25 June 2010

Retro Review: Alien Resurrection (1997)


Alien Resurrection
1997, 109mins, 18
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Writer: Joss Whedon
Cast includes: Sigourney Weaver, Ron Perlman, Winona Ryder, Gary Dourdan, Dominique Pinon, Kim Flowers, Brad Dourif
UK Release Date: 28th November 1997

I’ve long been a quiet admirer of David Fincher’s maligned “Alien 3”, a sequel a notch below its epic predecessors; but certainly sharper than most multiplex garbage. 1997’s “Alien Resurrection” is another case entirely. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (he of “Amelie” fame), this fourth entry into the franchise is a massive disappointment, packing some competent action and blood-soaked imagery, but lacking the solid characterization and distinctive atmosphere of the previous outings. At 109 minutes it also grabs the distinction of being the shortest flick in this saga (overlooking the “Alien vs. Predator” cycle of course), and for my money the most generic and unremarkable. It’s odd that following behind three entries by a trio of Hollywood’s most famed directors that a Frenchman with a quirky indie sensibility should direct the most conventional and unimaginative entry in this series. But hey, that’s show business.

Set 200 years after the events of “Alien 3”, “Resurrection” picks up on a remote scientific base, where boffins are trying to clone Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the alien queen which had been lying dormant inside her. After a successful clone is materialized and the queen extracted so her breeding cycle can shortly commence, the scientists choose to hold onto Ripley and tolerate her icy demeanour around the base. However during the cloning process Ripley acquired some alien attributes of her own, namely that her blood is now acidic and she has reflexes and strength to spare. A ship of pirates then ports with an unusual human cargo (to be secretively used for the boosting of the alien populous) but no sooner have the rag tag team of goons arrived that the creatures break loose and begin to run amok. Thus the newly docked crew have no choice but to team up with Ripley, and try to escape the space harboured facility before the alien threat finishes them all.

My key complaints with “Resurrection” are the same I have with many blockbusters; no depth, no soul, glistening but routine production design and a dearth of interesting characterization. All three of the previous pictures had a real sense of individualism and intelligence, coupled with powerhouse acting and some damn great scares. “Resurrection” brings virtually none of that stuff to the table, content to sit back and play out like any other monster movie; and whilst it’s possibly the goriest film in the franchise, it’s easily the least unsettling. Joss Whedon’s screenplay manages to provide a handful of cool ideas (a chestburster coming out of someone’s head, a sequence with aquatic aliens), but Jeunet rarely aims for anything other than instant shock gratification. The slow burning terror of the previous films is missing, and the moments of fire fight carnage are no match for what James Cameron supplied in 1986’s “Aliens”. They’re reasonably well assembled, but the energy and high octane fear that made Cameron’s picture such a classic has been overlooked, for what exactly I’m not sure.

The maternal concepts of yore are lightly touched upon here (via a clunky final twist to the story), but “Resurrection” is certainly more thematically insubstantial than its predecessors. These ideas are skirted over, but the film’s real focus is on the generally vapid chase sequences. In fairness the first act of the picture is quite promising, but sadly Jeunet never delivers on the early stuff; again reverting to a tension free mash-up of paper thin characterization and creature feature mush. I was genuinely intrigued with the lab based antics and the complete misjudgement of the scientist’s actions (Brad Dourif is awesome as a particularly committed alien zoologist), but the picture sadly forgoes theses elements in favour of something a little more palatable for bland mainstream audiences to digest.

Sigourney Weaver is once again effective as Ripley, albeit this is the least rewarding incarnation of the character so far. In clone form Weaver adopts a sense of predatory uncertainty and dark humour, channelling a little alien into her own performance. However this comes at a cost, the character never feels at risk and has an aura of near invincibility about her; leaving audiences to fear only for the underdeveloped band of pirates she accompanies. They’re comprised of some good actors (Ron Perlman and Winona Ryder in particular) but the screenplay can’t form any of them into a three dimensional or likable human entity. Ryder in particular is saddled with a bafflingly boring character and her relationship with Ripley jumps from one extreme to the next, never feeling natural or indeed beneficial to the final product.

The film looks good from a cinematographer’s point of view, but the set design and visual tone of the picture is shockingly uninspired. The foggy and suggestively disturbing locations from the previous flicks have been abandoned; the only H.R Giger left in this picture is the timeless creature design itself. “Resurrection” is a polished but utterly faceless vehicle, something I can once again only attribute to Jeunet’s crazed need to sate unadventurous modern viewers. The CGI used here is excellent (miles ahead of what Fincher deployed in “Alien 3”) and the animals themselves look ferocious and believable, with some of the practical effects also deserving a mention. The live action aliens are authentically designed and well manned; but the biggest shout out belongs to a sequence involving a selection of failed Ripley clones. It’s gross rather than scary, but the designs sure are imposing and look admirably realistic.

“Resurrection” ends on a bummer of a finale, involving one of the silliest looking screen villains I’ve ever encountered. The very last frame of the film is oddly satisfying (and feels like the right conclusion for Ripley’s journey) but by that time the real damage has been done. “Alien Resurrection” is a movie severely lacking in heart or creativity, and whilst the denouement might seem like a natural finish for one of cinema’s greatest heroines, it’s always bugged me that this final chapter should be the slightly sour experience it is. Maybe Ridley Scott’s upcoming prequel will provide the formidable ending to a franchise that so thoroughly deserves it.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2010


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