Thu
Jun 7 2012 1:00pm

I’m the Monster’s Mother: Alien Resurrection

Alien Resurrection

Alien Resurrection had a lot going for it—released five years after Alien3, which received mixed reviews and garnered a fair amount of criticism for the decision to kill off several major characters, the fourth installment was an opportunity to give the franchise a fresh start. With Sigourney Weaver uninterested in resuming her role as Ellen Ripley, Fox brought in an up-and-coming screenwriter named Joss Whedon to craft a story around a cloned version of Newt, the traumatized young colonist introduced in Aliens. By all accounts, Whedon’s initial treatment was fantastic, but of course, we’ll never know how it would’ve turned out. When we started planning these rewatches, I wanted to revisit Alien Resurrection—I had a vague memory of the film being weird and messy, but maybe I hadn’t given it enough credit at the time. Even if it was a failure, given all the talented people involved, it would have to be an interesting failure, right? Sometimes an ambitious fiasco can be more interesting than a conventionally successful blockbuster…theoretically, at least.

Then again, with some movies, all you can do is roll out the crime scene tape and try to figure out what went wrong…and in this case, I’d argue that all the talent involved might be the movie’s biggest problem, since nobody seems to be on the same page: conversations and relationships seem stilted and bizarre, there seem to be big, weighty themes floating about waiting to bonk us on the head, but they never connect or come into focus.

As it turns out, Ripley’s there, after all. Sigourney was lured back to the franchise, intrigued by the script’s new take on the character and the chance to play an updated version of Ripley as part human, part alien. She’s supported by a cast of stellar character actors, including Ron Perlman, Michael Wincott, Brad Dourif and Dan Hedaya, all of whom I’ve enjoyed in many, many other movies, and all of whom seem completely wasted here.

Weaver also shares the screen with a secondary female lead, Call, played by Winona Ryder. While this casting might make even less sense in retrospect than it did at the time, I will say that in 1997, Winona Ryder could still do no wrong, in my book—I’d grown up watching her in Beetlejuice, Heathers, Edward Scissorhands—Winona was still a quirky indie superstar at this point in her career, and if she wanted to break into action movies, what better choice than in an already successful franchise with an actress that she idolized?

Alien Resurrection

Similarly, the director at the helm seems like an unusual choice, but at the time, I was unbelievably excited about the prospect of Jean-Pierre Jeunet making strange with action movie conventions (and a blockbuster budget). The sheer weirdness of Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995) had played a huge part in my burgeoning interest in indie film, as a kid—his movies were so dark and bizarrely beautiful, and so French. Sigourney Weaver used her clout to bring Jeunet on as a director, although just about every hot young director in Hollywood was considered for the job, including Danny Boyle, Bryan Singer, Paul W.S. Anderson, and Peter Jackson—and in spite of the fact that Jeunet didn’t speak English; he directed the movie through an on-set translator. (This last fact doesn’t seem surprising at all, if you’ve seen the film).

While these basic ingredients—screenwriter, script, stars, supporting cast, director—are all interesting and potentially positive on their own, however, in combination, they somehow curdle like heavy cream mixed with battery acid. The movie begins with the opening credits as the camera pans over a confusing mass of embryonic tissue and malformed features, which are revealed later to belong to the failed attempts to clone Ellen Ripley—genetic mutations kept in jars aboard the USM Auriga, 200 years after Ripley’s death.

Having successfully cloned Ripley (after seven previous attempts), military scientists extract the embryo of an Alien queen from her body—their aim is to raise the queen and use its eggs to breed more Aliens for some nefarious military purpose, and Ripley is left alive for further study, mostly as an afterthought. As Dan Hedaya’s character, the short-lived General Perez, blusters, “As far as I’m concerned, Number 8 is a meat by-product!”

