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Looking Back: Alien Resurrection (1997)

Late into Jean Pierre-Jeunet’s “Alien Resurrection,” Winona Ryder’s Call asks Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley this question: “Why do you go on living? How can you stand what you are?” It’s the key exploration of this movie, which adds another dimension and vital theme to the durable franchise. Ridley Scott’s 1979 “Alien” was about Ripley’s survival, James Cameron’s 1986 “Aliens” was about Ripley finding a family and David Fincher’s 1992 “Alien 3” was about Ripley facing her death. Now, in the hands of “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children” filmmaker Jean Pierre-Jeunet, Ripley is looking inward, asking who she truly is and considers whether she is all that different from the creature she has to keep facing.

In an unbroken introductory shot, we learn that, in the very distant future, Ripley has been cloned. Keeping with the continuity of “Alien 3,” cloning Ripley means her DNA has merged with the baby alien that was inside her moments before her death. Now, as resurrected in a lab on a massive space vessel,  overseen by a real creep (a perfectly cast Brad Dourif), Ripley is human in some ways but has the attitude and insect-like movement of the Alien. She can “hear” and detect the Aliens, in the same way Dracula once looked out his window and declared, “Listen to them…the children of the night…what sweet music they make.”

The re-birth of Ripley is interrupted by the arrival of space pirates, led by Michael Wincott and containing a crew of great character actors like Ryder, Ron Perlman and Pierre-Jeunet regular Dominque Pinon. As the Aliens in captivity (created to be studied but frequently harassed in their cells) eventually rebel and overtake the ship, the only one who can take the lead and save the day is Ripley. Yet, as Ripley’s behavior becomes increasingly creepier and animalistic, her usual resilience and humanity don’t seem as reliable as they once were.

It’s as hard to find a fan of “Alien: Resurrection” as it is to kill one of those acid-blooded, insect-like, multi-fanged xenomorphs. I’ve been in love with this weird, gross and risk taking monster movie since Thanksgiving of 1997, when I took my Mom to see a slime-covered monster movie after a massive turkey dinner. Had we seen it before dinner, it may have seriously curbed our appetites (I should also say, Sorry Mom, taking you to this probably wasn’t the best idea!).

It’s easy to take dissatisfaction from Pierre-Jeunet’s film, which is consistently strange, gag-inducing and cluttered with clunky dialog. It’s also nothing like the three films that came before it, despite having a story (monster is loose on spaceship and only Ellen Ripley can defeat it) that, for the most part, hasn’t changed since 1979. A young Joss Whedon was the film’s screenwriter and I’ve heard he’s unhappy with how the film turned out. Granted, they reportedly dropped one of his big action set pieces but this feels in line with his later work. Whedon’s hit and miss dialog is either too smart for the room or genuinely dumb. As in his later works, ranging from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “The Cabin in the Woods,” you can always hear Whedon’s hip quips and smart alecky asides, which works half of the time. Thankfully, Whedon’s story is rich with ambition and a willingness to take bold chances with the expectations of the franchise. What he came up with has both intrigued and infuriated the franchise’s fan base and for the best.

Pierre-Jeunet’s eccentric style and Whedon’s wild plotting embrace being different and the distinction matters. The story takes place 200 years after “Alien 3,” with a different time depicted with an appropriately different tone.

Although “Alien: Resurrection” follows the narrative blueprint of what came before, the presentation is unlike Scott, Cameron or Fincher. Each “Alien” is wildly different in its filmmaking choices and provide a delicious example of how four brilliant directors can interpret the same material in vastly different ways. Die-hard “Firefly” fans in particular should give this special consideration, as Wincott’s crew is clearly Whedon’s first-run try-out for “Firefly.”

Making Ripley a dangerous, unpredictable Human/Alien hybrid was a wonderful, unexpected choice. It brings out the best in Weaver, whose playful, full throttle and erotic performance is up to the odd new evolution of her signature character. Many noted that Ryder seemed miscast or out of place in this but she also brings something fresh and unusual to the proceedings. Rather than provide a stand-in for Jenette Goldstein’s Vasquez, Ryder’s Call is this film’s equivalent of Lance Henricksen’s Bishop from “Aliens.” Ryder’s scenes with Weaver are a pleasure to watch, as the two iconic, versatile actresses play cat and mouse with one another and give off an undeniable sexual tension. Yet, as Call and Ripley grow to understand one another, their exchanges become sad and thoughtful. Anyone who loves Pearlman will eat up his hearty performance (ditto Wincott, Dourif and Dan Hedaya, who play their roles to the hilt and beyond).

There are silly moments and some dated CGI. This is an especially gooey monster movie, on par in terms of the gross factor with “The Fly II” but far better. Actually, the film this compares to best is Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element” of the same year, another goofy, large-scale sci-fi exercise from a mad French genius.

The “Section 1-7” scene, as well as the underwater chase and the ultra-icky “love scene,” are all masterful set pieces. The Newborn is a great, unsetting movie monster and Ripley’s existential dilemma comes to an intriguing close: the films asks, what does it mean to be a Mother…to Call or a vile creature that shares Ripley’s tarnished DNA?

Just as Fincher survived the failure of “Alien 3” by emerging later with “Seven,” Pierre-Jeunet followed up the box office, critic and audience indifference of “Alien: Resurrection” with his worldwide smash, “Amelie.” His reputation survived and it’s time for his movie to receive the retrospective it deserves. “Alien: Resurrection” will give your gag reflexes a workout but it honors the terrible journey of Ellen Ripley by forcing her to question what’s left for her to fight for. Weaver and Pierre-Jeunet have created something that is crazy, nauseating and quite fun.

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