Thursday 14 July 2011

Alien: Resurrection (1997)


Well, finally, after 18 years and some serious highs and lows, the Alien series reaches its end… well, before the whole Alien Vs. Predator thing. Each of the films had their own personality of sorts and gave some new(ish) directors a shot at the big time. The first was Ridley Scott’s work of tense genius - Alien. The second was James Cameron’s adrenaline-fuelled action panic fest - Aliens. The third was the badly misconceived mess - Alien³. Finally, there’s the fourth instalment, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection.

After 200 years, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is brought back to life through the process of cloning, during which the scientists successfully take the Queen Alien out of her. However, Ripley’s DNA has been mixed up with the Queen’s, making her part Xenomorph. The scientists begin breeding the aliens, but they soon escape and wreak havoc on the ship. Now, Ripley and a band of pirates have to escape and stop the alien menace from reaching Earth.

Joss Whedon’s script is interesting, largely because it’s barely an Alien movie, if at all. It’s a disaster movie, mashing up Jurassic Park and The Poseidon Adventure and setting it in space. The pack of Raptors that tore up that dinosaur theme park have been replaced with the Xenomorph creatures and they’ve all been set after a group of survivors trying to make it off the ship before it crashes. As it turns out, in light of Whedon’s projects since then, it would also act as a sort of dry run for what would become his sf/western TV series Firefly… God, that was a good show. Anyway, there is a very recognisable Whedon-ness throughout the script. You can see the nicely drawn characters, the sarcastically dark humour. It’s not all smooth sailing, though… I still don’t entirely buy Christie’s way out.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet actually does a pretty good job of engaging visually with the film. His is an Expressionistic style, almost comic booky. He conceives of shots well, in a manner that almost recalls the first film, albeit in a more exaggerated way, a more… well, French way. He also has some very effective set pieces. The underwater sequence, though nothing you haven’t seen before, works terrifically well and the sequence with Ripley and the Newborn Xenomorph/Human hybrid is very disconcerting. However, you will note that I say “visually” and not “tonally”. Jeunet, for whatever reason, just simply does not seem to get Whedon’s humour or manner of storytelling. As such, scenes that should probably have more significance are given little to no real attention. The character of Sabra is down to almost nothing, which affects both our connection to her and Frank. There are other moments that you know Whedon, had he been calling the shots, would have done differently. Like Perez’s discussions with Wren and Gediman near the start of the film. They actually are funny, but not as much as they perhaps should be. It’s not like the writing has been changed to reflect a more direct approach either; it’s just been short-circuited a little. Perhaps the reason for this was that Jeunet, at the time of filming, didn’t speak English and had to have interpreters on set at all times. He certainly wouldn’t be the first director to make a film with a language barrier between him or herself and the actors, but Whedon’s writing has a subtlety that would be very easily missed under such circumstances. Saying that, it’s also possible that Jeunet simply chose to ignore all of that and do it his way. He is the director, after all.

Sigourney Weaver is actually more alive here than she was previously. The character had gotten a little stale, regressed, and though she tried to keep her strong, Weaver was still not working with much. The idea of Ripley now being part Xenomorph has given the actress a new dimension to explore. Not only is she still the smart and brave character we know, but she’s also become a genuine threat to others. There’s a new, more menacing aspect to Ripley and Weaver realises it fully, becoming like an animalistic bully, leering into people’s faces and sniffing them. It’s also got a very weird seductive undercurrent to it. Weaver was clearly very happy to get something new out of this.

Others also do quite well for themselves. Brad Dourif seems to be incapable of not being creepy onscreen; Ron Perlman commits as much as he always does, so much so that it seems like it’s overacting, but that’s really just the vulgar nature of Johner; Leland Orser does the panicky bit well; and Michael Wincott does the badass captain well enough for his few scenes. I remain somewhat undecided on how successful Winona Ryder is. She’s convincing enough being all doe-eyed and moralistic, but I get the feeling I should be getting more from her in a ‘what’s the true nature of humanity’ kind of way that I just don’t feel.

There are others in the cast that don’t really fare as well, largely as a factor of the tonal disconnect between the writer and director. Gary Dourdan seems to be unsure of how badass his character is, so there are times where you see him hold back or act mean only to close it back up again right away. Dan Hedaya’s Perez is a little scattered, too. It almost seems like the scenes he’s in were directed by Terry Gilliam rather than Jeunet. Raymond Cruz also engages in some rather unhealthy overacting, though it wouldn't be the first time.

Honestly, I’m not even going to attempt any kind of subextual considerations since I kind of feel like the film covers the same kind of ground as the first two, though perhaps with the tables being turned and now it’s the mother’s turn to kill the offspring… and even that was sort of hinted at, albeit clumsily, in the third one.

Alien: Resurrection isn’t the confused jumble that mars its immediate predecessor, but neither does it have the spiky genius of the first two. It’s visually very engaging, it’s got some fine set pieces, has much more of an idea about the central thrust behind it all, and Sigourney Weaver is given a great new depth to play with. However, it does feel like two visions clashing (Jeunet’s and Whedon’s) to the detriment of the overall project. As such, it can’t really be elevated much beyond okay.

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