And so we come to the fourth and (thus far) final film in the original Alien cycle, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection. It is in some ways ironic that this is (thus far) the last of the series (not including the Alien vs Predator spin-offs), as it was heralded on its arrival as the saviour of the franchise – a return to form after the negative response to Alien 3; to get it “back on track”, as Kim Newman described it in his Radio 4 review. My sense is that, on the contrary, time has proven A:R to be the weakest of the line.
This was the first Alien film to be exposed to internet fan speculation during its development, where fact and fiction often walked in hand. Rumors abounded of the direction that a new film might take (one story suggested that the events of Alien 3 would be written off as a hypersleep dream, paving the way for the return of Hicks, Bishop and Newt). How big a part the still-young world wide web played in the actual decision-making process is of course questionable, but it was clear there was still a great hunger for more sequels. This was despite the apparently final conclusion of Alien 3 that saw Ripley’s own story come to a memorable close, even if the film itself was not as beloved by audiences as its predecessors. It was this lingering dissatisfaction that seemed to drive demand for a new entry; questions still needed to be answered and more Xenomorph-style terror was desired, in the belief that Alien 3 was merely a blip.
At least, that’s what it felt like from a fan’s perspective. From the studio’s point of view, this was a series that was still solvent and capable of making more money, just as the Planet of the Apes series had done for the same studio two decades earlier. That might sound cynical, and it probably is, but there’s no doubt that if it wasn’t capable of making money, a new chapter would never have got made.
The studio does deserve some credit though. All three of the earlier films had been directed by up-and-coming directors of talent and vision, who all went on to equal or greater successes (Ridley Scott made Blade Runner and Gladiator; James Cameron made Terminator 2 and Titanic (yes, yes, I know); and David Fincher made Seven and Fight Club). Commendably undeterred after the mixed reception to Alien 3, Fox and the producers stuck to their guns and went after another visionary for the new episode. One early frontrunner included Danny Boyle, who had just come off Trainspotting. In the end they signed up Jeunet, despite his speaking little English and not having directed a feature-length film by himself before; his earlier films, Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995), were co-directed with Marc Caro. Jeunet of course went on afterwards to direct the wonderful Amelie (2001).
A:R bears all the hallmarks of having been conceived as the start of a new series of films, perhaps a new trilogy. Writer Joss Whedon certainly tries to give audiences what they wanted from a new film. Firstly Ripley herself is resurrected, using the then-trendy plot device of cloning. Sigourney Weaver was tempted back with a whopping paycheck. Clearly the producers felt that her involvement was crucial to get the series going again; earlier attempts to get an Aliens vs Predator film off the ground came unstuck, so it’s not surprising that Weaver was drafted in. It does smack a little of desperation though, almost like the producers felt it would be too risky trying to create a new character to carry the franchise.
To be fair, the idea is interesting and has potential: two centuries after the events of Alien 3, Ripley is cloned from stored blood samples by military scientists (will they never learn?) aboard a spaceship attempting to recreate the Alien (something to do with “urban pacification”); this results in her DNA becoming mixed with that of her nemesis, making her a rather different Ripley from the one we remember. The idea that her ultimate sacrifice was in vain, and worse, she is now bonded with the evil she has battled to eradicate, does pose some intriguing questions. Of course, the Aliens manage to escape their shackles and start to do what they do best: kill, kill and kill again.
Whedon’s script ticks other crowd-pleasing boxes too. Back come the colonial marines from Aliens; back too comes the spaceship setting from the original, complete with ship’s computer called Father (as opposed to Mother in the first film). The basic story is also familiar, as a dwindling group of survivors try to make their way out of the infested ship alive.
For the first time in the series, Weaver’s name was not alone headlining the poster: joining her was Winona Ryder. Ryder’s addition to the franchise is convincing evidence that the studio were looking for a new name to carry the series on if and when Weaver bailed out (though the revelation about her character that comes towards the end of the film is slightly bizarre if she was indeed to pick up the torch as the new star of the series). Unfortunately Ryder doesn’t fare well in the film, being altogether too weedy and annoying, and Weaver easily keeps the limelight to herself.
