Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
CC2K unearths one of Joss Whedon's earlier efforts.
I think that part of Whedon's appeal to fans is his history of famously being at odds with "Hollywood" over creative differences concerning his myriad projects. Think about it. Part of having geek cred in filmmaking is going your own way, bucking the establishment, and adhering to your artistic vision. Once upon a time before George Lucas became a self-indulgent blowhard, he was a young filmmaker who financed his dream project of Star Wars. Steven Spielberg may be today's director of choice when it comes to safe, crowd-pleasing (read: boring) action films, but this is the guy who damn near single-handedly created the summer blockbuster with Jaws and helped create the PG-13 rating with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
The Buffy movie didn't meet Whedon's vision, and we got the Buffy television series and its spin-off Angel. Whedon and Fox were constantly fighting over Firefly, it got canceled after less than a year, and Browncoats everywhere had to settle for Whedon's tying up of loose ends with Serenity. Alien: Resurrection (Alien 4 hereafter), the script for which Whedon was invited to write, is another example. Whedon himself has said of the film, "It wasn't a question of doing everything differently…it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong…They did everything wrong that they could possibly do…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."
Well, tell us how you really feel Joss! But the man does have a point. I had a chance recently to read Whedon's script for Alien 4 as well as to sit down and watch the movie again. Are Whedon's scathing comments justified? Keep reading to find out.
Okay. The first thing to understand about Whedon's script for Alien 4 is that, like he said, it's not that it varies a great deal from what we got onscreen. True, there are some significant departures in the film from Whedon's text, but by and large the plot, characters, dialogue, etc. in the script transition to the film pretty much intact. Going back to what Whedon said, it's not so much that they did things differently, more that they did it all wrong. Before we get into all of that, a brief recap is in order, just in case some of you haven't seen the movie (though this review will make a WHOLE lot more sense if you have).
As you may recall Ripley was impregnated with a queen in Alien3, and she dove into a giant furnace to kill herself and the queen, keeping it out of the hands of The Company. Alien 4 opens 200 years after the events of Alien3, and the United Systems military has successfully cloned Ripley with queen intact, which I suppose is possible if the alien was shedding cells into Ripley's bloodstream. It's really unclear exactly how that was supposed to work, but it's not worth dwelling on overly much. A rag-tag group of smugglers delivers a group of humans in cryo-sleep to serve as hosts to start breeding the aliens. Among them is a "second generation" synthetic (sort of a new and improved Bishop), named Call who knows of Ripley and her battles with the aliens, and is determined to stop the military's efforts and kill all the aliens. Everything goes wrong, the aliens escape, and Ripley (now a human/alien hybrid) joins up with the smugglers to get off the USM ship and eradicate the alien menace. The film's climax involves the queen, having incorporated some human genetic traits, giving birth to a alien/human chimera that rejects the queen and imprints Ripley as its mother. It follows her and the surviving smugglers to their ship (the Betty), and stows away as they make their escape. In the final scene Ripley pretends to soothe the monster, while covertly tossing some of her blood on a nearby window. As it possesses the same acidic character as that of the aliens, it eats through the glass and sucks the chimera out into space, sort of imploding and eviscerating it at the same time, while Ripley looks on, crying over the loss of her "baby."
Okay, so now that we're all up to speed, let's take this point-by-point.
Notice I didn't title this portion "characters," because as I just said the characters Whedon created (with one minor exception) all appear in the film. The exception is that two members of the Betty's crew in the script got amalgamated into the character of Christie (Gary Dourdan of pre-CSI fame) in the film, which really isn't a big deal at all. So Whedon's characters are all there, it's just that the way they're portrayed is, well to quote Mr. Whedon "executed in a ghastly fashion." To wit:
|General Perez is depicted as a straight-laced military type in the script, very no-nonsense and serious. In the film he's played by Dan Hedaya in an almost comical fashion. It's quite distracting and doesn't gel with what the mood of this film should be. I can't help but shake the feeling that when he wakes up to alarms wearing a sleeveless shirt, prominently displaying his wookie-esque shoulder and arm hair, that this was by design. That someone thought it would be hilarious. Plus he's got crazy eyes. Why do you have to give the military "genius" in charge of the alien project crazy eyes?|
|Annalee Call is what I'd consider Whedon's inclusion of his feminist ideals and creation of strong, young heroines. Much like he has done with Kitty Pryde, Buffy Summers, River Tam, and Echo, Call comes off in the script as a tough youth able to hold her own among the motley crew of the Betty. She's strong, idealistic, courageous, yet conflicted and something of an outsider. She feels like a very complex character very much in the same spirit of the heroines I mentioned that Whedon has created before and since. In the movie much of this is lost. Call comes off much weaker, emotionally and physically, and is relegated to a sidekick role behind Ripley instead of getting to shine as a hero in her own right. Does Winona Ryder deserve the blame for this? Maybe in part. In reality the film's changed ending has a lot more to do with this, and so probably more of the blame for Call's demise goes to director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (I'll have more to say about him later).|
