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Review: It's no fun being an "Alien"

Blast San Francisco Bureau

The bitch is back!

Sigourney Weaver returns as Ellen Ripley to square off against the mother of all movie monsters in modern film -- the creepy, crawling, slimy, toothy Alien.

Wait, didn't they cap Ripley's ass in the last "Alien"? Yes. But thanks to the miracle of modern science fiction, actress Sigourney Weaver plays a clone of the matronly Ripley, some 200 years after we last saw her and the Alien baby she was carrying burn to death at the end of "Alien 3."

Despite some narrative weakness in "Alien Resurrection," French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director behind the hilarious apocalyptic black comedy "Delicatessen" and the dark dreamy fantasy "City of Lost Children," brings a fresh visual style to the monster-vs.-humans franchise.

The Resurrection begins aboard the science vessel Auriga, captained by Gen. Perez (a very hairy Dan Hedaya). Scientists there are engaged in cloning experiments that not only give birth to Ripley's genetic ancestor (who now has a little of those monstrous genes herself -- her blood is now acidic!) but to a new litter of Aliens. Apparently when they used tissue samples from Ripley's corpse, they extracted Alien DNA as well. Think "Jurassic Park" with more slime.

Then comes along the ship Betty, which brings a shipment of human bodies that are to be used in the cloning experiments. The smugglers here are Call, played by Gen-X babe Winona Ryder and a rag-tag crew that includes a big bully (Ron Perlman); the wheelchair-bound mechanic (Dominique Pinon, a favorite of Jeunet); and the token African-American (Gary Dourdan) character whose has a trigger finger like Travis Bickle.

The plot of the film at the beginning is not entirely clear. In one scene Call has a confrontation with Ripley that I still can't figure out. Obviously there's more to the smugglers than meets the eye. But no matter: Once the real plot begins -- the Aliens get loose! -- the real fun begins. Ripley and the smugglers are now in a race to get back to the Betty before the Aliens can rip them to shreds, all while the Auriga is on a flight path toward Earth.

Simple enough, right? But here is where the inventiveness Jeunet demonstrated in his two previous films comes into play. The director has an almost cruel sense of playfulness with the characters and the violence that has become a hallmark of the series. Jeunet capitalizes on the freakish nature of the humans and the Aliens. Ripley herself is part monster, part human; Pinon's a cripple; Perlman's a big ape; the rastaman's face gets scarred by Alien blood. Even Call is not all she seems to be.

The biggest freak in the film is sprung onto the audience late in the film: the Newborn, the evolution of the Alien species. It is grotesque and monsterous, yet almost curious like a baby. At the same time, it appears creepy and oddly human in appearance (the damn thing has eyes!).

Jeunet pokes and prods at these creatures like a kid pulling the legs off a captured cricket. And he almost seems to delight in it. In one gross but funny scene, Perez gets a rear-side lobotomy, then picks a piece of his brain and stares at it.

In another surprisingly emotionally strong scene, the humans enter a tiny lab of Ripley rejects, previous clones that are nothing more than twisted, distorted forms of flesh and skin. Many float in huge glass containers like deformed stillborns. The scene is straight out of some carnival sideshow.

The look of the film mimics the heavy metal look of "Delicatessen" and "City of Lost Children." But the strange and claustrophobic corridors, some slick with slime and bathed in dark and red colors, also feel like a biological structure.

That visual metaphor extends to a well-done action scene that involves a flooded portion of the Auriga. In this underwater sequence, the humans are seen fleeing from a pair of aquatic Aliens, all of these beings floating slowly as violence erupts. The ballet-like movement of the characters underwater make them look like fetuses in some strange giant womb.

Weaver is strong, cool and erotic as Ripley. Walking, running and swimming around in her tight leather outfit, this Ripley moves like a panther. Unlike the sometimes frightened chick in "Alien," or the headstrong, determined gun-totin' mama of "Aliens," this Ripley is colder, more detached from the other humans in the film and seemingly more selfish. At the same time, she's strangely funny. She's a freakin' freak.

Ryder's Call is the most humane of the bunch, and the character adds an air of sweetness to an otherwise eerie film. The rest of the human cast are mostly two-dimensional cannon fodder; they're there to be ripped, bitten, slashed, burned and strangled by the beasts.

The relationship between Ripley and Call felt underdeveloped. But the overall story arc of the film is underdeveloped as well. The strength of "Alien Resurrection" is the way the visual inventiveness and strong performances of the female leads propels this sci-fi horror franchise back from the dead. And with the finale ending up on Earth, don't be surprised if we see a fifth "Alien" invade the planet.