Ryder is not the film’s only fault however. The most serious flaw is a very uneven tone, one that lurches from thriller to farce and back again. It’s often a frustrating film to watch, as one feels that in the hands of a different director, A:R could have been a much stronger addition to the series. Instead, Jeunet adds moments of pure silliness when what we really want from an Alien film is horror and suspense. Scenes like Dan Hedaya’s death-from-behind, looking at his own brains; or the frankly bizarre ‘conception’ scene as Ripley is ‘smothered’ by the Alien Queen, resulting in the entirely risible Newborn. The style of humour here is totally out of place; it might work in Whedon’s Buffy tv series, but an Alien film needs to be grounded, believable, scary. Hedaya’s whole character seems to have walked in from a sitcom shooting next door.
These supposed innovations only serve to distract from a story that seems fine on paper, but actually turns out to be more like a greatest hits compilation of its predecessors. Whedon’s script included some colonial marines, but only one actually plays anything like a significant role. And for all the guns on display, desperately trying to evoke memories of Aliens, there’s precious little shooting.
Which would be fine, if there was horror and suspense to replace it. But sadly the film is deficient here too. Certainly there’s nothing to match the terror of the first or second films, or even Alien 3. There’s the odd moment of excitement, such as the underwater swim and the egg ‘farm’ where the survivors emerge, or the scene where the abducted passengers awake to find themselves each suspended above an Alien egg just about to hatch. But the trouble is it’s all been done before, and better. Jeunet may have an imaginative eye with the camera, but he doesn’t seem to know how to build a tangible atmosphere of tension or dread.
This does all rather sound like I hate the film, but actually I don’t. Even if Jeunet proved to be the wrong man for the job, he didn’t necessarily deliver a bad film – just an unsatisfactory Alien film. Certainly there are enough ideas of interest to make it worth a look. The tone may not be right, but the setting is good; in fact Whedon reworked this space smugglers scenario to much better effect with his short-lived but much-missed TV series, Firefly. The smuggler crew are an interesting bunch of characters, including the likes of Ron Perlman and Michael Wincott, and they help keep the film afloat. The build up to the escape of the Aliens is quite involving. The action may be a disappointment, but the sets and cinematography continue the series tradition of looking superb, both claustrophobic and moody – it certainly looks like an Alien film, and some pleasure is derived from that fact alone. Sadly the Aliens themselves are not as scary as they once were, the film over-relying on CGI and therefore automatically losing some of the horror the first two films had. There are some neat touches though, such as the way the Aliens escape from their cells by killing one of their own. The other standout moment is the scene where Ripley encounters the earlier attempts to clone her; failed experiments horrificly gone wrong, yet unaccountably kept alive.
But much of the good work is lost when the ending with the Newborn arrives. The best that can be said here is that if the studio wanted their director to inject something unique in to the film, then they certainly got it. Unfortunately, the creature is more often laughable than the tragic beast he seems intended to have been. And the whole idea of a human-Alien crossbreed as the product of what seems to be a sexual liaison is just too silly for words. I’m amazed the studio let it get by.
So in the end it’s a mixed bag really. Some good bits, some bad, some imaginative, some absurd. It was a noble attempt to do something different with the franchise, to make it feel familiar yet new, whilst getting the series back on the road to success. Unfortunately audiences didn’t get onboard with it and the moderate box-office returns it generated meant the series was put on hold indefinitely. Still, if this was the weakest of the series to date, then that shows the strength of the franchise’s quality overall.
An Alien 5 has been mooted now and again, with Cameron and Scott apparently interested in making a fifth and final chapter that visited the Alien homeworld. Sadly it was overruled by the studio in favour of the long-gestating Alien vs Predator… but that’s a review for another day.