The number of good four-quels can be counted on one hand, if not one finger. Lethal Weapon 4, Die Hard 4, Police Academy 4 ? all titles that fill one with an instant sense of dread and disappointment. Near the top of this pile of ever-diminishing returns we find Alien Resurrection, the last and weakest of the Alien films and the most deserving of the phrase ?flogging a dead horse? (or should that be xenomorph?).
Looking down the cast and crew list, you could be forgiven for expecting a half-decent fourth instalment. Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a very likeable director, who had charmed audiences with Delicatessen and dabbled in fantasy filmmaking with The City of Lost Children. The original treatment and screenplay were penned by Joss Whedon, who would later write the cult sci-fi western Firefly and its movie spin-off Serenity. And it co-stars Winona Ryder, who had recently received Oscar nominations for Little Women and The Age of Innocence.
But based upon this pedigree, the kindest thing you can say about Alien Resurrection is that it is less than the sum of its parts. It lacks both the cohesion and sense of terror which previous the instalments displayed in some way, shape or form. When the film attempts to draw on some deeper issues raised by the plot, we don?t get anything like enough time or explanation to merit our patience. The rest of the time, it?s noisy, confusing, and worst of all quite boring.
One of the big problems with Alien Resurrection is in the choice of director. Jeunet is a talented filmmaker, but he specialises in quirky, fantastical fables laced with offbeat humour. Here his unbridled imagination has been compressed and dumbed down, giving us a central mismatch between action and quirky comedy. In the midst of trying to set up a dark atmosphere, individual scenes are played for laughs in a way which is neither coherent nor beneficial. Why do we need Sigourney Weaver trouncing Ron Perlman at basketball, or Winona Ryder trying to drink from a mug while wearing boxing gloves?
There have been many instances in which Hollywood executives have hired an arty, ?outsider? director to helm a mainstream blockbuster. Think of David Lynch?s Dune, Guillermo del Toro?s Mimic or more successfully Alfonso Cuaron?s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In most cases (Cuaron excepting), the studio uses a director?s reputation to sell the film but steadfastly overrules their ideas with regard to story or design. Elements of Jeunet?s signature style do survive: the crew of the Betty is a motley bunch of misfits with Heath Robinson technology, as in Delicatessen or Micmacs. But these elements are swamped by a mainstream-orientated blockbuster which struggles to justify its existence, let alone add anything to the series.
While Aliens and Alien 3 were on one level action movies, they were intelligent in the way that they co-ordinated the action and balanced explosions with character development (even if, with Alien 3, this happened almost by accident). As a result they didn?t feel like a series of set-pieces being hastily book-ended by half-baked dialogue. Resurrection, meanwhile, is closer in structure to a video game. The plot is a very thin quest to get from A to B by going through a series of levels and avoiding monsters. The final scenes of arriving back on Earth are like the expository, triumphant little bits of video that appear after the final boss has been defeated.
There has always been a debate amongst horror circles about whether it is scarier to show the monster or to withhold it. Alien proved that the latter is generally more successful, and Aliens demonstrated that just because there?s more than one monster doesn?t mean you have to constantly show it on camera. Resurrection disregards both precedents, showing so much of the aliens so early on that by the time we get to the big showdown, they?re no more scary than the sharks in the Jaws sequels.
In the moments when it wants to be taken seriously, Resurrection attempts to explore issues surrounding cloning and the possibility of creating human-animal hybrids. It?s tempting to think that this was topical, given that the film was released around the time that Dolly the Sheep was created. But in fact the film is much closer to H. G. Wells? The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which a mad scientist creates such hybrids through secret vivisection. Brad Dourif?s character is clearly standing in for Moreau, being fascinated by the prospect of indestructible hybrids of humans and aliens.
There are two good scenes in Resurrection which touch on this very area. The first is that of Ripley coming across the previous attempts to clone her; the version Weaver plays is the eighth time the scientists tried it. Most of the attempts are kept suspended behind glass, like the face-huggers in Aliens, but then she comes across a grotesque version of herself being kept on life support. ?It? begs Ripley to kill it, and Ripley torches the whole room through tears, just as she torches Dallas? cocoon in the extended version of Alien.
The second good scene (relatively speaking) is the birth and death of Ripley?s ?son?, which conveys the blurring between human and alien and makes all that has gone before seem dryly ironic. Alien 3 explored the idea of the aliens not wanting Ripley to die, but now she is treated as one of their kind. As she slips into the queen?s clutches, their relationship is almost symbiotic, as if one species cannot live without the other. We even feel sorry for the creature as it gets sucked out into space: its death screams almost move us to tears as we feel that twisted maternal bond, and when Ripley says ?I?m sorry? we know she means it.
But while these scenes make sense as self-contained sections, they are not part of a well thought-out story. In Alien, we are given a creature with a comprehensive alternative ecosystem, with acid for blood and a strong exoskeleton made of silicon. In order for the Dr. Moreau plot to work, there has to be some level of explanation as to how the hybrids can survive and where the systems cross over. Since there isn?t, we are left wondering just how Ripley can have acid for blood without it eating her from the inside out. Or for that matter, how the alien queen managed to acquire a womb but not mammary glands needed to suckle her young.
More irritatingly, all the best moments in the film cover ground which has been explored before, so much so that the film should have been called Alien Regurgitation. Even the good moments essentially take all that was scary or interesting about the first three films and reproduce them in a manner which is neither scary nor interesting. A textbook example is the introduction of Leland Orser?s character who has an alien inside of him. He fulfils the John Hurt role from the first film, but without any of the magnetic screen presence of John Hurt, and when the chest-burster scene is restaged, it?s played for goofy laughs rather than deep-seated shocks.
As far as the performances go, it?s a fairly even keel of mediocrity. Sigourney Weaver remains a solid screen presence, but she has very little work with and her performance is largely phoned in. Ron Perlman, who worked with Jeunet on The City of Lost Children, is completely wasted, and Winona Ryder has her moments but little more. Most bizarre of all is Brad Dourif, who delivers a performance every bit as ripe and hammy as his turn in Dune, and with an equally ridiculous haircut.
Alien Resurrection is not totally rubbish: even without its two good scenes, it is a damn sight more coherent and enjoyable than the Alien vs. Predator series. But one cannot help feeling that the series deserved to end in a more dignified way than this. It dwarfs in comparison to Event Horizon or even Mimic, has very little to say that is original or interesting, and is executed in a deeply unsatisfying manner. In all it?s a dull and forgettable last instalment, which will leave even Alien completists out in the cold.