Following surgery, Ripley/Clone #8 spends three days wrapped in some kind of weird futuristic cheesecloth cocoon, or possibly just performing terrible Matthew Barney-inspired performance art, eventually squirming her way free. If you’re not comfortable being repeatedly hit over the head with heavy-handed birth imagery, this scene should serve as a warning to run for the hills, because it only gets more ridiculous from here.The newly reborn Ripley has a few surprises up her sleeveless combat vest: she somehow retains the memories of the original Ellen Ripley, AND she’s swapped some DNA with the Alien queen that had been living inside of her, so now she’s got acid blood and is even more of a badass. If you want coherent scientific explanations for any of this, by the way, there are plenty of theories online, but the actual science in the movie is basically limited to Brad Dourif muttering creepily to himself and occasionally screaming stuff like, “You are a beautiful, beautiful butterfly!” to the Alien while covered in slime. It…doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s fun to watch Weaver channeling the Alien—her dead-eyed stare and predatory, swaying movements.

Alien Resurrection

Meanwhile, the Betty, a ship carrying mercenaries and human cargo (to serve as hosts for the alien facehuggers), docks with the Auriga. The crew, including the menacing Johner (Perlman) and Call (Ryder) show up, meet Ripley and play a little space-basketball just in time for everything to go to hell thanks to the Aliens onboard escaping (surprise!) and going on a trademark Alien rampage.

The rest of the movie involves the crew of the Betty, a military scientist named Wren, one of the Alien hosts, and a single surviving soldier, following Ripley through the Alien-infested ship and getting picked off, one by one. Along the way, Ripley finds the seven previous monstrous versions of herself, cloned from the same DNA—it’s actually an affecting and horrifying scene, as the most human (but still incredibly grotesque) Ripley/Alien hybrid begs for death. Ripley obliges, tearfully toting a flamethrower, then continues on.

There’s an underwater Alien chase scene—for all those people who liked the previous Alien movies, but wished they could be more like The Poseidon Adventure, I guess? Oh, and it turns out that Wynona is a robot (cue Ripley: “I should have known. No human being is that humane.”). At the beginning of the third act, the Alien queen gives birth to a human/Alien hybrid—thanks to that super-scientifically feasible DNA swap with Ripley, somehow the queen ended up with a womb, and no longer needs eggs and human hosts to reproduce. Alien-in-labor isn’t exactly my favorite scene—so much slime, and goo, and like, gooey dangling slime-sacks—but if you’ve ever wondered what What To Expect When You’re Expecting would have been like as a David Cronenberg movie, well: you’re in luck.

Alien ResurrectionUnfortunately for the queen, the newborn bites her head off and bonds with Ripley, instead, following her back to the Betty as the survivors blast off toward Earth. Which brings us to the most disturbing scene in the movie, in which Ripley lures the hulking newborn hybrid away from Call and cuddles with it, while surreptitiously using her acid-blood to burn a hole through a nearby viewpane. As Call and Ripley cling to safety, the newborn is thrown against the hole, and the vacuum created rips its flesh apart, sucking it out into space, as Ripley watches and sobs.

It’s one of those scenes that should be better than it is. There are so many thematic and visual references to motherhood, birth, identity, what it means to be human in the movie: is Ripley a “she” or an “it”? A person, a mere clone, a monster? What about Call, the most “humane” character, capable of free will, but not actually human? What about the earlier Ripley clones, and the newborn, which clearly identified with its human “mother”? Instead of engaging with any of these questions, the climax of the movie is simply brutal, and its attempted emotional payoff seems unearned—Ripley seems to feel some sort of bond with the creature being ripped apart before her eyes, but in the end, all the violence and drama rings hollow, since any semblance of meaning remains trapped in dense, heavy-handed metaphors and underdeveloped plot points.

Maybe this is just what happens when basic elements just don’t mix well: as much as you might love sushi and foie gras and crème brulee, cram them all together in a blender and you end up with something that looks like the crud they rinse out from under the Tilt-a-Whirl every night. Alien Resurrection is that nightmarish chunky carnival slurry: all the script revisions, the direction changes, the rejected endings, the competing (or at least never fully incorporated) visions of screenwriter, director, star, and studio leads the whole production to seem as unfinished, lumpy, and bizarre as Ripley Clones 1 through 7.

