As already discussed in the review of Alien 3 (1992), the troubled production helmed by David Fincher was a bit of a mess thanks to Fox’s insistence on shooting without a completed script. Despite being a shaggy film in which the thematic scenes involving the Christ-esque Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) grants salvation to the planet’s damned prisoners are far more engrossing than the stereotypical cat-and-mouse alien scenes, Fincher’s tone and general direction were admirable because of the risks they took: it’s a nihilistic film, through and through, ending with the suicide of the queen alien impregnated Ripley. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the French director of such acclaimed films as City of Lost Children (1995) and Delicatessen (1991), who would later direct Amelie and Micmacs, two amazing pieces of cinema), was brought in to pick up the pieces on the Joss Whedon (yes, the Joss Whedon of Firefly and Buffy fame) scripted Alien Resurrection (1997). Yet, despite Whedon’s gift for sci-fi and Jeunet’s gift for Gilliam-esque visuals, Resurrection is a complete mess, damned by the very thing that made the watchable sequences of Alien 3 tolerable: tone.
Resurrection occurs 200 years after the events of Alien 3. Ripley has been cloned by military scientists (J.E. Freeman, Brad Dourif) working on a spaceship overseen by a sinister Captain (Dan Hedaya). The team uses the cloned Ripley in order to extract the queen alien from her chest, essentially taking the place of the evil corporation Weyland-Yutani that served as one of the protagonists of the first three films. Instead of killing the cloned Ripley, they decide to keep her alive for study. You see, the clone’s DNA has been influenced by the presence of the alien and Ripley now carries supernatural features like acidic blood, healing capabilities, and what seems to be an empathetic/psychic link with the creatures.
The shit hits the fan when a group of mercenaries (including Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, Michael Wincott, and Jeunet regular Dominque Pinon) arrive with some cargo in tow: kidnapped, sleeping, cryotube people that are going to be used by the scientists for breeding (yawn). The aliens, which can evolve and think, perhaps due to Ripley’s DNA going the other way, escape through the self-sacrifice of one of their own, using the acidic blood to slip into the air ducts of the ship. A lot of soldiers get killed during an evacuation and Ripley joins up the with mercenaries on yet another variation on a haunted house story.
The problem with Resurrection is that Jeunet tries to add his signature brand of dark comedy to the proceedings. The result is a horror film that holds you at arm’s length through the comedy. It reminds me a lot of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) in that regard. There are one or two enjoyable sequences, like the underwater chase, but overall, it’s just tonally odd. It isn’t pleasurable as either a comedy or as a horror film. Maybe Peter Jackson could have handled the combination, but Jeunet’s mixture is off and by the time we get to the weird alien/human hybrid that recognizes Ripley as its mother, the xenomorph has been jumped.
That said, there are two things I admire about Alien Resurrection. The first is the concept of doing something different with the franchise, even if it fails in the execution. Too often, a franchise is considered a holy property by the studio system and increasingly boring re-threads are produced without any actual risk taken. By infusing other genres onto the horror genre (the war film in Aliens, nihilistic chamber drama in Alien 3), the world feels fresh and we’re always presented with a different gateway into the world of Ripley. Yet, comedy and horror are a tough combination to pull off, as they are fundamentally opposed from a generic standpoint. How can you get an audience to be scared when they’re laughing? The only horror films that really pull it off are Scream (1996), Shaun of the Dead (2004), and some of the Jackson films. Alien Resurrection is ultimately a failure, but at least it tried to be something different rather than taking trying to mimic the others.
The second characteristic I admire about Resurrection is, like its predecessors, it attempts to give Ripley a different arc. The first film puts her in the background as the scared member of the team, the second turns her into a protective mother, while the third, as already noted, turns her into a savior resigned to her fate. Alien Resurrection, through the device of the alien hybrid/DNA clone storyline, gives us a new take on Ripley: we’re not sure where her loyalties lie, she is like a chameleon. Weaver has a tough road to follow because of this decision and tries to do the best she can with the material but there is just something a little hammy about it. Perhaps Jeunet, who did not know how to speak English when directing his largely American cast and crew, just was more concerned with the visuals than the performances. This is a forgettable film, both in terms of the Alien franchise and the careers of all those involved.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.