|Ellen Ripley, well, what can I say about Ellen Ripley that hasn't already been said? She's one of the greatest heroines in film. Ever. So given what we know about Joss Whedon and his affinity for strong, female characters, this should have been a match made in heaven. So what went wrong? With Ripley's characterization, I mean. For that I think most of the blame has to go to Sigourney Weaver. She seems to have taken the idea of an emotionally stunted, brought back to life, alien/human-hybrid-Ripley and decided the best way to portray her was as a robot. Seriously, is she channeling Schwarzenegger from The Terminator? Though again, there's probably enough blame to go around, and Jeunet deserves some of it. A more significant problem with the Ripley character in the film, aside from Weaver's automatonic performance is the simple fact that while she is dynamic and undergoes a true character arc in the script, this is abandoned completely in favor of having Ripley begin and end the film in roughly the same place. More on this later.|
|It might seem odd to talk about the alien/human chimera as a "character," but there's one very good reason to do so. The director (Jeunet) treated it as such. This is a deviation from Whedon's script, and a poor decision in my opinion. Whedon doesn't impart the chimera with any sort of special character or personality; it's simply a new form of killing machine. It looks different from the standard alien, has something of a different motivation to kill, but it's still a pitiless monster. Rather Jeunet, in addition to changing the ending of the film changes the nature of the chimera. In the film it rejects and kills the queen, and seems to want nothing more than to snuggle up with Ripley. You can almost imagine its inarticulate cries are the alien equivalent of "Mommy! Mommy! Why don't you love me?!" Pathetic. And what a pathetic monster this turned out to be! Here's how Whedon described it:|
An alien, to be sure, but nothing we've seen so far, its forelegs arch out of its back like spiders legs, its back legs set on enormous haunches, thick and powerful.
Its head is long, eyeless, like the others, but along its white expanse red veins, coming out of the skin and running like thick black hairs to the back.
It has retracted pincers at the side of its head that come out when its tongue does.
It's much bigger than the others, nearly the size of the queen herself.
And it's bone white.
Crom! How bad-ass does that sound? Instead, the pic to the right here is what we got in the film. Oh, what's that you say? You don't remember the giant penis and vaginal lips on the belly of the chimera in the film? That's only because they were removed during post production. That's right. Jeunet was given creative control over what this new alien would look like, and he was adamant that it should not only look more human, but that it should have a mix of male and female genitalia. Really, this should come as no surprise. Have you ever seen a French film? Intellectual dramas with doughy, middle-aged actors and actresses lounging around naked having conversations. They didn't just finish having sex, they're not about to have sex, they're not even talking about sex. They just sit on couches smoking and talking politics, or about the economy, or the damned weather while sagging breasts and flaccid penises are on display for all to see for no sensible reason whatsoever. I concede I'm no expert on French cinema, and this assessment may be overly stereotypical. I digress.
Genitalia aside, the simplicity of Whedon's creation of a terrifying, new alien monster that feeds on blood (did I mention it fucking feeds on blood?) is replaced by a pathetic looking cry baby that's more misunderstood than menacing. Fuck. That's depressing.
The Ending/More on Ripley's Character
As I said earlier, Jeunet changed the ending. In fact, he planned five different endings for the film, discarding the two most expensive, which surely included the original ending envisioned by Whedon. Do I think that Whedon's ending is better? Yes. But this isn't for the obvious reason that Whedon's ending involves Ripley and the chimera clinging to the outer hull of the Betty as it races away from the USM ship after breaching the Earth's atmosphere, a hand-to-tentacle battle between Ripley and the chimera on Earth's surface, and a climactic three-way face-off between Ripley, Call, and the chimera that all feels so much more epic and action-packed than what Jeunet gave us in the film. It has to do more with the portrayal of Ripley. As I mentioned a few graphs ago the real shame in the portrayal of her character in the film is the lack of an arc for her to undergo.
In the film Ripley begins as a dark, almost sinister character. You don't know how much of her psyche is intact, and you're unsure of where her true loyalties lie. The problem is that, as opposed to the script, in the film Ripley ends up in pretty much the same place character-wise. The connection she feels toward the chimera, the fact that she's crying and apparently pained to witness its destruction at the end leave questions of just what the fuck is going on with her character. However, in the script Ripley starts out even more dark and questionable and monstrous, but through the course of the plot she actually changes. She makes a choice as to which part of her heritage she sides with, fully embraces her fledgling humanity, and rejects the "beast" inside her as well as the chimera. There is no imprinting, no motherly instinct. It sees Ripley as nothing more than its next meal, and she sees it as just another alien posing a threat to humanity that needs to be destroyed. And all that doesn't even touch on the heroics displayed by Call that are abandoned by Jeunet.
Maybe the biggest shame of all is that in contrast with some of Whedon's other disputes with Hollywood, he was never given the opportunity to properly rectify this one.