Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 10, 2003)
Note that this review of Alien Resurrection includes some elements that might be regarded as spoilers. I tried to keep these fairly vague, but they do spill a few beans. If you don’t want to know about those bits, skip to the technical portion of the article.
Are 1992's Alien 3 and 1997's Alien Resurrection on a par with the first two films, 1979's Alien and 1986's Aliens? No, they aren't, but how many movies are? Those are two of acknowledged classics; movies like that don't come along every day. Both Alien3 and Resurrection are actually very good pictures; their only sins are that they aren't quite as revolutionary as their predecessors.
As I think the negative feelings about Alien3 can be narrowed down to a few issues, I believe I can sum up the general distaste for Alien Resurrection even more succinctly: Winona Ryder, and the lil' alien baby. These are uniformly the most widely disparaged aspects of the film; while I'm sure its detractors can find many other facets to detest, these two areas pretty neatly sum up why it seems to be the most despised film of the four.
Like Alien3, I think that Resurrection is a film that needs a second chance for it to really succeed. In my opinion, the lil' alien baby is the Alien series' Jar Jar Binks. Of course, they're rather dissimilar characters except for the fact that large percentages of the population seem to loathe them. Upon first viewing of Resurrection, I pretty much agreed with the consensus view that the lil' alien baby was a disappointment and a dud. However, just as I started to like Jar Jar much more the second time I saw The Phantom Menace, the lil' alien baby works a lot better when you see Resurrection again. The figure looks less ridiculous and its "personality" and menace become more evident. While the presence of the lil' alien baby still undercuts the drama of the film's end, I don't think it has a significantly negative affect; in my opinion, the movie ends on a fairly strong note.
As for Ms. Ryder, many of the complaints about her seem to revolve around the strength of her presence in the film, or the lack thereof; critics felt that she looked out of place among the violent action film doings. You know what? They're right; Ryder maintains a vague "deer in the headlights" look throughout much of Resurrection and she seems like a decidedly unlikely participant.
Unfortunately, these criticisms miss the point. Ryder's character Call is an android, but her model was one built by other androids in an apparent attempt to make something "more human than human." These robot-creators leaned a little heavy on the "emotions" button and as such Call and her brethren are apparently a really touchy-feely group. It's an interesting concept, that synthetic creatures who are pretty much by default devoid of emotions would take that aspect of androids to the opposite extreme when they make robots of their own.
In this context, Ryder's performance makes sense. She's an android with self-awareness, enough so that she possesses strong emotions that make her hate what she is; Call is a robot so in touch with "humanity" that serious self-loathing ensues. I won't argue that Call is a great character or that Ryder offers a fantastic performance; I thought both areas were good but not great. Nonetheless, I disagree with the strongly negative appraisals of her work since her acting was definitely in keeping with what the role asked.
I do, however, take exception with some of the other casting. For the most part, the cast is serviceable; they don't live up to the fantastic legacy of the actors in the first two films, but they don't trash the joint either. The best work comes from Ron Perlman as scaggy nasty-boy Johner - he brings surprising vitality and nuance to what should have been a one-note role - and from Brad Dourif as the scientist who's um... maybe just a little too fond of the aliens; he's wonderfully creepy and goofy all at once. Let's not forget the king of hyperventilation, Leland Orser, as Purvis, one of the alien's impregnated victims. Orser seems to be making a career for himself by performing variations on Veronica Cartwright's death scene from Alien. Hey, more power to him; he knows what he does, and he does it well.
As for the rest of the group, most of them are fine but unexceptional. On the shallow end of the pool we find the two performances that I definitely thought stunk. Dan Hedaya makes for a fine comic actor, but his intense broadness looks way out of place here in his role as General Perez. Basically it seems like he plays everything for laughs; I don't think this was really the intention, but he doesn't appear able to do it any other way. This greatly undercuts any impact his character might have made.
I also found J.E. Freeman's work as sleazy doctor Wren to be over the top. In his attempt to make the character nasty and menacing, he just seems much too emotive and his performance definitely enters the realm of camp. Thankfully, both Hedaya and Freeman don't play especially major roles in the film, so their work doesn't provide a strong negative impact. Still, I thought those two offered the worst performances of the entire series.
Weaver offers some of her best work as clone Ripley. She clearly relishes the opportunity to portray her as something other than her crusading, saintly self, which, since the clone has some alien cells in it, she gets to do. Weaver's performance is a continual delight; she underplays her menace but makes it evident nonetheless as she makes the audience question which team it is for which she now plays. Clone Ripley lacks the emotional nuance that made Weaver's work in Aliens so notable, but it's a great performance anyway.
As for the depictions of the aliens themselves, they work decently. Resurrection takes a page from the Aliens model and serves up a whole bunch of the nasty critters. In addition to the much-maligned lil' alien baby, we get another queen alien - who plays a much smaller role than in Aliens - plus the usual warriors. The only twist on the latter group comes from the aqua aliens, which are underwater swimming creatures. They add a nice twist and offer something a little different, although they're somewhat underused.
Effects-wise, the creatures work very well and probably look the best from the whole series. Some of the CG images for the aqua aliens seem a bit dodgy, but overall the critters appear very convincing. Hey, even the lil' alien baby works in a realistic manner; it's just his physical appearance that bothers so many people.
Overall I found Resurrection to be a very entertaining and frequently thrilling flick. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet shows a nice flair for the many vivid action scenes. One thing I think people forget when they attack later Alien films in comparison with the first two is just how hard it must be for these directors to create something new while they still stick within the accepted Alien universe; fickle Alien-philes want it to be the same and different all at once.
I, for one, don't really understand or agree with the viciously negative reaction that Alien Resurrection has encountered. Certainly, the film has flaws, and since the most widely cited problems occur at the end of the movie, those so-called failures are even more noticeable. (Audiences forgive a movie that starts poorly but ends well, but if it goes the other way around, forget about it - that film will be savaged!) Even if you have already seen Resurrection and disliked it, give it another try. Like me, you may be very pleasantly surprised; I've now seen it five times, and I've enjoyed it more with each successive viewing.