Alien Quadrilogy: Alien Resurrection Review
Alien Resurrection is a mess but it’s a rather likeable mess. Considering that there was no reason to make it and even less reason to expect anything from it, the results aren’t all that bad. Like Alien 3, it never even begins to work as a horror film and, this time, it’s not much of a science fiction film either, but as an absurdist black comedy with plentiful gore and some nice ideas it has some merit.
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS EXTENSIVE SPOILERS FOR THE FILM.
The basic plot is tenuously linked to Alien 3 through the device of using a blood sample taken from Ellen Ripley in that film being used to clone her - and, crucially, clone the alien that was gestating within her at the time. This rather desperate narrative device allows Sigourney Weaver return to the role that she created, and she seems to relish the chance to make Ripley more ambivalent than before - after all, she's half alien now. Irritatingly, having established this, the film then virtually ignores it and turns into a standard chase through the spaceship. I’m not at all sure about this use of the Ripley character. There’s a beautifully elegant character arc going through the first three films, from innocence to courageous survival to warrior to protector to grieving mother to heroic martyr. This epilogue to the character doesn’t add anything of any real interest and it might even have been a better film without her being in it – although that’s a heresy which I won’t make worse by going into more detail.
Actually, the set-up is quite intriguing. The film takes place on the USS Auriga, a scientific research ship captained by General Perez (a hammy Dan Hedaya) and carrying scientist Brad Dourif - a specialist on alien behaviour - and the great J.E.Freeman - a representative of the Company and therefore, unsurprisingly, a bad guy. The plan is for aliens to be intensively bred and sent back to Earth to be used by Weyland-Yutani as a biological weapon. In order to create the aliens, a group of travellers have been hijacked while in hypersleep by a pirate ship called "The Betty" captained by Michael Wincott and his gang of social outcasts. Among them are Ron Perlman and Dominique Pinon - both of them veterans of earlier films by Jean-Pierre Jeunet - and Call, a dogsbody played by Winona Ryder.
Inevitably, the aliens escape from captivity, in a well conceived scene of unpleasantness which is, for once, not gratuitous, and begin roaming the ship looking for victims. This is all somewhat over-familiar stuff, but given a spin by Jeunet's characteristic sick comedy. So when Dan Hedaya has his skull smashed by an alien, he reaches inside and picks out a piece of his brains. Much delight seems to have been gained from putting Pinon's foul mouthed, wheelchair bound character through as much misery as possible, and he spends much of the chase scenes being carried in a variety of undignified positions. Jeunet shows a wit and energy that distinguish what would otherwise be a derivative monster movie, and at his best creates scenes which are genuinely original. You’ve never seen anything quite as weird as the moment when Brad Dourif tries to kiss an alien and then trains it like some interstellar Barbara Woodhouse.
There's a real fairy tale quality to some of the set-pieces, notably the awesomely effective chase through the flooded kitchen, a scene which features some outstanding underwater photography. It may be gilding the lily to reveal that aliens are adept swimmers, but they look wonderfully elegant gliding through the water. The scene is then capped with an effectively tense confrontation on a ladder. However, the best moment is reserved for the chest-bursting scene, which is staged with some kind of sadistic genius. This is no ordinary chest-burster, but a truly heartless masterstroke of vicious comedy and it manages to provide a suitably spectacular exit for the particularly unpleasant J.E.Freeman.
What on earth can the executives at Fox have made of this film when it was delivered to them ? Giving the project to Jean-Pierre Jeunet was always going to be risky, especially since he brought in some of his favourite actors and insisted on the presence of Pitof, his regular visual effects collaborator. But this film is so damned strange, so determinedly quirky, that it’s unlike anything else in the “Alien” series. Perhaps that’s an inevitable consequence of joining two very different sensibilities; Hollywood money machine and French arthouse fantasist. This kind of cross-pollination isn’t unique – Francois Truffaut’s bizarre Fahrenheit 451 for example ended up as something similarly unsatisfying which fell between two stools and never quite found an identity, while still being a beautiful and strange film. It could also be pointed out that in choosing Ridley Scott to helm Alien, Fox were also taking on an arthouse filmmaker to get a different take on the SF-Horror genre – certainly, The Duellists isn’t what you’d call commercial. But Jeunet is an interesting case. There’s nothing in Delicatessen or The City of Lost Children to suggest a temperament likely to respond well to compromise, or an artist without an entirely clear vision.