Alien Resurrection

A large part of the blame rests on Jeunet, in my opinion—he envisioned the movie as a dark comedy, but what worked well in his earlier films fails rather hideously here. This includes his reliance on impish Frenchman Dominique Pinon, who has appeared in all of Jeunet’s films and can be effective and charming in the right roles—but in this particular film, his barely comprehensible French accent and ill-conceived performance as the foul-mouthed comic relief/loveable mascot of the Betty is hard to watch without hurling things at the screen. It is maddening.

And then there’s the dialogue: Whedon dialogue is its own animal—anyone familiar with the character of Dawn Summers in the Buffy series knows how painful a Whedon-penned sentence can sound in the mouth of a bad/miscast actor. It’s not always matter of how talented the actor is, though—nobody wants to see Lawrence Olivier deliver Billy Wilder dialogue; Orson Welles might not fit with Woody Allen. And there’s the matter of direction—many writer-directors from Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers to Allen, Wilder, Welles, and Whedon work best when they can direct their own scripts, or at least pair off like-minded creative partners. As Whedon himself has noted, in the case of Alien Resurrection: “It wasn’t a question of doing everything differently, although they changed the ending; it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines...mostly...but they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do.”

Alien Resurrection

Then again, we can’t feel too badly for Joss Whedon, or anyone else involved: he not only directed the biggest movie of this summer so far, but he went on to make Firefly (a series which clearly shares some of its DNA with the Betty and its ragtag crew, although I’ve always found it funny that it includes not a single alien…). Jean-Pierre Jeunet followed up Alien Resurrection with Amelie (a critical and box office success, although I personally cannot stand it) and the much more interesting A Very Long Engagement. Sigourney Weaver got paid 11 million dollars to star in Alien Resurrection, and continues to be Sigourney F-ing Weaver (plus, the last thing I saw her in was the cameo in The Cabin in the Woods, so chalk up another one for the Whedonverse). Ron Perlman persists in his essential awesomeness, and Winona…well, she was Spock’s mom, and she was crazy in Black Swan, so clearly she still loves the genre flicks (and is probably not really a robot). And of course, the Alien went on to collaborate with The Predator, so more on that later as the Countdown to Prometheus rolls on…


Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com, and would love to play basketball with Sigourney Weaver and Ron Perlman some day. If you can make that happen, let her know via Twitter.

20 comments
Keith DeCandido
1. krad
"Shares DNA"? The Betty and Serenity are practically the same damn ship with the same damn crew. Roguish white captain, tough African-American first mate, the pilot married to another member of the crew, and a thug who gets most of the best lines. The variations are minor at best. *laughs*

I always thought of Firefly as Whedon's opportunity to do the Betty right............

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Fade Manley
2. fadeaccompli
I went to see this movie in the theater twice. Voluntarily! With my own money!

It's a horrible, horrible mess, and the ending was gross and baffling and flat all at once, and yet I retain a massive soft spot for the movie. Mostly because of Ripley-Call dynamic, in fact: I loved all their interactions, and desperately wanted a sequel in which the two of them could go on to have grand, grim, gritty adventures on Earth. With or without aliens along.
wiredog
3. wiredog
Like fadeaccompli I liked the movie for the Ripley/Call interactions. Otherwise, a mess, though I can see the comedy bits. Liked them, mostly. Well, some of them. I thought Pinon's character worked fairly well.

But I didn't buy the DVD, and haven't watched it since it was in the theater.
Bridget McGovern
4. BMcGovern
@krad--just to clarify, I definitely see Firefly as a direct outgrowth of Whedon's work on Alien Resurrection, and clearly the crew of the Betty contains the basic seeds for characters on the series. But I can't overstate how much more likeable, interesting, and better developed the Firefly crew is when compared to the original characters--I think most Whedon fans agree that Firefly was Whedon's opportunity to do right by his original ideas, and that a lot of the broad strokes are the same, but the difference in execution is anything but minor :)
wiredog
5. Hannerlock
My main hangup with the movie isn't the shares DNA bit--though that does needle--but that they show this massive, kilometer+ ship plowing into the earth at high velocity. Sure, kills the aliens dead, but it would also cause an extinction-level event--the earth the Betty descends to is not only terrible from human misuse/war, but now may very well be uninhabitiable.
alastair chadwin
6. a-j
So glad to see I'm not alone in not liking Amelie.
Fredrik Coulter
7. fcoulter
Strangely enough, I liked this one. Far more than the third movie, but not as much as numbers 1 & 2.

