminal element of Alien 3. Then you place all these elements under the direction of Jeunet and you get something strikingly different.  And like the hybrid creations borne of Ripley’s resurrection, the film is this weird, sometimes grotesque, sometimes beautiful creation.

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The film is populated with strange characters that are brought to vivid life by casting strange character actors. Of course, Ron Perlman stands out as the gruff and grumpy Johner, he having worked with Jeunet on City of Lost Children. Also a veteran of Jeunet’s films is Dominque Pinon. The French actor has appeared in every one of Jeunet’s films. But there’s also such recognizable faces, even if their names are not, such as Leland Orser, Raymond Cruz (Tuco from Breaking Bad), J.E. Freeman, Dan Hedaya, Michael Wincott, and Brad Dourif. Like the intricately decorated sets, the cast lend the artifice a sense of being lived in.

Ultimately, Alien: Resurrection is about the arrogance of man and the unintended consequences as a result. In reviving Ripley to harvest the queen, Wren and Gediman (Freeman and Dourif respectively) unintentionally allowed the human and alien DNA to join. Ripley has inherited memories like the aliens, her blood is acidic, and she has a psychic connection with the queen. Despite the warnings of Ripley, Wren and Gediman are confident that they can train the xenomorph. That plan goes predictably to hell. And it goes even further as the queen evolves to the point where it no longer lays eggs. It then proceeds to birth a new human-alien hybrid, an ugly and temperamental creature. Yet the arrogance of man extends further into the film’s DNA. Annalee Call, played by Winona Ryder, is revealed to be an android, a model deemed unfit for survival and terminated. All of these manmade creatures and nothing but death and destruction.

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How was this not more popular?

Jeunet and Whedon collaborate to keep the film moving at a brisk pace. Sure, some of it is a goofy and weird, but it’s very much concerned with moving the story forward. Cinematographer Darius Khondji and Jeunet collaborate to make the visuals pop by unloading their whole bag of tricks – lenses, filters, angles, movement. But it’s not one of those cases where the camera is always spinning for the sake of spinning. Instead the movements are accents to the story’s action.

Look, I’m not making the case that Alien: Resurrection is an unheralded masterpiece. It’s merely the fourth best of the Alien films – films when ranked go Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, and Resurrection. Now I’d hear you out if you were to tell me that Aliens is the better of the group. At the conclusion, I’d merely inform you that you are, in fact, wrong. More to the point, Alien: Resurrection just keeps the tradition of this series being defined by bold, unexpected turns. It may not always be great or please the most people, but they’re a series of films where an effort is made to be original. Unlike any of the Transformers movies, you can’t confuse any of the Alien films.

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