‘Aliens/Predator’ Universe flashback: Whedon gives a test run for ‘Firefly’ with ‘Alien Resurrection’ (1997) (Movie review)

Following a horror movie, an action movie and a brooding character piece, the “Alien Quadrilogy” (as it’ll be known until a fifth film comes out) wraps up with a fun sci-fi rollercoaster ride. 1997’s “Alien Resurrection” (a 6.2 IMBD rating) is just as maligned as “Alien 3” (a 6.4 rating), but while I understand why people dislike the slow-paced third film, I don’t understand why I have to defend the fourth film. It’s no “Alien” or “Aliens,” but it’s much easier to like than “Alien 3.”

“Resurrection” continues with the “aliens vs. humans in an enclosed environment” structure, delivering the yarn in blunt blockbuster fashion as the action moves swiftly from one set piece to the next. Still, it stays true to the established mythos and delivers a smorgasbord of images worthy of the series, from the establishing shot of the massive military vessel Auriga, to the tense underwater chase, to the ragtag group emerging from the water only to be surrounded by hatching eggs, to the horrific-looking failed clones and Alien Newborn, all of which would give H.R. Giger himself nightmares.

Sure, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is somewhat showy with his wide shots zoomed into close-ups of people screaming. But he doesn’t butcher Joss Whedon’s script, and the actors understand how to deliver the writer’s witty dialogue (Ron Perlman’s Johner, in particular, is a hoot; he’s an embryonic Jayne from “Firefly”). “Resurrection” sometimes gets lumped in with the 1992 “Buffy” movie among horribly directed Whedon scripts, but let’s be fair: Although Jeunet is no Scott, Cameron or Fincher, he’s no Fran Rubel Kuzui either. In fact, since I didn’t catch “Buffy” Season 1 when it aired, “Resurrection” was my first exposure to Whedon’s writing, and I was hooked; Jeunet’s direction wasn’t a detraction for me.

Sigourney Weaver no doubt was coaxed to return because she’s not playing Ripley this time, she’s playing Ripley Clone No. 8. She gives a fittingly detached, unsettling performance as the clone’s memories gradually return — not only from Ripley’s life, but also from the alien hive. The story’s humanity — with intended irony, I’m sure — comes from the robot Call (Winona Ryder). The “What does it mean to be human?” theme is unpacked even more in A.C. Crispin’s excellent novelization, but it plays fine on screen too. Meanwhile, the roughneck smugglers provide plenty of color — and colorful language. Indeed, the whole Betty crew seems like close cousins to Whedon’s “Firefly” crew.

One of the flaws of “Alien 3,” the rough special effects, is corrected here. Although “Resurrection” isn’t especially scary, the xenomorphs seem like part of the environment again, as they did in “Aliens.” And in disgusting fashion: The final act, where Ripley enters the nest and witnesses the disgusting birth of the newborn, is not for the faint of heart. I recall that one of my “Alien”-fan friends back in ’97 was rather tempered in his praise of the film, citing the difficulty of looking at that hideous newborn, and I don’t entirely blame him.

“Resurrection” pushes the franchise further into sci-fi territory by raising questions about cloning, the ethical line of scientific experimentation, and artificial intelligence via its two main characters. It ends with Ripley and Call overlooking an Australian city and thinking about a new lease on life (in the 2003 Special Edition), and it seemed like this might be a launching pad for the long-awaited aliens-on-Earth chapter of the saga, with Ryder primed to take over if Weaver wanted to bow out. Ryder looks pretty much the same today, so she could’ve played a robot for several years. That never materialized (perhaps because the aliens-on-Earth idea is easier said than done), but “Resurrection’s” comfort with sci-fi ideas perhaps paved the way for Ridley Scott’s brainy “Prometheus” last month.

For nitpickers like me, here are a few additional oddities about “Alien Resurrection”:

  • Gediman calls “Alien 3’s” Fiorina 161 “Fiori 16,” and then Ripley repeats the mispronunciation. That on-set ignorance of the saga is pretty inexcusable, I’ll admit. But it only lasts a couple seconds, so I’m able to move on.
  • The gang says that going through the flooded sublevel is the only way to get to the elevator, which will then get them on a path toward the Betty. But when Call is blasted into the water by Wren, she reappears in the elevator mere moments later, meaning she easily found another way. This has always irked me somewhat, especially since a line or two of dialog could’ve smoothed things over.
  • Two hundred years after “Alien 3,” the military clones Ripley in order to get the alien. This makes it clear that the xenomorphs Ripley deals with over the course of the four films represent the only specimens the Earth government knows about. (And Crispin’s novelization confirms this on page 89.) This renders all those Dark Horse Comics hard to reconcile, to say the least. Offhand, I can’t recall how it affects the “Alien vs. Predator” films; that’s something to explore in a future thread.

Click here for John’s reviews of all the “Aliens” and “Predator” films.