Friday, April 27, 2012

My mom is an insane badass: Alien: Resurrection

Alien: Resurrection is a wild departure from the tone of the previous films. Where the dirty run-down Blade Runner aesthetic of the previous films got progressively more bleak, the visuals in Resurrection seem to delight in the idea of the future. Everything is falling apart and old, sure, but it's brightly lit and colourful. This is very different from the future of run down and spartan ship designs in the earlier movies, and yet still distinct from the pristine 2001 visuals that Alien felt like an argument against. Partly this can be explained because it takes place hundreds of years after the events of Alien 3, but mostly this is just the very particular vision of the director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

The Alien quadrilogy of films is unique in that each one is handle by a talented director. Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and now Jean-Pierre Jeunet. And I think each of the films is also in a different genre. Alien was a horror movie. Aliens was a Vietnam war movie in space. Alien 3 was a prison movie. And Alien: Resurrection was a crazy French dark imaginative joyride.

Who hires the director of Amelie and Delicatessen to take the reins of an Alien movie?! And then they hire Joss Whedon to write it? Such an insane choice, but one that I'm glad they made. Because what we get is a very interesting exploration of a theme that has become pretty central to the Alien movies: Motherhood.

In Alien 3, Ripley becomes a mother, of a sort. Motherhood in Alien 3 is tied up in ideas of sexual violence and self-sacrifice in a strangely superficial way, but at least here Ripley is not defined by her motherhood. In James Cameron's Aliens, Ripley's strength and survival instinct are recontextualized as a maternal desire to protect Newt. Every awesome and badass thing she does is suddenly because she's got someone to protect. The movie has seen a fair amount of criticism for this depiction, and I tend to agree. It is frustrating that we can't have Ripley be the strong and extremely competent woman she was in the first film without explaining away how a woman could be so strong. She becomes like the mother who can lift a car when her child is trapped underneath it. An amazing feat, but one directly explained by motherhood and protecting future generations.

On the other hand, why can't we have a strong mother character without it being an attack on female autonomy? Motherhood is a part of the human experience, and is just as valid a theme for exploration in a horror movie as any other. Unfortunately, this isn't a way to further explore Ellen Ripley's character. Often in Aliens the character seems completely eclipsed and replaced with trite expressions of motherhood. Aliens is also notable for introducing the alien queen.

Alien: Resurrection plays out like Joss Whedon heard the criticisms of motherhood in Aliens and then laughed to himself and dialed it up to 11. Ripley has been cloned, and the alien queen that was growing inside of her when she killed herself has been saved. But now the two mothers are almost one and the same. Their genetics have become confused. Ripley is now more alien, stronger, more animalistic, less caring. And the alien queen has changed too, developing a human style womb rather than laying eggs.

Whedon has gone on record saying he hated the final movie. He doesn't like the way that Jeunet and the actors interpreted his words and ideas, and it is very clear when watching Resurrection that this is not how Joss Whedon would have done the movie. In this case, I think that's a good thing. Joss Whedon likes ideas, and he likes cleverness and layers of meaning and they serve this movie well. His re-imagining of the android type as young and idealistic is refreshing. And you can even find a group of smugglers that read like early character sketches for his TV show Firefly. But Whedon's style is also very straightforward, and Jeunet's strange and almost impressionistic visual obsession with biology and the body make this film so much more fun to watch. There's even a scene where Ripley stumbles upon a room full of early failed attempts at clones of herself, suspended in glass tanks. And, in a scene later echoed in Baldur's Gate 2, one living creature begging for death.

Alien: Resurrection is not even remotely scary, and to its credit it never tries to be. This is a deeply weird and crazy film, and well worth another viewing now that some time has passed and nobody is expecting another Aliens. This is not another Aliens, but I also think its unlikely we'll ever see another Alien Resurrection.


  1. Reminds me of a pretentious little paper I wrote in Film Theory, first year of university. It was an extension of the Monstrous Feminine principle regarding Alien. I said that Ripley was the unwilling and abortive mother figure, going into super-grisly detail about how the wire the alien gets tangled in at the end was an umbilical cord.

    Got an A, so y'know...

  2. Oh, Joey. You have no idea how much you are loved by boys like me south of the border. I have defended ALIEN RESURRECTION for many years based mainly on its beautiful reflection on identity and sense of self. (Actually, I have a huge essay analogizing it and THE TIN WOODMAN OF OZ rambling about in my head.)

    Keep doing what you're doing, young man. I'm watching over your shoulder.

  3. joss whedon is obsessed with motherhood/mystical pregnancies/destruction of female identity through birth. have you seen angel: the series?

  4. Good point about Ripley's kickassness being undermined in Aliens by her desire to look after Newt. I also thought (though this might only be in the director's cut of the movie) that finally giving Ripley a first name somewhat reduced her status as xenomorph-exterminator-in-chief. Calling her "Ellen" had the effect of grounding her gender, perhaps out of some weird desire to soften her character. And, of course, in that same scene you have the wounded Hicks admitting his first name is Dwayne, thereby symbolically "tagging out" of the fight and leaving Ripley to finish it alone. I guess the point is, badasses usually = men, and badasses usually don't have first names. I could have done without knowing her first name to be honest. I still like Alien Resurrection better than Alien 3, although Res loses points for caving to the censors and CGIing out the alien/human hybrid's gigantic, dangling junk.

  5. The claim about Aliens undermining Ripley's strength by pairing it with the maternal/protective has been put forth before, and generally doesn't hold much water on closer scrutiny. There are plenty of moments of strength that she displays that are not at all tied to this: particularly note her interactions with the company and its representatives.

    Unless one wants to claim that narratives of the maternal/protection are inherently weakening for women, this argument doesn't hold water.

    The themes of aliens with regards to gender certainly follow classic narratives of gender and nation that we have seen in western culture for a very long time: mothers are the carriers of nation, and represent it by proxy. The battle of motherhood in this movie is a theme that is powerful and useful, and certainly not marginalizing; taking out this thread is not only pointless, but weakens an overarching concept whose exploration is compelling.

    If mothers and motherhood are not allowed to be tied to signs of the powerful, this is a bigger problem. If Ripley were only powerful because she is a surrogate mother this would be a problem, but that's not what's happening.

  6. Wow, we should form a support group for people who enjoyed Resurrection. I, too, think it is undervalued, although I nitpick it to death when I watch it. You are absolutely right, it's not an Alien film, but I just wish it could make up its mind as to what it is. Schizophrenic is a good term for the book, like Firefly intercut with Alien.

  7. Has a bold, inventive style that occasionally compensates for story weaknesses. And, admittedly, there's a certain visceral appeal to the action sequences.

    irene (Andean, Inc.)