I Thought You Were Dead: Resurrecting the Alien Franchise as a Farce 

Alien: Resurrection (1997)

Alien: Resurrection (1997) | 20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Alien: Resurrection has the nerve to resurrect a woman who fell headlong into a vat of molten lead. In doing so, the film makes death ridiculous, something that can be cloned away. Just as it spits in the face of nature’s laws, so too does it flout the rules of every Alien movie that precedes it, rejecting cold abjection for disgusting dream logic. Its lens forces the viewer to see its subjects in a new, unflattering light. It does not shy away from sight gags and slapstick. 

Alien: Resurrection is Alien-as-farce.

Like every other Alien movie before it, Alien: Resurrection has the same skeletal plot: human beings (under the direction of an organization that cares more about profits than about the well-being of their people) encounter a monster that proceeds to eviscerate them—either from the outside in, with teeth and talons and tail, or from the inside out, with teeth and bullet-headed brute force. Most characters unlucky enough to find themselves in an Alien movie do not survive, unless they are intelligent, desperate, and resourceful enough to fight their way to an airlock. Characters who survive Alien movies are usually female, and they are also usually named Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).

The other constant of the series, apart from its cyclical storyline and its heroine, is its willingness to try on different genres. Each entry represents a variation in tone and mood, ranging from Alien’s cold suspense to Aliens’ hot action to Alien 3’s numb despair. Resurrection swings the pendulum away from the dour grimness of its predecessor towards a sense of humor and ironic self-awareness; the result is an Alien eager to thumb its nose at its precursors. It doesn’t care if anyone who loves those earlier films gets caught in the crossfire, either.

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Alien: Resurrection is a challenging watch, a black comedy in a series not well known for its humor. It’s a chaotically nasty mad-science mess of parts stitched together by an early Joss Whedon script and the grotesque direction of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The Alien series has always been cold and a little absurd, although the early movies hold their absurdity at a distance. The idea of first contact with a monster designed specifically to prey on human bodies—and whose life cycle violates the laws of conservation of mass—only works because Alien gives the audience just enough time to register the alien’s alienness, but not enough time to think about it. Resurrection then editorializes on Alien’s underlying absurdity with a gleeful nihilism. Nothing that came before matters—not Ripley’s death (spoiler alert for Alien 3), not Weyland-Yutani’s attempts to acquire the alien for its bioweapons division (spoiler alert for every other Alien movie), not even the intricacies of the alien life cycle (unspoilable, because it’s carved permanently into American pop culture). Nothing is held sacred, either. And to drive that attitude home, Resurrection treats the meaninglessness of its predecessors as nothing other than hilarious.

Resurrection opens with defeat. Ripley died centuries ago to prevent the alien from reaching human civilization and wiping us out. Even Weyland-Yutani—the other constant in Ripley’s life, forever attempting to obtain the alien for their bioweapons division—is no more, taken over by in a hostile corporate merger by none other than Walmart. Weyland-Yutani’s exploit-everything ethos lives on in the United Systems military, who move heaven, earth, and possibly several other planets to clone Ripley, splicing her recovered DNA (recovered how? Who cares!) with alien DNA (same!), in order to create a vessel to carry an alien queen.

Exactly how they managed to clone a long-dead woman along with the monster that had been inside her when she died (I cannot make this up) is hand-waved away, an unimportant detail in a movie wholly unconcerned with logistics. All that matters is that Ripley once died to save humanity while giving birth to an alien queen, and she is resurrected to carry another alien queen—and with it, the possible end of the human race—to full term. Ripley, as a character in-universe, exists only to fight and defeat and escape aliens; Ripley, as a character in a movie franchise, continued to return to the silver screen because for 20 years the studio believed audiences wouldn’t connect with an Alien story unless Sigourney Weaver was attached to it. The actress and the character and the production company (RIP 20th Century Fox) and the aliens all pursue each other, on screen and off, in an ouroboros cycle, each one devouring the others in pursuit of the money they could bring in. The irony practically tastes metallic.

Ripley is magnetic: the aliens—and, by extension, the organizations that want to exploit them—cannot leave her orbit. Neither can the film series. As above in the film studio, so below on the silver screen. Every Alien movie up until Resurrection was made partly because both the real-life and the fictional corporations were able to bring the character back to the screen, each time resurrecting her from a dreamless sleep to fight the aliens she’d supposedly defeated in the previous installment. But rather than treat her as a god or a celebrity, Resurrection turns her character into a dark joke, a commentary on her role in Alien movies previous. This time, she isn’t awakened from hypersleep, but literally returned from the dead, a clone with genetic memories. And—both out of universe and in—she is only important because she heralds the return of the aliens.

The scientists who cloned Ripley care only about the young she can produce: one of cinema’s most beloved and rounded female characters, reduced in-universe and out to a walking womb. They don’t care about the woman long-dead, with memories of her past life intact, the only person to face off against aliens multiple times and live to tell the tale. All the scientists care about is Ripley’s ability to reproduce. Once they have the alien queen they so desperately want from her, Ripley is cast off, referred to as a “meat by-product.” She only stays alive because one scientist is convinced that she could be useful to further his own research—not because she’s a person, but because she carries some of the same traits as the alien species she was used to resurrect.

