“It is two hundred years since Ellen Ripley died on Fiorina 161. Ripley’s former employers, the Weyland-Yutani company has dissolved and now the United Systems Military has assumed the task of breeding and harnessing the deadly aliens. With blood samples taken from her previous life, scientists clone a new Ripley in order to extract the queen alien inside of her. The new Ripley, known as number 8, acquires physical and emotional traits from both humanity and the aliens, making her question where her allegiances lie. Shortly after, the aliens break free and commence killing those onboard. Ripley, along with a crew of smugglers that unknowingly helped in delivering hosts to breed the alien species, must now escape the perilous ship. Along the way, Ripley encounters a shocking revelation that truly sets herself against both humanity and the alien species. She must now decide what she truly is, in order to save humanity once more.” (courtesy IMDB)
More than three decades ago, when audiences first thrilled to the nightmarish images of Alien (1979), not only did the groundbreaking creature effects evoke astonishment, so too did the plucky determination of the film’s heroine. Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley would serve as a prototype for a new generation of gutsy action heroines and Sigourney Weaver, whose film career was launched by the defining role, would subsequently reprise the character in two sequels: Aliens (1986) and Alien 3 (1992). It’s no wonder then that 20th Century Fox refused to even consider undertaking a fourth installment in the franchise unless the involvement of the actress was assured.
That proved no small feat for screenwriter Joss Whedon since Ripley, having herself been impregnated by an alien embryo, had jumped to her death at the conclusion of Alien 3. Nevertheless, by 1996, 20th Century Fox had their screenplay ready, together with assurances that Weaver would return under the direction of Danny Boyle, who had recently completed the widely acclaimed Trainspotting (1996). Just a couple of months into preproduction, however, the fiercely independent Scotsman bowed out, having determined that his sensibilities did not mesh with the demands of a big-budget effects production.
Still seeking a 1997 release date and committed to keep the Alien franchise fresh by employing up-and-coming talent with new perspectives, the studio turned to French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet who, with his partner Marc Caro, had turned heads with the imaginative award-winning fantasy The City Of Lost Children (1995). Alien Resurrection (1997) presented Jeunet with a significant personal challenge. This was going to be far more complex than his previous projects. It was a US$70 million movie sponsored by a major American studio to be filmed in Hollywood, a place that was both culturally and geographically alien to him (pun intended). To complicate matters further, Jeunet spoke virtually no English.
With a story calling for extensive visual effects, the mandate for Alien Resurrection was to out-do all three of the previous franchise entries. Jeunet arrived in Hollywood in Spring 1996 to energise the stalled preproduction and prepare for principal photography. For his first American film, Jeunet elected to import a number of key collaborators who had worked with him on earlier French productions. Among them were cinematographer Darius Khondji and effects supervisor Pitof, who had contributed substantially to The City Of Lost Children: “I’ve known Jean-Pierre for more than ten years, and we’ve worked together on many projects. We are a team in France, a kind of family, so I know what he wants. It was important to make this job comfortable for Jean-Pierre, so that he could deliver his particular vision and artistic look.”
In Alien Resurrection, genetic engineering and a surviving drop of blood provide the means to bring Ripley back from the dead, along with the alien embryo inside her, and the film opens with images of the Ripley clone growing to maturity. After two centuries of research and development intent on acquiring the ultimate bioweapon, Earth’s military-industrial complex has finally yielded a perfect clone of Ripley, created by a team of scientists headed by doctors Gediman (Brad Dourif) and Wren (J.E. Freeman). After the Ripley clone has reached maturity, the queen infant is removed surgically to prevent it from erupting from its host. The clandestine breeding activities are conducted aboard the Auriga, a twelve-thousand-foot-long space vessel in orbit around Pluto. To obtain human hosts for the alien embryos, the ship’s crew allows a small commercial freighter, the Betty, to approach and dock. Crewed by a group of mercenaries including Elgyn (Michael Wincott), Johner (Ron Perlman), Christie (Gary Dourdan), Vriess (Dominique Pinon), Hillard (Kim Flowers) and Call (Winona Ryder), the freighter delivers eight hapless victims, kidnapped while in hyper-sleep and still dormant within their cryo-chambers.
I’ll digress for a moment here to point out that this is where Joss Whedon‘s screenplay truly shines. The screen virtually bristles with excitement whenever these space pirates appear, aided by excellent performances from all involved, in particular Ron Perlman and Dominique Pinon, both of whom have been directed before by Jeunet in The City Of Lost Children (1995). Whedon has proven himself again and again as a master of the ensemble, and group dynamics is his true filmic signature, as evidenced in television shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly, and in movies such as Toy Story (1995), Titan A.E. (2000), X-Men (2000), Serenity (2005), The Cabin In The Woods (2012) and The Avengers (2012). Anyway, with the arrival of the mercenaries, the Ripley clone is quickly sought out by one of the crew of the Betty, Call, who learns of the clone’s presence on board the Auriga. Unaware that the alien embryo has already been extracted from Ripley, and fearing a renewal of the xenomorph threat, Call sneaks into Ripley’s room and attempts to slash her with a knife. Demonstrating her new alien capabilities, Ripley presses down on the extended knife point so that the blade passes completely through her hand revealing acidic blood, and a number ‘8’ tattooed on Ripley’s forearm testifies to the fact that seven cloning attempts had preceded her.
