Thursday, March 26, 2015
I'm Finding a Lot of Things Funny Lately, but I Don't Think They Are: The Ups and Downs of Alien Resurrection (1997)
It’s intriguing to consider how all the Alien films differ in tone, approach and theme or message.
The 1979 film from Ridley Scott is all about feelings of isolation and terror in the loneliest, darkest corner of deep space. Underlying the film is a comparison between three distinctive beings that qualify as survivors: the alien, Jones the cat, and, of course, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).
Each one survives or endures a harrowing crisis based on its biological or “natural” make-up (instincts) and individual intelligence.
By contrast, James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) is a gut-crunching, nail-biting war film that forges a space age comparison to the Vietnam conflict. The Colonial Marines go into a combat situation with the best technology, the best training and the finest experience in order to battle an enemy considered “primitive,” but which nonetheless challenges their assumptions of dominance.
The film also sets up a dynamic battle between maternal figures: Ripley and the Alien Queen.
David Fincher’s Alien3 (1992) categorically eschews thrills and action in favor of a dark, intimate story about Ripley’s soul.
Is it worth it to survive if the entire human race is jeopardized by pursuit of that end? In this case, Ripley confronts her own strength -- her innate ability to survive and adapt to difficult scenarios -- and judges that there is a higher human value than continued existence. The film serves as a space-age Christ parable and an exploration of spirituality, and sacrifice.
And Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection (1997)?
I must confess my own bias here, before I continue with another word of this analysis. I have always found this 1997 sequel to be the least successful and least worthwhile of the Alien films. I awarded it just two stars (out of four) in Horror Films of the 1990s (2011), for example. My review was pretty harsh, and I wrote that the film began the “stupid-ification” of the beloved franchise.
But on a new screening of the film this week – probably may seventh or eighth viewing over the decades -- I began to detect that there are indeed virtues embedded in Alien Resurrection. However, they are -- in some ways -- very difficult to highlight or enumerate. Why?
Primarily because of tone.
Unlike all the others, this Alien film is a dark comedy.
Yes, you read that right. Alien Resurrection is a grim comedy about, among other things, human folly. The film’s main character, a clone of Ripley, stands outside humanity and quips about the circumstances and nature of the failings she sees.
It’s all very….French.
Alien Resurrections acts, overall, as a cynical observation not about the qualities that separate humans from the xenomorphs, but rather those that connect us or tie us to them.
In Aliens, Ripley tells Burke that she isn’t certain which species is worse. At least you don’t see the xenomorphs trying to fuck each other over for “a goddamned percentage.”
That statement or observation seems to be the guiding principle, the overarching leitmotif of Alien Resurrection. The film goes to some length to eliminate the distance, essentially, between aliens and humans, and asks us to put aside moral absolutes or precepts about good and evil, and consider them in more relativistic terms.
But the rub here is that the filmmakers undertake this task in Joss Whedon’s trademark glib fashion, often through quips, jokes, and moments that puncture the “seriousness” of the enterprise. The humor in the film is not straight-up funny, but rather cold, caustic…even bitter. It arises at a considerable distance from humanity itself.
It’s as if the Ripley clone -- no longer entirely human – wrote the film herself.
Alien Resurrection finds a lot of things about the human race funny, but understands, simultaneously -- as Ripley explicitly observes in the movie -- that they aren’t really funny at all.
No, those things are actually really sad.
The things that Ripley sees and comes to understand speak poorly of us as a species. The only way to treat these problems involving human nature, therefore, is through absurdist humor. Otherwise, the mode of expression will be…tears.
The problem, I believe, with Alien Resurrection is that some touches of humor are downright dreadful, and thereby corrupt the sense of “reality” we have come to expect in the Alien films. Yet by the same token, “the dark comedy” approach accomplishes two things.
Firstly, it reflects a cynical, caustic view of mankind. The film notes that man is, finally, no better than acid-bleeding, chest-bursting aliens. The gap between species has been bridged.
Secondly, the attempt to take on an Alien movie with a different, fresh tone (the dark comedy), honors the lineage and tradition of these films. No two films in the series are the same; no two films cover the same territory.
If I can honestly commend Alien3 for the same virtue (originality), I must assess Alien Resurrection in the same light. I can maintain (and I do maintain) that Alien3 is more coherent and more cohesive than Alien Resurrection, but I can’t fault the latter for attempting something new.
