Jean-Pierre Jeunet is no hack director. Let’s begin with that important bit of information.
Let’s note, however, that before Jeunet was approached, directors Danny Boyle, Peter Jackson, and Bryan Singer were all approached to make Alien Resurrection. All of them passed, and Jeunet almost did as well, thinking that the Alien films were done, and that another sequel would be a bad idea. However, he ultimately accepted the job and was given creative control, which considering the debacle of studio interference over David Fincher during the filming of Alien 3, is something of a miracle for Jeunet.
We should realize that Jeunet is a visualist. Having directed The City of Lost Children and Delicatessen at the time of filming Resurrection, Jeunet would go on to direct Amelie, A Very Long Engagement, and Micmacs, all of which are noted for their stylistic visuals and fantastical stories. On the surface level, Jeunet should have been a perfect candidate to bring a dark, visual storytelling aspect to Alien Resurrection. The sets drip with atmosphere, the detail in the Aliens and the attention to the gore and the textures of the ship and it’s crew are impeccable. There’s some interesting camera work going on as well: twisting zoom-ins, closeups at odd angles, lingering shots add a sense of unease, even with the human characters. Indeed, some of the humans look downright…alien at times, given Jeunet’s choices on framing and headshots. But at the same time, the lighting, the sets, the haunted quality of the ship itself, the way Ripley moves about with almost reptilian gestures, the cold lighting and the Gothic architecture…in 1997, science-fiction was having an affair with the sets of industrial music acts, an Alien Resurrection is one of the love children of that affair, and boy does it look good.
But at the same time, Jeunet’s penchant for visual flair doesn’t overcome how strangely his characters act. And I do mean strangely. Think dark fairytale, Guillermo del Toro acting. Tonal shifts in vocalizations, bipolar shifts in attitude, the aforementioned shifting of Ripley from cold to human and back, erratic, almost nervous speech patterns. Was some of this intended to be comic? I don’t know; there are instances which are supposed to be funny, I think, but are stilted in delivery Ron Perlman as Johner, after Ripley destroys her clones: “What’s the big deal? Fuckin’ waste of ammo. Must be a chick thing.” With the right timing, that would have been great. But the timing is just off, the words are accented just a little too short or too long, and it just sounds…odd. Especially odd is the scientist Doctor Gediman, played by Brad Dourif, who plays odd people well, but he’s a little too odd. He sexualizes the Aliens, empathizes with them, and all in all comes off as too much of a mad scientist to be taken seriously in any regard. Later, he all but triumphantly crows to Ripley “The Queen is having your baby!” and it’s just wrong. The line could have worked, and on paper it works, but the way it was delivered was just wrong. The director had the choice to go with it or try it again, and why Jeunet went with it, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the language barrier. That’s the only reason I could possibly think of. At the time, Jeunet spoke very little English, and needed a translator on set at all times. Dominque Pinion, who played Vriess, and Perlman both spoke French, so I’m sure that made things a little easier. But the oddities of the characters in this film are so out of joint that it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Then there’s the action pieces. The first line of this post was that Jeunet is no hack director. This is very important to remember, that his camerawork and stylings are atmosphere are amazing, but he can’t direct an action sequence to save his life. The best among the set pieces in the film is the underwater sequence, which has very little action and mostly intriguing camerawork. But chief among the action moments are the evacuation sequence, the fight in the mess hall, and the escape up the ladder. All three are poorly executed, shot, and paced. One of the things about action is keeping the momentum going, keeping the tension high, and there is none of these things in Jeunet’s action. For example, the ladder chase: Christie slowly mounts the ladder as Vriess, hanging from his back, fires downward at the Alien climbing the ladder. Johner then hangs upside down and fires his pistols at the Alien to try and knock it down, resulting in the Alien’s head exploding. All on paper, sounds exciting. But the camera zooms in and out, along the ladder up and down, pauses on close-ups, gives Johner a ridiculously dramatic upside-down moment, and then Johner’s weapon fire is so deliriously off-target that it kills the moment entirely. But while the action sequences seem to stutter off-kilter without any measured pacing, other moments, like Ripley’s scene with her clones, are so well done that it’s a marvel to watch Jeunet masterfully attack the emotion of the scene and boil it down to its essentials. Moments with Ripley and Call, such as in the Chapel, are quiet and intimate, but not overdone. The actors are at ease in the quieter moments of the film, and Sigourney Weaver delivers a magnificent performance during the clone scene that’s worthy of her performance in Aliens. Jeunet knows and understands how to work the sets, the cameras, how to bring the atmosphere to life when it’s still and inanimate, but when the action begins nothing else seems to go with it; Jeunet can’t seem to work the film around the action, and so gets a mark against him.
So, overall: is the directing bad? No, but at the same time, Jeunet is clearly not comfortable with directing action, something that’s essential to the Alien franchise. There are also times where the film curiously lingers, like Perez taking the brain matter from the back of his head. The characters and their actions, while delivered by the actors, is directed in an odd pacing from Jeunet that makes everyone in the cast seem like they’ve arrived from the short bus of the science-fiction archetypes, despite some clever writing. So while Jeunet accomplishes the Gothic, industrial feel of the set and the necessary atmosphere for the tension, his choices for pacing and characterization, not to mention lack of control during the action sequences, hurt the film. Jeunet, while a fantastic visualist, was clearly the wrong choice of director for this movie despite what he brought to the table, and out of the three “J”s, Jean-Pierre Jeunet is the J that detracts the most.
Finally: John Frizzel, composer.