New Films: The Big Picture - The mother of all monsters

Science-fiction or horror films are doomed never to be taken seriously enough, except by people who wear outsized wind-cheaters and talk to themselves a lot, but the first two alien movies were unusual in gaining serious respect. It may be that Alien Resurrection, the fourth in the series, is the first to truly challenge the codes of its chosen genre, rather than simply adhere to them. Nothing has changed in the construction, but there's something primal and unsettling at the heart of the movie that goes beyond simple frights.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who co-directed Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, has brought a generous assembly of former collaborators with him to the production: the director of photography Darius Khondji, who has a Goya-by-flashlight style: the French special-effect team Potif: and two distinctive actors, Dominique Pinon, who looks like a warthog, and Ron Perlman, who looks like a warthog gurning. Jeunet's predilection for tight close-ups of actors with faces as pitted and potmarked as a rugby pitch makes it a close call as to whom look the more grisly: the aliens or the supporting cast.

Jeunet's slightly mad-cap style is evident but not over-bearing. He has the camera rush away from an on-coming grenade or thunder along a corridor as though an imitation of the aliens' grappling tarantula-like motion. At one point, he dares to send the camera deep into the throat of a screaming man, though this old gag has a nasty new twist - on our way down, we almost headbutt an infant parasite that's in the process of making its excuses and leaving its host. What strikes you most about Alien Resurrection is how freely it adopts the perspective of the creatures that we have previously been encouraged to fear. A horror film that asks its audience to see things through the monster's eyes is clearly committed to doing something deeper than just giving you a scare.

The aliens are still predators, but now they're closer to home: the heroine, Ripley (Signourney Weaver), is one of them. She plunged into a furnace at the end of the last episode, but now she has been cloned to create a new Ripley whose DNA has human and alien strands plated together (and who is born complete with painted nails). The side-effects? Super-human strength. Acid blood. And an even more acid sense of humour. Weaver has been allowed to reinvent Ripley since, technically, she's no longer the same character. And the actress now seems looser and more sensual than ever. Ripley doesn't fear the aliens because she knows they won't harm her. She's family. What's the worst they can do? Not invite her over for Christmas dinner?

When the character with whom we are suppose to empathise is no longer in danger, then what position exactly is she in? The answer provides the key to the picture's visceral kick. Where Rosemary's Baby captured the paranoia of pregnancy, Alien Resurrection goes someway towards suggesting the trauma of abortion. In the film's opening scene, Ripley is undergoing surgery to have a squealing baby alien removed from her body. She has been cloned in order that she might spawn such creatures for scientific consumption, a process which provides a minor variation on the methods of the veal industry. Josh Whedon's script goes on to assert Ripley's maternal instincts. When the savage cry of an alien echoes through the spaceship's catacombs, Ripley tilts her head and listens proudly.

"That's my baby," she purrs.

The picture pursues this theme with striking and disturbing clarity. In one of its most upsetting scenes, Ripley chances upon a laboratory where previous clones of her DNA stand pickled in jars. This collection of botched fusions between human and alien might be the workshop of Jake and Dinos Chapman: two mouths, both twisted into silent screams, erupt from the same face: an aliens' slick cockroach shell juts from a human body like an insect shedding its coat. There's also a Ripley clone that's still alive, a gnarled wreckage of scales and armpits and tentacles which recalls the pig-man hybrid from O Lucky Man. Weaver lets you see Ripley paralysed by grief as she surveys this grotesque gallery of other Ripleys that might have been. A male crew member is flummoxed by her distress.

"Must be a chick thing," he decides.

The alien movies have been praised for allowing female characters to continually take the initiative. But the series hasn't come close to delivering anything like the emotional punch of the sequence that ends Alien Resurrection. The most visionary design is left until last: a new-born alien that resembles a cross between a gargoyle and an Alsatian, it is the first generation to profit visibly from the inheritance of human genes. Its long pink tongue laps at Ripley, and lurching inside the deep sockets of its skull are real plaintive human eyes: it thinks she's its mother. That is not a predicament in which action heroines find themselves everyday of the week. Nor is it something that mainstream cinema tends to embrace - a film in which no possible ending can be a happy one.

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