She's Back... Somehow
To put it mildly, Alien 3 was a horribly, terrible, absolute disappointment (and you should hear me when I'm not putting it mildly). The third film in the franchise took a great setup from Aliens and did everything it could to squander it. Even now, going back and watching the movie and knowing just how bad it is, I'm still disappointed by it. It fails to live up to my zero expectations by a wide margin.
Suffice it to say that as the fourth (and so far final) film in the "Ellen Ripley v Alien" story (as the films move on to doing crossovers with Predator and then a series of prequels), Alien: Resurrection had to do very little to be better than the terrible third film. And it does just that: very little, but it's just enough to ensure it's not the worst Alien movie release in the franchise.
So, as you will recall from the end of the third film, Ellen Ripley died. She threw herself into a pool of molten lead just as the queen alien she was carrying burst out of her chest. The two died together and, seemingly, that was the end of the saga. Except then, 200 years later, the Terran military brings her back via cloning. Using blood samples taken from her on the prison planet, military scientists have managed to not only resurrect her, but also the beast she was carrying in her chest. After a successful surgery, the cloned baby queen is separated from the cloned Ripley, and they both survive the process. Now the military has the aliens they always wanted and, along for the ride, is a new version of Ellen Ripley (still played, as always, by Sigorney Weaver).
But this Ellen isn't quite the same was she was before. Inheriting the memories of her previous iteration (via hand-waved "Alien DNA genetic memory"), Ellen doesn't just get her thoughts and feelings back thanks to the aliens, she also gets enhanced abilities (and acid-infused blood). She's a hybrid, alien and human, and she's not entirely happy with the military bringing this whole mess back again. Naturally, her fears and expectations are met when the aliens the military has produced find a way to break free of their containment. Ripley will have to join up with a bunch of civilians (read: pirates) to escape the military vessel they're all on and, in the process, crash the ship to, once again, try and end the alien scourge once and for all.
As far as finding a way to bring back Weaver to play Ripley once more, the movie's solution isn't bad. I think everyone will agree that Weaver's performance of Ripley is the best part of the whole series, and good or bad, Ripley always shone as the central, awesome figure among all the carnage. After this, Fox would attempt a host of Alien movies without Ripley, and none of them were anywhere near as interesting. Ripley is the franchise, and bringing her back made sense. Sure cloning is a cheap way to do it, and the whole "genetic memory" thing only works if you don't think about it at all, but it's hard to imagine this movie working at all without Ripley.
Of course, much of that is because Weaver had a hell of a time playing this new, hybrid-version of Ripley. This version, infused with alien instincts, gave Weaver a new character to play, someone more primal and animalistic. Weaver invests fully in the character, bringing a version of Ripley to life that's free of her past baggage, worries, and doubts. While I wouldn't say that this movie makes up for all the plot lines the third film squandered, it does a good job of making you forget about all that for a little while at least.
I would go so far as to say that Alien: Resurrection is about two-thirds of a good movie. It's not great at all, and pretty cheesy in places, but it is fun and clearly most of the people on screen had a blast during production. The story, by Joss Wheddon, nicely fuses together to "trapped on a ship" atmosphere of the first Alien with the ramshackle team of bad-asses vibe from the second. Because it's a Joss Wheddon script, the team is packed full of quippy people being snarky to each other, and naturally the leads that emerge are Weaver and newcomer to the series Winona Rider (playing Cole, an android) -- two strong females to lead the movie, just the way Joss likes it.
As far as the story itself is concerned, I don't think it's Wheddon's best work, although I will concede something might have been lost from page to screen. Wheddon didn't direct this movie, the reins instead being passed off to Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Wheddon has been vocal about the fact that the movie produced wasn't filmed the way he would have. Whatever his exact vision would have been, the final product does squander a number of good character moments, breezing through deep character beats to get back to the banter, or the action, or the sweeping score as people run. I'm not sure how the film would have looked if Wheddon had directed it, too, but the film we got certainly isn't as tight through the first two acts as it could have been.
