Ripley's alive! (believe it or not)

 

`In space, no one can hear you scream'. In the beginning was Alien, Ridley Scott's chilling 1979 science-fiction horror movie which carried that apt and memorable tag-line. Now, 18 years and two sequels later, audiences should be prepared to be put through the mill all over again as the series continues with the spine-tingling terror of the fourth film in the enduring series, Alien Resurrection, which opens in the US on Wednesday and goes on release here on Friday.

Designed with a wealth of imagination by the surrealist, H.R. Giger, and directed at a heady pace by Ridley Scott, the original Alien introduced us to an outer-space tanker terrorised by a murderous life form - which, in the movie's most startling scene, erupts from John Hurt's stomach - and to the most resilient and resourceful member of the crew, Ellen Ripley, grittily played by Sigourney Weaver.

Barely a handful of movie sequels have surpassed the achievements of their predecessors and one of those very rare exceptions arrived in 1986 when James Cameron directed Aliens, a riveting roller coaster of an action movie with Weaver on vigorous form at its centre. This time Ripley accompanied a platoon of colonial marines for a return to the planet where the horrific alien creature was first encountered - and when push comes to shove she demonstrated that a woman's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

For lightning to strike thrice would have been too good to be true, and so it proved in 1992 when first-time director David Fincher took on AlienRO], a visually ambitious but muddled and depressing instalment which sends the redoubtable Ripley to a creepy penal colony in which - as one came to expect by then - an alien was on the rampage. The ultimate shock to admirers of the series came at the end when Fincher had the audacity to kill off Ripley - and she died carrying a gestating alien inside her. However, when it comes to franchises as lucrative as Alien, the Hollywood dictum is never say die. For 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the series, the challenge was to find a feasible way of bringing Ripley back from the dead without insulting the intelligence of the films' loyal audience - who are too sophisticated to swallow a Dallas-style makeshift explanation. Fox turned to Joss Whedon, a young screenwriter who worked on the screenplays of Speed and Toy Story and was such a fan of the Alien series that being asked to write the new Alien was, he says, like "being offered the Grail".

His solution was to resurrect Ripley - and consequently the series - 200 years later by DNA cloning.

"It's amazing," declares one of the scientists aboard the medical research vessel, the USM Auriga. "She's operating at complete adult capacity." Ripley, played for the fourth time by Sigourney Weaver, is tougher, more forceful and more blunt-spoken than ever in this visceral, at times eerily sensual, thriller permeated by a dark, creepy, menacing atmosphere. With the screenplay in place, the next crucial step was finding the right director. The first two Alien movies were made by filmmakers Ridley Scott and James Cameron, who each had just one feature to their credit at the time, and the third was directed by a newcomer to features, David Fincher. As the quest for the director of Alien Resurrection continued, the only really established film-maker mentioned was David Cronenberg, who would have been a fascinating choice given his likely rapport with the subject matter and visual style.

The most publicised courting was that of Trainspotting director Danny Boyle (who eventually passed in favour of making A Life Less Ordinary), and rising action movie directors Marco Brambilla, Anthony Waller and Paul Anderson were all considered before the producers adventurously offered the job to Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the French film-maker who had, with Marc Caro, co-directed the visually remarkable Delicatessen and The City Of Lost Children. Not only had he not directed a feature without the collaboration of Caro, Jeunet had never worked on a Hollywood movie or on any film with a budget remotely close to the estimated cost of the Alien Resurrection - between $80 and $100 million. And Jeunet did not even speak English when he was offered the picture.

A year later, he speaks English quite fluently but with occasional lapses, as he sits in a London hotel room reflecting on his adventures in Hollywood. "For me, I've seen a lot of American films with my ice cream on a Saturday night, but I didn't expect to do a film in Hollywood," he says. "Except one time, when I visited the set of Steven Spielberg's film, Hook, and at one point I was all alone on this huge, empty set and I remember feeling that I'm going to make a film in Hollywood one day. "It was a very strange feeling, and then when I read the script for Alien I thought, `This is the time'. I thought it would be ideal for me because it was so close to my own films - although less comics, less cartoon, and with a little more budget, of course!"

The film is further imbued with the distrust of science which marked Jeunet's two French features with Caro. "We can be worried when we see the story of humanity," he says. "I didn't write the Alien script, of course, but I agree with Joss Whedon. We had the same kind of view in The City Of Lost Children. But I am an optimist. In 50 or 60 years I believe we will have no more humans on this planet, only insects. So we're here at the right time."

