Obviously, the Alien movies are about aliens, whether they’re attacking space colonists, battling the Predator, or genetically modified by a megalomaniacal android. But the first four Alien movies are also about one particular human: Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley.
Weaver’s heroine develops both in tandem with and in opposition to the extraterrestrial xenomorphs. In the first movie, she’s hunted by an alien. In the second movie, she hunts aliens. In the third, she gestates an alien. And finally, in the fourth movie, she is an alien.
By that point, a lot of Alien fans had checked out. But Alien Resurrection, released 25 years ago this month, is a fascinating culmination of Ripley’s journey and a unique entry into the franchise mythology.
It’s a flawed film, defined by the stylistic tension between director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and screenwriter Joss Whedon, and it goes out on an underwhelming finale. But Resurrection is far better than it’s often given credit for — even by its own creators. (A status it shares with the equally maligned Alien 3.) They’re both intriguing, visionary sci-fi movies that suffer mainly in comparison to two of the genre’s all-time classics.
Resurrection smartly and efficiently overcomes the problem of Ripley’s demise at the end of Alien 3 when she sacrificed herself to prevent the birth of an alien queen. Resurrection is set 200 years later, and its Ripley is not the same character fans know and love. Sometime in the intervening centuries, the xenomorph species went extinct, but in the franchise tradition of greed and hubris, scientists for the United Systems Military are determined to resurrect the xenomorphs. So they obtain a blood sample from Ripley from her time on the prison planet Fury 161 (when the alien queen was growing inside her) and make a clone of the Ripley/alien combo.
Like the Brundlefly from David Cronenberg’s The Fly, the result is neither entirely Ripley nor entirely alien queen. One of the most horrifying scenes in Resurrection features Ripley discovering a room filled with failed, disfigured clones. The eighth attempt resulted in success, allowing the scientists to extract the queen from Ripley’s body while leaving her intact, albeit modified from her original form. The scientists refer to her simply as “the host” or “a meat byproduct.” Ripley is infused with some of the alien’s essence, giving her a psychic connection to the creature, as well as altering her personality, making her more detached, feral, and nihilistic.
That attitude is perfectly aligned with the tone of the movie, although it’s not quite as bleak as David Fincher’s Alien 3. Screenwriter Joss Whedon brings his trademark quips, along with a ragtag group of space traders who come off like a first draft of the characters he’d later create for Firefly. But French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children) undercuts the humor with a grimy visual style and a morbid tone — and most of Whedon’s one-liners fall flat. As they’ve subsequently expressed in dueling interviews, there’s no love lost between the two, but the clash of styles mostly works in Resurrection’s favor, contributing to the sense of unease and distress that begins with Ripley’s rebirth.
The scientists and the military officers believe they can contain and control the queen, but Ripley knows better. “She’ll breed. You’ll die,” she tells them matter-of-factly. Of course, Ripley is right, and it’s not long before the queen and her offspring escape, terrorizing the inhabitants of the research vessel. Ripley teams up with the outlaws who are left behind after most of the soldiers evacuate on life pods. She’s both a help and a hindrance, able to anticipate the aliens’ moves but also sympathetic to them. “I’m the monster’s mother,” she tells an unwitting alien host (Leland Orser) in a perfect summation of her role and the evolution of the character.
Weaver gives a mesmerizing performance that synthesizes her previous work as Ripley with the mannerisms of the aliens themselves, and Jeunet emphasizes her striking physical presence, often placing her uncomfortably close to other characters. He highlights the way that Weaver, who’s nearly six feet tall, towers over many of the other characters. Weaver exudes an effortless sense of danger even in something as goofy as the infamous scene of Ripley shooting a basketball behind her head. This version of Ripley is slightly monstrous, but she also humanizes the aliens, especially in a climax that connects them more intimately.
That climax is also the movie’s weakest point, featuring a silly-looking alien-human hybrid that’s nowhere near as scary as the classic H.R. Giger-designed creatures. Weaver and Winona Ryder (as the sensitive android Call) still bring some emotion to the final confrontation. But combined with some muddled set-up for a Whedon-envisioned sequel that never happened, it makes for a disappointing conclusion. The story may peter out, but Ripley’s journey ends in an unexpectedly rewarding place, with a strange new existence granted by the very monsters she tried so hard to exterminate.