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"Alien Resurrection" tries to resuscitate the series.

By Peter Keough

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  ALIEN RESURRECTION, Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Written by Joss Whedon. With Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Dominique Pinon, Ron Perlman, Gary Dourdan, Michael Wincott, Kim Flowers, Dan Hedaya, J.E. Freeman, and Brad Dourif. A Twentieth Century Fox release. At the Cheri, the Fresh Pond, and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.

Since its electrifying debut nearly two decades ago, the Alien franchise remains the sci-fi vehicle most conducive to provocative ideas, hardboiled edginess, sheer excitement, and auteurist élan. Even David Fincher's dreary, much maligned Alien 3 (1992) posed disturbing thoughts on subjects ranging from abortion to the nature of identity and the meaning of human existence. That film's poor showing, however, seemed to finish the series even as it killed off its heroine, Sigourney Weaver's redoubtable Ripley.

Through the miracle of cloning -- both the pseudo-scientific and the Hollywood high-concept kind -- Ripley and the big ugly bugs are back. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, half the directing team behind the saucy, surrealist French fantasies Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Alien Resurrection is not so much a rebirth as a reconfiguration. Lacking the taut terror of Ridley Scott's original and the overwhelming banzai assault of James Cameron's follow-up, this edition gets by on an attitude of sardonic misanthropy and elbow-nudging reflexivity. That and Jeunet's puckish, fractured-fairy-tale sensibility and whimsically chthonic set design -- the latter inspired by sources as disparate as Francis Bacon canvases and the Fruit of the Loom TV commercials.

The plot is absurd, inconsistent, and filled with longueurs of menaced humans wandering endlessly through corridors and over catwalks; and its inventiveness is limited by borrowings from nearly every successful science-fiction thriller since Alien's first inception. Still, Resurrection manages an unsettling, engaging identity of its own. Much credit is due to Weaver, who has reinvented her role. Two centuries after she sacrificed herself to save the human race in Alien 3, she has been brought back to life by military scientists on a remote space station who have tinkered a trace of her DNA into a clone. Their goal is to extract the alien queen in her womb and exploit its lethal potential. Ripley herself, though, proves of interest also, as the alien characteristics seem to have fused with her humanity à la The Fly. She has astounding strength, regenerative powers, a mean way with a basketball, and a witty cynicism about the human race worthy of Jonathan Swift. With relish she informs her warders that the queen "will breed. You will die." Her tone suggests that she doesn't think this is such a bad idea.

Her predictions are fulfilled in predictably messy fashion, but they're complicated by the arrival of a crew of Han Solo-like renegade traders on a dilapidated merchant ship. Among them is Call (a pouty Winona Ryder), an overalled waif on a Terminator-like mission to do Ripley in before she comes to term. Failing that, Call forms a nervous alliance with Ripley, and together with Call's motley shipmates -- the crudely macho Johner (Ron Perlman), the fancy-shooting Christy (Gary Dourdan), the gnomelike, wheelchair-bound Vriess (Dominique Pinon) -- they band together for survival.

The familiar game of who gets it (and when, and how) and who doesn't ensues, with few surprises. What is surprising is the sense that it doesn't really matter. Like the other three films, this Alien is infused with a profound nihilism, a resignation to cruel fatality, and a recognition -- more capriciously suggested in Starship Troopers -- that the most alien of creatures could not compete with what's at the core of our own psyches.

Counteracting all that is the persistent instinct of motherhood. Although Ripley jokes that she's the monster's "mommy," the bond remains, absurdly and movingly, intact. She may do battle against the patriarchal tyranny (the research ship's computer, unsubtly, is called "Father," and it's in the shape of a crucifix) of those who seek to turn their strength and beleaguered compassion into weapons of war, but it's a one-sided battle. What's more frightening is the depth and resilience of the maternal compulsion for life, and wish for death, she represents. "Who are you?" is the question she's most often asked. It's never answered, and despite this film's flaws, Alien Resurrection makes the query more compelling than ever.

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