You say you want a resurrection? Done

Newsweek, June 9 1997

You say you want a resurrection? Done

By Mark Miller

The ‘Alien’ franchise didn’t go away — only its audience. Fox attempts a monumental comeback.

SIGOURNEY WEAVER HAD A MINOR epiphany. She was hard at work on the set of “Alien Resurrection,” having her fourth go-round as Ripley, the alien-busting heroine of science-fiction-film lore. A giant alien nest called the Viper Pit loomed above her. Technicians liberally applied a gross, gooey gel to her entire body, from her hair weave to her dominatrix-style combat boots. As she gingerly arranged her tall, lean frame into a slimy cavity full of flailing tentacles, the cosmic destiny of it all revealed itself. “This has been my goal,” she joked. “Everything I’ve done in my career has built to this.”

No other actress can vanquish goo like Weaver. The first “Alien” launched her career in 1979; director Ridley Scott’s austere, elegant sci-fi showdown became an unexpected hit and spawned the only successful action-adventure series with a woman atop the marquee. Now, in “Alien Resurrection,” due out at Thanksgiving, Weaver, 47, will be joined by Winona Ryder, 25, as a mysterious smuggler and the unlikeliest action hero since Keanu Reeves buffed up for “Speed.” Fox hopes Ryder will appeal to an audience that wasn’t even born when “Alien” premiered. As her colleague Sandra Bullock says, “Winona’s a beautiful little twig of a girl, but I know she can go in there and kick butt like the rest of them.” Franchise series: That “Alien Resurrection” exists at all is something of a shock. For one thing, Ripley committed suicide at the end of “Alien3 ” in 1992. And the making of the third installment was a disaster of true Hollywood proportions: it went massively over budget, nearly destroyed promising careers and made the least money in the United States of all three. (First-time director David Fincher, known for his elaborate music videos, didn’t work again until 1995’s “Seven.”) On the other hand, “Alien3 ” did well overseas, grossing almost $160 million worldwide (compared with $79 million for “Alien” and $131 million for James Cameron’s 1986 “Aliens”). When a new regime took over Twentieth Century Fox in the early ’90s, it began looking at plausible franchises. “Alien” made just enough sense.

The first challenge was to revive the series – and cheaply, even if that meant losing Weaver. Various plots were bandied about, including one in which the alien battled the Predator, another Fox sci-fi horror creature. “I just thought, ‘See ya’,” Weaver says. “I’m not the Green Hornet.” Weaver herself felt ambivalent about yet another battle with the alien. “I didn’t want to keep waking up and saying, ‘There’s a monster on board, and no one’s listening.’ I thought it had become a joke, this poor woman with this terrible responsibility.”

Ryder actually signed on first. “I was 9 or 10 when I saw the first ‘Alien’,” Ryder says. “I’d never seen a woman as the hero. lt made a huge impact.” Writer Joss Whedon (“Speed,” “Toy Story”) turned in an inventive, literate script that restored many of the elements that made the first two “Alien” films so successful: stronger characters, more action and more aliens (including a new species). He also brought Ripley back to life in a topical way – cloning – and entwined her DNA with alien material. Weaver jumped aboard.

All they needed was a director. Both Scott and Cameron were relative unknowns when they made their “Alien” movies; since few established directors want to take on a sequel, Fox again went to the ranks of the untested but hip. “Trainspotting” director Danny Boyle signed on briefly, then bailed. Weaver met with French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose films “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children” shared a stunning visual aesthetic and a slightly twisted take on alienation. They bonded. So what if he didn’t speak English? Once he learned the primary vocabulary -“cut,” “tighter,” “quiet” – Jeunet did have trouble adjusting to the sheer enormity of the production. He became exasperated with the slow pace, the large egos and the constant scrutiny of studio suits. And the shoot wasn’t an easy one: cinematographer Darius Khondji (“Evita”) flooded the set with eerie fluorescent lighting and noxious C02 fog that forced cast and crew into gas masks. After Weaver swooned on the hot, all-metal set, she put her boot-clad foot down, and Jeunet cut back on the smog.

The film’s enhanced ambitions required enhanced cash – Fox sources peg the final budget at about $70 million ($11 million of it Weaver’s salary, less than a comparable male action star would get). The already lengthy shooting schedule also expanded. In the end, “Alien Resurrection” is a gamble that embodies both the promise and the peril of the series tradition. Spooked by the cool U.S. reception of “Alien3,” studio sources say advertising for the new film will never refer to it as “Alien 4” or as a sequel. “[It] has to be more successful than any of the other ‘Alien’ movies,” says Fox chairman Bill Mechanic. But the risk must be worth it: Fox execs, Ryder and even Weaver are talking about a plot for a fifth “Alien.” Maybe they figure it’s destiny.