The impending release of Prometheus has given me an excuse to review a movie that would otherwise rankle me as a hole in myreview history, just sitting there, taunting me My apologies to all for reminding you that it exists.
Alien Resurrection - the credit block on the poster tells me no, but convention tells me yes - and we can agree, I suppose, that Alien Resurrection and Alien: Resurrection mean two extremely different things. Longtime readers are also doubtlessly aware of one of my absolute worst habits, which is opening a review with some pointless consideration of an issue that simply does not matter because it allows me to stave off for at least the space of a lede paragraph having to actually deal with a movie that I'd just as happily pretend doesn't exist at all. And thus they are perhaps not surprised that I have typed Alien Resurrection four times now without actually saying a single qualitative thing about Alien Resurrection. That makes five.
Getting the film to a place where it could successfully begin naturally took some doing, for as you perhaps recall, 1992's Alien³ ended with series lead Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) taking a particularly Christ imagery-ey swan dive into a lake of molten metal, taking with her the embryonic queen that was the last of the series' titular creatures believed to exist, anywhere in the universe. And that, of course, is where the resurrection comes in: 200 years after that event, the deep space science vessel USM Auriga is host to a team of biologists, under the direction of Dr. Jonathan Gediman (Brad Dourif) who have it in mind to tamper in God's domain a little bit, and clone Ripley using a sample of blood preserved from her disastrous stay on Fury 161 (which is called Fury 16 here, in one of the film's most legendary continuity screw-ups), believing - accurately - that the nature of the human-xenomorph bond is such that they'll be able to clone the queen inside her, as well. We don't know all of that right away; at first we're in the dark as Ripley herself (or, rather, the Ripley clone marked with the number 8 on her arm), though knowing damn good and well that we signed up for an Alien picture and not a sober-minded Gattaca-esque tale of the perils of genetic experimentation, we can guess.
For reasons that also don't know right away, a ship of space smugglers has just docked with the Auriga, and these will prove to be much more important than the scientists and space marines on the science vessel, most of whom die or flee on escape pods when the newborn aliens break free, because, I mean, of course they do. Though not for a while. First we have to see them born, and then there's some business with how they learn and grow, and we have to get to learn about the smugglers a bit - far and away the most important is the terrified-looking Call (Winona Ryder), the only member of the crew who knows, in broad terms, what's going on; indeed, the reason she joined in the first place was to have a shot at killing Ripley-8 before the queen could be harvested. Other people of note include Captain Frank Elgyn (Michael Wincott), Johner (Ron Perlman), Christie (Gary Dourdan), and paraplegic dwarf Vriess (Dominique Pinon), among the smugglers; from the Auriga, we have General Perez (Dan Hedaya) and Dr. Wren (J.E. Freeman), who takes over untrustworthy science duties from Gediman after he naturally is snatched up by the aliens for his hubris. Incidentally, I beg you not to think less of me for pointing out that Vriess is a paraplegic dwarf; it's going to be really important later.
The plot of Resurrection, when it is not deranged, is merely lackadaisical and underthought; the result of too many studio-mandated rewrites, maybe, leaving far too many questions left unanswered and character motivations stalled at the level of, "well, they need to do this, in order to make the plot happen". Remarkably, this nightmare of a scenario was shat out by none other than Joss Whedon, who has very sensibly tried to distance himself from the project, claiming in later years that it was seriously mis-cast and mis-directed from what he had in mind; what he has not claimed, however, is that his story or dialogue were significantly altered, and the best cast in the world would have a hard time making a compelling movie out of this; it is a desperate Hail Mary attempt at telling a story that should have been left for dead, and doing it in a consistently lazy manner.
