The Theory of Chaos

Monday, October 23, 2006

I am sure, in this nerd paradise called the Internet, that someone has pointed this out before

With the benefit of hindsight it’s stunningly obvious. Re-watching Aliens the other night put a bug in me and I decided to close out the series courtesy of my Quadrilogy Box Set. So I finally watched the “special” assembly cut of Alien3, which had a lot of the customary first director’s cut padding (it’s 30 minutes longer, most of it unnecessary), but a dynamite extended opening – an echo of Vincent Ward’s original “monks in a wooden planet” version of the story that sets the funeral rite tone for the whole episode.

And then I ventured back into
Alien: Resurrection, which I haven’t seen from start to finish since its theatrical run in 1997. I remember where I saw it, the newly-installed multiplex down the road from my grandparents’ place in Michigan, where I was spending Thanksgiving break that year. I even reviewed it for that titan of journalism – the Bradley Scout. At the time I called it an improvement over the third: neither the first nor last stupid opinion I’d express in my critical portfolio.

The extended scenes in the special edition don’t amount to much: a little more historical background and fill-in detail, a so-so opening visual gag, and a closing dialogue that very nearly gets your hopes up for the movie they never made, when the Aliens finally reach Earth like we always imagined they would. The last shot is bleak and wonderful and loaded with possibilities.

That’s the way Joss Whedon imagined it. He wrote
Resurrection before he became a household name to all geekdom. And although the movie’s still an obvious failure to me, and I’ll get more into why below, now that I’ve become the Firefly junkie I am I appreciate how many ideas Whedon got to give a trial run to in someone else’s sci-fi universe before he built his own.

At the time he was a promising young TV writer with a couple of seasons on staff at
Roseanne. He’d branched out into animation, sharing credit on the screenplay for Toy Story and eventually co-writing Titan A.E. and a treatment that outlined the story for Atlantis: The Lost Empire. He also had this crazy idea about taking a flop of a script he’d written about an undead-hunting cheerleader and reviving it in primetime.

His draft of the long-hibernating fourth
Alien movie jolted the project to life, not only cracking the problem of how to bring Ripley back from the dead, but giving her an interesting enough storyline to coax Sigourney Weaver into another round. And call me crazy, but I think I spy with my little eye as the main characters of this picture a scrappy band of outer-space scavengers flitting around unregulated space expecting square treatment in return for their dirty work. Mind you, I don’t think the good Captain Malcolm Reynolds would knowingly shanghai innocent people from cryo-sleep tubes and deliver them for army medical experiments like this movie’s Elgin does, but that’s just Mal’s Browncoat respect for the individual and government-hatred showing.

And that muscle man on board, the one who’s an undisciplined sadist but sort of funny about it? Tell me that Ron Perlman’s Johner isn’t just version 1.0 of The Man We Call Jayne. People whose ears are tuned to Whedon’s playfully malicious dialogue should get a ping of satisfied recognition from lines like “
I'm not the mechanic here, Ironsides! I mostly just hurt people!

Not to mention, we’ve got an adorable young woman in a jumpsuit who just so happens to know her way around an engine. Because of my adolescent fascination with Winona Ryder (what can I say, I’m always drawn to the spacey or disturbed girls), it surprises me to discover that I have absolutely no internal debate about who I’d rather have fixing my hyperdrive. It’s Kaylee all the way, and I further think that Ryder’s Annalee Call is at the center of this movie’s failure.

See, if you pay attention to the structure of the story, she’s actually supposed to be the hero, with the cloned “Ripley 8” as the dangerous enigma. But you’ve got such a titanic mismatch in the screen charisma department here, Sigourney Weaver blows Ryder over like a dandelion. What she projects on screen is so small and wrong for this genre, when she tries to talk tough with her fellow future pirates she just comes off bratty. Casting her was the essence of idiot studio demographic thinking, because from that point on they were serving two masters, trying to pump up her role while simultaneously fighting the will of the series’ established star, who was not going to just hand the franchise to Generation Y without making them earn it. I’m not suggesting Weaver consciously demanded re-writes to give her character more big hero moments (even at the cost of internal consistency), but actors have a way of expressing their dissatisfaction that gets people hopping and making panicked changes.

Meanwhile you’ve got an indifferent foreign director cashing a Hollywood paycheck – 20th Century Fox didn’t realize that when Jean-Pierre Jeunet said he didn’t want to make a “Big American Movie” he wasn’t just Euro-posturing, he was seriously admitting that he had nothing to say as a filmmaker with this story. So instead of a Ridley Scott, James Cameron, or a nascent David Fincher infusing the story with their voice, you had a gifted visual artist who came in with the attitude that he was shooting a 110-minute TV commercial for hire. Watching the rapturous
Amélie confirms that he’s a brilliant filmmaker, just wrong for this project.

That he missed the tricky tonal balance beam act Whedon fans adore and just piled on the glop and gore is tragic but predictable. There’s a bundle of missed opportunities in
Alien: Resurrection, chief among them is its inability to effectively fold the abundance of ideas he supplied into the narrative. Every moment where he expands the Alien universe is too good to abandon, and yet consistently comes as an impediment to the action rather than its saving grace, or is scuttled by poor design. I still just can’t find much scary about The Newborn.

But his joy at coloring in the personalities of those ne’er-do-wells aboard that broken-down mercenary ship “The Betty” is palpable. You can tell he felt like he was onto something with them. How lucky we are that his career has turned into such a tribute to the efficiency of recycling.


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