In the past, I viewed the movie as a retreat to Aliens territory: big muscles, big guns, lots of fighting. Now, I see that there are virtues beneath those surface values.
In fact, one illuminating way to view Alien Resurrection is as the first movement of a (not realized) second trilogy. The separate setting (200 years in the future), the new heroine (not Ripley, but a hybrid clone), and even the enemy (not the Company, but the military), all encourage this reading. If you look at the film as laying down future markers for the series, exploring the interaction of aliens and humans in a much closer, much more intertwined fashion, Alien Resurrection seems to open up in a more gratifying or satisfactory fashion.
I still like Alien Resurrection the least of the four original films, because of the wobbly tonal changes, but I can also see that the film boasts some intriguing ideas, and at the very least, attempts to take the series into new territory.
“I’m the Monster’s Mother.” How Alien Resurrection Succeeds
Alien Resurrection goes a long way towards making the point that “true” evil may not come down to the physical properties that divide species. Rather, the film suggests, an organism who attempts to co-opt the life another organism for its own agenda is the true face of evil.
The aliens, of course, utilize human beings as breeding material for their life-cycle. They do this, however, by instinct, not out of malice. It’s “what” they are.”
But the humans of Alien Resurrection absolutely use other human beings to make money, to make weapons, or otherwise further selfish needs and agendas. They put these needs, these desires, ahead of humanity, ahead, in fact, of human life. Their decision to co-opt other organisms is conscious, determined. It’s “who” they are.
This idea is played out in regards to Ripley -- now a clone -- and the fact that seven previous versions of her were produced and discarded without thought, as merely a means to an end. The clones are just “meat,” with no thought given to what they feel or require to survive. Quality of life isn’t even a consideration. The Ripley clone is permitted to live only because the scientists on the Auriga possess a certain level of curiosity about her. Importantly, that’s a reason that involves them and their needs, not Ripley or hers.
Dr. Gediman (Brad Dourif) and Dr. Wren (J.E. Freeman) treat the aliens in much the same way as they treat Ripley: as meat. They clone the alien queen, induce her life-cycle (egg-laying) and then attempt to control (using a steam button in the laboratory for punishment)), the behavior of her progeny. The mission of the scientists is to make a new weapon for General Perez (Dan Hedaya), and to control that new weapon with force. No thought is given to these creatures as living organisms. They are bio-weapons, that’s it.
Even the apparent “protagonists” of Alien Resurrection -- the crew of the Betty -- undertake action for an evil agenda. They steal a traveling spaceship crew in hyper-sleep and sell them for cash so they can get rich. Like the scientists or the general, the crew people have decided that their selfish needs are more important than self-determination or quality of life. Johner, in particular, derives pleasure from hurting people. He drops knives into Vriesse’s paralyzed leg.
The only person for whom this observation of avarice, greed and desire is not true is the Ripley clone.
She is a creature of two worlds, of two separate physiologies and she doesn’t attempt to “use” others for her own purposes. In fact, her mission is often the opposite of that behavior. For example, Ripley elects to burn the surviving clones, 1-7, because one of them begs for death; for peace. Ripley obliges because the creature is doomed not just to pain, but to slavery at the hands of those who would use it. Ripley assesses that such slavery is no way to live, and it is right (and noble) to obey the clone’s wishes and terminate her.
At the same time that Ripley can see the humanity of the clones, she can recognize the innocence of the Newborn -- another alien/human fusion -- and regret its death. For the first time in the series, Ripley is in the position, then, of weighing or mediating the two sides of this conflict. In the past, she has always tried to destroy the aliens at all costs, as a danger to mankind and the universe. In Alien Resurrection, the plot develops in such a way that it is, finally, crystal clear, that humans are no better than the aliens; that both species are dangerous to the safety of the universe. Consider again, there are no really “good humans” in the film. Call is the most humane character, but she’s an android. Vriess and Christie are okay, but they still go along with the mission to hijack the cryo-tubes, don’t they?
