Alien Week: Alien: Resurrection (1997)
Ah, the 90s, what a weird time for pop culture as whole, especially science-fiction. Alien 3 came and went in 1992 in a flash of critical disdain and audience anger. It would be quite some time until David Fincher’s disowned third entry in the franchise would be reappraised via a stunning Assembly Cut and recognized as one of the stronger films in the series. The same cannot be said for Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 1997 entry, Alien: Resurrection. Still hated by many of the series’ fans and with very few defenders, Resurrection is very much of its era - a high-concept, comic book inspired, self-contained journey back into the world of Ellen Ripley.
Ellen Ripley, as played by Sigourney Weaver, had been through hell and back over the course of three films. Each directed by a unique visionary and beholden to their own genres, it made sense that Fox would go with another burgeoning talent with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Known at the time for the dark comedy of Delicatessen and the dreamy sci-fi of The City of Lost Children, he was brought on board to breathe new life into a series that for all intents was dead in the ground. Even before Jeunet was hired however, a young Joss Whedon, straight off of Pixar’s Toy Story, was asked to write a screenplay that would believably bring back Ellen Ripley. This being the 90s, cloning was all the rage in the scientific community with the cloning of Dolly, a domestic sheep. Cloning has long been a mainstay in science fiction as well, being the impetus for Jurassic Park, the Alien knock-off Species, and the now classic Death And Return of Superman comic book arc that followed the death of the popular character. Whedon, along with Weaver, figured that cloning the original, now dead Ripley, would be the best course of action. The mileage of this idea will obviously vary with how on board you are with this concept.
Now 200 years after Ripley’s immolation on the prison colony Fiorina 161, she has been cloned by scientists in the employ of the United Systems Military (USM). Played by J.E. Freeman and Brad Dourif, doctors Wren and Gediman are astounded by their beautiful creation, and embody these roles with all the hamminess of classic monster movie mad scientists. Dourif is especially unhinged, bringing the same commitment and insanity present in the Child’s Play series, his Gediman is a total blast. He’s eventually placed in charge of training the newly born Xenomorphs, and seems to really enjoy his job, imitating and even trying to communicate with the creatures. That said, Dourif is just one of a bunch of veteran character actors that are given time to shine in this fourth entry in the series.
Other highlights of the cast include Dan Hedaya (Clueless) as General Perez, the commander of the USM Auriga. His character introduced audiences to one of the coolest sci-fi concepts - the BoozeCube™, a solid cube of freeze dried whiskey that turns into liquid with the introduction of a laser (Yes, this is all very silly, but still very cool). Hedaya is also the recipient of one of the crazier death scenes in the entire franchise; having just blown up an escape pod with a grenade, captured by one of the most inventive shots in the entire picture, an alien appears behind him, piercing his skull with its second mouth. General Perez stands there with a stupid look on his face as he feels for the wound, his hand returning into view with a chunk of his own brain on display.
Jeunet also brought along Dominique Pinon from his French films and with him one of the best side characters in a film chock full of them. Pinon plays Vriess, the mechanic for the pirate ship Betty, and is a source of heart for a film pretty much devoid of it when it comes to the purely human characters. His rapport with Call, played by Winona Ryder, is charming and much appreciated, especially when they're dealing with Ron Perlman’s vile Johner. Perlman is effective here as the muscle of the team that talks a big talk but still gets scared at the sight of a spider. This gang of pirates run into the recently cloned Ripley, and as is to be expected, all hell breaks loose after one of the craziest basketball games in cinema.
Speaking of Ripley, Weaver brings a completely different take on the character, which is apt since this isn't the same woman who sacrificed herself for the good of humanity back in Alien 3. Due to the cloning process, Ripley has been brought back with a hefty dose of Xenomorph DNA in her body chemistry; she has acidic blood, green fingernails that are as sharp as diamonds, and superhuman strength that allows her to stand toe to toe with anything the USM can throw at her. Resurrection is pretty smart in the way it attempts to bring back to Ripley/Newt relationship from Cameron's Aliens by bringing together Ripley and Ryder’s Call. They have a relationship that begins as caustic but after Ripley finds a lab that holds the seven previous failed clones, evolves into something much more as they team up to save both themselves and everyone else from the alien outbreak. That lab sequence is cathartic for both Ripley and the audience, upon finding these grotesque creatures, most in tubes of formaldehyde, one clone stands out - a horribly misshapen Sigourney Weaver begging to be killed. We as the audience can easily take this as Weaver doing away with not only her character’s mistaken offspring, but all of the Alien knock-offs that sprouted up since Ridely Scott’s 1979 picture was unleashed onto screens.
Whedon’s script not only crosses Ripley with alien DNA, but the newly hatched Alien Queen as well. As stated by Dourif’s Gediman, whereas Ripley has gained new abilities, the Queen gained a Xenomorph version of a woman's womb, and near the climax of the picture the Queen gives an especially gruesome birth. Out comes the beautiful butterfly known to fans as the Newborn, possibly the most divisive aspect of any film in the series. A true abomination, this nine foot tall creature is a melding of both human and alien aspects, it’s a beast that you’re either totally on board with, or can’t stand the sight of (much like viewers' reaction to of Alien: Resurrection). What follows is a race to save the planet earth as the USM Auriga is headed straight for it thanks to a security protocol. Here in the finale, we’re also introduced to the “Head Burster” as one of the survivors, impregnated with an alien, grabs the evil Dr. Wren just as he gives birth, causing the alien to burst not only through his chest, but Wren’s head as well. As the team of survivors board the Betty in an attempt to escape, the Newborn has joined them in the cargo bay, killing a marine in the process and trapping Call under some machinery. Ripley shows up to save the day, but also to kill her “child,” using her acidic blood to burn a hole in the airlock, sucking the Newborn out into space in gruesome fashion. The effects might not always hold up, especially when they switch from practical effects to CGI but they’re effective nonetheless and were impressive in their day.
Alien: Resurrection is the bastard child of the Alien franchise, and perhaps rightfully so - it retcons Ripley’s death through the use of cloning and tends to betray everything we’ve come to know and love about the character. Watched in the right context however, as a comic book “What If?” or “Elseworlds” tale, it works perfectly fine. Resurrection may be scattershot in its themes, and a little half-baked when it comes to explaining itself, but when you think about it, this could've been so much worse. This is a crazy, sci-fi action movie that fails more than it succeeds but it’s still a blast and half as long as you, much like General Perez, don’t mind losing a few brain cells.