Prometheus is coming. It sounds so dramatic when I say it like that, a mixture of myth and anticipation that turns what is essentially just another summer movie into something magical. I might as well whisper about unicorns lurking in the woods or monsters under the bed. Sadly, Prometheus is probably not that special, but it is a surprising possible entry into a series that deserves some attention: the Alien movies.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the entire Alien quadrilogy, despite the merits of each individual film (or the films compared against each other). It is a rare franchise that had four entries by young directors, all of whom went on to do frankly amazing later work. All four are visually and tonally distinct, taking the core concept in wild, interesting directions with each new installment. Not only that, they’re all fairly worthy of examination. Love or hate the twists and turns of the series, it would be a very short-sighted person who didn’t recognize that the Alien movies make up a singularly unique franchise: one that until now has never gone back to the well.
With Prometheus just a few weeks out and my resolution to stay almost entirely ignorant of what it’s about holding up okay, I figured now was a good time to instead take a look at the movies it maybe-sorta-probably is a prequel to, as much for the sake of getting up to speed as I really just want to revisit them and talk about them. And after three articles that ranged from dismissive and negative to championing the misunderstood, we come to the end of the original alien quadrilogy. And oh boy, what an end we come to.
Hundreds of years after Alien 3, humanity has reached deeper into the stars but seems no closer to finding other life than they were the last time we saw them. The military, in a mad scientist bid to change this situation, decide to clone the last known instance of alien-human contact—Ellen Ripley. Blood samples left by her in antiquity bring her back from the dead, complete with alien infestation. The embryo is removed surgically, saving her from her prior fate, but the military decides that she’s worth further study and keeps her alive on the ship. And so both Ripley and the xenomorphs are brought into a new generation, the only question being how much the process of that return changed them.
Alien Resurrection is decidedly the strangest film in this franchise, and with good reason: directed by French whimsical auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet and built off a script from a young Joss Whedon, Resurrection is a clash of styles and intents that throws almost all of the thriller aspects out of the window in favor of macabre character study and full on psychosexual science fiction. Instead of trying to return to its roots, it seems content to rush in the other direction, trying to undermine all the assumptions from the prior movies in a bid to carve something new out of a universe that seemed fairly well-tred at that point.
This is a story that begins and ends with Ellen Ripley, as one might expect. She emerges from the cloning process seemingly intact, but withdrawn and savage and in many ways not the Ripley we remember. She seems predatory, almost animalistic; while she slowly begins to emerge from her near-catatonia much of what expresses itself seems less than human. And then there’s the physical changes: increased reflexes and athletic ability, and even the reveal that her blood has turned acidic. Somehow, the process of replicating her in order to birth the last remaining xenomorph has mingled her biology with that of the aliens, leaving her in some sort of limbo state where she appears human but is obviously something else.
This actually ends up becoming something of a trope for Whedon, who ended up making this exact same character again in Fireflyin River Tam, albiet with less body horror origins. In fact, many of Whedon’s later aborted space opera seems to find its early footing here: pretty quickly the movie introduces a bunch of amoral space mercenaries who show up carrying live cargo the military is going to use to incubate more aliens. This crew is appropriately motley, with a sarcastic captain and a paraplegic mechanic and a grinning, violent strong man played here by Ron Perlman but who is basically exactly the same as Jayne. They show up like they came out of an entirely different movie, cracking wise and with this sort of hinted history butting in around the edges. It’s jarring, but obviously an early attempt to play with a lot of the ideas that would later make him a name beloved by fans. It’s a strange curiosity to see basically an alternate universe version of the same idea, reinterpreted through Jeunet’s very French sensibilities and shoved into what is ostensibly a horror film.
The one exception is Call, played by Winona Ryder, who is the new girl on the crew and is quickly revealed to have some foreknowledge of both Ripley and the xenomorphs. She even manages to break into Ripley’s cell, planning to kill her in order to prevent the alien from escaping, only to realize that they’ve taken it from her. Ripley, for her part, seems fascinated by Call, an interest in her that seems mixed up between a daughter and prey. Which is more than she offers everyone else: seeing them primarily as future victims of the aliens that are sure to escape. Call, on the other hand, is something else: a bond forms between them that edges into the sexual, much to Call’s discomfort. This is especially interesting when it’s revealed that Call is one of the last remaining generational androids, who developed enough independence from humanity to be seen as a threat. Her otherness, then, makes sense: she would never be a suitable alien host, so the xenomorph instincts that have buried themselves into Ripley treat her as other.