The optimistic Jeunet was pleasantly surprised when he went to Hollywood and met the producers of the new film. "I was so cool," he says. "I went to Hollywood to discuss it, to make sure the language wasn't going to be a problem. I wanted to test our interpreter because I didn't speak English at the time. But I was cool and that's the best way to get a job - and I got it."

He was greatly relieved when the producers told him that they wanted him to be true to the style and spirit of his earlier work, and when they accepted the script revisions he proposed - apart from a few suggestions which were regarded as too expensive.

And so it went when the movie started shooting. "I stayed free all through the film in terms of artistic direction," he says, "but I had a lot of pressure in terms of money. The schedule had to be kept very tight because the film was so expensive. So I had to fight and struggle every day to keep the quality."

Before being signed to direct the movie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet first had to receive the approval of its formidable star, Sigourney Weaver. They worked very well together, he says, apart from some early tensions which he attributes to a breakdown in communication caused by language difficulties. "Sigourney agreed to do this film because it's so different from the others," says Jenuet. "Everything you see her do on the film comes from her. She's so creative, so imaginative, that sometimes you have to draw a line because she wants to try everything. When you understand what she wants, you have to modify the script to help her - to bring some food for her, if you know what I mean. And she appreciates that. It was a good collaboration."

Winona Ryder, who plays the enigmatic mechanic, Call, in Alien Resurrection, was sheer pleasure to work with, Jeunet volunteers. "Everything was so easy for her. She arrives on the set and she can sleep on the floor, and then when you're ready for her she can just do whatever you want - and usually one take is enough with her. But if you need her to do 25 takes she can do that, too, no problem. With Sigourney you have to rehearse, to work, to talk, to think." One scene in the movie involves Weaver's Ripley outmanoeuvring a fellow traveller at basketball. To get one exceedingly tricky shot right, Weaver spent two weeks of intensive training with a professional basketball coach. And it paid off - she clearly sinks the basket from a most unlikely angle, and without any benefit of special effects. Weaver later described pulling off that shot as the greatest moment of my life after her wedding day and the birth of her daughter.

The movie's most elaborate and exciting set-piece is a thrilling underwater sequence set in the flooded kitchen of the Auriga, through which the characters swim to escape. The sequence was filmed on a sound stage at 20th Century Fox, in a tank that measured 117 feet by 50 feet, its lowest depth reaching 13 feet. It held over half a million gallons of water and took six days to fill. Throwing himself, his cast and his cast in at the deep end, so to speak, Jean-Pierre Jeunet decided that this would be the first part of the movie to be filmed. As the actors, and particularly Weaver, would be performing almost all of their own stunts, they were sent on a two-week diving course before filming.

"That sequence took three weeks to shoot," says Jeunet. "It was very tough for the actors, because they had to swim for three weeks, and at the end they were sick because the water was getting dirty. It was difficult for me to be precise because when you ask an actor to move a little to the left when they're underwater, it's not so easily done."

The gifted lighting cameraman, Darius Khondji, who photographed Seven, Evita and Jeunet and Caro's first two films, did all his own filming underwater, adds an admiring Jeunet.

Working on a feature on his own for the first time was a pleasure for Jeunet. "I've always enjoyed working on my own when I did commercials and rock videos," he says. "But it was tough for me working alone on something of this scale - working 12 to 14 hours every day. One evening I felt completely sick from it and I had to do breathing exercises to keep going."

Marc Caro is credited as design consultant on Alien Resurrection. When the Hollywood offer came, Jeunet asked Caro if he wanted to co-direct it, although at the time they both had been looking at doing separate projects. "Marc Caro was happy to work away on his computer," says Jeunet. "And he wasn't ready to to work with a Hollywood studio - you have to talk, be clever and it's all a game, and he's too pure to deal with that. Sometimes when I was making the film I thought of him being there with me and I thought, `Oh man, he would have broken somebody's head in by now'."

Will there be an Alien 5 and would Jean-Pierre Jeunet be interested in directing it? "I asked the studio if they're planning to do it and they asked me if I'm available next year," he smiles. "But I think it's a good idea to change the director every time. Maybe Sigourney should direct Alien 5. She wants to direct and she would be very good. She understands everything on the set. But maybe it would be too technical for her as a first film to direct. Maybe she should do something smaller first - and then direct number six or seven."

Alien Resurrection is released in Ireland on Friday