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"Alien: Resurrection"

By Devin D. O'Leary

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  Time for a little Hollywood business lesson. Movie studios base their entire releasing policy against what they call "tentpole" releases. Tentpoles are big name, big money films that are guaranteed to make big at the box office. Usually, these "guaranteed" films are part of an easily recognized series (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Batman, James Bond). Studios use these tentpole films to shore up the rest of the year's releases--none of which are "guaranteed" money. Up until 1992, 20th Century Fox firmly believed that its Alien series was a tentpole. Alien 3, however, had the biggest drop-off rate between its first and second week of release of any film in history (something like a 75 percent dive bomb in ticket sales its second week in theaters). For all intents and purposes, the film was a failure, and the series' status as tentpole seemed seriously in doubt. The only thing that could resurrect the crippled series would be a major overhaul (are you listening Batman producers?). Obviously resurrection was exactly what Fox had in mind. Alien Resurrection, the fourth Alien film, blasted into theaters over the Thanksgiving holiday, and it is--to steal a phrase--a whole new beast.

Alien 3 was helmed by music video director David Fincher. An unknown at the time, Fincher has gone on to fame and fortune with films like Seven and The Game. Many uninformed critics took Fincher to task for ruining the series. In truth, the biggest problem with Alien 3 was its script (namely, that it didn't have one). Pushed ahead by studio assurances, Fincher made the colossal mistake of starting a film that had no finished script. Thankfully, with Alien Resurrection, Fox has turned to Hollywood golden boy Joss Whedon (Toy Story) for an A-list script. Whedon set out to create a film that took the series in an all new direction--while at the same time, hewing closely to the mythology that had already been established.

Alien Resurrection picks up where Alien 3 left off. Ripley, who had committed suicide last we saw, has been cloned back to life by a bunch of evil military types so they can harvest the alien queen fetus growing inside her. Naturally, the baddies succeed and, before you know it, we've got nasty aliens running loose on yet another big-ass spaceship. Fortunately, our heroine wakes up (300 more years into the future, and they still haven't discovered Windex or incandescent lighting) to find that her DNA has been irrevocably mixed with that of the alien queen. Ripley is now a lean, mean killing machine with a hot-shot temper, super strength and acidic blood. Cool, huh?

Unfortunately, Whedon's most intriguing idea is also his most fatal error. By turning Ripley into a soulless killing machine, Alien Resurrection loses its central sympathy. Although, in the past, we were pretty sure that Ripley would survive to the next movie, she was at least human and stood a pretty good chance of getting killed. Watching the new, improved Ripley is like watching Superman fistfight Lex Luthor. Where's the danger? Alien gave us a crew of likable, working-class slobs and a cute kitty cat named Jones. Director James Cameron engendered massive sympathy by giving Ripley a little girl to look after in Aliens. Even the noble prisoners in Alien 3 deserved some compassion. Neither the half-monstrous Ripley nor the grubby space pirates she hooks up with in this film are exactly sympathetic. For the most part, you could care less who lives and who dies--a fatal error for any horror flick.

Fox's other major overhaul has been to bring in a new director, Frenchy Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It's Jeunet's eye-popping direction and fine, hand-picked cast (including Ron Perlman and Dominique Pinon from City of Lost Children) that keep Alien Resurrection from becoming a serious crash-and-burn. Jeunet was the man behind such art-house sci-fi hits as Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. Needless to say, his art-house sympathies have been severely tempered here. Still, Jeunet slips some delirious cinematography through the cracks. His eerie industrial landscapes shoehorn quite nicely into Alien's grunge-and-gridwork future. Jeunet is also responsible for imparting an icky erotic overtone to the entire film. Never has this much slime possessed such sexuality. Sigourney Weaver looks none-the-worse-for-wear after sliding into Ellen Ripley's sweaty tanktop for the fourth time. She's bigger, badder and buffer than ever, and she attacks her new characterization with a renewed gusto.

When you add up the plusses and figure in the minuses, Alien Resurrection still smells like a hit. I can almost guarantee another round of sequels for the happy execs at Fox. Longtime fans have plenty to ooh and aah over, and initiates have a new starting point to jump into the series. Next time around, though, I'd recommend making Ripley a little more vulnerable and a little less invulnerable.

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