On the other hand, the fella who mis-directed Whedon's script... first, it's absolutely the case that the direction is all wrong, both for the work Whedon put out there, and for a movie in the Alien franchise. But, then, the man who did this was Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who must have seemed like a really good choice on paper, based on the dark fantasies Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children; but as subsequent history teaches us, the "dark" part of those projects was more the responsibility of Jeunet's co-director, Marc Caro, while Jeunet himself handled the "fantasy", by and large; at least, this is what we can assume from the evidence of Amélie and Micmacs - and here is where I will return to that paraplegic dwarf, to point out that all of these movies but Amélie happen to co-star Pinon, and this starts to get us to the heart of what makes Jeunet's involvement in the movie so fascinating.
It's an old observation that the Alien films all function as showcases for very different directorial mindets: Ridley Scott's methodical, atmospheric Alien; James Cameron's feverishly propulsive Aliens; David Fincher's sullen, nihilistic-operatic Alien³. All three of which are very different approaches, and all three manage to work pretty well within the general frame of "monsters in space". Jeunet's style, already evident and far more obvious as time went on - partially because of this very feature - is perhaps best described as "carnivalesque": bright colors and crackling energy and weird characters that border on grotesque - dwarfism and paraplegia both being rather low on the scale of Jeunetian excess as revealed in his filmography. It is his fault, I imagine, that Ryder was so alarmingly mis-cast as Call: nothing about the script nor the Alien universe necessarily says that a frail gamine with giant eyes belongs in there, but she's made to look in this film kind of exactly like Audrey Tautou looked in Amélie, the director's very next feature; perhaps he simply had gamines on the brain.
The carnival approach is profoundly wrong for Resurrection, and in addition to giving it a massive split personality in tone (the script is for a funny horror film, the direction is for a production design fantasia, and the franchise would prefer neither of those approaches, thank you so much), there's something about his and cinematographer Darius Khondji's kaleidoscopic shooting style that emphasises exactly the wrong things about the set: coupled with the presence of stalwart but undiscerning B-movie icons like Perlman and Dourif, the whole picture thus ends up looking and seeming distractingly cheap and chintzy.
And yet, it's entirely because of Jeunet's utterly failed direction that Resurrection is, at the very least, more energetic than the anemic theatrical cut of Alien³ - he doesn't push it all the way to "so bad it's good" territory, but he at least gives a healthy dose of the bizarre that makes it memorable, in its fashion.
This leaves us with but one thing to talk about: Weaver. Here, as in Alien³, it's probably the case that we'd have gotten a better script if Ripley was just left alone; but then we'd be robbed of the pleasure of Weaver's presence, and that presence is the saving grace of this iteration of Resurrection. Strictly speaking, Ripley-8 is a wholly different being than the Ripley we've known, though she possesses conveniently good memory of Ripley's actual life; what she also possesses is the predatory instinct, and some of the physiological characteristics, of the aliens whose DNA mingled with hers, and bless her heart, Weaver foregrounds this element of the character and does not permit any sentimental desire to be seen as the hero to prevent her from being nasty and cryptic and inhuman. It's a striking act of character creation, far better than the movie deserves, and while it doesn't complete any character arcs, something that was done already with Ripley's self-sacrifice, it certainly does work as a fascinating stand-alone performance. And, for that matter, Weaver is the biggest contributing factor to the movie's best scene by a mile: when Ripley-8 finds what happened to Ripleys 1-7, in a scene of stomach-clenching body horror that is the only moment Jeunet's impulse towards the carnivalesque works in the film's favor. Weaver is magical in this scene, landing revulsion (at the bodies), fear (at her own mutations), and sorrow (for her tormented, dead sisters) all in one single explosion of pain. It's actually as good as anything in the three preceding movies, which is hardly enough to excuse everything else going wrong on every level here. But still, she keeps the film barely tolerable; and while there are many reasons that the next half-film in the franchise, Alien vs. Predator, is such a dire waste of all good things, I don't doubt that the absence of a Weaver-like source of emotional truth and strength is a major component. If she could salvage even an instant of Resurrection, I bet she could do just about anything.