Franchise Killers: Alien Resurrection
In the late nineties, Twentieth Century Fox had a franchise problem. The studio’s most successful series of the day, the Die Hard trilogy, appeared to be done. They had tried and failed repeatedly to find a cost-effective way to reboot the Planet of the Apes movies. The X-Men series was still a couple of years away. Macaulay Culkin had aged out of the Home Alone movies, but Fox was so desperate that made a third movie without him anyway. With nowhere else to turn, Fox tried to resurrect the Alien franchise. Instead, they ended up killing the series.
Not that the Alien series was in the best shape prior to Resurrection. The previous installment, Alien 3, suffered from too much studio interference. Sigourney Weaver ran hot and cold on the idea of playing Ellen Ripley. So at one point, the studio intended to carry on the series with Michael Biehn’s character as the lead. Ripley wasn’t written out of the franchise, but she was sidelined in the original treatment for the third movie. The idea was that she would have a cameo with the possibility of returning in a later movie.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, Fox’s president at the time, Joe Roth, declared that Weaver was “the centerpiece of the series.” Somewhat reluctantly, Weaver returned to the role for what she intended to be the final time. Having been declared a vital component of one of the studio’s biggest franchises by the president himself, Weaver was in a prime bargaining position. In addition to a big payday, Weaver had certain conditions. For one, she didn’t want to make another gun-laden action movie like Aliens. Also, Weaver insisted, Ripley had to be killed off.
Reluctantly, Fox agreed to let Ripley die at the end of Alien 3. The studio was understandably nervous. They had already spent millions of dollars developing Alien 3 and their star insisted on an unhappy ending. They had a novice director at the helm and a bummer of an ending. Their director, David Fincher, was a novice. But that didn’t stop him from fighting with the studio over his vision for the movie. When Fincher’s original cut of Alien 3 was deemed too depression, Fox demanded a bunch of reshoots to try to amp up the action.
The end result was a movie that disappointed everyone. Whatever movie Fincher had made was ruined by studio interference and Fox was still stuck with a big budget summer movie about mortality in which its lead actress looked like a cancer patient thanks to a shaved head. While Alien 3 wasn’t a flop, Fox wasn’t in a big hurry to continue the series.
But soon after Alien 3, Roth left Fox for a position at Disney. Eventually, Roth’s replacement thought their might be some life left in the Alien franchise. The original idea was to reboot the series with a new protagonist. The previous movie had angered fans by killing off fan favorite characters Newt and Hicks off-screen. The plan for Alien 4 was to revive Newt as a teenage clone. Given that concept as a starting point, it’s no surprise that they turned to Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon for a script.
Whedon turned in a 30-page treatment for Alien 4 featuring Newt as a very Buffy-like heroine. The studio was excited by Whedon’s draft, but they got cold feet about the idea of an Alien movie without Ripley. Their notes were to make the movie more scary like the first one, more exciting like the second one and to bring back Ripley. That was a tall order for any writer and Whedon considered walking away. But as a fan of the series, he wanted to put his stamp on it. Eventually, he came up with the idea that since Ripley was pregnant with an alien when she died, her clone would have some alien DNA in her and wouldn’t be quite right.
When the script was sent to Sigourney Weaver, he expected the actress to request changes to make her character more likable. Instead, Weaver went in the other direction. She liked the alien DNA so much she asked to push that angle further.
Meanwhile, Fox was shopping around for a director who could revive their franchise. Not surprisingly, calls were made to Ridley Scott and James Cameron. Also not surprisingly, both passed. Cameron cited concerns over Fox’s plans to eventually crossover the Alien series with Predator. Danny Boyle was involved early on, but left when he feared he would not be able to make the movie his own with Fox watching over him. Peter Jackson and Bryan Singer were also approached.
Ultimately, the job fell to French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Alien: Resurrection was Jeunet’s first Hollywood movie and his first as a solo director. He had worked with a collaborator on his previous films. Additionally, he had a language barrier to overcome.
According to Jeunet, he was given a great deal of creative liberty by Fox. Where he felt studio pressure was on the budget. Concerns about cost also impacted the script. Whedon rewrote the end of Alien 4 five times. Originally, the third act took place on Earth which would have set up the fifth movie in the series. But Fox kept asking Whedon to make the ending both more exciting and cheaper. Eventually, they did away with the entire “coming to Earth” concept.
In the case of Alien: Resurrection, they decided to spend their money in other places than going to Earth. And I just kept saying, “The reason people are here is we’re going to do the thing we’ve never done; we’re gonna go to Earth.” But there were a lot of things that we hadn’t done that we ended up not doing because of a singular lack of vision.
As a writer-for-hire, Whedon sat on the sidelines while Jeunet interpreted his script. Whedon has been vocal about his disappointment in the finished product. According to Whedon, Jeunet and company stuck to the script for the most part. They just didn’t execute it properly.
It wasn’t a question of doing everything differently, although they changed the ending; it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines…mostly…but they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do.
For example, Whedon claimed that the way the movie was cast robbed the story of certain twists which were intended to be surprising:
I wrote two characters for Alien: Resurrection and their arc was that you would not know what way they were going to go. One of them turned out to be insane – and what do they do? They call Brad Dourif. So there is no plot twist. Brad is a very good actor but he has been pigeonholed into these roles. Then they case J.E. Freeman as a thug – and his character was also supposed to be a mystery. So there you go again – the mystery is gone. Those are just a couple of examples because there are thousands of them when it comes to Alien: Resurrection.
Despite the return of Weaver as Ripley, audiences weren’t lured back into theaters for Alien 4. The movie opened in second place at the box office behind Disney’s remake of Flubber. It ended up recouping less than two-thirds of its $75 million dollar budget in the US making it the least successful movie in the Alien franchise up to that point.
After Alien 4 flopped at the box office, plans for a follow-up were put on ice. Instead Fox pulled the ripcord on their crossover idea with Alien Vs. Predator. For what it’s worth, Whedon is a fan of the Paul W. S. Anderson movie. After an AVP sequel bombed, Fox eventually lured Ridely Scott back to the series. Scott directed the Alien prequel Prometheus and a prequel-sequel, Alien: Covenant. A third film in Scott’s prequel trilogy is planned, but its future is uncertain after Covenant came up short at the box office.
Meanwhile, Weaver has expressed interest in returning to the role of Ripley once more. Director Neill Blomkamp was developing a direct sequel to Aliens which would have brought back Weaver and Michael Biehn. But that project stalled out and appears to be dead. Odds are good that Fox will find a way to continue the Alien franchise, but at this point it’s unclear what form it will take.
Let’s break this down:
How many movies in the series? 4
How many of them were good? 2
Health of the franchise before it died? In need of a resurrection
Likelihood of a reboot? There has been one, but another may be needed
Any redeeming value? Weaver’s take on the alien-hybrid version of Ripley is interesting even if most of the rest of the movie is a mess