Alien Resurrection (United States, 1997)
If nothing else, Alien Resurrection emphasizes something that became apparent five years ago with Alien 3 -- the series hasn't only run out of steam, it's getting thin on new ideas. No one seems willing to take any chances with the franchise, so we keep seeing the same basic story over and over again. There's very little in Alien Resurrection that wasn't done better in either of the first two films. And, on those occasions when the latest entry offers a fresh twist on old material, the script's underdevelopment fails to make it special.
Alien, Ridley Scott's brilliant 1979 science fiction/horror film, took the concept of the haunted house and transported it to outer space, where a creature of unimaginable, deadly fury roamed the darkened corridors of a spaceship, picking off crewmembers one-by-one. The movie was a tour de force, not only for its top-notch special effects work, but for the manner in which it developed and maintained tension. Six years later, James Cameron elevated the premise to a new level, creating a white-knuckle adventure that was every bit as thrilling as his Terminator. Ripley's character remained intact, there was an emotional subtext, and the creatures were even more frightening than ever. Cameron did the almost-unthinkable of improving upon the original.
Unfortunately, Alien 3 proved unable to continue the trend. With its weak, confused script and poorly-developed characters, it was the series' undoing. Alien 3 was an obvious rehash of the first film, and even the shocking climax, which featured Ripley's death, was unable to generate much energy or involvement. For years, it looked as if there would be no further Aliens. Then, in 1996, preproduction started on Alien Resurrection, and, sadly, although this picture is an improvement over its immediate predecessor, it doesn't come close to either Alien or Aliens.
The setup will be familiar to Alien fans -- a dark, lonely spaceship traveling through the depths of space. It's two-hundred years beyond Alien 3, yet little appears to have changed. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is long dead, but a group of determined scientists who want to study the alien that she carried within her at the time of her demise have been working to clone her. Their latest attempt, #8, is successful, and a new Ripley is born. However, this copy has several notable differences from the original. Because her DNA has become entwined with that of the alien, she shows amazing strength and dexterity. Her blood burns like acid. And, most importantly, Ripley's obsessive desire to commit genocide is gone. Now, she's out for herself.
A cargo ship named The Betty docks with the larger vessel carrying Ripley and her recently-extracted alien child. On board is a group of cryogenically-frozen human beings: fodder for the alien's spawn. The crew of The Betty, including the captain, Elgyn (Michael Wincott); the "muscle", Johner (Ron Perlman); the paraplegic chief mechanic, Vriess (Dominique Pinon); and a newcomer, Call (Winona Ryder), disembark from their ship to spend a few days in less-cramped quarters. Their vacation quickly turns into a nightmare, however, when several newly-grown aliens escape from their cells and begin to systematically exterminate all human life.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Alien Resurrection is the way in which Ripley's character has been re-invented. This gives actress Sigourney Weaver (who is quite good here) a chance to change her approach. It also has the unfortunate affect of reducing the previously- multidimensional heroine into a rather sinister, unsympathetic figure. Many of the subtle aspects of Ripley's personality have been wiped away. She's tough, amoral, and fond of uttering one- liners. Only on one occasion, when she meets her "siblings", do we get a sense of who this Ripley truly is.
That particular scene is Alien Resurrection's crowing achievement -- it's creepy, emotionally-wrenching, and horrifying. Unlike many of the stock chase sequences, it works. For a brief time, I was living the adventure rather than watching it. Alas, the quick return to the familiar Alien formula reminded me that originality is not high on the film's priority list. Soon, we're once again being subjected to variations of episodes from the original movie and its first sequel. And, as the film charges towards a silly conclusion featuring a nasty human who doesn't believe in the phrase "team spirit" and an alien that looks like a refugee from some second-rate monster movie, plot elements become increasingly difficult to swallow.
With one exception, the supporting characters are generic and lifeless. That exception is Ron Perlman's Johner, who is a delightfully crass and unflappable soldier of fortune. His attitude and demeanor reminded me a little of Bill Paxton's Hudson in Aliens. Perlman's contribution to Alien Resurrection is both memorable and enjoyable. The same cannot be said of Winona Ryder, who is stiff and unconvincing as Call. Ryder may be good in Generation X comedies, but she's a complete failure here. Other recognizable faces, like Michael Wincott and Dan Hedaya, are on screen for such a brief period that it's almost difficult to recall who they play.
One thing that Alien Resurrection has going for it is a strong visual sense. Jean-Paul Jeunet, who previously co-directed Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children (with Marc Caro), understands what it takes for a movie to look good, and he has applied that knowledge here (check out the great underwater sequence). Alien Resurrection has a bold, inventive style that occasionally compensates for story weaknesses. And, admittedly, there's a certain visceral appeal to the action sequences. The problem is that the tension they generate is obligatory, not unique. The aliens aren't scary any more. Their ability to shock and frighten has been taken away, and no amount of gore can compensate for that. So, if all you're looking for is a routine science fiction "bug hunt", Alien Resurrection will probably suffice. Just don't expect anything spectacular. If you consider Alien and Aliens to be the main course, then Alien Resurrection is leftovers.
Alien Resurrection (United States, 1997)
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, Dominique Pinon, Gary Dourdan, Michael Wincott, Kim Flowers, Dan Hedaya
Screenplay: Joss Whedon
Cinematography: Darius Khondji
Music: John Frizzell
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox