The Alien series, for my money, is the most provocative franchise Hollywood has ever spawned. What began as a sci-fi splatter-film concept has developed, over four films and eighteen years, into an ongoing meditation on women’s issues. The Alien films aren’t really about the eponymous monsters; they’re about Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the real alien of the series — a woman fighting for her life in hostile male environments. This is Hollywood’s only feminist franchise, and is of considerable value as such.
Pregnancy, abortion, rape, motherhood, the death of a child, her own death — Ripley has been through it all, at least symbolically. Two centuries after her Nestea plunge into molten metal in Alien 3, Ripley is resurrected when scientists clone DNA from her blood; the military extracts the alien Queen inside her, hoping to study and train it. Business as usual: the patriarchy always does idiotic, suicidal things in the Alien movies.
Ripley, it turns out, still has a bit of alien DNA in her. Weaver’s freshly cloned Ripley is cynical and oddly childlike; death has left her both jaded and liberated. She’s already died once — what more can you do to her? Weaver’s performances have gotten stronger with each sequel, and this is her most complex work yet. The script, by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), endows Ripley with a dark, fatalistic wit. “She’ll breed,” Ripley shrugs, referring to the captive Queen. “You’ll die.” No big thing. Slime happens.
A lot of slime happens in Alien Resurrection, directed with baroque flair by the traditional young visionary — this time it’s Jean-Pierre Jeunet, of Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children. The action unfolds, as in Alien, aboard a junky space vessel, where aliens can hide and humans can’t escape. A band of space pirates, including the waiflike Annalee Call (Winona Ryder), board the ship occupied by Ripley and her brood of aliens. Jeunet and Whedon deliver the alien-attack scenes with a spin and a wink.
There are also two powerfully upsetting moments that will stay with me for a while. One takes place in a lab full of botched cloning experiments. The implications of what Ripley finds there are chilling. The other comes near the end, when we meet a new breed of alien — a grotesque humanoid who seems to be Ripley’s twisted mirror image. If Ripley is a human with a touch of alien, this thing is an alien with a touch of humanity, and the climax — an inspired quote from the end of Alien — is both tense and saddening.
If Alien was about rape, Aliens about motherhood, and Alien 3 about unwanted pregnancy, what is Alien Resurrection about? The intrusion of science and government into women’s bodies, I’d say. It imagines a techno-religious future, ruled by a cyber-crucifix called Father (remember Mother, the computer in Alien?) and enforced by the military. Alien Resurrection continues the series’ message that women — even women who aren’t quite human — must assert their humanity in the face of inhumanity. That doesn’t necessarily mean aliens: Nothing they do is nearly as inhuman as what humans do to each other in the name of science, God, and country.