In 2005, Alien Resurrection writer Joss Whedon made headlines when he spilled some honest thoughts on the final film versus his scripted version of the story in an interview with Bullz-Eye. In those days, Whedon was still a nerd folk hero, the guy who brought us Buffy and Angel and Firefly but hadn’t yet made the leap to megablockbusters with The Avengers. He was viewed widely as a kind of nerd property whisperer, a guy who had answers for how to crack a great many stories, and he had a track record to back that up. So when he shed some light on why he thought Resurrection didn’t work as well as certain other Alien films, people listened.
The problem, according to Whedon, wasn’t that the movie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet made was dramatically different in structure from his script. The problem was…well, literally everything else:
Uh…you know, it wasn’t a question of doing everything differently, although they changed the ending, it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines…mostly...but they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do. There’s actually a fascinating lesson in filmmaking, because everything that they did reflects back to the script or looks like something from the script, and people assume that, if I hated it, then they’d changed the script…but it wasn’t so much that they’d changed the script; it’s that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.
Whedon is, of course, entitled to his opinion, particularly when his name is on the movie as its screenwriter and therefore, as he noted, people tend to assume certain things about his involvement, or lack thereof, in the final product. But looking at Resurrection now, 25 years after it became the fourth film in the still-growing Alien saga, it’s hard to square his reading of the film with my own. It’s not that I think Whedon’s script was the actual problem with the film—on the contrary, there are some really cool ideas baked in there, some of which read like a proto-Firefly assemblage of space pirate weirdness—but that, after all this time, all the elements he took issue with actually feel like the best things about this odd, ambitious franchise revamp.
Jeunet’s choices for design and casting, and the cast’s own choices for their motley crew of characters, feel remarkably energetic a quarter century later, particularly when compared to the more dour tones of Alien 3 (which certainly has its own passionate defenders and is by no means as bad as many people claim). Indeed, at a time when genre franchises from Halloween to Predator to Hellraiser are getting their own revamps to varying degrees of success, certain things about Resurrection read now as positively prescient.
So, if you like franchise continuations that take big swings with their material and generally reach for something new (whether or not they grasp it), you owe it to yourself to revisit Alien Resurrection and its own brand of dirty space strangeness.
That strangeness was perhaps helped along by the fact that Resurrection wasn’t supposed to happen. Producers Walter Hill and David Giler didn’t want it. Sigourney Weaver had specifically lobbied for Ellen Ripley to die in Alien 3 because she didn’t want to come back and make the character into a “figure of fun” who just kept popping up in more monster adventures. Even Jeunet, setting aside the issue of wondering why Twentieth Century Fox wanted him to direct, was confused by the idea that there’d be an Alien 4 that would once again star Weaver. But Fox execs demanded that if Alien was back, Ripley was back, and so Whedon crafted a story which would both allow for Weaver’s return and give the actress herself a chance to chew on a very different version of the character, a clone infused with alien DNA who both had all of Ripley’s memories and seemingly very few of her moral scruples. This time, Ripley might fight the monster on the ship, or she might be the monster on the ship.
That ambiguity is enhanced by the ensemble cast, a group of mercenaries transporting human cargo with very few scruples, only one of whom (Winona Ryder’s Call) happens to be really tuned into the broader threat the Xenomorphs emerging from the film’s military experiment truly are. There aren’t that many good guys in any given Alien movie, just survivors and corpses, but that sense of morally gray characterization is amped up for Resurrection, adding to the grittiness of the film while also enhancing the level of fun.
Speaking of fun, there’s Jeunet’s choices for the broader supporting cast, which include Ryder, Ron Perlman, Michael Wincott and Jeunet’s own Delicatessen star Dominique Pinon, all of whom seem exceptionally pleased to be strutting around a dirty spaceship, making Whedon’s snappy dialogue their own. That dialogue, which Whedon seemed to suggest suffered from poor delivery, is given a new spin by Jeunet’s particular sensibilities, which are both decidedly avant-garde for an American blockbuster and perhaps informed by his use of English as a second language. But the dialogue choices also stem from the actors, who make meals out of their characters, particularly in the case of Perlman, who is having the time of his life strutting around as a big man who slowly realizes just how small he really is. Wincott moves around like he’s the head of a gang of outlaws in a Western who just happened to get teleported to space, while Pinon makes everything about the film into something else entirely. It should feel disjointed, and in certain moments maybe it does, but for all the different flavors at work in the recipe, things come together in a way that feels remarkably real: You get the sense of a band of misfits trying to survive in a future that’s ready to chew them up and spit them out.
Then there’s the design of the film, from the spaceships to the basketball court to that infamous alien “baby” which sprouts up for the grand finale. Jeunet’s pre-Resurrection films, particularly Delicatessen, say a lot about where his head is when it comes to developing dark genre stories, and to the credit of Fox executives, they really let him put his stamp on Resurrection. You see it in the rickety, tank-tread wheelchair Pinon rides around for much of the film, and in the way the costumes look like a biker gang stopped by the desert planet Arrakis. You see it in the strange pallor of Ripley’s skin, the way Jeunet and Weaver make her move more like a creature than a human. And yes, you see it in that strange, tragic, ultimately horrifying finale, when a hybrid creature screams for its life as Ripley looks on. It still plays like a studio film, because after all, this is an action blockbuster from the 1990s, but the dirty space aesthetic pioneered by Ridley Scott in Alien is alive and well, and it gets plenty of new twists.
Most of all, though, when you look back at Alien Resurrection, there’s a sense that doing things deliberately differently was entirely the point, at least on a small scale. The dialogue sounds different, the actors move differently and even the pacing of the film, as it moves from setpiece to exposition and back to setpiece again, feels somehow fresh, like it’s someone trying to do a satirical imitation of a blockbuster rather than following the standard path. It’s not perfect—some of the dialogue does indeed ring stilted and the pacing sometimes veers too far into meandering—but it is, above all else, interesting. So, if you enjoy franchise films that take chances with their execution—films like Halloween Ends, Hellraiser and Prey—consider Alien Resurrection part of that tradition, and take Ripley’s last ride more time.
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.