I was sick over the weekend, so in recovery I sat and watched both Alien (1979) and Alien Resurrection (1997). Almost twenty years passed between the first and final installments in Ellen Ripley’s encounters with the xenomorphs, and in film chronology, approximately 257 years span the entire quadrilogy. That’s an epic sense of scope, especially considering the lead character is chased, hunted, impregnated, killed, cloned, and eventually returns to Earth a stranger in a strange land. But with Resurrection, there’s a significant amount of importance that the film holds, something that I think should be recognized by both fans of the franchise and of filmmaking as a whole. I’m going to attempt to dissect it, so this might be a long post, but it essentially boils down to what I call the three “J”s: writer Joss Whedeon, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and composer John Frizzel. Each of these men are fantastically talented in their own rights, and any one of them could produce quality product. But somehow, when all three were placed on the same project, something inexplicably wrong happened.
Let’s begin with Joss Whedon. He was brought on after execs at 20th Century Fox were impressed with his talents as a screenwriter. Initially, his task was to craft an Alien film around the clone of Newt from Aliens, but then the studio changed their minds and wanted to bring back Ripley. So then Whedon went about his task, turning in multiple drafts, and finally the shooting draft came about. What’s interesting to note here is that the crew of the Betty, the cargo ship that docks with the Auriga science vessel, are almost prototypical of the later Serenity jockeys (although, as far as captains go, Elgyn is no Mal). Elgyn has a sarcastic, almost Southerly drawl and even says “I reckon” in a brief exchange. The mercenaries are all adept at being prepared, storing weapons away in plain sight (Christie has retractable pistols strapped to his wrists, Johner has a shotgun in his thermos, Vriess reassembles his shotgun from pieces strapped all over his wheelchair), and are resourceful enough to get through various obstacles on the Auriga. However, each of them have their moments that get them killed, and while Elgyn’s is clearly idiotic (he has two machine guns strapped to his chest, and yet goes after two more down an “empty” hallway—is he really that greedy for weaponry?), Hillard’s is a bit more understandable, as she freaks out while they swim underwater through the kitchen area of the ship and is overtaken by an Alien. Meanwhile, the final crewmember to die, Christie, does so by sacrificing himself so Vriess can get away from the Aliens; his death is far more noble and understandable than the others. I still can’t help but cringe at the foolish nature of Elgyn’s death each time I think about; there’s just no way to justify a man being that greedy for a another gun that he knowingly, slowly walks down an abandoned hallway while trying to escape from a starship on red alert. It’s a poorly written scene, strike one for Whedon thus far.
But what Whedon has done rather well so far has been with Ripley. “Number 8” in a series of clones, she is the most human, but the DNA samples were so entwined with Alien genomes that the result is something more than human. Ripley is part Alien, shares empathy with the creatures, has acidic blood, and has heightened senses and strength. She’s been turned into a survivor, like the creatures she’s long been trying to outrun, and in that way she’s torn between being human and warning everyone, and enjoying the way the action unfolds. The way she smirks at some of the characters, like they’re dumb pieces of meat that will get what’s coming to them, is chilling, but then there’s other times where her humanity shines through, particularly in a sequence where Ripley discovers the other 7 clones and their grotesque features. Ripley is at once horrified by their appearance, their treatment, and how close they are in relation to her. But there seems to be no real balance in Ripley’s shifts from her more humane side to her Alien side; at times she’s cold, enjoying the bestial side, and other she’s quick and warm, witty and maternal. Whether that’s a directing aspect or a writing aspect is best left to speculation. But what it does is create an interesting, if disjointed, portrait of Ellen Ripley: after fearing and hating these creatures for so long, now she’s one of them, and it fights with her inherent humanity. What Whedon does right by this character are some of her lines: for instance, when confronted by Johner, who says, “I thought you were dead!” she quickly replies, “Yeah, I get that a lot.”
Ripley is joined by Call, played by Winona Ryder, as the staple character of the franchise. Call is a synthetic, as we learn in a particularly dramatic moment after she’s shot, joining Ash from the first film and Bishop from Aliens and Alien 3. Call is a mixed bag: she learned of the government’s operation to create Aliens from a black ops database download, and hitched a ride on the Betty to kill the Ripley clone before they retrieved the Queen infant. At the same time, part of her programming is to protect human life, meaning that she argues for them to take along Purvis, an innocent bystander who has a baby Alien still growing within him. It’s interesting to note that she makes the claim against Ripley, “We can’t trust her! She’s not human!” only to later be revealed as not human herself. In fact, she’s disgusted by her own robotic nature. This creates a rather interesting relationship between her and Ripley, especially considering Ripley’s history with synthetics. I felt that Whedon wrote a nice dynamic between Call and Ripley, emphasized by how Ripley keeps caressing Call’s face early on; it’s almost as if Ripley is trying to figure out what makes Call different from that scene going forward.
Problems with the overall story: it’s a bit far-fetched that the entire ship could evacuate and jettison before the Betty crew even have a chance to leave the mess hall. There’s also some strange behavior between Ripley and the Aliens: they inconsistently either attack her or try to carry her away to the Queen. A facehugger latches on to Ripley, after which Ripley narrowly avoids an Alien’s reach underwater. Later on they are able to easily discern her Alien nature, but why not before? And then there’s Vriess: the guy is on a wheelchair, yes, but even when the red alert to evacuate sounds, the guy is still trolling around below decks looking for spare parts. Like with Elgyn’s greed for guns, Vriess still chilling in the parts lockers while the ship is being evacuated is a stretch, although it does set up an interesting reunion later.
High notes? Quite a bit, actually: the dialogue is sharp, but delivered strangely, oddly and unevenly spoken. That’s not a writing problem though, as it’s written well, and with sharp wit (Elgyn during docking procedure: “The authorization code is E-A, T-M, E.”). The overall pacing is good, despite the break in action as Ripley is carried away to the Queen’s birthing chamber, which was a really cool idea. Most of the interesting twists in the whole cloning debacle are actually kind of cool: Ripley with Alien prowess and blood, the Queen Alien with a human birthing system, the Newborn which is neither human nor Alien, but something strangely new. Most importantly, the Newborn rejects the Queen immediately for Ripley, killing the Queen in a single blow. Damn. Something I still have a hang-up on is the death of General Perez: after tossing a grenade into an escape pod to mercy kill a group of soldiers being slaughtered by an Alien, Perez pauses dramatically, has the back of his skull bit open, and he reaches back and pulls out a piece of his brain matter before the scene ends. That elicited a large WTF? from me, another Elgyn in the hallway moment, but at the same time, it looks cool on paper. So while it might be a poorly written scene, it also might not be.
Overall, on the first of the three J’s: the script is mostly tight, well-written sci-fi that takes chances, but skimps on the horror established by the first three films. Is is a bad script? Based solely on the dialogue, the pacing, and overall set pieces, no, it’s not at all. There are a few caveats to the story, but overall it’s well done.
Something interesting to note are Whedon’s choices in the setup: this being the capstone to the Alien franchise, they are important ones. Whedon very knowingly titles the Auriga's computer system “Father,” where the computer system on the Nostromo in the first film was called “Mother.” Ripley’s team worked for “the company,” or Weyland-Yutani in the first film, but here in Resurrection, W-Y doesn’t exist anymore; this is a government ship run by government people in every regard. And Alien began with the crew of the Nostromo on their way back to Earth; Alien Resurrection very wisely ends with Ripley finally making it back to Earth, 257 years later. “I’m a stranger here myself,” she says to Call, and it’s an apt statement and a powerful one given the history of the franchise and the character.
Next post: director Jean-Pierre Jeunet.