Janus Film Review Retrospective: Alien Resurrection (1997)

Updated: Mar 21


Format Reviewed: Blu-ray/20th Century Fox (2013). The second sequel in the Alien franchise - the enigmatic entity that is Alien 3 (1992) - was not warmly received upon its original release. It was seen as brutal, ugly and unloveable; the bastard stepchild to two golden celluloid princes. So, when Alien Resurrection (1997) arrived, it was viewed as a cleansing wind. The folly of Alien 3 had definitively proven that lightning could only strike twice, so Resurrection was shorn of much of its direct predecessor’s unendurable burden, and it was reviewed more favourably: still wholly inferior overall, but a welcome return to some semblance of form and normality, and absolutely positively better than Alien 3. Therefore, the question I intend to consider is rather straightforward: Is Alien Resurrection actually any good? Contemporary critics gave it something of a free ride… I can assure you, in the here and now, I won’t. At the risk of getting straight to the point, Alien Resurrection isn’t very good. It is akin to a welded tapestry; myriad ideas and suggestions plunged into a loosely discernible, always-creaking whole. The first problem faced is the erstwhile fate of the Ellen Ripley character (she dies in Alien 3, to put not too fine a point on it). This particular conundrum is resolved via a time-tested science fiction conceit: cloning. As such, the character Sigourney Weaver portrays in Alien Resurrection is in fact a genetically engineered clone of the original, now-deceased Ripley. Further separation is achieved by advancing the story two hundred years into an unknown future. The particulars of this new Ripley’s existence are especially important, because they both allow Sigourney Weaver to explore new aspects of a familiar character (and she is predictably the best thing in the film by a wide margin), and offering us something vaguely resembling a narrative. The process of restoring Ripley - or ‘Ripley 8’ - to life also provides us with a fresh horde of Xenomorphs to play with. It was previously established (in Alien 3) that Ripley had been impregnated with an Alien Queen, and her death was an act of self-sacrifice, to prevent the organism falling into the hands of the nefarious Weyland-Yutani Corporation. In the distant future, the corporate powerhouses are no more, so the subsequent restoration of Ripley’s genetic template - alongside that of her regal progeny - is accomplished by the United Systems Military: an entirely unsubtle allusion to the United States of America, right down to a perceived propensity for shady clandestine activities at unspecified secret facilities (or starship the USM Auriga, in this case). The origins and motivations of the USM are never expounded upon, but the practical purpose of such a blah backdrop is to essentially vomit Ripley and her nemesis back into existence, and in this single instance, the film succeeds; ironically enough by offering little and doing less. Ripley 8 is immediately established as a scientific curio, but her newfound renaissance is secondary to the reclamation of the Alien species and its destructive potential. The revelation of Ripley 8’s hybrid status - the cloning process led to some unavoidable cellular splicing - is only half-explored by the wafer-thin plot, and it is left to the talents of Weaver to more thoroughly articulate the existence of this new/old character. Like so many of the post-Aliens sequels and spin-offs, Resurrection played host to innumerable instances of creative confusion and studio interference. With nothing more than the first rhythms of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to his name, writer Joss Whedon circa 1997 saw many of his concepts and ideas for the film waylaid by corporate paranoia (there’s a franchise-related joke in there somewhere), and the net result is a film assembled by committee. To begin with, you have a stereotypical sci-fi plot, involving scientific endeavour and military ambition conspiring to royally screw up an otherwise charming day. Then you have the introduction of the S.S. Betty and her motley (with a capital ‘pirate’) band of thieves, murderers and people-trafficking space brigands. This is very obviously a Whedon concept, but all attempts at an R-rated Firefly dynamic are wasted by poor casting choices, and the general lack of energy and purpose bedevilling the entire movie. For sure, there is some amusing dialogue and quality exchanges (mostly involving Ripley 8), and the always magnificent Ron Perlman’s Johner repeatedly defies his surroundings, providing a legitimately entertaining, scenery chewing performance amidst the general blandness. The Xenomorphs escape and the military literally runs away (all except for 80s legend Dan Hedaya, of course), leaving our band of bandits to fight their way back to their space wagon, via several contrived set-pieces and some frighteningly dodgy, late-90s CGI. They’re picked off one-by-one, and the film gives you no reason to care about them or their grisly fate. They are just food for the animals. Alien Resurrection is positively full of interesting concepts, and that is the problem encapsulated: too many cooks - each with their own special sauce - and rather than relying on one unifying voice, 20th Century Fox allowed all these ideas to be hurled into the narrative at once. The aforementioned genetic blending of Ripley with the aliens was a two-way exchange, leading to an overall upturn in the Xenomorphs’ ability to engage in reason. This is a fascinating idea, which save for one especially effective scene involving Brad Dourif’s (criminally underused) scientist, barely registers. The Ripley character’s newfound menace is propelled throughout by an enthused Sigourney Weaver, who seems to revel in her new, more primal dynamic, and the scene where Ripley 8 discovers her failed numerical ‘sisters’ is arguably the film’s only true piece of Alien-worthy body