Actually, for about an hour and twenty minutes, the film works pretty well. It's simplistic compared to Fincher's underrated Alien 3, but the production design is splendid. It harks back to the ‘used spaceship’ look of Alien and this is strengthened by a deliberately dark lighting scheme. Darius Khondji's cinematography is gorgeous. He makes marvellous use of the blacks and steely blues and his work during the underwater sequence and the subsequent chase up the ladder is quite magnificent. John Frizell's music score features lots of references back to Jerry Goldsmith's excellent music for the original film, but works quite well in its own right. The physical effects by, among others, Jeunet's regular collaborator Pitof, are very good. Lots and lots of gore, notably a fine moment when an unfortunate bit player has his arm quick-frozen and broken off. This is an interesting decision. The film becomes so gory that it loses any shock value early on and it certainly isn’t frightening. The gore overload begins to look like desperation. The large number of CGI effects are not as good as the physical ones, sadly, and, as usual, look exactly like computer animations. Compare them to the effects in the first two movies, and there's a lack of physical reality which makes the aliens considerably less convincing. Having said that, there’s nothing quite as embarrassing as the stick puppet alien used in Alien 3, so it’s a matter of preference.
The performances range from adequate to very good. Dominique Pinon and the always entertaining Ron Perlman make an engaging double act of grotesques, and it's always nice to see Dourif and Freeman. Both actors go way over the top but I’m not sure they have much choice considering the script they’re working with. Sigourney Weaver is less impressive in this film than in the others, and her big emotional moment is in a misjudged "serious" scene where she discovers a room full of failed genetic experiments and destroys it in righteous indignation. The liberal indignation expressed here takes you right out of the film and I’m not at all sure why a clone with mixed human and alien blood would feel such humane concern for the victims of experimentation, especially when so much time has been taken to establish her cold-bloodedness in the opening scenes. However, she works hard, as does Winona Ryder - although the revelations concerning Ryder's character are more likely to make the audience yawn than excite them.
For the first three quarters of the film, there's much to enjoy, but suddenly, at about the eighty minute mark, everything begins to go wrong. After Ripley falls down into the alien Queen - and that's not a mistake - and the chestburster scene is over, we get one of the lamest endings it is possible to imagine. “The Queen is in pain !” declares Ripley, and who can blame her ? A combination of lazy plotting – we’re plummeting towards Earth, surprise, surprise - and ludicrous special effects turn the conclusion into one big walking white flag. Without revealing too much, just think of a combination of Fraggle Rock, the ending of Goldfinger and the self-consciously excessive gore of Braindead, and you might begin to get an idea of how truly idiotic it is. Even given that the ending was presumably designed by a committee to try to please everyone - and, as usual, ended up pleasing no-one - it is hard to understand how the filmmakers could have worked on it without collapsing in hysterical laughter. On a conceptual level, it’s reasonably logical – although you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you listen to the nonsense being spouted by Brad Dourif – but it simply doesn’t work on screen. Towards the end of the film, Ripley begins to cry and so does the audience.
Still, ending apart, this is a fairly respectable effort and not nearly as bad as it could have been. I just wish that the talented Jeunet had provided more weirdness than he did - he must have been relieved to go back to the more familiar world of Amelie. Joss Whedon's script is efficient, but not much more, and the attempts at verbal humour are not as effective as the visual gags - I especially liked the futuristic method of pouring a scotch on the rocks. As a conclusion to the ‘Quadrilogy’ it’s all rather lame but taken as a film in its own right then it provides sufficient entertainment to be worth a look.
As for the Director's Cut, the changes are relatively minor and largely consist of a few extended scenes here and there. The key additions are a new opening, which is a joy for fans of Jeunet's French work and an instantly recognisable bit of humour, and an extended conclusion which offers a very pretty image - oddly reminiscent of Planet of the Apes for some reason - but otherwise not entirely satisfactory.
