The fourth movie in the Alien franchise, Alien Resurrection, was a critical failure, but what mistakes did the it make, and how could they have been avoided? Released in 1997, Alien Resurrection combined the pedigree of screenwriter Joss Whedon, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and cast newcomers Winona Ryder and Ron Perlman to little effect. While the movie isn’t unwatchable, Alien Resurrection is—like Alien 3 before it—generally viewed as a disastrous late addition to a gradually worsening franchise.
Sigourney Weaver is as solid as ever in the movie, and her co-stars Ryder and Perlman have proven in the years since Alien Resurrection flopped that they can fare well in genre fare, as evidenced by Stranger Things and Hellboy respectively. So with so much talent both behind and in front of the camera, what went wrong with this fourth outing for the Alien franchise?
There were plenty of problems that plagued the production of Alien Resurrection, but despite the movie’s convoluted set-up and knotty plot, its creation was not quite as strained as its predecessor Alien 3. Future Amelie director Jeunet thought that the franchise ended with Alien 3 and, like producer Walter Hill, he was skeptical about continuing the story, but the movie’s large budget tempted him to take on the job. The helmer hired visual effects specialist and future Catwoman director Pitof to work with him, which could, in retrospect, be read as an early indication that things were taking a bad turn. But the problems didn’t become clear until the movie’s secret weapon—the newborn Alien—was unveiled.
Like the Predalien in the later (underrated) Alien Vs Predator spin-off series, the Newborn Alien was intended to be a huge draw for Alien Resurrection, as the movie would be unveiling a new hybrid form of the title monster with a previously unseen creature design. The Alien Queen of James Cameron’s Aliens was one of the sequel’s best-loved additions to the franchise, so expectations were high. The Newborn Alien did not live up to them. Slimy, gangly, and hilariously human, the newborn was a laughable, giant-headed mess of overlong limbs and pot-bellied oddness. Originally intended to have human genitalia until the studio balked and Jeunet admitted that “even for a Frenchman it’s a bit much”, the Newborn was, nonetheless, a disaster even without its private parts appearing in the finished movie. An earlier design would have seen the creators model the monster’s appearance on Weaver herself, but this was abandoned for fear of resembling Species’ Sil. It’s a shame, as anything would have been an improvement on the prune-faced ghoul viewers were eventually left with.
Despite how unintentionally comical the Newborn Alien may have appeared, Alien Resurrection was not intended to be a comedy. At least, that’s not what the production team at large thought the ambitious monster movie would amount to, but the director had a different idea. Jeunet wanted his contribution to the Alien franchise to be a dark comedy, resulting in some bizarrely out-of-place, campy performances and over-the-top touches that are as tonally wrong-headed as the phrase “the director of Amelie shooting an Alien sequel” implies. It’s widely agreed upon by fans of the franchise that Alien 3’s decision to kill off fan favorites Newt and Bishop offscreen was too bleak and grim for the movie and set up a hopelessly dark atmosphere for the third installment.
However, for all of its faults, David Fincher’s outing at least maintained the brutal, grim tone established by this opening heartbreak throughout the rest of the movie, featuring little comic relief and no respite from its claustrophobic nightmare of a setting. In contrast, at least part of Alien Resurrection’s failure to win over even existing fans of the franchise can be attributed to the movie’s failure to nail down a definite, specific tone. The movie is too quippy and action-oriented (thanks to screenwriter Joss Whedon’s contributions) to be as authentically scary as Ridley Scott’s critically acclaimed original movie. 1979’s Alien was pitched as a “haunted house movie in space” for good reason, as it begins dark and only grows more brutal throughout its duration. James Cameron’s sequel Aliens, meanwhile, is a less grim affair, with the cast well-armed and better prepared to take on the titular threat. In contrast, in Alien Resurrection, the characters never seem to be in mortal peril; they’re toughened mercenaries and scientists developing bio-weapons, neither of whom seem ill-equipped to take on a threat.
The military scientists and mercenaries are both hauling the same defensive hardware as the stars of Aliens, not to mention the fact that they’ve got a stronger-than-ever Ripley to rely on. Even tougher than her Aliens incarnation thanks to her alien blood infusion, Ripley is never in danger during the movie, as it’s never clear just how powerful she is. She’s also surrounded by distrusting enemies, and the movie’s mean-spirited black comedy ensures there’s no camaraderie between characters. As a result, the finished movie is the worst Alien installment, being too bleak and grim to be Aliens-style action movie fun and, thanks to the odd comic touches inserted by Jeunet’s direction, nowhere near dark enough to be genuinely scary.
Speaking of the movie’s darkness, Alien Resurrection’s lush visual palette is an immediately striking and evocative change of pace for the series. Each movie in the franchise had a unique visual style, whether it’s the burnt-orange and metallic grey post-apocalyptic look of Alien 3, the sleek steely blues of Aliens, or the grimy, black-green fetid darkness of the first installment. To be fair, Alien Resurrection made use of its large budget by creating a new, distinct Gothic-influenced green-tinged color palette for this installment. The only problem is that for anyone not accustomed to Jeunet’s highly stylized look, marrying the style he established in earlier releases Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children with the world of Alien is a tall order. The movie’s green patinas lend a sickly look to proceedings and, by the time it was released, the likes of Tank Girl, Judge Dredd, and The Fifth Element had boasted similarly striking visual palettes without looking quite so garish. When a movie makes Tank Girl look less than garish, it’s cause for concern.
Despite the movie’s flaws, however, there was real potential for greatness in Alien Resurrection. Whedon’s original script featured a superior ending, although it’s one that would have clashed with Jeunet’s comic tone. Meanwhile, although Jeunet largely avoided Hollywood projects since the movie flopped, his string of successful comedies before and after its release prove that his instincts were right. The franchise could have done with a more light-hearted, campy comedic installment if his vision weren’t so heavily compromised by studio intervention. Ultimately, the film needed to pick either the writer or the director’s vision, rather than attempting to marry such divergent styles in one Alien movie.