horror. This is mere consolation though, and in the hands of a lesser actor, Ripley 8’s development might’ve been equally lacking in substance. This leads us rather neatly onto Winona Ryder’s Call. Her presence within the crew of the Betty - and by extension, the film itself - is as incongruous as her performance is anaemic. When sufficiently motivated, Ryder is a melancholic and rather haunting presence; qualities the Call character desperately required. Whether as a result of the film’s general malaise, or the incompatibility of actor and director, Ryder does not deliver, and the true nature of Call’s character - yet another intriguing idea - rings rather hollow. The film is uneven to the point of chaos, with even the most well-intended ideas ending in failure. Alien Resurrection was directed by French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jounet. He is the man who gave us the hugely influential Delicatessen (1991); critical darling Amélie (2001), and the visually stunning The City of Lost Children (1995). On the surface of things, he was a refreshingly esoteric choice, charged with directing a film with pronounced visual components. Sadly, this uncharacteristically bold act - hiring a French visualist to direct a Hollywood film - failed, for all the reasons already discussed, and more besides. Jeunet sought to introduce a little Gaelic insouciance into the overall vibe and tone of the film. It was his choice to cast Dominique Pinon as the paraplegic Betty crew member, Vriess. Though Pinon plainly struggles with the language and dialogue, he gives a commendable performance. However, certain more intimate aspects of his character - including his introductory scene, which comes via a vulgar joke for the benefit of Call - were cut from the film at the studio’s insistence. This is just a minor example of how Jeunet was undermined on a creative level. Ultimately, his hiring made little or no sense. Working in tandem with effects supervisor Jean-Christophe ‘Pitof' Comar, Jeunet attempted to expand upon the time-tested designs of the original ‘Giger' Alien, but this is a mostly flawed assignment, resulting in superfluous cosmetic alterations, such as giving the classic aliens a hardened countenance and more guttural cadence. Like its more illustrious predecessors, Alien Resurrection occurs almost entirely within metallic corridors and thoroughfares, so the scope for visual innovation is fundamentally limited by design. Such taut, claustrophobic locales should be rank with tangible anxiety, but the film has all the tension of a lullaby. The various action sequences come across as formulaic exercises (not aided by composer John Frizzell’s instantly forgettable soundtrack), and the film’s biggest set-piece - the underwater swim - is hampered by typical confusion prompted by filming in an inhospitable environment (i.e. shooting in a cramped set full of water), and more egregious examples of the film’s struggles with terrible computer generated effects. At no point does it feel like you’re watching a true Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. He is an exotically square peg in a hole cursed by circularity, and this is both a shame and a significant waste. The struggles and failures of Alien Resurrection find final summation in the creation of Ripley 8’s ‘child’: a human/alien hybrid creature that arrives abruptly and inexplicably and does very little, before being violently (and pointlessly) destroyed. There is no build-up whatsoever to this extraordinary event. Ripley 8 takes a tumble down a hole, engages in a seemingly amorous ‘interlude’ with the Alien Queen (which is not sexual, but so alarming and bizarre that only a Frenchman could’ve conceived of it) and after some conveniently-placed exposition, we arrive at the horrifically beautiful dawn of the hybrid. It is a masterpiece of design: clearly ‘alien’ in origin, but decidedly ‘human’ also. Jeunet intended the creature to be a hermaphrodite, and the finished puppet is indeed anatomically endowed, but the studio once again nixed such a notion (and in a bitterly ironic twist, utilised the film’s most effective CGI as a means to digitally castrate the hybrid in post-production). The hybrid’s arrival should’ve been fully heralded, and used as the film’s central anchoring point. Instead, this triumph of visual and animatronic endeavour is on-screen for approximately fifteen minutes, and is used to mount a finale so lacking in verve, you don’t actually realise it’s occurred until the credits roll. The film just ends, with no more than a vacuous exchange between fellow ‘strangers’ Ripley 8 and Call. The final insult is the absolute agony the hybrid is subjected to before its inevitable death. It is both offensive and horrific, and serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever (other than forcing this wretched film closer to its end), before everybody moves on with their business. That is the dictionary definition of gratuitous. To definitively settle the debate, Alien Resurrection is in no way superior to the criminally underrated exercise in tenacity that is Alien 3; on the contrary, Alien 3 is an everlasting masterpiece compared to the unsanitary mess that is the third - and by far the worst - sequel to Sir Ridley Scott’s original feat of genre revolution. In all honesty, we should collectively seek to follow Joss Whedon’s example. After trying (and failing) to have his writing credit removed from the finished film, Whedon resolved to act as if Alien Resurrection never happened. In a career full of zeal and accomplishment, this is possibly his single wisest choice. ‘Resurrection’ is a darkly comical title to attach to a film such as this, for it deserves neither praise nor rebirth. Alien 3 was an uncompromising, bold and singularly nihilistic coda to the Alien saga, that stands today as a legitimately worthy film. Alien Resurrection is quite simply abysmal. That’s the only sign-off you need. Daniel R. Browne.