Monday, May 29, 2017

Alien Week, part IV: The blob


ALIEN: RESURRECTION

I reviewed a movie written by Joss Whedon without using the word "quip" once.  Worship me!

1997
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Written by Joss Whedon
With Sigourney Weaver (Ellen Ripley), Winona Ryder (Call), Michael Wincott (Elgyn), Ron Perlman (Johner), Gary Dourdan (Christie), Kim Flowers (Hillard), Dominique Pinon (Vriess), J.E. Freeman (Dr. Wren), Dan Hedaya (Gen. Perez), and Brad Dourif (Dr. Gediman)

Spoiler alert: moderate


The thing about Alien: Resurrection is that it is, I guess, supposed to be a joke; it's the only way any of it makes sense.  It's only ever an inconsistently funny one, but, hey—it definitely has its moments.  Then again, the fact that no one in all the twenty years since its release has come out and admitted any such thing tends to militate strongly against the hypothesis.  I mean, if it were true, you'd think that would've been the very first thing they would've done, once confronted with a legion of disappointed critics and fans—hell, even if it weren't true, because conceding, "yes, but it's a parody," might've at least saved its makers a little face.  And for those keeping track: its makers number three, or perhaps four, if we were to count 20th Century Fox itself—though in this case, I'd say we must.

Yet oughtn't it be but one?  The Alien franchise, by Film No. 4, is said by many to have become a director's showcase, giving auteurs (though always ones in the early stages of their careers) the chance to demonstrate their style within the confines of a movie series about giant parasitic bugs impregnating people.  The only other franchise I know of that bears a similarity in its episodic, director-driven style is the Mission: Impossible series.  But if we're being brutal, here, and we might as well be—since it's probably as transparent to you as it seems to be to me that we're taking this tangent solely to avoid talking about the actual film under review—the M:I series has been a lot more successful at it.  For one thing, it's produced three great movies, which is already one more than Alien.  For two, it's only produced a single bad one, and that is way less than Alien, which is quite possibly the longest-running and most-costly widely-disliked film series in cinema history.  But back to my other point: it does indeed take a strong personality to make your authorship known through the Giger-and-Cobb grotesquerie of the Alien series, so the fact that we wound up with four films that are so different, especially when they never had to be ("gross monster kills folks" being something a perennial hit, no matter how many times it gets played), is at least something of a testament to the human willingness to try.


Still, we have to recall that the ever-chimeric Ridley Scott stumbled into this pattern pretty much by complete accident.  For one thing, there's always been a debate over whether Scott actually deserves the title "auteur" in the first place, though I would say, "sure, why not?", if, obviously, without any passionate intensity—in part because the idea of the Great Journeyman who could stand up to almost any so-called auteur you'd wish to name is, in its own way, rather more intriguing than just one more Visionary.  (Besides, if the auteur bug bit anybody in the Scott family, it was the late, great Tony, may God rest his weary soul, no doubt exhausted after a lifetime spent overclocking adrenal glands everywhere.)

But the franchise rolled along, and it happened: James Cameron, the Action Honcho, came along for Aliens, the franchise's masterpiece; David Fincher, the Purveyor of Decay, offered us a glimpse of his potential in Alien 3; and now came the French directorial duo of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro—minus Marc Caro, that is, who bailed on the project after something like two weeks, because he (quite astutely) found it dumb and pointless.  This left Jeunet in charge, and I cannot speak to his filmography with the slightest authority; but I find it amusing, to say the least, that his subsequent project was the winsome Amelie.

What Jeunet brought to this particular table would be hard to pin down, regardless—because this fourth Alien film is, in fact, the moment where the standard model of Alien Auteur Theory completely breaks down.  The culprit, if we must name him?  Joss Whedon, the man who wrote Resurrection and, perhaps, the man who hates Resurrection more than anybody else in the world.

Now, Whedon's spent decades distancing himself from his screenplay, and he has a number of justifications that, at first glance, seem solid: above all, he was sort of tricked into writing it.  Resurrection began as Alien 3 had before it, that is, an Alien sans Ripley—who, in case you forgot, ate it in a bath of molten metal, back in 1992.  By the time Resurrection went into production, though, that had all changed, thanks to interference from Fox executives, and, indeed, thanks to Sigourney Weaver herself, who had apparently been kicked in the head by a mule, because even though she's the one who wanted Ripley dead in the first place, once she actually read the screenplay that Whedon had rewritten to include Ripley after all, she found it to be interesting.  It is practically impossible to understand how the seemingly-intelligent woman came to this conclusion: for, with this one bold stroke, there was no saving Resurrection at all from being the stupidest film in a franchise that had never previously been known for being especially smart.