The first disc contains the two versions of the film and the audio commentary. Both edits of the movie are presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and have been anamorphically enhanced. The image quality is generally stunning as you would expect for the most recently produced of the films. The colours are superb throughout, blacks are deep and satisfying and there are no problems with grain or artifacting. The level of detail is exceptional and there is no edge enhancement. Flesh tones look natural and the contrast is spot-on. The new footage in the Director's Cut blends in perfectly with the rest of the film.
Both versions feature soundtracks in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby DTS 5.1 Surround and the quality is fantastic. Plenty of surround action, with some nice moments from the rear channels and the use of the .1 LFE is impressive. Dialogue is clear and the overall effect is very immersive. John Frizzel's Alien inspired music score comes across very strongly indeed. The difference in the tracks is minimal, although the DTS track is perhaps a more rounded and satisfying experience in bringing out the individual surround channels. However, you won't be disappointed whichever track you listen to.
The audio commentary has been pieced together from contributions by a range of people involved with the film. We hear from Jean-Pierre Jeunet and his editor Herve Schneid, the visual effects designer Pitof, Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis from ADI, the conceptual artist Sylvain Despretz, and three of the actors; Dominique Pinon, Ron Perlman and Leland Orser. It's a very interesting track but not much fun. All concerned seem proud of the movie and Jeunet emphasises the ways in which he tried to bring his own humourous slant to the proceedings. The main problem with the commentary track is that it contains little which isn't covered in the extensive special features - when you've heard the actors talk about filming underwater once, you've pretty much heard the full story. Parts of the commentary are scene specific and parts are more general. It's certainly worth a listen but it's nothing like as good as the track on Alien.
The commentary is, incidentally, only available on the theatrical version of the film. Reference is made to the additional footage however so whether we are missing anything significant that is available on the region 1 is questionable.
The themed menus are well designed and easy to navigate. Both film and commentary are fully subtitled in English.
Again, you can either watch the featurettes on disc 2 together as one long documentary or explore the disc in three sections. Before I begin to go through these extensive features, I should mention the strangest aspect - there is no new material from Sigourney Weaver about this film. This is very disappointing considering the unusual nature of the film and the way it extends Ripley's character but perhaps the negative response it received has cooled her attitude towards it. Nothing new from Winona Ryder either, but the poor girl has troubles of her own.
Whereas Alien 3 was conceived in chaos, Alien Resurrection began with impressively efficient organisation. All concerned seem to have gone into this project with high hopes and an air of hubris is, if you'll forgive the mixed metaphor, thick on the ground. A featurette entitled "From The Ashes" discusses the ways in which the story was developed with contributions from a highly exciteable Joss Whedon and a deeply negative David Giler. This was, as you will be aware, the only "Alien" film which Giler and Walter Hill were not involved with and he is uncharitable enough to recall that he always thought it would be a disaster. We then get the chance to read Whedon's first draft screenplay which is very interesting. Not only is it pretty good, it has some scenes which would have been fascinating to see fully realised. In terms of structure and basic story it is reasonably close to the finished article but there are also a few significant changes.
"French Twist" deals with the fascinating decision to give the film to Jean-Pierre Jeunet. This does, it has to be said, demonstrate considerable bravery on the part of Fox, at that time run by an unusually intelligent collection of executives. Jeunet seems to have been given a good deal of creative freedom, much more than was offered to David Fincher, and he was allowed to bring along his visual effects designer, his cinematographer, his editor and, ultimately in a very limited capacity, his creative partner Marc Caro. Caro's designs were an influence on the finished product but he decided that he could not work within the restrictions of a major studio blockbuster and high-tailed it back to France. Jeunet is personable and eloquent and seems to have enjoyed his time in Hollywood, although he obviously viewed it as a lucrative exercise to occupy him while he was developing Amelie. This is followed by "Under The Skin", which deals with the casting and the development of the characters. The lack of any new material from Weaver and Ryder does make this less interesting than it should have been but there are occasional compensations. J.E.Freeman turns up, looking like the Ancient Mariner, and Winona Ryder informs us that "As a fan (of the films), I was trying to steal things constantly." I don't think that defence will go down any better than the last one, love.
