Thursday, June 07, 2012

Zaki's Retro Review: Alien Resurrection (1997)

After Ellen Ripley's fiery immolation in the closing moments of Alien³, it sure looked like the Alien cycle had come to a logical conclusion. Was it the best conclusion, necessarily? No, but there sure didn't seem to be very many story avenues left open to explore either. Ripley was dead, so were all the aliens, and so was everyone else. Full stop. As far as Brandywine's Walter Hill & David Giler were concerned, that was that. Nonetheless, in Hollywood, when there's money involved, you can't keep a good franchise down. It's like chaos theory. Nature finds a way.

And so, box office bucks in mind, Fox readied yet another installment, but first they had to cross the moat of how to bring back a thoroughly dead lead character (of course, they wouldn't have had that problem if they hadn't insisted on Ripley being front-and-center in part three). Enter writer Joss Whedon (still a few years from directing the #3 flick of all time), best known at the time as script doctor for Speed and Waterworld, and for co-writing the first Toy Story in '95, who arrived at an agreeable solution in the absence of someone for Ripley to transfer her Katra into.

Thus, five years after Alien³ (the shortest gap between any of the series' entries), over Thanksgiving weekend '97, Alien Resurrection was unleashed on a wary public, carrying with it the explicit promise of a revived Ripley and the implicit promise to make amends for the disappointing previous entry. The biggest question surrounding this Alien was how precisely it would deliver the "resurrection" of the title, and that question is answered early on. The first scene, in fact.

On the deep space station Auriga two hundred years after the events on Fury 161, a preserved sample of Ripley's genetic material taken at the penal colony shortly after her EEV crashed is used to clone the late lieutenant, bringing both her and the cargo she was carrying in her chest cavity back to life. This isn't the same Ripley we knew, however. A quirk in the cloning process mixing her DNA with that of the xenomorph she carried has given her black fingernails, heightened strength, and heightened reflexes. Think of her as Super Ripley.

Meanwhile, the scientists on the Auriga (headed up by Brad Dourif, playing a variation on...Brad Dourif) have also set about using the cloned alien queen to carry out their usual batch of Experiments That Will End Badly, using the eggs to implant travelers and breed an army of warriors. Into this volatile mix comes the Betty, a space freighter full of mercenaries and vagabonds, including its captain Elgyn (Michael Wincott), first mate Christie (Gary Dourdan), volatile marksman Johner (Ron Perlman), wheelchair-bound Vriess (Dominique Pinon), and Annalee Call (Winona Ryder), a rookie with a secret. What a cast. What a waste.

Things take a precipitous turn for the worse on the Auriga when the aliens, caged behind unbreakable glass, gang up on one of their own, killing him so that the acidic blood will eat through the floor and secure their freedom. When the station's personnel (including Dan Hedaya in a brief role as its leader, General Perez) are quickly dispatched or evacuated, it's up to the crew of the Betty -- along with Ripley, who's new "alien-ness" makes her presence a persistent question mark -- to prevent the station from automatically returning back to Earth with its cargo of freshly-hatched xenomorphs and unleashing all manner of havoc there.

If I had trouble listing all the ways Aliens continues to be amazing a quarter-century after it hit theaters, I'm having the exact opposite issue here. Taken on its own, Alien Resurrection is a harmless distraction, I suppose, but the production is so listless and lackadaisical, and there are are so many little things that are just "off" that by the time it ends, the audience has succumbed to death by a thousand paper cuts. Whedon too was left disgruntled by his Resurrection experience, and has famously disavowed the finished product in previous interviews, saying of it once:
"...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."
And maybe that's true. Certainly there are enough differences from script to screen that there's a case to be made that it wasn't Whedon who dropped the ball but French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (given the reins, one presumes, because Alien³ did so well in France?). And while Jeunet's stylistic and tonal sensibilities (he chose to approach it as a very black, very bloody comedy) clearly aren't a good match with the material, I don't think Whedon should skate by blame-free for some of his story choices either.

