The upturned nose. The doleful eyes. The wobbly, gelatinous skin. Back in 1997, Alien: Resurrection’s Newborn, the half human, half xenomorph that appears at the movie’s climax, was too, too much for your humble writer.
It remains the only time, before or since, that I’ve had to restrain myself from either heckling the cinema screen like a madman, or walking out of the theatre in a rage.
Everything about its movement and design ran counter to my perception of what the Alien films should be, and like a petulant child, I vowed never to watch Resurrection again.
At the very least, I hope my little series of Alien Anthology retrospectives has demonstrated one thing: my enduring affection and enthusiasm for the movies, and the remarkable creature that sprang from the collective imaginations of HR Giger, Ridley Scott and writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett back in the late 70s.
I greeted the arrival of Alien: Resurrection in 1997 with ambivalence. Alien 3, while flawed, had apparently ended the franchise on a decisive, depressing, but tidy full stop. At the conclusion of David Fincher’s film, Ripley had flung herself into a furnace, killing both herself and the alien queen inside her.
Another sequel seemed extraneous, and the news that the writers of Alien: Resurrection had found a convoluted way of bringing Ripley back from the grave sounded worryingly like a cynical cash-in.
But, then again, Alien: Resurrection had an excellent pedigree. Jean-Pierre Jeunet had already demonstrated his talent for stunning, unusual visuals with Delicatessen and The City Of Lost Children, and writer Joss Whedon, although not at that stage as famed as he is now, is a strong writer.
When I went along to my local cinema to see Alien: Resurrection, it was, therefore, with equal parts hope and anxiety. I hoped for the best, but suspected the worst.
Set 200 years after the events of the last film, Alien: Resurrection opens on the USM Auriga. a military research facility floating in outerspace. There, a group of scientists (headed up by Brad Dourif and J.E. Freeman) are conducting a series of Frankenstein-like experiments that involve splicing human and alien DNA.
The most successful of these experiments is Ripley 8, who looks exactly like Sigourney Weaver, except she’s now far stronger, enjoys playing basketball and has a sizzling hint of acid coursing through her veins.
Predictably enough, the aliens in the facility don’t remain cooped up for long, and just as a group of mercenaries arrive (whose number includes Ron Perlman, Winona Ryder and Delicatessen’s Dominique Pinon), the creatures run amok, damaging the Auriga and killing most of its crew. It’s then up to Ripley 8 and the mercenaries to prevent the ship and its deadly alien cargo from returning to Earth.
Watched for a second time 13 years later, it’s clear that there are many positive aspects to Alien: Resurrection. Jeunet’s production enjoyed the highest budget of any Alien film, and the cash is evident in every shot. An early scene, where scientists surgically remove a chestburster from Ripley’s torso, shows just how far visual effects had progressed since the first Alien.
What’s still jarring about Alien: Resurrection is its tone, which departs entirely from the other movies in the series. Perhaps meant as a reaction to the unremitting gloom of Alien 3, Resurrection is shot and acted like a black comedy. Dan Hedaya offers up one of the most scenery chewing performances in any Alien movie as General Perez, and when he’s finally silenced by an alien’s extending inner jaws, he expires with crossed eyes.
The script, meanwhile, is filled with ungainly, puerile dialogue. Even in the chaos of Alien 3’s shooting, that film’s writing maintained a high standard, for the most part, despite continuous eleventh-hour alterations. In Alien: Resurrection, characters utter such clumsy lines as “Looks like a double cross, boss.” Even Ripley is forced to suffer the indignity of asking “Who do I have to fuck to get off this boat?”
The result is a brisk action comedy that functions like a sci-fi reworking of The Poseidon Adventure, as the film’s survivors make their way across the damaged Auriga to the safety of the mercenaries’ ship. There are several set-pieces that are high on visual impact, but low on tension, including an underwater scene with swimming aliens, and sequence involving two characters dangling from a ladder.
If it wasn’t an Alien movie, Resurrection could easily be regarded as a piece of light, disposable genre entertainment. Its direction is sure-footed, and Darius (Seven) Khondji’s cinematography produces some occasionally beguiling images.
But taken as a fourth chapter in the Alien canon, Resurrection seems horribly out of place, its tone at odds with the other three films. That it’s entirely without shocks is forgivable. Neither Aliens nor Alien 3 replicated the palpable sense of horror present in the first film, but the lack of tension is a far greater problem.
The Alien movies have always been about atmosphere and mood, and Resurrection has the mildly camp, irreverent ambience of a late Hammer or Universal horror movie.
It’s sad, too, to see Giger’s once terrifying monster drift into self-parody. The chestburster is used as the prop in a slapstick sight gag in the latter third of the film, bursting through the back of Leland Orser’s head like a gore-smeared jack-in-the-box, while the adult aliens are frequently overlit and overexposed.
Which brings me to Resurrection’s most terrible crime, the Newborn. In the years since the film’s released, I’ve read many reviews and comments from Alien fans who’ve argued that this hybrid, based on an idea by Jeunet, is the scariest incarnation of the monster yet.
For me, the Newborn is grotesque for all the wrong reasons, and lacks the otherworldly nastiness of Giger’s original designs. Shambling and ungainly, it’s a monster without threat, a doe-eyed, knock-kneed abomination with a distended beer gut. It’s a far cry from the 1979 alien’s implied menace.
While not entirely without merit, Alien: Resurrection marks the moment where the Alien franchise tipped over into B-movie territory, a place that Ridley Scott and his collaborators had worked so hard to avoid back in the late 70s.
The first three Alien movies, while all markedly different from one another, all contained startling moments that linger in the mind.
Resurrection, meanwhile, is a film I’d rather forget.
The Alien Anthology Blu-ray is out now.