At the heart of the Auriga’s clandestine activities are the aliens themselves, bred in captivity and confined for study in a sophisticated laboratory called the Observation Room. This doesn’t last long, as the aliens soon figure out they can escape from the Observation Room by tearing into one of their own brood and using its blood to melt a large hole in the floor. Escaping from the laboratory, the aliens soon infiltrate the ship, start wreaking havoc and, with the aliens now loose and preying upon the crew, panic spreads throughout the Auriga. The vessel’s commander, General Perez (Dan Hedaya), orders an evacuation into lifeboats, soon before being bitten in the back of the head by one of the xenomorphs. Running through the Auriga to escape the rampaging aliens, the human survivors stumble across the ship’s medical laboratory where the cloning experiments were performed. There they discover, preserved in glass specimen containers, six aborted fetuses, grotesque botched abominations, the results of earlier failed attempts to produce a Ripley clone from which an alien infant could be extracted.
Also in the medlab, Ripley finds the still-living clone #7 which had failed to yield a viable alien embryo. Though its facial features resemble her own, the clone is deformed and diseased, its flesh discoloured. When it begs to be put out of its misery, Ripley complies, not by putting a relatively painless bullet to the head, but by using a flamethrower to destroy both the clone and the entire medlab. Pursued by the warriors, the dwindling survivors are forced to swim through a flooded industrial kitchen, where an alien grabs the ankle of Betty crew member Hillard and hauls her backwards into darkness. When the fleeing humans emerge from the water, they discover that the bottom of the elevator shaft in which they find themselves is now a birthing chamber filled with alien eggs from which face-huggers (a staple of the franchise) are about to emerge. The desperate humans retaliate by firing grenades into the egg chamber.
As the survivors climb a maintenance ladder toward safety, an alien launches itself out of the water with a powerful thrust, landing on the ladder just below the fleeing humans and, during the struggle in the elevator shaft, Doctor Wren – one of the scientists responsible for cloning the aliens – shoots Call in the abdomen, revealing her to be an android (another staple of the franchise). As the group pushes on, Ripley becomes separated, falling into a pit filled with aliens, all intertwined in a slimy mess. Eventually Ripley finds herself in a large chamber where the alien warriors have sequestered their pregnant queen. The genetic crossing of Ripley and the alien strain has produced a more mammalian queen, resulting in a creature capable of propagating via gestation. It was therefore determined that her progeny, dubbed the Newborn, would also have both alien and human characteristics.
Ripley attempts to calm the raging beast, revealing an empathetic bond with the Newborn. In a last-ditch effort to escape, however, she makes a final dash for the Betty – being readied for departure by the remaining survivors – jumping the chasm from the docking pier to the ship in a leap made possible by her alien-enhanced strength. On board the Betty, Purvis (Leland Orser), one of the implant subjects impregnated with an alien spore, becomes the final host to fall victim to the chest-burster growing within him. Determined to take one his killers with him, Purvis pulls Wren’s head against his chest just as the creature emerges, bursting through so forcefully that it erupts right through the scientist’s face. Throughout the main shoot, Jeunet felt uncomfortable with the scripted ending of the movie, which had an unarmed Ripley doing battle with the Newborn after it follows her into the cargo hold of the Betty. To Jeunet, the planned one-on-one combat seemed derivative and unbelievable, and the Newborn’s demise insufficiently compelling.
Several alternate endings were contemplated before a solution was found in the resolution of another troublesome scene. As originally scripted, General Perez was to have been dispatched earlier in the movie, slowly sucked into space through a small hole in a window made by a splash of alien blood. Although there was concern that the scene would be perversely funny, the greater fear was that its graphic nature would prevent the film from receiving its desired censorship rating. When video tests of the effect were shown to Jeunet, however, the director became terribly excited, the results held such promise that he decided to use the idea for the ending instead, and have the Newborn sucked out of the spaceship window. Because it was a monster rather than a man being killed in this horrific manner, the scene could be made even more grisly without fear of a ratings problem. Significantly, it is Ripley who initiates the action, intentionally cutting her hand on the Newborn’s sharp teeth and flicking her blood on the window. Having been set for an automatic return trajectory to Earth, the Auriga, now overrun by aliens, is programmed by Call to plunge directly into the atmosphere and explode upon impact, and the survivors escape in the Betty as the Auriga collides with the Earth.
Despite language barriers, an unforgiving schedule and challenges encountered when filming miniatures, the cast and crew of Alien Resurrection completed their assignment on time, on budget and without compromise. Despite doing very well at the box-office, the critics’ reviews were mixed to say the least, some of the more positive comments coming from Mary Brennan (“A lot of fun to watch and easy to surrender to in the moment.”), Louis B. Parks (“The film is a marvel, a well-photographed feast of visual imagery.”), Richard Schickel (“Less frightening but as much fun as ever.”) and Desson Thomson (“Satisfactorily recycles the great surprises that made the first movie so powerful and, most significantly, it makes a big hoot of the whole business.”)
I’ll give the last word to screenwriter Joss Whedon, who is perhaps Alien Resurrection‘s harshest critic: “It wasn’t a question of doing everything differently, although they changed the ending. It was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines – mostly – but they said them all wrong, and they cast it wrong, and they designed it wrong, and they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do. There’s actually a fascinating lesson in film-making, because everything that they did reflects back to the script or looks like something from the script, and people assume that, if I hated it, then they’d changed the script – but it wasn’t so much that they’d changed the script, it’s that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.” It’s with this thought in mind I’ll profusely thank Cinefex magazine March 1998 for assisting my research for this article, and politely ask you to please join me again next week to discover if Hollywood has yielded up a work of substance, or a nonsensical bit of fluff for…Horror News! Toodles!