It’s this crew and Ripley who respond when the xenomorphs break out, as they’re always destined to do. The alien pulled out of Ripley was an infant queen, which scientists (led by an appropriately creepy Brad Dourif, who seems fascinated with the xenomorphs on an unnatural level) allow to quickly grow and produce more xenomorphs. The contained xenomorphs, exhibiting intelligence they otherwise hadn’t shown before, quickly escape and begin picking off the unprepared military crew, leaving Ripley and company to try to stop them, especially since the ship is heading towards Earth where the xenomorphs will undoubtedly escape and overrun the unprepared planet. And this being both a semi-horror film and a Whedon script, the group of heroes is quickly decimated by the aliens, with little mercy shown in the story to these relatively blameless characters.
If I haven’t made it clear by now, I actually really like Alien Resurrection. It’s a strange, deeply European, decidedly more twisted take on what had since been relegated to formula, but I think it’s endlessly inventive and full of some of the best performances in the entire series of films. The standout, as always, is Sigourney Weaver, who here plays Ripley as a real monster of science. We will, as always, talk more about her in particular in the Ripley-specific section, but she is the scariest part of the movie and it’s an incredible piece of acting. But I also want to call out Winona Ryder, who I think is critically under-appreciated as an actress, and here manages to be in part both audience surrogate and the opposite comment on humanity against Ripley’s bestial tendencies. Call, instead, is all neurosis and thought, in parts hopeful and in others fearful, but the innocent on which Ripley seems to imprint and cling to to anchor her own drifting humanity.
The movie itself is more effective with the horror elements than the past two sequels have been, too, though admittedly it takes an entirely different track with presenting it. Instead of the threat of creature attack (though that does exist, and fairly well) most of the horror is instead of the body horror type. From the start, Ripley is in an unsettling state of otherness, but in the course of escaping they discover the lab where they’d been trying to clone Ripley for some time (the version in film being the 8th iteration). It’s one of the most memorable sequences in the film, a lab full of various human/alien monstrosities—from bloated, fetal shapes that failed early to fully grown creatures, with xenomorph heads and human legs. In fact, one prior experiment was still alive, a horrible mesh of human torso and head and awareness but malformed xenomorph limbs, begging Ripley to have the mercy to kill it. Ripley obliges, destroying the entire lab in her most human expression of outrage and disgust.
And then there’s the hybrid child. Late in the movie, as the surviving crew are piling into the mercenary ship to escape an exploding station, Ripley is pulled away into the xenomorph nesting chamber, where she’s brought before the queen. There, the scientist who raised her (Brad Dourif, again) is being kept cocooned, and explains to Ripley that while Ripley gained any number of benefits from the cloning process, the queen gained her own human traits: after her traditional egg-laying cycle, her body converted those organs into a human womb, and began to gestate something else. That something else erupts from the distended abdomen of the queen, a weirdly skeletal, pale, horrifyingly misshapen mix between human and xenomorph. The alien queen, seemingly willing to treat it as one of its own, is rewarded by the hybrid child tearing its head off with one mighty swipe of its claws, before it seemingly turns to Ripley, who it labels as its appropriate mother. But it’s still mindless beast, intent on destroying all other life it encounters, and it’s a truly gross creature, something both vulnerably human and fleshy, alien and rigid. It’s an incredibly unsettling effect, and as the capper to the movie something as memorable as the queen reveal in Aliens.
