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Review of Alien Resurrection


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Alien Resurrection, 1997, written by Joss Whedon, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 110 min.

Franchises. You see fast food restaurants everywhere, breeding frantically, multiplying, spreading their generic menus across the land, wiping out the smaller, more interesting places to eat. There is power in numbers, and a certain tyranny, that allows a new franchise outlet to be built. What qualifies a place for a franchise? The purchase of the brand name. The strictly regulated choices. Product, not food. Obedience to the number crunchers on high. We live in a strange age, and I'm not sure I like it much. Have I ever eaten at a franchise restaurant? Well, occasionally, but I reserve the right to be grouchy about it.

This movie is not a resurrection. This is Alien 4, and quite clearly, the fourth installment in a franchise. A very valuable franchise. One with a built-in fan-base, and one that appeals to the overseas action/gory/scifi-ripoff market. I'm not terribly concerned about whether this movie will rake in big bucks or not, because that's not important to me. I am concerned with what a movie does for me, and I am not elitist. If a movie can pull me into its mood, then I will enjoy it. Jackie Chan does this for me consistently, but I find that most other action movies push me out, not pull me in. Men in Black was silly and somewhat derivative, but it got me into its groove. I'm not a big fan of romantic comedies, or of musicals, or of overly artsy-fartsy films (Akira Kurosawa's Dreams is a good example), etcetera. There is a certain essence to a film that pulls me in, and it is not confined to any genre, and it's very hard to define. It has to do with internal coherency (but Jackie Chan films are loopy and episodic), with characterization (but 2001 was essentially an intellectual exercise), and with wow-moments of originality or insight or direction. See the problems with trying out definitions? The last criterion was the only one I could leave unqualified.

And unfortunately, the only moment in Alien Resurrection where I said, COOL! to myself was this: a cube of some substance, in a glass, subjected to a blue laser, presto! drinks. Everything else about the movie succumbed to the franchise disease, despite having Jeunet directing. If you don't know where Jeunet got his reputation, go rent these two films immediately: Delicatessen, and The City of Lost Children. Delicatessen was hilarious, dark, and a bit gross, and City was dark, dark, dark. It's no wonder the suits thought of Jeunet when they thought up the Alien 4 idea. It's my firm opinion that he should have turned the offer down. I would like to make an analogy to David Cronenberg's career. He's made some silly choices, and some movies I chose not to see (Crash), but if he made mistakes, they were his own, and all of his triumphs were based on his own vision. I make this analogy because he has turned down offers to direct a number of high-profile Hollywood films, and possibly more that never got off the ground. Imagine Cronenberg doing Top Gun or Flashdance or Total Recall. Or The Firm or Beverly Hills Cop. Jeunet making Alien Resurrection is a better match than any of those films for Cronenberg, but he's still far from home. I only hope he still gets good projects after this.

Ok, so what's with Alien Resurrection itself? I'm not even going to touch the whole cloning/DNA-mixing thing, because that's the premise, and I am pretty generous about granting a premise. It's what you do with that premise that's important. Ripley has extra powers, but she never uses any of them, even when her friends are in trouble, like in the access shaft climbing out of the water. She uses her acid-blood to end the movie, but it was a totally ridiculous scene. The difference between one atmosphere and a vacuum is only 101 kilopascals, or about 15 psi. Movie space vacuum seems to be about 5000 kPa difference. Ripley's character is ok, as are the rest of the collection of quirky people. Everyone seems to be behaving more or less credibly, but it's the dialogue that suffers from comparison to the first and second movies in the series. It's especially noticeable for Vriess, Dominique Pinon's character, who spits out surly profanity and not much else. Pinon is capable of carrying a movie on his own, if he is given some good material to work with. Here he flails with such thin stuff, and the only moment of his old charisma happens in the storeroom -- suspense and humor from a small decision.

There are a number of other big logical flaws, like surviving re-entry near an open window (in this case, as with the plutonium exposure in The Peacemaker, I was expecting the heroes to die at the end). Like the acid-spitting aliens who had to sacrifice one of their own to get acid to melt through the deck. Like the idiotic military scientists who didn't think the aliens would use acid to get free (and if they didn't know about the acid, then they're real idiots). Let's consider this last one for a minute, and how it exemplifies poverty of imagination on the part of the screenwriter. All along, the Alien series have shown the ships of this extrapolated future to have artificial gravity (my assumption, since none are shown spinning, and no one floats in zero-gee). Throw in something new, about using gravity to create an 'unescapable' containment area for each alien. Then write something clever about how they do escape, not this cop-out. Hard work I guess. Just what they avoided with the plot.

Which brings me to my rule of thumb about sequels. Unless you put as much inventive energy into the creation of the story as into the original, it's essentially an intellectual ripoff. With regards to this series, most people don't realize how deeply derivative Aliens is of Alien. Cameron makes it his own film because he completely recasts a suspense/horror classic as an action film. But it is only that, a rewrite, in a different genre, with as simplistic a plot as Alien. Fincher tried to recast the series into an overly art-directed movie, and I think that Jeunet makes the same mistake -- this approach fails utterly without a more interesting plot to hang all that detail on. The series has had lots of script difficulties too, so it's unfair to blame the directors, but how can you blame the screenwriters if they are working under such heavy pressure from the studio to create a franchise product? There is some pleasure in consuming that product, because you know beforehand what it will be like. I would rather have something to think about afterwards, but again, if a movie succeeds at pulling me in, I sometimes don't mind the formula approach (ie, I had to say this because I mentioned Jackie Chan earlier). Perhaps my expectations of Alien Resurrection were too high. Alot of talent there. But talent and a franchise are no guarantee of a good film if it's running on a borrowed plot.


Last modified: December 5, 1997

Copyright © 1997 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)

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