Good news, ladies: If "Alien Resurrection" has it right, in the future you may be attacked by aliens, abandoned in outer space, cloned from a drop of blood and forced to give birth to a biomorphic monster, but you'll get a great manicure along the way.
The well-groomed nails (looks like Vamp from here) are just the first indication that Ripley isn't the same heroine audiences fell for when she first appeared in Ridley Scott's classic "Alien" in 1987.
Back then, she was a female icon the likes of which filmgoers had rarely seen: quiet, competent, by-the-book and stronger and braver than all the boys. "Aliens," the next installment of the franchise, sought to soften her somewhat, investing her with motherly instincts and even the glimmer of a love interest.
By "Alien 3," by far the worst of the series but now subject to some generous critical revisionism, Ripley was almost unrecognizable amid the murk and the mire; the most memorable thing about her was her shaved head and her self-immolation at the film's end.
Well, it's 200 years later, and she's back. She left blood on the floor when she leapt to her fiery death, and one drop was all it took for the military -- not, it turns out, the dreaded Company -- to bring her back to life, complete with the little monster that she was carrying when she died.
In a gruesome clue of things to come, a filmgoer's first extended glimpse of the new Ripley comes during a disgusting futuristic Caesarian section, wherein the now-familiar iron-toothed mud skipper comes to hissing life. The military scientists intend to study the alien for weapons potential, but they also discover that Ripley herself is worthy of examination: She's come back with superhuman strength (she shoots hoops like she has Flubber on her shoes), an instinctive knowledge of alien behavior and a whopping case of post-partum depression. "They'll escape. You'll die," she tells them dispassionately.
Except for the switch of making the military the baddies, and completely denuding Ripley of every characteristic that made her appealing in the first place, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who, with Marc Caro, directed the visionary fantasies "Delicatessen" and "The City of Lost Children") has stuck pretty closely to "Alien" boilerplate: The aliens do escape, and people do die. "Alien Resurrection" even includes the requisite cargo ship full of scruffy mercenaries (guy of color: check; tough guy who gets it first: check; sexist guy with a heart of gold: check), who arrive just in time for Ripley to lead them to safety and blast the aliens to smithereens once and for all.
A distinctly creepy anxiety about birth and women's reproductive autonomy suffuses "Alien Resurrection," which Jeunet has directed with the usual grimy, smoky aesthetic (the original "Alien" seems so quaintly clean now). From the bloody surgical scenes that open the movie to ghastly images of cloning experiments gone awry to the movie's perverse climax, in which we're forced to watch the queen alien give birth to a bouncing baby thing (imagine E.T. with an overactive pituitary gland), what started in 1987 as an interesting theme of motherhood and protectiveness has clearly grown into full-out uterophobia.
In addition to confusing dark humor with vulgarity and a surfeit of ooze, "Alien Resurrection" commits the cardinal no-no of showing too much. What gave the original its power was the fact that it showed so little of the alien. All masters of terror know that the audience fills in with their own imaginations something far scarier than the most sophisticated animatronic puppet or prosthetic gizzard.
Of course, a side effect of relying too heavily on fancy effects is the potential for looking utterly ridiculous: A sequence involving swimming aliens sends about as many chills up the spine as watching a mayonnaise jar full of sea monkeys.
Dan Hedaya brings his own brand of tough hilarity to the role of a hirsute military commander, and Ron Perlman tries to acquit his role as one of the cargo ship roughnecks with dignity. Winona Ryder is fetching but unconvincing as one of his colleagues (spunky little tomboy: check), leaving the jury still out as to whether she can actually act or not.
Striding through it all on legs that go on forever, Sigourney Weaver brings her sad, soothing persona to bear on a role that long ago ceased to exude its original mystery. From the looks of her unchanging, stricken expression throughout most of "Alien Resurrection," she misses the real Ripley as much as we do.
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Rated R (strong sci-fi violence and gore, some grotesque images, and language)
Sun score: *1/2
Pub Date: 11/26/97