I’m not going to claim that Alien Resurrection is a perfect film. Jeunet and Whedon go together like oil and water, leaving Whedon’s self-aware dialog to play somewhat stilted and unnatural. And it’s obvious that Jeunet butts up against the restrictions of the franchise on more than one occasion. It’d be curious to see just how far he would have gone if given total carte blanche. But as a coda to a trilogy that had brought its heroine through hell and back, and even killed her, it’s kind of an amazing upending of all the established dogma of the series. It’s visually rich, deeply unsettling, and full of some of the best, most entertaining performances in the entire four movie series. Perfect films are fine, but sometimes you’d rather have an interesting, not-wholly-successful film instead: Alien Resurrectionis that movie, and I love it for it.
Theatrical Version vs Director’s Cut
There isn’t a ton of difference between the two versions, outside of some callbacks to the other Alien movies in the director’s cut that don’t exist in the theatrical version. But there is a really great scene between Call and Ripley that justifies the entire existence of an alternate cut. It’s a great, quiet character bit between two characters who otherwise don’t get to emote privately much at that point in the movie, and it’s absolutely worth having in the film as a meaningful scene. I can’t imagine what bad decision led to it being cut initially, outside of simply slicing for run-time.
There is a fairly significant change in the ending, though. At the very end the mercenary ship reaches Earth. In the theatrical cut, Call and Ripley stand inside the hanger of the ship where the final sequence has just played out, looking through the window to the coastline of a seemingly blue, beautiful Earth down below. It’s one of the only natural, organic shots in the movie: the color blue and natural light are wholly alien concepts in this movie, save this one sequence. It’s an uplifting ending. In the director’s cut, however, Call and Ripley have almost the same conversation but after the ship has touched down. This Earth is a desolate wasteland, rubble and ruined buildings and a polluted sky. With nearly the same dialogue, it’s a much more dour ending, more in keeping with the 70s sci-fi that Alien originally broke away from. I think I prefer that ending, because it seems pulpy in a way that brings the series full circle, but I freely admit that it is a matter of personal taste.
The Tao of Ripley
As much as I think Alien is a pretty flawless movie, I love Weaver’s performance as Ripley in this movie more. I know it’s a little over the top, and certainly weirder, but I don’t care: Ripley in Resurrectionis the final result of all the subtext of the prior three movies brought out and exposed on screen, and it’s a delight to see. From the beginning, Ripley finally becomes truly linked with these creatures that have tormented her, even bringing her back from the dead so they can be a problem to overcome once again. It moves past the questions of destiny in Alien 3 and outright links the two in a symbiotic way that finally is the full marriage of the two main elements that make up this franchise: xenomorph and Ellen Ripley.
The most interesting of these changes, to me, is how it brings about the kinds of mothering instincts between Ripley and the alien queen that were only hinted at in Aliens and makes them the driving force of the plot, especially in the second half of the film. Ripley has always been presented as somewhere between action hero and maternal figure, always going out of her way to safeguard those she’s with. In Aliens in particular, that meant killing the children of the alien queen, who reacted with an anger that transcended just animal response and instead firmly became wrath, mother figure against actual broodmother, each trying to destroy the children of the other.
Resurrection, then, casts them as warring mothers over the same child, but also as sympathetic to each other’s plight. Ripley escapes attack from the aliens more than once due to her altered biology, which labels her as one of them. And she expresses a very human sort of sympathy for them at times, which seems strange until the moment when the alien queen seems attached to this hybrid child that emerges from her. It’s the last question left unanswered by a universe that asks a lot of unanswered questions, but does it signify a sort of empathetic intelligence in the xenomorphs? They’re not portrayed as stupid, but they do seem mostly animal in all four movies, outside of that single moment. But is that due to a lack of understanding, the impossibility of communication with such a dangerous species? Do they see us as we see them: dangerous creatures who will kill and kill until there’s nothing left? Or is that moment simply the result of Ripley’s biology affecting the alien queen, or even mere coincidence?
There’s no answer, and will likely never be one, but it’s those kinds of questions that are raised by Ripley and her strange, era- and existence-spanning adventure, that make even these ‘lesser’ films so rich and worthy of discussion. And it’s what makes the quadrilogy, such as it is, probably the greatest singular block of a franchise ever constructed.
Then they had to go and fuck it up. Next time, the Alien vs Predator movies! Might as well end on a terrible note!