Tiptoeing into weird Freudian areas and moments of grotesquerie new even to this series, "Alien Resurrection," the fourth entry in Fox's almost 20-year-old franchise, is a generally cold, though sometimes wildly imaginative and surprisingly jokey, $70 million scarefest that may prove too mixed a meal to scare up monstrous business among mass auds.

Tiptoeing into weird Freudian areas and moments of grotesquerie new even to this series, “Alien Resurrection,” the fourth entry in Fox’s almost 20-year-old franchise, is a generally cold, though sometimes wildly imaginative and surprisingly jokey, $70 million scarefest that may prove too mixed a meal to scare up monstrous business among mass auds. French helmer Jean-Pierre Jeunet — the more directorial half of the duo behind “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children” — has breathed new life into the series on several fronts, and proves no slouch in delivering the action set pieces. But the movie is held back by a lack of emotional engagement at its center and a pottage of half-assimilated, European-flavored quirks. Pic, which opens today in France, looks certain to open strongly on curiosity value alone, and in the U.S. has a clear field in the adult action stakes for a couple of weeks after its Nov. 26 bow.

But popular acclaim looks likely to fall somewhere between the low of “Alien3″ and high of James Cameron’s “Aliens.”

Jeunet, scripter Joss Whedon, and an ace visual team have appropriated elements from all three previous pics while giving some a fresh spin. A sign of things to come is the main title, which is backgrounded by distorted, closeup images of some ghastly, cross-bred fetus. We then see the colossal Auriga spaceship, staffed by seven science officers and 42 enlisted personnel led by the obsessive Gen. Perez (Dan Hedaya), all working for United Systems Military.

Also on board is Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), from whose chest surgeons delicately remove a baby alien Queen. It’s 200 years on from “Alien3,” and the USM, which has replaced the all-powerful Company of the earlier pics, plans to raise tame aliens in captivity for some nefarious purpose. After she recovers, Ripley learns her backstory: She was cloned from preserved blood samples in order to birth the Queen with which she was impregnated in the last picture. Since alien DNA also was in the cloning process, Ripley is not entirely human, and now that she has served her purpose, Perez would like to see her disposed of.

With a sense of atmospheric foreboding in place, pic’s emotional spectrum widens with the arrival of the Betty, a grungy commercial freighter crewed by six hard-nosed mercenaries, including its captain (Michael Wincott), pilot (Kim Flowers), paralyzed chief mechanic (Dominique Pinon, from “Lost Children”), scarred grunt (Ron Perlman, ditto) and junior mechanic Call (Winona Ryder), who hides a secret or two. Almost as soon as the Betty’s crew have delivered their load — alien eggs with human hosts attached — things start to go wrong. After an altercation with Perez’s goons, the mercenaries take over the Auriga by force, the aliens break out of captivity, and it becomes clear the Queen has been a busy bee breeding.

At this point, only a half-hour in, the storyline settles into a more or less straightforward escape drama as Ripley and the mercenaries try to reach the Betty, evade various rampaging aliens and — for the future safety of the human race — try to destroy the Auriga. En route, Ripley is brought face to face with the consequences of her cloning, including a further evolution, the Newborn.

As a series of action set pieces, the movie is frequently gripping and always highly watchable. In one extended section — geographically reminiscent of “The Poseidon Adventure” with its underwater swim and vertical climb — there’s a real sense of claustrophobia as the beasties pursue their human lunch underwater, and the “Goldfinger”-like demise of the final alien is a typically imaginative tour de force.

Editing by Jeunet regular Herve Schneid is especially tight (pic is the shortest of the quartet). Darius Khondji’s lensing, aided by the silver-added ENR printing process, emphasizes deep blacks and soft ochers, with flashes of electric blue supplying visual relief. Nigel Phelps’ production design crosses geometrical sets and clangy brute iron with the Victorian-industrialized look of Jeunet’s own “Lost Children.” Whedon’s script injects some of the rough, testosterone humor of “Aliens” into a story that tries to build on the cross-species subtext of “Alien3.”

However, when the movie strays into weirder territory — where, one feels, Jeunet’s heart really lies — there’s a growing feeling of inadequacy. Pic’s interest in Ripley’s split, half-human personality and her maternal bond with the Queen leads to some of the most intriguing — and cheesiest — stuff in the picture, but overall come off more as exotic inserts than fully assimilated sequences. Upside moments include the discovery of a horrific lab (straight out of “Lost Children”) and Ripley’s late-on “embrace” of her fearsome offspring; downside is a laughable Newborn that all but blows the pic’s finale.

It’s almost as if the pic is afraid to enter the darkened rooms whose doors it keeps opening, though if it had, a truly original movie could have resulted. As it is, the finished film shows many signs of creative push and pull — Whedon’s original script was extensively changed during production — from unexplained ellipses in the plot’s early stages, through dialogue that is surprisingly jokey and unelevated (considering the themes at play), to a storyline that seems unwilling to stray far from the action.

In addition, the key relationship in the picture, between femmes Ripley and Call, has little chance to realize its potential and provide a badly needed emotional hook for the audience. In every respect, this is a cold movie that, even at the very end, fails to provide the sense of emotional release that the others in the series all managed to deliver.

Still, Weaver (who, as with “Alien3,” cops a co-producer credit) is a commanding presence in the central role; buff and lithe, and with a pallor and demeanor that’s almost reptilian, she suggests nonhuman strength and powers that are brought into striking play. By contrast, Ryder lacks the vocal and physical presence to do much with her role. The men, largely offshoots of the hardbodies in “Aliens,” keep the dialogue moving: Perlman gross and wisecracking as a gung-ho grunt, Wincott effective as the Betty’s leader and Hedaya entertaining as the militaristic Perez. Flowers makes a lithe physical presence as Wincott’s no-nonsense pilot-cum-squeeze.

Pic is the first in the series to be shot on U.S. stages rather than in the U.K., and other credits and effects (done in California and Paris, latter by the team behind “Lost Children”) are tip-top. Sole tech weakness is John Frizzell’s score, which adds propulsion but almost no atmosphere or emotional arc to the visuals.

Alien Resurrection

Production

A 20th Century Fox presentation of a Brandywine production. Produced by Bill Badalato, Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill. Co-producer, Sigourney Weaver. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Screenplay, Joss Whedon, based on characters created by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shuset.

Crew

Camera (prints by Technicolor and Deluxe, Panavision widescreen), Darius Khondji; editor, Herve Schneid; music, John Frizzell; production design, Nigel Phelps; supervising art director, Stephen Cooper; art direction, Andrew Neskoromny; set decoration, John M. Dwyer; costume design, Bob Ringwood; sound (Dolby Digital), Richard Bryce Goodman; sound design, Leslie Shatz; visual effects supervisors, Pitof and Erik Henry; alien effects design, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff; digital visual effects, Duboi (Paris); computer generated aliens, Blue Sky Studios; underwater camera, Pete Romano; stunt coordinator, Ernie Orsatti; assistant directors, Michel Cheyko, Mark Oppenheimer; casting, Rick Pagano. Reviewed at Odeon Leicester Square, London, Oct. 29, 1997. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 108 MIN.

With

Ellen Ripley - Sigourney Weaver Annalee Call - Winona Ryder Johner - Ron Perlman Vriess - Dominique Pinon Elgyn - Michael Wincott Gen. Perez - Dan Hedaya Dr. Wren - J.E. Freeman Gediman - Brad Dourif Distephano - Raymond Cruz Hillard - Kim Flowers Christie - Gary Dourdan Purvis - Leland Orser

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