Consisting of human and alien nature for the first time, Ripley now understands both species, and develops a gallows sense of humor or irony about them. She finds death funny. Not because suffering is funny. But because the behavior of the two species surrounding her have made death inevitable, a predictable punch line to a very bad joke
Essentially, Alien Resurrection re-positions Ripley. In the first movement of an apparent new trilogy, she is not the savior of mankind as she was in the first three films, but instead the arbiter or decider of values, weighing one side against the other; keeping in check the worst proclivities of each.
And her ultimate determination of evil comes down to a simple choice of control. Evil attempts to control the life of others without any regard for its feelings, suffering, or emotional needs and desires. The Newborn, finally, must die, because it kills without reason. The clones must die, because they have been created not to live, but to serve an end that makes them suffer interminable pain.
When Alien Resurrection works its cold, bitter best, it is as an examination not of a good species and a bad species, but two species that hurt people. Ripley -- the only one who can empathize with both viewpoints -- becomes the one to weigh the scales.
This idea could have really developed in future films, and it would have been interesting to see where the idea went had a second full trilogy developed. Imagine two films in which the alien and human worlds grow closer and closer, more alike than unlike, and you start to get a notion of where the material could go.
How are such ideas expressed in the film? Well, Ripley’s biology is an indicator of her new position. She bleeds red acid, which signifies her mixed heritage. Similarly, the cartoony, two-dimensional nature of the scientists in the film -- one mad (Gediman), one evil (Wrenn) -- makes us understand that humanity’s villainy has risen to the same extreme level as that of the aliens…or become even worse. Ripley, “the fast learner” sees the humans for what they are pretenders to power, and is, overall, disconnected from human concerns.
There really is no human character in the film to like, and that makes the movie’s point, but in some way, it also distances the viewer from the players.
Ripley’s inappropriate sense of humor -- “who do I have to fuck to get off this boat?” -- is similarly a signifier that she no longer is exclusively on our side. She finds things funny, but knows they aren’t. They are funny to her because her new genetic make-up has changed her very nature. She is now the child (and mother, simultaneously) of the aliens, as well as, physiologically-speaking, mostly human.
The Southland Times called Alien Resurrection “grotesque and captivating” and the “best” of the Alien series (January 9, 1998, page 12). I agree with the first observation, if not the second. The film is unbelievably grotesque, perhaps the most so of the series. And it is captivating in the sense that we must ask ourselves, for the first time, about Ripley’s loyalties and motivations.
As the center of the film, she stands as an ambiguous figure, one who could side with either species. Alien Resurrection succeeds to the level it does, perhaps, because it is the first film that suggests a balance between human and alien perspectives, and posits a force – the Ripley clone – who can navigate such a balance.
“Father’s Dead, asshole:” How Alien Resurrection Fails
A bitter, caustic film that acknowledges man’s fatal flaws, Alien Resurrection’s ideas are often superior to the execution of the material.
It’s one thing to add a certain level of detached glibness to Ripley’s mode of expression. It’s quite another to go for dumb physical comedy in the body of the film itself. In its ambitious attempt to be a dark, observational comedy about human foibles and transport the series in a new direction, Alien Resurrection sometimes makes the characters and world of Ripley and the aliens a live-action cartoon.
Specifically, the frightful strength and power of the aliens has been made a laughing-stock, particularly during the horrendous sequence in which the monster’s signature inner jaw pulps the head of General Perez (a grievously miscast Dan Hedaya).
Perez stands there, not even unbalanced by the impact, and picks out the back of his skull and brain…presumably while the alien stands there waiting for him to make his next move.
The scene is so poorly acted, so poorly presented that you can’t tell if it’s supposed to be funny or horrific.
Instead, it’s just a mess. It is a reality-breaking moment that takes you out of the film.
Also, the film -- forged in the unfortunate and unsubtle era of Face-Off (1997) and Con-Air (1997) -- is mired in stupid, macho BMF-ism.
That’s Bad Motherfucker-ism, in case you weren’t sure.
Johner is a bad MF.
Christie is a bad MF.
Vriess – a fellow in a wheelchair – is also a bad MF.
Of course, Ripley is a bad MF too.
Instead of genuine characterization, we’re asked again and again to like these characters because they’re too cool for school. Ooh, look at those big guns. Look at how Christie can shoot ricochet shots!
Ugh. There’s not a single supporting character in the film who deserves to eat at the same lunch table where Parker, Brett, Hudson, Hicks, Bishop, 85 or Clements do. They are all walking/talking clichés with only the most basic of “qualities.”
