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Let's get one thing straight: Alien: Resurrection is not a particularly good movie. The tone is confused; the dialogue is terrible; the plot is weak; the music is humdrum; and the whole thing feels more like a big budget B-movie than a worthy entry in the franchise. That said, I'm not going to spend this entire article piling on with everything that this film does wrong. We'll discuss a few of these things, certainly, but I also want to highlight a handful of apects I think are worth defending. There are positives here, even though, objectively speaking, this is the worst of the original "quadrilogy" (pedantic note: the correct term is "tetralogy"). I've watched Alien: Resurrection a few times since it first released in theaters, and honestly, even though I initially hated pretty much everything about it, I find more to like with every fresh viewing.
Since the first three films in the series are clearly defined by their directors, let's start there, with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Jeunet is an exceptional director with several impressive films under his belt, including Delicatessen, City of Lost Children, and Amélie (movies I adore), which all benefit from his independent, French auteur sensibilities. Alien: Resurrection is his only American production, and he was always a bit of an odd fit, destined to work poorly with the rigid Hollywood system. His best films are surreal, quirky, a little disturbing, and weirdly funny, and though most of that was stamped out by production mandates, some of it still appears in the final film.
Many of my favorite elements of the film are easy to attribute to Jeunet, such as the grotesque imagery of the failed Ripley clones, the sweeping camera work, and the emphasis on body horror (which had been largely absent from the series since the original Alien). On the other hand, some of the things I despise about the film can also be attributed to Jeunet, such as the tonal inconsistency and poorly-directed actors. Jeunet doesn't do well under the guidelines of strict genre conventions, and it is clear he tried his best to not make this movie a straight-up sci-fi/horror picture.
One of the most potentially interesting characters dies way too early
As a result, I think the film is best enjoyed with tempered expectations, with an understanding that a lot of this movie is tongue-in-cheek. That's the only way you're going to be able to accept ridiculous moments like a character shooting a man in the head by twice ricocheting a bullet off the ceiling. Written by Joss Whedon a decade and a half before The Avengers, the film is filled with quippy humor, bad one-liners, and obnoxious, one-dimensional characters. No matter how much Joss Whedon has tried in subsequent years to wash his hands of all responsibility for the film's problems, a great many flaws--I daresay the majority of them--stem from his script, even though they may have been exaggerated by Jeunet's direction.
I will give Whedon a molecule of credit, though, when he complains that the movie was poorly cast, because he's absolutely right about that. This movie does have a good cast. Ron Perlman, Dan Hedaya, Winona Ryder, Gary Dourdan, Brad Dourif, and Leland Orser are all good actors when used appropriately. Unfortunately, most of them don't quite fit the characters as written and, as such, deliver fairly forgettable performances. Michael Wincott, who plays the pirate captain of the Betty, is one of my favorites, but the script unceremoniously kills him near the very start, denying him a dynamic character arc or enough screentime to be more than just a glorified cameo. Then there's Jeunet staple Dominique Pinon as the parapalegic engineer, whose general performance is fine, but he's obviously delivering his lines phonetically, which is distracting as hell.
Weaver has the stand out performance
The best performance easily belongs to Sigourney Weaver as the cloned Ripley/alien hybrid. She's saddled with some unfortunate dialogue here and there, but she does some interesting things with the character she's given, alternating between an enigmatic, inhuman creature and an echo of the Ripley from earlier films. There's a scene between her character and Winona Ryder's Call that tries to rebuild Ripley's character arc from Aliens, but unfortunately, the script never leans into this or goes anywhere with it beyond a surface acknowledgement of the possibility.
Where Alien: Resurrection shines, though, is in its art direction and set design. There's some beautiful, painstaking work on display throughout the film, with some fairly impressive digital sets for the era. I also love the ship designs--especially the Betty--and there are some rooms, like Ripley's cell, that make for beautiful individual shots, especially when filmed with Jeunet's trademark cinematography.
...Such poor execution
The aliens themselves aren't bad, but they're a little clunky, a mishmash of over-designed viscera drenched in way too much petroleum jelly. For Aliens, James Cameron deliberately simplified the design of the Xenomorphs so that they'd look better in motion and wouldn't confuse the eyes, but Jeunet apparently didn't adhere to the same philosophy. To be fair, Jeunet's Xenomorphs are better than the Xenomorph from Alien³, and the handful of times they're rendered with CG aren't quite as cringe-inducing. The story does do some new things with the aliens, too, such as highlighting their intelligence with their clever (and brutal) method of escape. There's also the entire sequence involving the trap, which shows them underwater and demonstrates their cunning in a new way. That might just be the best sequence in the whole film.
As for the infamous newborn that rears its pale head in the final act, I've made my peace with it. I like the general concept, but the execution is pretty easy to hate, especially with the exaggerated facial emotions and twitchy rabbit nose. It also isn't helped by the fact that the final act is where the story is at its most derivative and flat.
So there you have it. Alien: Resurrection is a pretty poor Alien film (my least favorite, in fact, not counting the AvP crossovers), but it's not a total loss. With a few better decisions, a much better script (sorry not sorry to all you Whedon fans), and more creative freedom given to the director, this could have been a worthy successor to the previous entries, but as it stands, it is a guilty pleasure at best.
-e. magill 3/26/2020
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