First, there's the decision to set the story 200 years from the timeline of the preceding two movies. As an audience, we've barely had the opportunity to acclimate to the future world presented there (remember, Ripley herself was sixty years out of date in Aliens), before we're uprooted once again and kicked down the chronal corridor, where things are even more different than what we knew. Add to this a Ripley who's also even more different than we already knew, and you start wondering why we're even supposed to care what's going on.

I understand that reinventing Ripley as a butt-kicking human/alien hybrid lured back Weaver and gave her some new beats to play with a character that may have seemed tired for her, but I think my wife said it best while watching last night: "That's not the real Ripley." The character we see here, with her acidic blood, questionable loyalties, and weird psycho-sexual relationship with the monsters, is essentially a clean slate who never takes a place of prominence in the story, and is never given an opportunity to circle back around to becoming the Ripley we all knew and loved.

Speaking of changes in the status quo, the decision to set the story so far in the future also resulted in the elimination of the Weyland-Yutani corporation as the series' secondary antagonist. The triangle of antipathy between Ripley, the creatures, and the company was always an essential element to the series, and simply dropping it with a tossed-off line about Weyland-Yutani having shut down a few decades ago (the 2003 special edition adds a bit that says that it was bought by Wal-Mart) does a disservice to its integral role in the narrative.

Lastly, and perhaps most severely, there's the final act's antagonist. Just as the cloned Ripley took on some characteristics of the queen gestating inside her, so too did the alien take on some human characteristics, including a secondary reproductive cycle that sees it give birth to a live human/alien hybrid that promptly kills its mother. This "newborn" alien, the look and design of which Jeunet was given free rein over (including weird mixed genitalia that had to be scrubbed out by CGI), has none of the simple, terrifying elegance of the iconic Giger design. It's just ugly and unappealing -- a huge step down for a series that always excelled in the monster design department.

At film's end, with the newborn dispatched to the outer reaches in about as unappealing a manner as possible, Ripley and the remaining crew of the Betty reach Earth in what should be a moment of both awe and tragedy (Ripley has finally come home nearly three centuries after first setting out from the Nostromo), but it fails to elicit much of anything, either in the theatrical release, which strikes a more hopeful chord by closing on the crew's reactions without showing what they see, or the '03 special edition which gives a look at the wrecked ruins of Paris -- ruined in some unseen, unknown catastrophe (talking apes, perhaps?).

Even with solid supporting turns from the cast (though Ryder tends to sort of blend in with the background), a solid writer, and a solid director, it's as if everyone was operating with different marching orders, or had a different picture of the finished product in their mind's eye. Say what you will about Alien³ (and lord knows, I've already said plenty) but it's still David Fincher's vision. You can't really say the same about Jeunet and Resurrection. Without anything to pull the project in a single direction, it fumbles and flails, punctuated by some interesting visuals and action beats, but content to coast on the calm seas of been-there, done-that.

With its lack of drive and energy, it's no surprise audiences mostly greeted the fourth Alien with a shrug. By the end of its domestic run, Resurrection accrued only $45 million of its $70 mil budget -- the lowest of the series. And while international would again ensure no one lost their shirt, the bloom was off the rose. Though there was room for another sequel, none materialized. Resurrection was meant to rescue the franchise, but instead it just killed off whatever remaining interest audiences had after the lackluster third film.

Shortly thereafter, James Cameron expressed interest in crafting another entry, but he moved on when it became clear Fox had other ideas, and 2004 instead saw the release of Alien vs. Predator, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson and loosely inspired by the best-selling Dark Horse comics that squared off the studio's two popular space monsters in the late 1980s. The movie met with enough success (relative to lowered expectations) to warrant the 2007 follow-up Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. Lack of time and the narrow scope of this discussion prevent an in-depth analysis of these, but I will say the first one isn't terrible.

Even after all this time, however, Alien carries a considerable amount of audience goodwill, with much of that goodwill the direct result of the work Ridley Scott did in crafting that very first film lo those many moons ago. And in the thirty year interim since, even with hits such as Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, and many more marking him as one of the most important filmmakers of all time, Scott still had some stories left to tell in the cinematic universe he helped inaugurate. But his idea of taking the brand forward was to to go back. All the way back.

To Be Continued...

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