At a time when every film franchise seems hell-bent on “world building,” the producers of Alien have made some particularly dubious attempts to create a rich mythology for its titular monsters, the xenomorphs, in the prequels Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Rather than go back and explain the things nobody needed an explanation for, the series would benefit from a forward-looking perspective, building on what made Ridley Scott’s 1979 original Alien such an iconic masterpiece of both sci-fi and horror cinema. But then Alien: Resurrection did just that 20 years ago, and nobody cared.
There’s no debate about the low standing of Resurrection within the Alien canon. It sits at a cool 52 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (with an even cooler 39 percent audience score). Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel included it in their end-of-year list of worst movies of 1997—a year, it’s worth noting, that included the release of Batman & Robin, The Postman, Anaconda, Jungle 2 Jungle, and Speed 2: Cruise Control.
Resurrection stands alongside Alien 3 as bastard children of an otherwise phenomenally popular film franchise, with Neill Blomkamp even claiming that he’ll ignore the two in his own contribution to the series, if that ever actually makes it into production. Even the highly divisive Prometheus has its loudly faithful defenders (Ebert was in fact one such champion of the prequel).
So why do I stand by Resurrection? In part because it takes the time to engage with the ideas and deeper meanings of the original film, and it features great performances by Winona Ryder, Brad Dourif, and Ron Perlman, directed by French auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet from a screenplay by Joss Whedon.
At its core, Alien is about corporate power and the disposability of the working class—and more obviously about the vulnerability or our gross human bodies and their ability to bleed, to expel other nasty fluids, to be invaded, to be ripped apart in different ways. Every Alien movie plays with the latter idea, but Alien: Resurrection is the only film that seems to fully acknowledge and embrace the fact that Alien is completely bland space pulp without the Weyland-Yutani Corporation (named for the first time in James Cameron’s 1986 sequel Aliens).
Known simply as “the company” in Alien, Weyland-Yutani is responsible for everything that goes wrong. Their desire to study the aliens found on a mysterious planet supersedes any safety protocols. Human life is literally secondary to that imperative. The crew of the ship Nostromo doesn’t know that though. They naïvely cling to the idea that doing their jobs will keep them safe and in the company’s good graces. The few grumblings from the union mechanics who want to stay safe and just do what they’re paid for are met with contractual loopholes that effectively fuck them over. Eventually, we learn that “standard operating procedure is to do whatever the fuck they tell you to do.” That means dying in service to a mandate kept secret in a super computer.
Aliens doesn’t do much to keep the series fresh, though it offers up a xenomorph queen, bigger and tougher to kill than the first film’s monster. It may be the fan favourite, but Aliens is pretty much a beat-for-beat remake of Alien, replacing the suspenseful tone of the original with gun fights and machismo. If Alien is horror/sci-fi, Aliens is the same movie reframed as action/sci-fi. Then Alien 3 mostly abandons the corporate message of its predecessors altogether in favour of a space prison narrative, in which the xenomorphs wreak havoc on a bunch of criminals. Which brings us to Alien: Resurrection.
Resurrection takes place 200 years after the death of Alien protagonist Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien 3. After becoming a xenomorph host, Ripley killed herself, but she’s now been cloned by the United Systems Military, who stand in for Weyland-Yutani as a kind of corporate military conglomerate, intent on studying Ripley and every xenomorph they can get their hands on. Ripley’s back, but she’s changed. The cloning process has linked her to the xenomorphs, giving her new strength and a psychic link to the aliens—and acid blood that can burn through a ship’s hull. Weaponizing the deadly aliens, and Ripley, is now the military’s end-game.
When the military’s captive xenomorphs escape, Ripley teams up with a group of space pirates, including the robot Call, played by Winona Ryder. The rag-tag team of rebels fights their way through the monsters, while Ripley tries to figure out exactly what her relationship to the xenomorphs is now.
There are a few fun touches that superficially play on the original film. Call is part of a group of robots who rebelled and won back their freedom. It seems the top-down structure of Weyland-Yutani was so oppressive that even the previously obedient machines couldn’t stand it. And the military’s central computer now has a male voice and is referred to as “Father,” cementing the patriarchal role of those in power, in contrast to all the maternal imagery of Alien and the “Mother” console.
Ryder, who didn’t manage to use her 90s “it girl” rep to make Resurrection a hit, is one of the few people who actually remembers the film fondly, and is largely responsible for making it “kind of like a really cool art film,” as she described it in a 2013 interview with the Huffington Post, praising the direction of Jeunet, who was gaining fame for his offbeat French films and would eventually become an international star with Amélie.
It turns out Jeunet was Ryder’s idea, and he gives the film an eccentricity that may dull the horror a bit but gives Resurrection a really distinct style. At times, it feels like a vaudevillian theatre troupe putting on an Alien play, and I mean that in the best way. The actors playfully dive deep into their roles, and camp things up for a director who can appreciate the absurdity of it all.
And thematically, Alien’s preoccupations come roaring back after taking a backseat to commandos and killers in the last two films. That dark humour and clever evolution of plot comes courtesy of the film’s screenwriter, geekdom’s filmmaker-in-chief Joss Whedon.
Or maybe former filmmaker-in-chief. It’s admittedly not the best time to be a Joss Whedon stan right now, but his contribution to pop culture is still undeniable. 1997 will rightly be remembered more for the premiere of his Buffy the Vampire Slayer than for Resurrection, but both Buffy and Alien fans should do themselves a favour and revisit this one with an open mind—even if Whedon himself has rather unceremoniously disowned the thing, shifting the blame for its failings on pretty much everyone else.
The Whedonesque signatures are all there, and maybe more apparent in hindsight. For one, the crew of space pirates feels like something of a prototype for Whedon’s space cowboys in his short-lived cult series Firefly and its follow-up feature Serenity. His later brigands are more likeable and heroic, if still flawed, but the seed of an idea seems to be planted in Resurrection.
Then there’s Ripley herself, whose transformation has all the hallmarks of a Whedon heroine. Nearly every Whedon project seems to have a woman with special abilities given to her by one shadowy cabal of men or another. Inevitably, she rebels and takes back her autonomy with force. This happened with Buffy, it happens with River in Serenity, and it happens with Echo in his later series Dollhouse. Ripley’s rampage in Resurrection is textbook Whedon patriarchy smashing, but it’s also a fitting conclusion to her relationship with Weyland-Yutani.
The company is replaced by a galactic military, but it’s all part of the same consolidation of power. The aliens represent the line corporations, governments, and armies (are these three even distinct?) are willing to cross to achieve their own ends, so Ripley’s resistance is always essentially pitted against the same thing. In Resurrection, they accidentally empower her through the very process that was meant to use her up. By reducing her to the level of meat to be experimented on, she and the xenomorphs literally become one. Everything and everyone is just a plaything for those in power.
In one of the film’s most cathartic (and disturbing) scenes, Ripley torches a lab full of failed Ripley clones, one of which painfully begs her for death. One of Ripley’s new crewmates, played by the always scene-stealing Ron Perlman, doesn’t get why she’s so angry as to be wasting ammo. He chalks it up to being “a chick thing,” which is a fitting final note. The control over human bodies has always had gendered undertones in the Alien films. Ripley is a woman whose physical autonomy is always under threat, either from the aliens or from her patriarchal corporate overlords. Here, she takes back control more divisively than ever before.
The movie still leaves plenty of room for Ripley to keep waging her war on her oppressors though. Maybe when Scott wraps up his prequel series he can check in on Ripley again and make the franchise actually evolve some more. And if he doesn’t, we’ll always have Alien: Resurrection, like it or not.
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