Clone-Ripley is a fast learner who understands her place in this awful universe. She meets the detached curiosity of the scientists with a cynical sense of humor, the ghost of a smile on her lips. When they try to teach her language, she’s far ahead of their efforts, dancing circles around their attempts to corral her into a box. In a training session, one scientist holds up a utensil and enunciates its name (“fork”) to her slowly. “Fuck,” Ripley repeats, amused at his frustrated reaction. She won’t give him the satisfaction of giving it up so easily. He thinks he owns her, and the aliens that are technically her offspring; she knows he and all of his colleagues are doomed to die at the hands of those very same aliens. Most of the humor of the situation is dramatic irony, built up by anticipation: the scientists cannot fathom being overthrown by the creatures they’ve claimed as their property. They’ve managed to recreate the deadliest species known to humankind; why worry about being burned when the raging fire is so safely contained?

Until the aliens get loose (and why wouldn’t they? It is an Alien movie, after all), Ripley drifts through her existence as a science experiment mucking about with her own results because she, like the scientists conducting the experiment, is both a conscious observer and an active participant. She taunts the scientists about their chances of survival. She bites one who gets too close. The alien attacks are unthinkable to the scientists, but Ripley and the audience know how this is going to go because they’ve seen it all before. It’s funny because the scientists can’t see the edge of the cliff they’ve been driving along. The only thing left to do is to derail the train and watch everything burn.

It would be easy to tell the story by coloring inside the lines: add a hapless crew with glimmers of personality, trap them on the ship, shake, and wait for the explosion. Resurrection does not color inside the lines. If it had, it would be much more recognizably an Alien movie, yet much less memorable. Thankfully, Resurrection breaks the rules. In this iteration, the aforementioned crew isn’t exactly hapless, but they aren’t innocent victims, either—they’re couriers and mercenaries, bringing hibernating colonists as fodder for the scientists’ experiments with the aliens. In this iteration, Ripley is no longer beholden to the rules set out for her. She is no longer, strictly speaking, human; she might not even be on the side of humanity. It’s unclear where her morals and allegiances lie. Where the original Ripley might have fought tooth and nail to prevent a foregone conclusion, the clone waits for the action she knows will come to her while she lazily bounces a basketball. She lazily revels in her physical existence, her super-human strength and reflexes. Ripley knows that all hell will break loose, regardless of her own actions, so she might as well take the scientists’ machinations for the joke they are.

When the action comes, it’s quick and it’s one-sided: one of the mercenaries attempts to hit on Ripley, trying to steal her basketball and goad her into a game, and in the ensuing scuffle she knocks him out and incapacitates the crewmates who come to help him, then continues making free throws. She sinks a mid-court shot with her back turned. She does not need to actually play with anyone: she could win the game singlehanded. Nor does she care about the scientists who brought her back; she knows they’re toying with forces of nature that they cannot hope to control, despite all their pretensions otherwise. She’s perfectly happy to make fools of everyone else around her, since her own existence became a sick joke long ago. 

Later, when questioned about previous encounters with aliens, she says only: “I died.” The statement is not without an edge of humor; Ripley does not regret being a joke. She might even enjoy it.

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Resurrection’s jokes are all sick. Most are sourly ironic moments that pass almost too quickly to register: Walmart buying out Weyland-Yutani, or Ripley intentionally mispronouncing “fork” in order to piss off a scientist and to let him show what she thinks of him. Other small moments reveal the film’s darkly cheeky streak. A pair of soldiers stand guard beside a door with their guns pointed at each others’ heads, all the while chewing gum: bad gun discipline, with potentially gruesome results should one soldier surprise the other by doing something so ordinary as snapping a bubble. The ship’s omnipresent and omnipotent computer, named Father, is accessed by plugging cords into a Bible in the ship’s chapel. Even the violence—though graphic—is irreverent. Ripley rips the tongue/jaw out of a dead alien and offers it to another character as a souvenir. Like the concept of resurrection-by-cloning, or the presence of real-life corporations making unexpected appearances in-movie, the act of dismembering an alien is incongruous. The alien tongue flops to the floor, impotent now that the alien is gone. The only appropriate reaction is ridiculous laughter, followed by nervous disgust.

The Alien movies have always had a note of disgust to them; their form of body horror is the kind of repulsed fascination one feels with slime and bugs and the clenching of fear in the pit of one’s stomach. The tension rests on a razor-thin edge, relying on fear and innuendo for fuel. The monster in the first Alien creeps in the shadows, never fully seen until it is finally flushed out of the airlock, the better to maintain the illusion that the alien is an alien, and not a tall graphic design student in a rubber suit. As with the alien, the film’s depictions of violence prefer to describe, and not to show; even Alien’s central set piece, in which the chestburster incarnation of the alien appears, is structured around a series of rapid movement and cuts. We see gore, but our perception of it is shaped by careful editing, the violence exposed only for a few frames at a time, favoring the actors’ reactions and the aftermath of the action over the action itself.