And so we have our behind-the-scenes dramatis personae, a film with four authors rather than one: Jeunet, who became not much more than the hired gun; Whedon, who wrote it ten times or more; Fox, who replicated their misstep with Alien 3 by banking on a star, rather than a concept; and Weaver, who signed upon the line which is dotted.  And I lied above, because I can, sort of, understand Weaver's decision; for amongst all these competing players, I think she might have known it was a joke.  The evidence is there, forever, on the screen, and Weaver simply must have intuited that playing Ripley one last time, only this time as farce, would be fun.

So what was so terrible about that screenplay, anyway?  Behold: 200 years have passed since Alien 3, but the military-industrial complex that rules this dour universe has never forgotten what it was imagined for, which is to idiotically pursue the weaponization of the xenomorphs, because nothing says "combined arms" like the deployment of a swarm of uncontrollable (and, in case we've blanked on Aliens, actually pretty easy-to-kill) giant insect monsters.  Note well: I have not gotten to the stupid part.

Anyway, in this far future, one Dr. Gediman is conducting xenomorph-based mad science on a starship outside of controlled space—as you do—but what he needs to complete his experiments is a xenomorph queen, which is why he strives to acquire the genetic material of the long-dead Ripley, who had such a queen growing inside her when she sacrificed herself back on Fury 161 all those years ago.  But, naturally, he also needs some test subjects, which is where the crew of the smuggler ship Betty comes in, delivering unto him a cargo hold full of trafficked humans.  Things go wrong for Gediman, however, when one of the Betty's crew, the wide-eyed young lass Call, slips her leash and makes her way to a certain "Ripley 8's" holding cell.  Call's plan is simple assassination, thus destroying the resurrected Alien Queen; but Ripley makes it clear that her plan is to escape and survive.  All that remains to be seen now is just where our heroine's loyalties lie—for the queen's DNA and hers have bonded, and this Ripley is quite possibly not a precise copy of the one we've come to know and love.

That is the stupid part, and it is quite impossible to take Resurrection seriously after this, even if you were somehow able to take it seriously in the first place: "our heroine, cloned to adulthood, conveniently possessing not just the cognitive capabilities of an adult, but the memories and at least some of the personality of her genetic ancestor" already being, of course, a rather difficult swallow just in and of itself.  (Would it have worked better if Whedon had been able to run with his original intention, a clone of Newt?  I suppose we'll never know.)  From there, though, it's exactly what you'd expect, as Resurrection attempts to live down to its daffy scenario.

Unfortunately, it mostly splits the difference: what Resurrection required was to either take its premise as it stood, and play it extremely straight, and hope to God that we could get past its utter nonsensicality by virtue of delivering a decent straight-up sci-fi thriller; or to take the sheer fantastic idiocy of its premise all the way its potentially-hilarious limit.  Jeunet, as director, is absolutely of two minds about it, gracelessly careening from acceptable action-comedy to actual Alien horror.  But Whedon's script is at least as disgustingly shapeless as Jeunet's rendition of it; and Weaver, meanwhile, though seemingly recognizing the insane frivolity of it all and indulging it with a performance that, at times, could scarcely be more camp, sometimes retrenches right back into real acting, apparently despite herself.  ("What of Brad Dourif, though?", you ask.  Well, he always remembers what kind of movie he's in.)


So it's easy to pinpoint the moment that Resurrection completely collapses into a black hole of clashing tones: it's during the record scratch of scene where Ripley 8 discovers Ripleys 1 through 7, who were not, suffice it to say, quite as successful.  And it's a fine scene, in and of itself, directly taking on the franchise-long theme of bodies being used against their will, and, indeed, for one tantalizing moment, the Ripley we once knew comes back to us, in a glorious thunderbolt of humanist liberation.  But it doesn't work.  It can't work.  In the context of a movie like this one, how could it work?

And literally only two scenes do manage to work on anything remotely like the same level as Alien or Aliens.  Naturally, they're the only scenes that demonstrate Resurrection's screenwriter's cleverness, rather than just his abiding, sometimes-funny, sometimes-annoying glibness.  The first comes when our always-more-intelligent-than-you-think monsters hatch a bold plan of escape, relying upon their infamous acid blood—and, of course, upon the even more infamous inability of so many of the stupid humans in this franchise to think through the details of things, although this time I really do mean it in a relatively complimentary way.  The second scene is, when you get down to it, pretty much only a somewhat-lazy inversion of the same twist in Alien, but I can't bring myself to say that it isn't a satisfying one; if things had continued on that line, I'd almost be tempted to say I enjoyed this silly movie, if not on a level any legitimate artist might find flattering.