"Test Footage" is exactly what it says, a series of tests for the creatures, costumes and gory special effects. It's a bit baffling and very long, and my copy lacked the commentary from Alec Gillis which is apparently on the region 1.
"The Marc Caro Portfolio" contains the character designs which Caro worked on during his brief soujorn in the States. Fascinating stuff which will be immediately familiar to anyone who knows his French work with Jeunet. As usual, the influence of Jules Verne seems omnipresent but it's interesting to see how many of his ideas were subsequently used for the finished film. Two other galleries contain the conceptual art for the film - much of it by the production designer Nigel Phelps - and a series of storyboards. Finally, "Previsualizations" consists of a selection of multi-angle rehearsals. These were filmed by Jeunet prior to the shoot commencing and are an interesting insight into how his ideas for the visuals and the performances developed. One angle allows you to see the storyboard, a second shows you the rehearsals and a third puts together the boards, the rehearsals and the finished product. You can choose to hear the film audio for the scenes or the very rough and ready audio from the rehearsals.
A certain level of desperation is creeping in by this point on the Quadrilogy extras. You can almost sense an anxious whispering of "what haven't they seen yet ?". Consequently, the production section contains only five items, all of which are over-extended.
If you've ever looked at the impressive underwater sequence and wondered how they did it, then "Death From Below" will tell you, in quite staggeringly tedious detail. Hmmm... that's a bit harsh I know but 30 minutes is a long time to spend discussing the preparations for a five minute scene. However, stunt work anoraks will adore this, and they'll probably also enjoy "In The Zone" which deals - at less length but with a similar boredom factor - with the silly basketball scene.
An archive of production photos follows. Lots of them and nothing you wouldn't expect. "Unnatural Mutation" examines the designs of the creatures, including (snigger) the Newborn who is apparently, according to Jeunet, a genuinely touching character. Seeing all the work which went into such a ludicrously silly monster is rather depressing. It's also rather a surprise to see how many of the Alien effects were achieved by Tom Woodruff wearing a costume. The work of ADI can be examined at your leisure in another photo archive.
The features here are rather more interesting, not least because they are - generally - shorter. "Genetic Composition" considers the music score for the film and John Frizell comes across as a very dedicated composer with genuine respect for his "Alien" series forerunners. It's rather sad to see the music being recorded by a small LA session orchestra compared to the huge London Symphony Orchestra who performed on the first film.
"Virtual Aliens" examines the much-derided CGI work in the film. This is interesting, not least for the extent to which it explains the process by which it is decided what will be done physically and what by computer. I found this fascinating, although the extent of self-congratulation becomes unintentionally amusing. We hear about how brilliant the 'test' was - a scene derived from the unfilmed opening to the film - which is a shame because we don't get to see it here. Tom Woodruff's dedication in wandering about the studios in an Alien costume for various tests is heroic, if not a little troubling. The problem is that the gulf between intentions and achievement is never considered and those of us who can't ever quite stop thinking that CGI is like watching a cartoon mixed with live action aren't likely to be converted. "A Matter Of Scale" does something similar for the extensive miniature photography. Not very interesting to be honest but model spaceship fans will be in Aerfix heaven.
Two more photo archives - visual effects and the Special Promotional Shoot - round things out, along with the best featurette on the disc, "A Critical Juncture". This is an honest, thoughtful and genuinely touching consideration of the negative reaction to the film. Jeunet claims not to worry about the critics and says he is very proud of the film and to have 'no regrets'. Pitof reflects that he was given a contract for a week at a time and that his biggest achievement was to have avoided being fired. Sylvain Despretz, one of the production designers, is especially intelligent and insightful, as he is on all the featurettes in which he appears. There is also some interesting discussion on the possible ways in which the series could be continued.
No complaints about the technical side of the second disc. The excellent themed menus remain a real bonus and the Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack does the job just fine. The interviews are presented in fullscreen and the film clips are shown in non-anamorphic 2.35:1. Picture quality is very good throughout.
Although the extra features are not, perhaps, as meaty as those on Alien and Alien 3, the quantity of them means that everyone will find something of interest. The film itself, even in the Director's Cut, remains an unsatisfying but interesting mess which does get more intriguing as time goes by. This DVD serves it very well indeed.