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Despite flaws, Alien Resurrection is a good movie with some great ingredients. It looks wonderful. With one exception, the casting is fabulous. It's more ingenious than the first three films in the series, boasting some big sci-fi ideas. However as part four of the Alien series I didn't much like it; it's probably better viewed as the start of a new series than as a continuation of Alien, Aliens and Alien3.
First of all, there's no Ripley. Sigourney Weaver plays a character of that name, but Lieutenant Ellen Ripley is dead and gone. I missed her. She was the core of the Aliens series and her personal story was their backbone. Everything she knew and everyone she loved had been murdered or destroyed until there was nowhere for her to go but death. This Ripley, "Number Eight", is a monster and rather too self-consciously an action hero for my tastes. I could have lived without the macho one-liners.
Secondly, the Aliens themselves get short shrift. Alien Resurrection ties itself in knots rather than let itself simply scare us with big nasty monsters. Instead it's far more interested in its characters. At first we follow the misadventures of damn fool scientists, then our attention switches to Sigourney and her space pirate chums. Apart from an action sequence in the middle of the film, the Aliens don't even get much of a body count; after the underwater scenes I don't think a single character is killed by an ordinary Alien. Characters die, but it's at the hands of other characters. They shoot each other, heroically sacrifice themselves or inflict death by chestburster. The Aliens themselves are sidelined. Oh, and they are "ordinary Aliens", as opposed to every previous instalment of the series which developed them in some way. There's reinvention here, sure, but... well, I'll say no more.
These Aliens aren't scary. Unflattering CGI doesn't help, but in the other movies to see an Alien was to die. Fear was induced, but not here. Take the brilliant idea of an underwater setting, f'rinstance; imagine Jaws or Deep Blue Sea imagery applied to the Aliens, then compare that to what we got on-screen in Alien Resurrection. Now do you see what could have been?
Much of this is Jean-Pierre Jeunet's direction, but more of it is Joss Whedon's script. Alien Resurrection isn't trying to be a horror movie, or even something that looks like one. It's got thought-provoking ambiguities and fun characters instead. The Aliens aren't terrifying all-consuming destroyers, but exploited animals that end up being more sympathetic than their experimenters. The scientists who clone Ripley for her Alien Queen aren't evil, just stupid. You gotta admire the scene where Ripley (number eight) stumbles across the room of numbers 1-7 and torches it. It's good cinema, but it doesn't feel like an Aliens film.
However the film's flaws don't end with one's expectations of an Aliens film. The biggest is Winona Ryder. The Aliens series has brilliant casting and wonderful directors, far better than anyone could have expected, and for the most part Alien Resurrection continues that welcome trend... but Winona is the worst-cast performer in the series by light-years. The Alien franchise isn't about movie stars. She doesn't belong there - but I might have forgiven this if she'd given a decent performance. Alas, no. She's a petulant schoolgirl. This was fine in Beetlejuice and Heathers, where she was *meant* to be playing a petulant schoolgirl, but here she's damn annoying and I couldn't understand why Ripley sided with her instead of pushing her head through a wall. Apparently Angelina Jolie was offered the part of Annalee Call before Winona Ryder. That could have been good!
I also thought Sigourney missed a trick. Her character is fascinating and endlessly watchable, with all that Alien body language (head movements, swimming style, tendency to invade your personal space, etc.) but it's not compelling. She's distant. She only shows emotion twice. Some aggression and Alien-esque hostility could have made this latest Ripley unpredictable and scary as hell; this is a woman who can physically threaten Ron Perlman, for crying out loud! But no. Underneath she's too nice. It's an impressive and thoughtful performance, but it lacks that spark that could have made it electrifying.
The third flaw is the third act. Alien Resurrection is loosely patterned after Aliens, but James Cameron gave the Alien Queen enough foreshadowing and build-up to make it feel the logical culmination of what had gone before. This feels tacked-on, and it doesn't hit the emotional notes I think it was aiming for. It's interesting, but it could have been much better.
Every so often you'll scratch your head. If Ripley has acid blood, why doesn't it affect that surgical procedure at the beginning? Why do guns work underwater? How come the station is "outside registered space" but also only three hours from Earth? Space travel can't have become super-fast or else they wouldn't still need cryogenics. (Perhaps Earth is a shunned galactic backwater, abandoned by mankind and polluted to death? That might explain why its planetary defences at the end aren't all they might be.)
But despite all I've said above, I still enjoy Alien Resurrection. You could do a big feminist analysis of the movie, though I'd suggest it's more anti-human than anti-male. (Broadly speaking, the humans are scum and the non-humans are sympathetic.) The cast bar Winona is fabulous. I could watch them all day, right down to poor Dominique Pinon (a Jean-Pierre Jeunet regular) struggling with his English. He manages to avoid any noticeable accent, but he also manages to avoid any noticeable enunciation. I'd love to see a fifth Aliens movie - just so long as they killed Winona in a crash at the beginning. Hell, they did it to Newt...