And, incidentally, they are also pretty clearly the early versions of Serenity’s crew.
Johner is the same dumb soldier guy/comic relief as Firefly’s Jayne. And the Captain, Elgyn, navigates with the same sort of amoral, do-whatever-it-takes-to-survive moral compass as Mal Reynolds does. The Betty’s mechanic is the much-lusted after but diminutive Call, a good stand-in for Kaylee, except she’s an android. Even the cockpit of the Betty resembles -- at least a little -- Serenity’s command deck. Whedon demonstrated how, in a continuing series, he could take characters of such broad strokes and transform them into beloved, nuanced individuals. The crew of the Betty doesn’t quite get there.
Instead, the macho approach of rampant BMF-ism reaches the height of idiocy when Larry Purvis (Leland Orser) -- a man carrying a chest-buster inside of him -- also ascends to that territory. During his last moments of life, he assaults an evil scientist, Dr. Wrenn and manages to position his opponent at just the right place, in just the right moment, so that the emerging ches-tbuster breaks not just through his own ruptured chest, but -- conveniently -- through Wrenn’s skull too. It’s a ludicrous, over-the-top moment meant to be intense and manic but in concept and execution, like the Hedaya scenes, proves stupid beyond measure.
It’s difficult to like the film, and its “dark comedy” approach when so many moments pander to dumb action convention.
Also, some of the verbal humor in Alien Resurrection doesn’t work in either concept or delivery. “Who were you expecting, Santa Claus?” asks Vriess at a crucial juncture, and the moment flat-lines. The humor in the film is so hit-or-miss that Alien Resurrection veers between groans and giggles throughout most of its run.
Whedon once noted that it wasn’t that his script was altered that made Alien Resurrection so poor, it was everything that came in the production after the script: the casting, the costumes, even the creature design. You can see his point. Winona Ryder is underwhelming as Call, and Hedaya never manages to be convincing as a military general. He could get the job, but he couldn’t do the job.
In terms of costumes, Alien Resurrection dresses all of its evil scientist in -- wait for it -- futuristic white coats, just so the audience understands that, you know, they are scientists. The cartoony aspects of this once realistic universe have been ramped up to a ludicrous degree.
Similarly, the film lacks any driving sense of momentum. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) is one obvious template for the story: survivors of a disaster must make their way through a wrecked ship.
But there’s no sense of how close or how far the survivors are at any given moment from their destination. There’s no sense that they are making progress. There’s a stop at the clone lab, a stop at the face-hugger lab, an underwater swim, a stop at a chapel, and then a dash for the dock. The incidents feel episodic and don’t build towards anything significant or meaningful. Similarly, this is the first Alien film in which the alien doesn’t cast a shadow over the movie even when it is not on-screen. The aliens are missing in action for long spells in Alien Resurrection, and you just don’t feel the danger of their (hidden) presence. There’s no belief that they could be hiding around any corner.
Oppositely, Alien Resurrection’s big set piece is visually arresting indeed. It involves the survivors aboard the Auriga swimming through a flooded compartment of the ship in hopes of reaching safety. It’s a long swim too, and the scene culminates with swimming aliens in pursuit. The scene is tense and well-shot, as characters struggle to hold their breaths and swim for their lives as the aliens, the equivalent of great white sharks, circle in for the kill. And even better, it’s all a trap, set to make the oxygen-starved swimmers open up wide…in a room of eggs and face-huggers. This sequence possesses a lot of energy, and gives the movie a real kick. If the rest of the movie had lived up to this set-piece, Alien Resurrection might be remembered differently.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of Alien Resurrection is that it attempts something different, and now that thing is behind us. The dark comedy angle -- the exaggerated colors and characters -- has been done, and now the series can move on and attempt another, hopefully more fruitful approach. So I champion Alien Resurrection for its decision to, in honor of the series, try something new. But I assess, finally, that “dark comedy” is not the most successful approach for the franchise.
Even acknowledging that judgment, I can’t help but wonder what might have been: what a second trilogy -- with Resurrection as the start point, not a dead end -- might have looked like. There are moments and images of greatness in Alien Resurrection, but overall, the film doesn’t capitalize well on them.