Born Again

Alien Resurrection
area theaters

AT A TIME when Hollywood movies are packages, the ongoing Alien saga is an unusually generous gift. Think about it: What other corporate film franchise can be counted on to provide compelling (and complicated) feminist content with each successive chapter, in addition to state-of-the-art FX, enough heady grist to spawn a grisly host of academic film articles, and--justifying these risks to the marketplace--a terrordome of gut-busting monster action? Regarding the latter, there wasn't enough of it in Alien3 (1992) to suit the masses, as director David Fincher paid dearly for daring to turn Sigourney Weaver's Lt. Ellen Ripley from a gun-toting terminator/mama (cf. James Cameron's mid-'80s Aliens) into a world-weary martyr with serious intimations of the silent film-era Joan of Arc. Like Ripley, Fincher sacrificed his livelihood in order to keep the alien brood's "unbelievable potential" out of the greedy hands of "the Company"--otherwise known as 20th-Century Fox.

And now it's resurrection time. Just as the studio deigns to bring Ripley and Alien back from the grave, some evil (male) scientists at the start of Alien Resurrection contrive to play God by cloning our heroine--and her beast within. But there are two forces of good at work here, too, albeit operating at only half-strength to begin with: One is the French auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet, directing this blockbuster sans alter ego Marc Caro (with whom he made Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children); and the other is Weaver's Ripley, whose resurrected self is semi-alien, sporting acid for blood and a slithering bride-of-the-monster demeanor that's at once flirtatious and empowered. This Alien is obviously engineered to gross out (in both senses), but it's hardly predictable. Hiring distinct art-filmmakers the way a Batman flick might anoint another overpaid Joker is unique and essential to this series; so too is the habit of allowing its star the chance to act radically different each time out.

In fact, difference of identity has been at the heart of this series since Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) played out its tribal allegory through independent Ripley, a meeker woman named Lambert, an anti-establishment black man, some white guys (the earliest victims), an android, a cat, an alien, and a computer named, aptly, Mother. Resurrection retains the series' ragtag group dynamic with its "renegade band of smugglers"--including the girlish Call (Winona Ryder) and the volatile Johner (Ron Perlman)--who dock their pirate ship at the space station with alienesque Ripley, the scientists, and a rapidly reproducing and pissed-off queen-alien clone who's being kept by a sadist (Brad Dourif) in a glass cage (but not for long). Aside from exhibiting some serious birth envy, this Alien's many white men are, once again, incidental. The real drama has Ripley toughening up Ryder's over-sensitively "programmed" Call ("Must be a chick thing," says one of the men), and developing a maternal and erotic (!) connection to the queen beast and her humanoid/satanic spawn--who in terms of social (mis)behavior is clearly typed as a boy.

Like Alien3, Resurrection doubles as a right-to-choose tract, with Ripley debating whether to expel something nasty that she created without meaning to. (Another theme of the series: Biology is a bitch.) Complicating matters further, Ripley, as "the monster's mother" (and part monster herself), can't help identifying with the queen. Their bond is symbiotic: The queen gives Ripley her new talent for basketball and overall bad self (no small virtue in the company of men); and Ripley returns to the queen her ability to breed, which becomes this alien Mildred Pierce's raison d'etre and mortal flaw. Moving beyond mythic-superheroine status to become the omniscient keeper of all themes Alien, the cloned Ripley's "synaptic dissonance" might make her tougher for some fans to root for--which is to say she's never been so complex. The series' good vs. evil/human vs. alien battle takes place within her in this one. (Leave it to the Alien films to up the ante on that genre cliche: "This time, it's personal.")

A master at turning the cruelest of cosmic jokes to her advantage (each sequel begins with the heroine being rudely awakened from sleep and yanked into action), Ripley had already begun talking in metaphors in Alien3; but here she knows the routine so well that she scarcely needs to speak it. In other words, this fourth chapter comes off as the first fully postmodern Alien film: not Alien multiplied or cubed, but synthetically reawakened, groggy enough to sleepwalk through our memories of the first three, as in a dream.

The rampant increase in computer-bred FX (swimming aliens!) can be seen as a predictable by-product of "the Company"'s cloning process. But Jeunet, like Ripley, displays a palpable fascination with the aliens, too, while the rest of his experiments represent a quantum leap forward. Resurrection's cloning/fusion conceit is also its operative metaphor: Jeunet conceives the product of his Lost Children and the $100-million Hollywood blockbuster. Miraculously, each of these survives the operation. Likewise, Ripley is triumphantly returned to Mother Earth but remains an Other twice over--still a stranger here herself, and proud of it.

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