Cinema: My baby's a boring old alien

I Saw the original Alien movie on the Betamax machine of a spoilt boy in my primary-school class. It was an illicit event: curtains were drawn, Sodastream limeade flowed like wine, there was a whole packet of Wagon Wheels on offer (I told you he was spoilt). The film scared the living daylights out of us, not just because of the handful of scenes in which the crustaceoid of the title leapt out of the darkness - or John Hurt's stomach - but because of the terrifying, foul-mouthed, sweaty grown-upness of its protagonists.

The third sequel, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Alien Resurrection (18) scores on perspiration and profanity, but little else. Instead of the rough overlapped dialogue of the original (a trick which Ridley Scott picked up from Alien's main influence, The Thing from Another World) Joss Whedon's script is clunkily pedestrian, as if it was written in gravity many times greater than that of Earth. Conversely, the premise is potentially compelling: Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has been brought unwittingly back to life hundreds of years after her death, and finds that alien genetic material has been incorporated into her body. However, though she's a mixture of Jekyll, Hyde, Rip Van Winkle and Frankenstein's monster, and blessed with one of Hollywood's finest bone structures, Whedon and Jeunet are happy to have her run around corridors dispensing feeble wisecracks. None of her lines would have posed any elocution problems for Arnie.

The other characters are similarly two-dimensional, and the appearance of the aliens themselves is so reliant on digital technology, they have much of the bouncily engaging laddishness of Jurassic Park's velociraptors. So Jeunet has to resort to the most hyperbolic body-horror to make up the required quota of shocks. We see an alien embryo removed from Ripley's body by Caesarian; we see a laboratory full of bottled foetuses; we see Ripley disappearing into a huge, suppurating alien orifice. Jeunet has filled his movie with acres of slippery, oleaginous labial stuff, with the result that the horror of the Alien franchise now appears to be a purely gynaephobic one. And that, I'd suggest, is a more childish terror than a fear of the dark.

One Night Stand (18) is based on a script by Joe Eszterhas (the writer behind Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Showgirls) that has been substantially overhauled by director Mike Figgis. The result is a hybrid weirder than Ripley. Figgis has taken standard Eszterhas material - sad andropausal fantasy straight off the letters page of Men Only - and rewritten it in the style of Woody Allen. Instead of the white-trash wine-bar crassness of Michael Douglas and Glenn Close, it's meditative Europhiles Wesley Snipes and Natassja Kinski who share an isolated night of passion. But Figgis seems unable to escape the magnetic field of Eszterhas's influence. Despite fetishistic invocation of sushi, Armani and the Julliard Quartet, admirably casual multi-racial casting and a relaxed portrait of friendship between homosexuals and heterosexual, it's still a pompous sex opera at bottom. The Allenish sophistications are cosmetics, po-faced, and frequently at odds with the portentous Carmina Burana-type underscoring. And though Figgis is an inestimably brighter talent than the man whose work he's rewritten, it's the more obviously Ezsterhasian elements of the movie that have the most impact: Snipes guiltily sniffing at his jacket for traces of perfume, Snipes scrubbing himself neurotically in the shower. These shallow flourishes of sexual melodrama are more genuinely resonant than Figgis's attempts to import depth into what seems to have been, at some stage in its life, Basic Instinct without the psychosis or the rabbit.

Easily the best film of the week, Carine Adler's Under the Skin (18) is a portrait of a woman who tries to assuage grief with casual sex. It's an old-fashioned plot: a young heroine speeding down the road to ruin until she swerves off at junction 13 - Franz Wedekind in the style of Ken Loach. Samantha Morton is supple, sinuous and full of rage as 19-year- old Iris, and as her dying mother, Rita Tushingham confirms the film's links with older forms of British social realism. Adler is brave in her representations of death's taboos. She shows us Mum's spine glowing like magma in the crematorium incinerator, and in the movie's most striking scene, we see Iris rooting through a box of her mother's belongings, pressing her face into the dead woman's post-chemotherapy wig. It's a moment of arresting intimacy - unattempted since the moment in Edge of Darkness when Bob Peck sniffs his murdered daughter's vibrator. A frank, fearless film from a director carving out her place in a strong British tradition.

Robert Bierman's Keep the Aspidistra Flying (15) is unremarkable but efficient period film-making, crucially energised by a performance of battery-acid tartness by the incomparable Richard E Grant. Alan Plater's witty adaptation is rich with the expletives that Orwell's publisher Victor Gollancz habitually blue-pencilled from the writer's work, but Bierman's directorial line seems more conservative and less ambiguous than his script. To my mind, the book - the story of an advertising copywriter's failed attempt to escape the class system - is a sulphurous commentary on the rigidity of British caste. But Bierman's cosy, decorous direction concludes with scenes of Bovril-ad domesticity. It's also a gruesome error to play out with a syrupy theme song by Mike Batt, high priest of a certain kind of British naffness.

In The Tango Lesson (PG) Sally Potter directs Sally Potter as Sally Potter in a script by Sally Potter. The effect is like being told an immensely long, shamelessly self-congratulatory anecdote by someone so deeply in love with herself that she has lost all sense of irony or humility. She sings, dances, speaks fluent French and Spanish, and appears never to tire of photographing her own beatific smile. Lordy, how versatile she is! The Tango Lesson is Potter's passionate love-letter to herself, but with one important difference: no matter how self-regarding, a film can never be the work of a lone egoist. As the credits roll, you marvel at the number of collaborators she's managed to persuade into helping her complete this brazen exercise in vanity movie-making. Breathtakingly, she spends much of the film engaged in a critique of the egocentricity of her co-star, played by tango maestro Pablo Veron. Unless I'm missing some grand ironic point, it seems a little unfair to make these observations from a position of such appalling narcissism.

There's more navel-gazing in Bart Freundlich's The Myth of Fingerprints (15), the sort of homespun Americana that has to work hard to avoid looking like part of the daytime schedule on Channel 5. Unfortunately, it's a narcoleptic sort of film: there are lucid periods in which the writing and direction suddenly discover their wits, but for the most part, the movie dozes in a state of unimaginative lachrymosity. Efficient performances from Blythe Danner and ER's Noah Wyle can't lift the atmosphere of ponderous self-absorption.

Tom Schulman's risible comedy 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag (15) attempts kooky post-Tarantino farce (our hero Andy Comeau accidentally picks up a hold- all full of gruesome Mafia trophies) and takes it to Mexico for a bout of cheery racist humour ("they'll turn me into a taco!" he walls). Joe Pesci plays the mild-mannered sadist on his trail, and judging by the credits, seems to have assembled his own little on-set gang of mafiosi. As well as the obligatory star's PA, the credits acknowledge "Security for Mr Pesci" (Tommy DeVito), "Mr Pesci's chef" (James Sarzotti) and "Mr Pesci's driver" (John P Nardone). Audiences will feel a lot less pampered.

Lastly, the second-feeblest farce of the week is Def Jam's How to Be a Player (18), an eye-wateringly sexist slice of sleazy comedy. Ralph Bellamy stars as Dray, an African-American Casanova with seven women on his sexual rota (the role was wisely declined by rap star Coolio). The theory and practice of being a "player" is discussed with the same intense detail which renaissance drama lavishes on debates about the nature of Malcontents and Cuckolds. These reflections are illuminating, but the gags don't venture beyond crassness. (I won't quote, you'd blush). And although Dray clearly deserves to have his cojones put through the mincer, he only gets the most cursory of comeuppances. Men in the audience had better be careful where they snigger - if they want to leave the cinema in an upright position.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 8.

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