There was a time in Hollywood when franchises were improvised, for better or worse. A movie became a runaway hit, and another was commissioned. It would either extend a story by retconning it into an interconnected series (Star Wars as the best example), or kill a franchise dead in its tracks by rehashing what the first movie already did (Ghostbusters II as the worst).
The Alien saga that began with Ridley Scott’s 1979 chamber horror masterpiece has evolved over some 40 years into an enduring — if not always relevant or innovative — franchise that never so much grows as it does mutate. With this year’s Alien: Covenant confounding and astounding in equal measure, it’s fun to remember where this series was at the halfway point of its longevity.
1997’s Alien: Resurrection was essentially a Hollywood do-over. After Alien 3‘s tepid if not toxic reaction, the series was presumed finished. But like the fourth installment’s revived Ellen Ripley, you can never count out a viable cash cow. Resurrection is the very definition of superfluous; the saga had reached its logical end with Ripley sacrificing her life to destroy the alien and finally achieving a small measure of peace.
Thus, some screenwriting finagling was necessary to justify her return. Enter the second biggest science fiction rewriting tool next to time travel: cloning. The fourth installment finds Ripley reanimated some 200 years after her last xenomorph encounter, but now with added alien blood and super strength. It’s a silly if rejuvenating conceit that allows for a more high-concept alien experience. Penned by genre diehard Joss Whedon, the script at face value is more of a trial run for his Firefly TV show than it is a full-fledged entry into a twenty year saga. The dialogue and plotting on the page has more in common with the cheesiest parts of James Cameron’s sequel than the terror of Ridley Scott’s original — lame quips, macho archetypes, A to B character arcs, etc.
It’s in the execution and vision where Resurrection becomes a singular genre experience. Director Jean Pierre Jeunet was hot off of two imaginative pictures: Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. It wasn’t long before Hollywood beckoned, as it was wont to do in the 90’s, snatching up music video directors (David Fincher for Alien 3), commercial directors (Michael Bay), and any Euro import they could find (Renny Harlin).
Jeunet’s sensibility is one of absurdity. He has a whimsically wry understanding of genre movies, whether it’s the dark charm of Delicatessen, the sci-fi phantasmagoria of City of Lost Children, or the romanticism of Amelie and A Very Long Engagement. That off-kilterness — quintessentially French — is in many frames of Alien: Resurrection, but the film is far from a parody. It’s a gonzo extravaganza of violence, gore, and body horror, and it seems like the last gasp of a Hollywood that was willing to lean into its darker side.
This is a film the revels in the twisted potential of its plot. It’s most famous scene (which has been parodied countless times by now, including by South Park) involves Ripley discovering the seven failed clone attempts preceding her. Housed in glass tubes, six of them are ghastly monsters, more alien than human, but the seventh is undoubtedly Ripley. Sprawled out on an operating table, insect-like appendages jutting out from its female body, Ripley 7 begs to be put out of her misery. It’s an unforgettable image that speaks to a larger issue: Hollywood doesn’t do weird anymore.
Alien: Resurrection is a film that climaxes with an Alien queen giving surrogate birth to an alien human hybrid, a “baby-faced” Newborn with the bone structure of a human and the slimy flesh of an alien. It’s a creature that was derided by many genre fans, who felt that this monstrosity had crossed the line for a series so pragmatic in its horror. Twenty years later, it’s a marvel of animatronics technology and thinking outside the box. What do you do once the monsters have become so famous after three movies? You strip your series for parts and assemble something new out of the pieces. You mutate and go for broke.
Resurrection does just that, almost relishing the myriad ways it can eviscerate, impale, and violate human characters. This is a movie that implies a sexual bond between its heroine lead and the creature she is battling. It’s a movie that asks us to have sympathy for that Newborn when its body is sucked out of a spaceship’s hull piece by piece. It’s a movie that was a major studio’s big Thanksgiving release twenty years ago. Let that sink in.
This isn’t to say that one should lament a lack of viscera in contemporary blockbusters. More so, the adherence to playing it safe, to only embracing the make believe, has definitely neutered the landscape of films. The age of movie monsters has been long dead, abandoned for disaster movies and superhero romps that play like disaster movies. The summer after Resurrection‘s release was overrun with apocalyptic special effects pictures (Armageddon, Deep Impact, Godzilla to name a few), all designed to satiate our glee for destruction.
But our yearning for the macabre, the strangeness that movies can provide, has been severely undernourished. Hollywood doesn’t understand the vulnerability of the flesh anymore, that what made the Alien saga great, and what triggers our imagination for new sequels, is a morbid curiosity for how science fiction — specifically big budget sci-fi — can mangle our bodies, and warp our minds in the process.