"Alien" Revisited

Blast San Francisco Bureau

Few sci-fi franchises have staying power ("Star Wars" and "Star Trek" come to mind) and none are as varied as the "Alien" films. Each film has a distinct look and feel, even if the basic humans-kick-monsters'-asses plot remains the same. Hell, even as the design of the Alien remained the same, it behaves and moves differently in each flick. Here now is a quick rundown of the three predecessors to "Alien Resurrection" (all available on video and laserdisc):

Alien (1979) *** Ridley Scott's eerie sci-fi film first introduced the Alien, a dark, slimy, spidery, skeletal beast with a barbed tail, retractable fangs and acid for blood. Filled with a small but impressive cast that includes Yaphet Kotto ("Homicide: Life on the Streets"), Tom Skerritt ("Picket Fences"), John Hurt, Ian Holm and Veronica Cartwright (hey, wasn't she on "Lost In Space"?), "Alien" also introduces us to the relatively unknown Sigourney Weaver (what the hell was so wrong with her given name Susan anyway?) as Ellen Ripley.

They are the crew of the space tug Nostromo -- basically intergalactic truckers -- when they intercept an SOS. The signal leads to a strange alien craft on a nearby planet. Inside they find a nest of eggs. One of which cracks open throwing out a big lobster-thing that hugs Hurt's face. Film history is made.

"Alien" still stands as one damn good movie, boosting one of the butt-ugliest, scariest movie monsters in ages. Laden with sci-fi special effects, "Alien" is more horror monster movie than lasers-and-rocketships epic (Anyone remember what the film ads read? "No one can hear you scream in space," or something like that). The film is eerie and claustrophobic as the Alien -- who is seen mostly in silhouette -- knocks off the crew one by one.

Aliens (1986) ***1/2 Whereas "Alien" was quiet and spare, James Cameron's sequel is a thunderous, slam-bang, balls-out action flick. Centered around Ripley and a crew of intergalactic marines as they face off against hordes of these damn creatures, "Aliens" is easily the most exciting of the film series.

The film picks up where "Alien" ended. Rescuers find Ripley aboard her ship in suspended animation, some 50 years later. After communications are lost with a colony on the same planet where the Alien eggs were first sighted by Ripley's crew in "Alien," she is recruited to team up with some Marines to check it out. Guess what they find.

"Aliens" is filled to the brim with sphincter-tightening action-suspense scenes, peppered generously with bullets and explosions. In fact, many of the Alien ambushes on the marines felt like something of 'Nam. This is the film "Starship Troopers" wishes it were.

Aliens film also boast a stronger role for Weaver, who gets to kick a lot more ass this time using machine gun, grenade launcher and flame thrower. She even fights hand-to-hand against the more frightening cockroach-like Alien Queen using some damn Tonka Truck-looking suit. In addition to Weaver, the film also has an impressive cast: Paul Reiser ("Mad About You"), Lance Henriksen ("Millennium"), Bill Paxton ("Twister"), Michael Biehn ("The Terminator") and Jenette Goldstein.

Alien 3 (1992) **1/2

Even though this film is decidedly downbeat -- shit, it is depressing -- this film is kept strong by its cinematography, set designs and David Fincher's fine direction.

The film begins with a bummer as we learn that, except for Ripley, the survivors of "Aliens" didn't quite make it after fleeing from the beasts in their escape ship. Instead Ripley's ship crash-lands on a former prison colony on a distant planet inhabited by a group of violent skin head rapists and murderers who have discovered religion (Even worse, they're mostly Brits). Soon after arriving, Ripley figures out that somehow an Alien castaway was aboard her ship and is now offing the population.

The biggest problem with this film is that it's simply the same ol' straight-to-video evil monster pic, with the killing machine finding inventive ways to kill its prey one by one while the heroine cries sheep to the unbelieving set of characters around her. In other rookie director hands, this film would've been OK. But Fincher creates a genuinely bleak environment that stands out for the franchise. Looking back now, some of the computer-generated movements of the single Alien seem rough, but Fincher uses inventive camera work and cinematography to keep the action flowing and the suspense compelling.

Again, we get a good supporting cast (even if most of them end up being chewed to death): Charles S. Dutton ("Roc"), Pete Postelwaithe ("The Usual Suspects") and Lance Henriksen.