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Friday, October 9, 2015

The Dead End: From ALIEN to ALIEN: RESURRECTION

 
"In space no one can hear you scream."

It's one of the best taglines in movie history, chilling, visceral, and immediately identifiable. Fittingly, it belongs to perhaps the best piece of sci-fi horror ever made: Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien. Using still-astonishing creature design from H. R. Giger and practical effects that wow to this day, Scott crafted one of the most intense horror experiences of a decade that basically gave us half the modern horror canon. Alien landed in 1979, two years after the release of Star Wars created a seemingly insatiable desire for outer space adventure

Smartly, James Cameron's sequel, Aliens, pivots rather than tackling Scott's film head-on, turning the series into an eerie sci-fi action vehicle. Sure, it's creepy, but that's just because the creature design remains some of the finest ever committed to film; Cameron otherwise has little-to-no interest in trying to build a horror movie. And that's fine! Aliens is bigger than Alien, it's bolder than Alien, and it's damn near as good as Alien, a relative rarity when it comes to sequels. Trying to recreate the tense thrills a second time would have almost certainly led to diminishing returns, so by varying up the genre a bit, Cameron was able to approach the same material in a different way, to feel fresh and unexpected.

Then, of course, comes David Fincher's debut film, Alien3Alien3 is a mess of a movie, and with good reason: Fincher, a first-time director, was brought in late into pre-production for a film whose script wasn't even done when shooting started, and was frequently overruled by studio execs on his creative decisions. It's not a surprise that Alien3 isn't great; what's surprising is that it's even halfway decent. And it is that. Alien3 is bleak, angry, and fleet in a way that none of the other Alien films really were. Though Fincher was deeply rushed and had little control over the final project, the film is still recognizably his - and fascinating. With all that studio interference, it's almost impossible to imagine how the film still ended up as grim as it did, but Fincher's film doesn't deserve the reputation with which it has been saddled.

But it was still a critical and commercial failure, and so Alien: Resurrection, released 5 years later, feels in many ways like a conscious rebuttal of Fincher's shockingly unpopular take on the material. Almost immediately, Ripley is back from the dead, trapped in a cramped location and facing down aliens and power-mad bureaucracy with a cast of misfits who don't trust her and who have been infiltrated by an android. Previously, there wasn't really a formula for the Alien movies (at least beyond "Ripley, meet Xenomorph. I think you two will really hit i-- oh, you know each other already?") but Resurrection was a conscious attempt to create one, to cobble together the popular bits from the first three films into something that could be recreated ad infinitum for a more comfortable viewing experience than the purposely alienating Alien3. Or, more likely given the talent involved, an attempt to find the commonality between the three very different Alien films in order to critique and build something new atop it.

And because of that talent and that insight, there's definitely some wit to Alien Resurrection. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation was apparently bought out by Wal-Mart a long time ago and taken out of the Xenomorph game, which redirects Ripley's righteous anger from a corporate foe to a governmental one. "We're not flying blind here, you know. It's United Systems Military, not some... greedy corporation," Ripley is assured, early in the film. It doesn't particularly matter. Bureaucracy, whether corporate or governmental, will always dehumanize its assets in the rush to the bottom line and the powerful will always, first and foremost, ensure that they hold on to their power, something Whedon would write about frequently throughout his career. Gone is the heroic Hicks and the (semi-)competent Colonial Marines, here instead cowards and monsters following orders and casually destroying lives to do so; in their place are the people who, in a Whedon story, are the only people who can actually affect positive change: Outcasts, criminals, and the unnoticed. 

In one of the film's smartest moves, it constantly toys with Ripley's own loyalties. Sure, we know she's not going to side with the corporate or governmental morons who keep trying to profit off of a potentially species-destroying monsters. But the monters themselves - and, given the film's commentary on itself, the studio? That's a different story altogether. In Alien: Resurrection, Ripley is infected with Xenomorph DNA, which gives her incredible basketball-related powers, but also may make her untrustworthy. Is she with the outcasts, willing to burn it all down and start fresh? Or have her sympathies changed? Can she let the Xenomorphs die, or is she secretly invested in their survival, no matter what the cost?



Joss Whedon has made a name for himself by noticing and recontextualizing the tropes that dominate genre fiction. Fittingly, his script for Alien: Resurrection is almost about the Alien franchise. There are multiple lines that could be read as expressly critical of the franchise-machine, and the criticism is far smarter in its way than that of Wes Craven's New Nightmare or Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, though it's interesting that all three franchises have ended on acts of self-immolation. Some franchises survive this moment - the Texas Chainsaw films improbably did, though clumsily and many years later - but it seems like every franchise reaches a point where it has to recognize the absurdity of doing the same thing over and over. 