That is the other thing about Resurrection, though: it isn't boring.  (Which places it above Alien 3, which is a better movie by any standard metric, yet is vastly less watchable.)  Obviously, the reason it isn't boring is because it's such a terrifying trainwreck; but either way, you do get something out of it.  That brings us back to authorship, and Whedon has, as I said, done his best to cast the blame on everybody else but him, remarking that despite the fact his final screenplay made it into production pretty much verbatim, his "vision" was lost.

This—and let's underline it—is quite possibly the most outrageous lie anyone has ever told in Hollywood.  There are credited Joss Whedon films that aren't this Whedony—to the extent that you could be convinced (even if it does not appear to be the case) that Whedon shadow-directed more than half of it.  Practically the most nauseatingly fascinating thing about it in hindsight, after all, is what happens about twenty minutes into the film, once our crew of sleazy smugglers boards Gedaris' science ship, and Whedon's screenplay hijacks a major studio's billion-dollar franchise in order to serve as a secret testbed for Whedon's own bullshit, namely motherfucking Firefly.  As a Firefly fan who knew only the broadest strokes of Resurrection's plot before he saw it last week, it hit me like an iron to the face, and the iron was still on: almost every one of the Serenity's band of misfits makes their first appearance here, albeit in their most fuzzy, embryonic forms—so meet Shitty Mal, Shitty Wash, Shitty Zoe, and Shitty so on and so forth.  (Okay, in fairness: Shitty Jayne, called Johner here, and embodied by Ron Perlman, does appear very nearly fully-formed, and could pass as The Real Jayne; and the Betty's single odd-man-out does allow us a chance to recognize that Juenet had some input into this movie's content, inasmuch as I doubt Whedon would've gone for Dominique Pinon as a funny paraplegic dwarf.  He probably would've just given us Shitty Preacher Book instead)


But hijacking remains the only proper word for what Whedon did, and never more aptly than when Ripley confronts the Betty's crew in a game of Space Jam-level ridiculous combat basketball.  That's when you realize that what's actually growing inside our heroine isn't the reborn fetus of an Alien Queen, but Whedon's own perennial filmmaking (and possibly sexual) fetish, the weird waif with superpowers.  (He has much in common with Cameron in this regard, I guess; but, for whatever reason, Cameron's musclewomen don't seem like masturbation totems first.)  Maybe we should've seen it coming much earlier, when Weaver leans her lithe, elongated body into poses that are half-yoga, half-faint; maybe it's the simple fact that Weaver's too credible a presence to immediately trigger the recognition response.  But once Whedon—excuse me, "Jeunet, executing Whedon's apparently extremely-detailed stage directions"—sends that orbiting camera around her on that basketball court, your heart stops cold, and you realize that Ellen Ripley has been reduced to nothing more than Whedon's Shitty River Tam—complete with her protector, Call, Whedon's Shitty Simon (mixed up, obviously, with a very generous dash of Shitty Kaylie).  It's amazing that half Resurrection's screenplay isn't in pidgin Chinese.

But maybe I could've skipped the analysis of all these Whedony motifs, and just began and ended this review with these nine words: "this is the Alien movie with ridiculous combat basketball."

And it is, in only one word, batshit, though it can never just wholeheartedly commit to it; whereas the batshit it does commit to is too often too lame to admire.  I hold Jeunet (mostly) faultless for the abomination he chose to put his name to, because I prefer to think, without any real basis, that the flashes of genuine whimsy that sometimes get ahold of "his" film were, indeed, his inspirations.  The true signature moment of Resurrection, after all, is that moment where Perlman, having barely survived an encounter with the xenomorphs, spies a spider in its cobweb.  The spider frightens him, and then he literally shoots it with a gun.  If Resurrection were all moments like this, it might well have been the most excellent space comedy since Spaceballs.

But, when you get down it, that's one awful thing for you to ever want a sequel to Alien and Aliens to be.  It turned out, of course, that its title was an ironic one: Resurrection killed the main line of our franchise dead for years.  Well, what came next, anyway, can hardly be said to be the main line.

Score:  5/10

2 comments:

  1. I found that this film had a lot of pointless little details about the future world that I really enjoyed. So there's that.

    But I completely agree that Joss Whedon's complaints about this film are a bunch of horse-hockey. It's riddled with his personality, to the point that I'd recognize it even if I didn't know he was involved going in. What a bitter Betty.

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    1. For what it's worth, I consider Serenity to be essentially a perfect film. So as much as it seems like I dislike Whedon, I really don't. I just find him kind of aggravating.

      Also, yes: I do like that bourbon bouillon cube.

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