The problems really arise, though, in the last act. As noted, because of the cloning process Ripley has some alien aspects to her. The trick is that the cross-pollination of DNA cut both ways -- while Ripley got acid blood and killer instincts, the Alien Queen received, of all things, a human gestation system... eventually. At the start she's laying eggs (as we're clearly shown and told), but then in the final act her birth process inexplicably changes and she starts carrying a single alien life to term. And then this alien is reveals and it's the dumbest thing possible; a pale white alien-human hybrid that looks like a bleached turd given limbs and eyes. I don't know who came up with this creature's design but it clearly wasn't HR Geiger (creator of the original alien designs). This beast is not scary at all, and the second he shows up on screen, the entire movie falls apart.
But then I'm not really certain why the aliens had to have any human aspects to them at all. It's not like the movie, up until now, really stated in any way that the aliens might have inherited something from Ripley in the cloning process. For much of the film the queen lays eggs, as you'd expect, so this third-act twist no only doesn't pay off but it's also not setup in the least. It's there to give us some really stupid looking body-horror, sure, but it's answering a question no one watching the film ever thought to ask.
"Shouldn't the Alien Queen gain a human reproductive system?" No, why would it? The aliens are clearly established as breeding asexually, that the queen passes her genetic code on through the facehuggers in the eggs and that the host -- be it human for much of the series, or dog in Alien 3, or even Predator in the later Alien v Predator sequel -- gives their own genetic markers to finish the maturation process. If the Queen starts breeding like humans, who is contributing the other side of the DNA? There's a function to this process that doesn't make any sense for an asexual breeding pool, and by asking the question no one thought to ask, the film then leads us down a rabbit hole none of us wanted to follow. All for an expected pay off that doesn't, in any way, actually pay off.
The movie would have been much better served if the last-act twist wasn't raised. Ripley is shown bonding with the fugly human-alien hybrid (you know, before she shoves it out an airlock as always happens in these films). She could have had that same moment with any normal alien drone. Hell, she's depicted as tied into the alien colony, having a sense of them (and, in some ways, a love for them). it's not hard to get that same connection, that same emotion from the character without putting a really stupid creature front and center (or suddenly changing how the Queen is reproducing, while we're at it). The big reveal brings the movie to a standstill, kills the mood, and ends the scares.
Even if we can forgive this weird twist (which I have to assume was in the Wheddon original as the writer has said the problems with the film were "not with the script but with how it was filmed"), there are enough small issues to keep the film from being great. Most of the cast of characters are pretty one note, and some toxically aggressive. The film seems pretty scatter-shot about who it kills or allows to live, and some people that really should have died are left alive. And that's ignoring that characters switch from aggro to helpful on a dime, clearly without any bearing on who they are and simply so they can shout amusing lines in the process.
I'm not going to try and say that Alien: Resurrection would have been a perfect movie, a masterpiece of Alien cinema, if not for the horrible last act reveal. The film is still pretty weak in places and could have used a good number of re-shoots, and possible one more rewrite, to really tighten it all up. What I will say, though, is that the new Ripley character showed promise, and the film (for the most part) had a fun, action-y vibe. Instead of launching a new series of Ripley movies (as was intended), this film essentially ended the main franchise for years. If the third act had been better, maybe that wouldn't have happened.
Maybe without that stupid hybrid alien we'd have had another three or four movies of ass-kicking Ripley going around the universe and killing all in her path. Maybe everyone could have ignored all the little issues with the film and just enjoyed it for what it was, and if that weird creature wasn't in the film people might not have realized how uneven the rest of the film was (uneven movies can still do really well at the box office -- just look at Venom). But we'll never know because Resurrection really screwed the alien-pooch-hybrid at the five goal line and wasn't able to recover before the credits rolled. And so we're left with yet another Alien film that wastes so much potential. Sadly, that's our recurring theme going forward...