Except, well, in 1997 the Alien franchise was nowhere near reaching that point. Alien and Aliens are both considered stone-cold classics, and while Alien3 was a mess, that's still a damn good batting average. What's more, all three are very, very different kinds of films. The core idea - Ripley v Xenomorph v Greed - remains the same, sure, but they go from restrained blue collar to adrenaline-pumping action to grimy, nihilistic prison flick. Consequently, Alien: Resurrection doesn't feel like the fourth film of a beloved series; it feels like the 8th film of an exhausted one, bringing back the dead series star and reliving the franchise's greatest hits while explicitly commenting on the fact that it is doing so. We just didn't happen to see films 4-7. Hell, in Resurrection, Ripley herself metaphorically burns those non-existent films, destroying half-formed clones of herself in the film's most powerful moment.

And then there's this: Joss Whedon is bad at horror. Despite writing one of my favorite movies of the 2010s, horror-comedy Cabin in the Woods, and one of my favorite TV shows of the 90s, horror-comedy Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon doesn't work without the '-comedy' appended. The basic premise of horror and comedy writing is similar: Build tension, then dispel it. In horror, you do it with a scare; in comedy, you do it with a laugh. Whedon's greatest strength is in building to a laugh, building to a laugh, building to a laugh, and then, often with little fanfare at all, dropping something casually awful into proceedings, startling you out of your comfort zone. Instead of a jump scare, Whedon's scares hit hardest when you're feeling most at home. It's a peculiar pattern, and one that Whedon struggled to bring to film for some time, failing both here and with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer film, before Buffy and Angel really cemented how he worked in pop culture.

In part because of that, Alien: Resurrection is a film largely without tension. While it maintains much of the meta-commentary Whedon is known for, it lacks his wit and buries his rhythm. It has the limited scope of Alien with the big action ambitions of Aliens, but it is directed by excellent twee dramatist Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, City of Lost Children) in his only film in which he wasn't also writer and which completely lacks his own signature style. Virtually no element of the film plays well with any other element in it, and it's easy to see how disconnected the film is in part because of that fact. If Jeunet, Whedon, and the studio could have come together and turned it into a full-blown horror-comedy, Alien: Resurrection may have worked; Alien sequels did well, after all, with genre shifts, and that would play to the strengths of both Whedon and Jeunet in a way a straight action-horror film really didn't.



In a lot of ways, Alien: Resurrection is a more competent endgame for the Alien series than Wes Craven's New Nightmare or Texas Chainsaw or Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. It looks much better (atrocious CGI notwithstanding), despite coming out only three years after New Nightmare and TNG. Though part of that is the already-established look of Alien was far, far more polished than that of A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, part is Jeunet, a far more visually accomplished director than Kim Henkel, John Luessenhop, or Wes Craven.

And yet, I still find Wes Craven's New Nightmare a far more enjoyable closer than Alien: Resurrection, and if you feed me enough whiskey, I might even go to bat for Texas Chainsaw. Alien: Resurrection is technically far superior to both, but there's nothing new or interesting here. If New Nightmare was fundamentally about the Krueger phenomenon and Texas Chainsaw is about finding a new way to look at Leatherface, Alien: Resurrection is mostly just a greatest hits album of the series' first three films, but with some canny meta-awareness intended to gloss over the recycling. Alien: Resurrection is more leftovers than full course sequel.

It was enough to end the series, at least. If Alien through Alien3 is a loose trilogy - and I think there's a strong argument to be made that it is - then Alien: Resurrection is an attempt to mutate the largely formula-free franchise into something a little bit easier to recreate. It didn't work. Alien: Resurrection cost significantly more than Alien3 (at that point, a nearly universally disliked film) and made roughly the same amount, and thus were the Xenomorphs condemned to crossover hell, vanishing into the goofy fun of Alien Vs. Predator and the lesser AvP: Requiem. They were eventually brought back in sort-of prequel Prometheus, but Prometheus is clearly a very different film trying to do very different things. And while I'd love it if more sequels were to do something like that, its novel approach to the material hardly saves the movie from being, if anything, even more of an half-formed mess than Alien3 and Alien: Resurrection. With Neill Blomkamp's Alien film seemingly stalled in the face of back-to-back bombs, Ridley Scott has announced that the first Prometheus sequel will actually be called Alien: Paradise Lost, presumably getting us closer to the first Alien film. Perhaps it will be a success and will revive the franchise - Scott's riding high right now on the success of The Martian - but his batting average doesn't hold a lot of hope.

Both Nightmare and Chainsaw ended trying something, which is relatively rare, I think. Alien just kind of... petered out. It ended on the blandest entry in a very good series, a movie that wanted to do little more than having people who liked the first movies just keep on liking them. Every franchise eventually hits that point, of course, because passion is impossible to maintain across that many films with that many different staffs and that many years between them, but it's particularly disappointing to see in a series as vibrant and innovative as Alien. So we reach a point where it is simultaneously the most accomplished of the Dead Ends I've looked at to date, and the least interesting.

Coming Soon on The Dead End

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