@Hannerlock. I'm having issues with the ship being kilometer+ in size. The total crew size was under a hundred. Lots of long, empty corridors. What was the total mass of the ship, anyway (which is what would determine an extinction level event)?
wiredog
8. sofrina
let's call it what it was: a mistake. this movie should not have been made. the ridiculous begins with the extract-an-alien's-dna-from-ripley's-dna premise. to even attempt to believe that this could work, they would have to have pulled the dna from the lead vat on fury 161. in which case, why not simply isolate the alien's dna and leave ripley out of it?

there's so much wrong with this movie i could sing the litany for a decade. dan hedaya is in it for starters. nick tortelli? when it came out the whole thing just felt like a massive affront. everything was so derivative. they were sort of making fun of the other movies with the security breach and soldiers scrambling for escape pods. why would you make fun of the alien movies? the success is in their very grimness (and ripley's cold-eyed ability to plan and execute in a crisis). and then there's the ridiculous tone and all that thundering score. the dead opposite of the first three in which most of the background noise is the sound of boots on metal, machinery humming, computer beeps, steam hissing. sounds that highlight the smallness of these people against the vastness of space. ...it's too exasperating, even after all these years. the promo for this one went something like, "to fight an enemy that lives to kill, you need a weapon that never dies." but ripley did die and she got to go on her own terms. this cunning, clawed thing is not ripley.

this movie does not exist.
wiredog
9. Hammerlock
The ship was definitely over a kilometer. The Betty was likely at least 30 meters long (if not a bit larger), and was dwarfed by the USM Auriga. That the Auriga has lots of empty space mitigates it somewhat, but it's still a gigantic hunk of dense metal traveling at high speeds.
wiredog
10. tigeraid
As I mentioned, I definitely preferred Alien 3 over this. At least Alien 3 had some sort of thematic consistency. This was just a mess. But it also has Ron Pearlman and Weaver being badasses, so it's still fun to watch when it comes on Showcase or AMC once a month.

I skip the final scene though... the alien's scream is very disturbing. :/
Theresa DeLucci
11. theresa_delucci
I always loved that scene of Michael Wincott (wow, he was the shit in the mid-90s) giving his wife a foot massage. I don't know why. It just seemed like a sweet, normal-person moment amid all of that Francophile weirdness. Ron Perlman was definitely the highlight. And I loved that underwater scene.

The way the hybrid's little stubbly skeleton nose twitched made me LOL in the theaters. I don't know why. It was just so ridiculous.

Definitely my least favorite of the bunch. I went into it with the same expectations as you, Bridget. I loved Jeunet before this.
wiredog
12. Thaxll
I agree. This movie had a lot of potential, a great cast, awesome ideas, but despite some good acting and some great scenes it all resulted in an underdeveloped, incoherent mess.

I really liked Winona Rider's character and her interaction with Ripley though.
wiredog
13. General Vagueness
fcoulter: It's not the mass of the ship, especially since it came in relatively slowly-- a snail's pace compared to the average meteor, from what I can tell-- it's the fusion reactor destabilizing and the reaction getting loose and going out of control. (A loose, out-of-control fusion reaction is the active ingredient of the most destructive weaponry presently known, the thermonuclear bomb.)
Michael Ellis
14. mkellis
I rewatched this recently, and if anything it's only got worse with age. It has an 'idiot ball' plot, characters whose IQ suddenly drops by fifty points for no good reason, nonsensical science, and the final monster is an utter failure.

As other commenters have noted, there are a couple of nice notes, particularly the Ripley-Call interaction, but when the supposedly whip-smart captain of a ship dies because he follows a trail of guns to an obvious trap, it's clear that everyone in the movie is too stupid to live, and things will only get worse from here.

