There's a period lasting from a couple days before Christmas to a week or so after New Year's Day during which I take a break from writing reviews and thinking about things with a critical lens. It's a time for me to “just have fun” and do whatever I want without attempting to prune some of my experiences and transform my reactions into reviews or articles. This year I took a little longer than usual to get back into the swing, but that's neither here nor there. What matters is that some thing—videogame, movie, album, book, etc.—eventually tickles my critical nerve and I am compelled to write again.
So here we are.
Alien Resurrection was generally regarded as the absolute nadir of the Alien franchise upon its 1997 release, supplanting Alien 3 as the worst entry in the series. Mind you, we had no idea that the Alien Vs. Predator franchise could make things even worser. Anyway, as more time has gone on, fans and critics alike have warmed up a bit to Alien 3. With the knowledge of its problems during seemingly every stage of its development, it's something of a miracle that the film is even halfway decent. I'd have to go back to it to form a more coherent opinion, but I do recall appreciating it more with the aforementioned knowledge about what they were originally going for, what they ended up going for, and how things were mishandled along the way.
With Resurrection, though, it's hard to say where things went wrong. Objectively speaking, the project looks like some kind of fanboy's wet dream: Joss Whedon wrote it! Jean-Pierre Jeunet directed it! Stars a fantastic cast of great character actors! The result? A confused mess that only intermittently satisfies. The two main reasons Resurrection failed are its the confusing tone and the way it fits into the larger Alien canon. Or shouldn't have fit into it, perhaps.
I saw Resurrection in theaters and while I enjoyed it, even my limited 13 year old critical faculties were enflamed by it. Those flaws and puzzled questions remain 14 years later and after more viewings. Why did the aliens try to hurt/kill Ripley early in the film and then suddenly capture her near the end? If they used a “blood sample” to clone Ripley, they would only have cloned her, since having an alien in you doesn't change your DNA. Also, I don't get why the scientist guy turned on them...it felt contrived, a way to echo Burke from Aliens and artificially provide a villain. Still, even if, at 13, I couldn't explain why I didn't like Resurrection as much as the other three films, I knew there was something bad and “off” about it.
What I couldn't explain is this: the tone of Resurrection is all over the place, leaving the viewer confused and mildly irritated. There were jokes and some light-hearted stuff in the other Alien movies, but the original was clearly a horror movie, the second was clearly an action film, and the third was, err, a combination of a prison film, a horror film, an action film, and an abortion commentary (well, that last one is just my opinion). But Resurrection is, what? Jeunet brings his keen visual eye and whimsical style, but it feels completely inappropriate for the Alien series. This movie is simultaneously the most light hearted of the quadrilogy and also the most dark and violent. We get scenes of Ripley saying funny lines and the wacky hijinks of Johner and Vriess, but we also get a scene where a dude is shot, starts to have a chestburster come out of him, is shot multiple times, beats the shit out of someone, and subsequently holds the other guy so that the chestburster explodes out of not only his chest but the other guy's head. And then they both get shot multiple times for good measure. Other times the movie tries to combine these two tones—the silly General character is saluting some dead soldiers when an alien bites the back of his skull, leading him to comically pick out and see a piece of his own brain. Hilarious!(?) This is the very same reason people hate the dinner/brain eating scene at the end of Hannibal. In both cases, you can't tell if it's played for a laugh or to be creepy. If it's supposed to be both at the same time, than most of the film should be this way instead of vacillating between the two extremes. Think Evil Dead II: it's violent and horror-y yet it's always kind of slapstick and funny, too. Alien Resurrection tries to be violent and horror-y, then it tries to be slapstick and funny, and then it tries to be everything at once.
Still, the thing that ruins Resurrection is that it was even made. It's one of the least essential sequels ever and no one was clamoring for more. For all its faults, Alien 3 wrapped up the series in a satisfying way, killing off both Ripley and the aliens while tying up other loose ends. But here comes Alien Resurrection with all of its plot contrivances in tow! It felt like an excuse to re-use that beloved character and those remarkably designed creatures, and I think it shows. Joss Whedon claimed years after the film's release that it wasn't a matter of not following the script, but that everything was executed poorly. I disagree; I think you could have done everything differently and it still wouldn't be any good. The very premise of the movie is lame and unimaginative, and they should have either done a prequel (which, hey presto, they are doing now) or gone with different characters. Of all the main Alien films, it has the least artistic cred and aspirations, instead coming off as crass and commercial.
Resurrection is indeed so crass that it picks up the subtle theme of motherhood running throughout the series and beats us over the head with it by having us witness the birth of an alien/human hybrid baby. Never mind any of the scientific improbabilities of how this happens or why the “baby” is fully grown when newborn. It's enough to hate this part of the movie forever that the alien/human hybrid baby is so poorly done, stupid looking, and unnecessary to the plot. I have to imagine it was added in to give the movie something “new” when it came to the alien creatures. Aliens introduced the Queen alien, while Alien 3 introduced an alien creature from a non-human host. But having some kind of bizarre sex scene with Ripley that results in the Queen giving birth to a badly designed hybrid? That is not a good addition to the Alien canon! I can't even enjoy its death because this scene is one of the worst in movie history. It's obnoxiously loud and pointlessly gory and we feel nothing for either it or Ripley. Within moments of its implausible-physics death, we get another hilarious scene with Johner and Vriess yelling “shit!” as their ship catches fire entering the Earth's atmosphere. Again, another bizarre tonal shift that doesn't work.
You'd be hard pressed to come up with a larger gulf of quality between this movie and what both Jeunet and Whedon went on to do. Jeunet's next film would be the amazing Amelie, while Whedon would go on to become one of nerdom's most beloved figures thanks to the ongoing Buffy series and Firefly. As for what I went on to do, I've spent the past 14 years wondering where the blame for the failure of Resurrection should go. Yet it occurs to me now that the project was doomed from the start. Sigourney Weaver and series producers David Giler and Walter Hill had no interest in it; Danny Boyle, Peter Jackson, and Bryan Singer all passed on directing it; Jeunet seems to have only done it for the money.
Resurrection feels like a product of the Hollywood system and its inertia. Someone did a calculation about how much money another Alien film would cost to make versus how much it would make, regardless of quality. Since this calculation came out in the positive, it was made. To put it another way, this is one of those cases of a studio caring too much, in all the wrong ways, about a film. While you can feel elements of the distinctive styles of Jeunet and Whedon in it, there isn't enough of either for the movie to be a success. More importantly, it all feels compromised and confused because they aren't good fits for the franchise.
To make a decent sequel to Alien 3, you would have to have scrapped everything about Resurrection—the script, the director, the main character, the tone. It may not be an awful movie, but it is an awful Alien movie.