The ALIEN franchise is an uneven series filled with iconic films, personal favorites, and maligned entries. The first two are certified classics—ALIEN would spawn a whole bevy of knockoffs for decades to come—while ALIENS would go on to become the blueprint for how to do blockbuster sequels: bigger, more creatures, and hints at a burgeoning mythology. ALIEN 3 was not gleefully adopted by the fanbase on its release, but it has become more celebrated over the years. The retroactive appreciation is owes quite a bit to David Fincher’s direction and Alex Thomson’s stellar cinematography as well as excellent performances by actors like Charles Dance and Charles S. Dutton. At the back end of the “quadrilogy” there’s poor, misguided ALIEN: RESURRECTION. It currently has a “Rotten” designation on Rotten Tomatoes, and, according Box Office Mojo, didn’t even make back its budget in the states (it did much better overseas). Most ALIEN fans gloss over this entry as well as the ALIEN VS. PREDATOR films before moving on to PROMETHEUS. And while there’s a lot that appears off to long time fans in that film, it is arguably the most intellectually engaged film of the series.
1979’s ALIEN explores the subconscious terrors of a man experiencing the female reproductive cycle. James Cameron’s ALIENS is an allegory for the Vietnam war while also delving into the action genre. The third…um…maybe it’s about the dehumanization of the individual in a prison setting while presciently warning about the prison/industrial complex that would soon rise up in the US but that’s another blog post for another time. So what is ALIEN: RESURRECTION all about? Is it just a cash grab and an attempt to “resurrect” the franchise by adding new blood? Or is there something more to it?
A large corporation looks to reboot an old project using the elements of the past, only to create a Frankenstein-like hybrid that doesn’t quite satisfy the objective and ultimately derails their plans for years. Now that could either be the plot summary for the film, or a general outlook on how the film played into Fox’s franchise hopes for the ALIEN series. ALIEN: RESURRECTION is actually a metatextual meditation on franchise filmmaking—all while also existing AS an entry in a film franchise.
The Weyland-Yutani Group—the evil all-encompassing mega-corporation in the ALIEN universe—has been trying to revive the xenomorphs as the ultimate killing machines. Using the last known host, Ripley, the corporation bases its resurrection project on bringing her back along with the killer monsters. They turn to the black market assistance of some plucky space pirates to further their plans and deliver fresh blood to the project in the form of new hosts for the xenomorphs. Things go awry as they always do in these movies and before long a new hybrid creature is formed—a terrible mutation that is part human and part alien. It’s disgusting to look at and knows only to kill and destroy all before it, while leaving its mother Ellen Ripley untouched.
That quick synopsis has within it multiple instances where the narrative of ALIEN: RESURRECTION very closely mirrors the production of the movie, and in fact the plan for most franchises seeking to rejuvenate a series. Fox wanted to bring back the accolades (and arguably more importantly, the money) of the one-two punch of ALIEN and ALIENS. However with the climax of ALIEN 3 leaving Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley burnt to ash, the studio was in a bit of a pickle. Turning to some cinematic outsiders—a TV writer/renowned script doctor by the name of Joss Whedon and a French surrealist in director Jean-Pierre Jeunet—they figured out a way to rouse Ripley from the dead.. However, like most things brought back from the afterlife, she came back different and not quite right. This Ripley—now complete with acidic blood, claw-like fingernails, and a penchant for combative basketball—looks like the character we all know and love, but has been made to become more extreme through the meddling of corporate interests. The original character is still in the film to extent, but is a cool new take on the classic form.
These parallels of the creative process of reviving a franchise run throughout the film. The final creature—that awful misfit mutation—is the product of an attempt at doing something new and exciting by creating something deadlier and weirder than the audience has ever seen. Unfortunately, the end product ends up an underwhelming boogeyman that comes across like a pale imitation of the original. How many times have sequels offered up their new take on an established creature design, promising it to be “even more lethal” and it turns out to be far less memorable? JURASSIC WORLD, PREDATORS, PROMETHEUS could all be perceived as guilty of this. Take the infamous clone lab scene, where Ripley encounters all of the failed versions of herself that came before her. Each can be viewed as aborted attempts by the studio to re-start the ALIEN series, only to come up with some wretched pitch or some godawful draft of a script. The ghosts of those false-starts all worked their way into the DNA of the final product in some form, but ultimately the Ripley clone (and ALIEN: RESURRECTION) stands on its own.
It’s quite possible that screenwriter Joss Whedon was simply following Fox’s orders—which combined with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s unique aesthetic—produced this unique sequel that just so happens to perfectly fit the mold of a meta deconstruction. There’s simply no way, outside of affirmation from the filmmakers, to know the intent of what they were trying to create; but seeing as how Whedon created Buffy The Vampire Slayer and co-wrote and produced THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that there was an undercurrent of commentary going on in this film.
Authorial intent is always a fallacy to chase, and incredibly hard to prove. But whether or not it was the conscious choice to make ALIEN: RESURRECTION‘s plot so closely mirror the trials and travails of a franchise reboot film doesn’t matter. The film has a lot going for it: excellent production design, cool gore F/X, stellar character actors (Ron Perlman, Leland Orser, Dan Hedaya, Brad Dourif), and a really fun underwater scene. But what this interpretation does is take an already okay film and deepens it with possibilities, making it a much more intellectual pursuit than simply a rubber monster movie in space. Suddenly, through this lens, it delivers action and scares while also keenly critiquing the craven ways that Hollywood churns out its rough beasts. In space, no one can hear you be meta!
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Tags: alien, Alien: Covenant, Alien: Resurrection, Aliens, Brad Dourif, Dan Hedaya, Dan O'Bannon, Darius Khondji, Ellen Ripley, J. E. Freeman, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Joss Whedon, Jr., Leland Orser, Michael Wincott, Prometheus, Ron Perlman, Ronald Shusett, Space, The Future, Tom Woodruff, walter hill, Winona Ryder