Alien’s immediate sequels follow suit, skimming the edge of disgust and fear by lingering only for a moment on action: swift cuts, furtive movements, shots of clear slime, the suggestion of light on the alien carapace. We glance only for a moment before flinching. There’s power in suggestion, and in trickery: the alien is most terrifying in the half-second before we see it. But terrifying glimpses, if repeated, shrinks in stature to mere looks. The alien is reduced to an insect scuttling in the dark: intelligent and dangerous, but a known quantity. Once death—even death as horrible as death at the hands of the alien—is known and expected, it grows cheap.

Resurrection re-weaponizes the alien by leaning into its more disgusting qualities. All mystery is stripped away, with aliens roaming the corridors of the ship in full view of the protagonists—and the audience. Resurrection’s gaze lingers. No time to be coy when disgust will do. And disgust is the most powerful weapon in the film’s arsenal, especially because all inhibitions against showing violence from the previous films are lifted. When the crew encounters aliens, they open fire immediately, acidic yellow alien blood looping through the air. When aliens encounter human beings, they return the violent favor, and the results are borderline slapstick: soldiers caroming off walls as they flee the aliens they guarded seconds before, their limbs flailing like rag dolls. The action is graphic and colorful and exaggerated, uncanny and cartoonish. It would be silly, but for the fact that it’s happening to people; the laughter curdles in the throat.

Alien: Resurrection (1997) | 20th Century Fox

Resurrection’s willingness to be unlikeable and revolting reveal the alien within it to be the absurdity that it always was—a peerless hunter that exists as a parasite. Its silhouette is a caricature of a human shape, all legs and head and teeth, a living weapon. It needs human beings in order to live and procreate, but its entire purpose is to kill humans. It is covered in slime, and it is hungry, and it will devour anything else in its path. But more revolting are the real monsters: the scientists and generals who bankrolled this little experiment. They incite disgust and discomfort with their callous attitude toward life, and their cavalier attitude toward death. When test-subject human beings awaken to find themselves trapped as facehugger fodder, only one of the scientists observing looks away. The rest watch, delighted, as the aliens they’ve bred do their parasitic work. The world is their experiment, with the intent to further their own power by laying claim to an entire other species.

No empathy extended, none received. Violence breeds violence, no matter whether the violence is physical or ontological. In the case of the Resurrection scientists, the violence is everywhere and all-encompassing: they attempt to make a living species their weapon, and they exploit other human beings as tools in order to pull off their attempt. The end result is a farcical world in which no one outside the scientists’ inner circle could possibly be considered as human, let alone worthy of life. When the monster is unleashed, the scientists find themselves trapped in their own experiment, and the bloody but logical result is that no one else in their orbit could possibly survive unscathed.

The obvious punchline is that any attempt to control the uncontrollable will end in failure. Resurrection’s view is that nature will take its course: play with fire and you’ll get burned. But Resurrection does not merely point out the obvious, that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Resurrection has a final stealth joke up its sleeve, one that ultimately places both scientist and alien firmly at the butt.

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Once they have a viable nest of adult aliens, the scientists turn their attention back to the alien queen harvested from Ripley’s clone. Their disinterested curiosity in Ripley’s abilities—poke it with a stick and see what it will do—extends to the physical abilities of Ripley’s offspring. Somehow (as with cloning, the process is less important than the result), they give the alien queen a human womb, and with it, the “gift” of live birth. One of the scientists, gone fully mad, tells Ripley that they’ve attained perfection. The alien queen does not agree with him: live birth is apparently just as painful for aliens as it is for human beings. As with their clone of Ripley, the scientists reduce the alien queen to her ability to reproduce. They, and their creation, are undone by the results; the newborn alien dismembers everything in its path except Ripley herself. Violence doesn’t just beget violence in this sick joke: it warps the world around it until even the violence seems unreal. It exposes the inhumaneness of those who have the power of life and death, and the lengths they will go to to maintain their hold on that power. The joke is not just a light, but an X-ray, revealing both the shape of the world and the bones that prop it up.

This final joke is a dark one. It’s sour and sticky, ugly and more than a little mean. Most of the players do little to endear themselves to each other, let alone the audience. Ripley herself is no longer fully Ripley, or even human. Ripley’s ragtag crew of survivors, almost to a man, prove themselves to be inhumane, willing to sell out another human being to make a profit. They’re backbiting and cowardly. But their greatest strength is their ability to recognize when they’ve made a mistake, and their willingness to attempt to make it right—or to cut their losses and to run for their lives.

The punchline is that a life spent trying to master death will only end in death. The scientists of Alien: Resurrection, in their attempts to cheat death with cloning and to control it by owning and training a pack of aliens as their own living weapons, have become a death cult. They can see no point to anything else, and they pursue their goals with a passion that borders on romantic. The joke isn’t just an ironic reversal of scientist-controls-alien, alien-eats-scientist. The joke is that, even before they lose their lives to the aliens, the Resurrection scientists lost their humanity. 

It’s an unpleasant joke, one that isn’t altogether funny—but it feels vital all the same.