One thing it did have in common thematically with 'Aliens' was a combination of overweening military arrogance, stupidity, and incompetence. As a post-Vietnam reaction in 'Aliens', this made a certain amount of sense, even if the small unit tactics involved were bad enough to make me grind my teeth, but here, it's even worse. I don't have to like what a military is doing to expect a certain amount of competence in what they do.
wiredog
15. General Vagueness
The whole thing about memory is interesting. Did you ever notice the xenomorphs seem different in each movie? More human-like one time, more animal-like another time? I don't know when this was established*, it could be a later justification, but apparently their form is partly determined by their host, because some of their genetic material is incorporated. Apparently they also pass on some knowledge this way, and the scientists say as much in the movie. It's a small step from there to think it works the other way around too, that xenomorph genetic material is in the host, other than in the obvious place. From least plausible to most: Ripley could have easily cut herself at some point on Fiori 161, I'd assume the doctor did a check-up when she was found, which probably included drawing blood, and I remember her being connected to an IV; so it's no stretch for them to have a sample of her blood. As for genetic memory, it's ridiculous for life on Earth, but it might not be for alien life.
* I don't mind so much if it's a later addition because a) it explains the differences between the xenomorphs, b) it partially explains their intelligence, and c) it explains this, possibly very well-- storing memories would probably take a very large genome, meaning they'd have to sequence it, or would at least really want to, to successfully make a clone. It also fits the name, but I don't know when that was established either.
Tim May
16. ngogam
General Vagueness @13: A fusion reaction can't get out of control that way - it requires a constant input of power from the outside to heat and compress the plasma, or the reaction will stop. If the magnetic containment* fails, the plasma will expand and become contaminated by contact with the chamber wall, both of which will cause the reaction to stop. A hydrogen bomb uses a fission bomb to compress the fuel for the fusion reaction - there's really no way for a reactor to suddenly supply that level of energy accidentally.

* I don't actually remember what the reactor in Alien Resurrection looked like, if it was shown at all - I'm assuming it was a tokamak. But if it were an inertial confinement design, instead of magnetic, then anything that damaged the laser array or the alignment of the fuel pellets or the supply of new pellets would again stop the reaction from happening.
wiredog
17. beerofthedark
I've only watched this once, in the theatre, and though I enjoyed it somewhat I thought the whole thing was a mess of good ideas badly jammed together. Really liked the underwater aliens though so I must be more of a Poseidon Adventure fan than I thought...
I loved (still do) the Alien universe as a kid and had the Alien comics collected trade papaerbacks. The second of which provides a massive chunk of the eventual plot of A:R. I don't know whether Joss Whedon had read them, but I'd love to know how much influence they had on what eventually came to screen. Anyone know? Anyone even remember the comics?
wiredog
18. Spuddylou
Loved Perlman and Weaver. The weak spot for me was Winona Ryder. Dan Hedeya in his death scene was an homage to the old horror /sci fi comics of the 50's. I 'scan remember seeing that exact composition and lighting in reading them. I love this movie, and all because of Sigourney's very nuts character.
wiredog
19. MortScoot
"Maybe this is just what happens when basic elements just don’t mix well: as much as you might love sushi and foie gras and crème brulee, cram them all together in a blender and you end up with something that looks like the crud they rinse out from under the Tilt-a-Whirl every night. Alien Resurrection is that nightmarish chunky carnival slurry: all the script revisions, the direction changes, the rejected endings, the competing (or at least never fully incorporated) visions of screenwriter, director, star, and studio leads the whole production to seem as unfinished, lumpy, and bizarre as Ripley Clones 1 through 7."

Sorry for the long copy and paste. I just wanted to say that is a brilliant description and a lovely string of words. Bravo.
wiredog
20. MollyGee
I loved this movie. I love all the Alien movies. I even love the third one. I'm just a fan of the story. I love the Resurrection movie because for me it gives a lot more story... I know most of you disagree with me. I thought this was a great review, though! I read your Alien3 review as well. I just love these films. However Alien Vs. Predator I don't count as among this franchise... Anyway, loved this movie, the third, the second and first, too! So much! I just love the idea and I love Sigourney and I grew up watching these films....

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