Thursday, 28 June 2012
I find that superhero franchises occasionally follow a certain patter, which is their first film is usually a solid first go-around with the character(s) but one that, on retrospect, feels like a set up for bigger and better things. This is what it's like watching Bryan Singer's first X-Men. I even find Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, which I think is one the best depictions of an origin story on film and is a good standalone movie, only scratches the surface of Nolan would do in The Dark Knight. Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man film is another example of a director and franchise finding their legs (in this case eight of them), doing a straight forward origin story and setting up the blocks for future stories. Spider-Man 2 is the payoff to the set up and a wonderfully relatable and energetic superhero epic. It's the best of Sam Raimi's trilogy and the one of the strongest superhero films of the last decade.
I like when we can just jump in to the action in a superhero film. I don't nescessarily mean action sequences, just that we're jumping in to the character's life as a superhero, which we do in Spider-Man 2. I like this because it feels like when we read a comic book and are shoved right in to a story with already established characters. Spider-Man 2 gives a sense of what's it like being a superhero after a while, once the awe of discovery is over, and you've settled into a rut where you're just trying to balance being a superhero while still trying to live a normal life, and despearately just wanting a normal existence, particularly so you can be with the person you love. Spider-Man 2 opens with a billboard of Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) staring down at Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), and Peter tells us "She looks at me everyday." This opening image and narration personifies Peter's guilt over breaking Mary Jane's heart at the end of the first film, unable to tell her the truth about why he couldn't be with her- as well as his crushing desire to be with her. It also puts her high above Peter, where he's always metaphorically put her, like Cleopatra, Joan of Arc or Aphrodite. Yes- I just made that joke.
Peter loses his job as a Pizza Delivery man after he has to save some kids before finally getting the pizzas to their destinations. The patron (Emily Deschanel from Bones) won't pay because Peter works for one of those 30 minutes or less places. It's a nicely relatable situation that the film specializes in. If you were a superhero you would probably lose your job because you'd always have to save a kitten or something. Okay...probably something more extreme than that but you get the idea. The film, despite its giant spectacle, is all about these kind of down to earth conflicts. Peter can't get to class and his grades are slipping, he can't get to Mary Jane's play on time, she's going to marry someone else, his best friend Harry (James Franco) hates Spider-Man because he believes he killed his father Norman, who of course was also the Green Goblin. On top of all this, Peter starts to lose his powers. In one very funny scene, he has to, in his Spider-Man suit, has to ride an elevator with another passenger. Adding insult to injury, the passenger doesn't even realize it's actually Spider-Man next to him. This deflates any kind of confidence Peter has while in the suit and makes the suit an embarassment to him in this situation. It's a funny scene but also one that emphasizes how, despite Peter's remarkable powers, he's still a guy who can't catch a break.
One of the most quietly powerful scenes in the film is when Peter tells Aunt May that he was responsible for Uncle Ben's murder. It captures beautifully the pain of having to tell someone horrible secret and how Peter's guilt also extends to robbing his aunt of her husband. It's around this time that Peter has quit being Spider-Man- essentially going back on motto of "With great power comes great responsibility." While it may seem like the film is having Peter learn this lesson again, it's a little more complicated this time around. Peter begins to feel he was never meant to be a hero- that's he just not up to it, which has a lot to do with his losing his powers. It's only when Aunt May tells him that everyone needs a hero, that he realizes it is his destiny to be Spider-Man-maybe even regardless of Uncle Ben's death.
Of course, you always have to have an atagonist in a superhero film. In this film, it's Dr. Otto Octavious (Alfred Molina), a brilliant scientist, who, after a science demonstration gone wrong, has his mechanical tentacles fused in to his body, making him Dr. Octopus. I love how J. Jonah Jameson remarks about the odds of a guy named Otto Octavious having extra arms like an octopus. Now, fans have criticized the film for making Doc Ock sympathetic rather than just an evil scientist like he is in the comics. I like how Doc Ock does get more of an arc in this film-from good to evil to redemption. I also really enjoy Molina's performance as well. He goes from the warm, mentor figure to Peter to a man out to achieve his goals at any cost.
The fight scenes between Spider-Man and Doc Ock are terrifically staged and I think an improvement on the action in the first film. The train sequence is a highlight, especially when Peter has to stop a train after Doc Ock has destroyed the control panel. Using just his webbing, Peter is able to slow the train down. It's a great moment because it shows how powerful Peter can be. At the same time, we see how this takes a great deal out of him. The people on the train pass him down over their heads before setting him down. When he wakes up, he's maskless. Many fans don't like how often he's unmasked in the films but I think this is a beautiful moment. Peter is afraid that everyone can see his face but ultimately what the people see isn't "Peter Parker" but a hero. When a child gives him back his mask he calls him "Spider-Man." That's who he is in that moment.
Mary Jane's motivation in this film seems to be to make Peter her boyfriend. Looking back on the film, I wish she'd had more scenes to herself to breath as a seperate character. She also becomes the damsel in distress...again. I do however really like how she takes initiative at the end of the film and tells Peter she can live with the risks of him being Spider-Man. This is after she learns the truth during the final fight between Spider-Man an Doc Ock. It's a strong character moment. She brings balance to Peter's life, allowing him to be with her but still be Spider-Man. She tells him to "Go get'em tiger" to which he dons his costume and goes out the window to fight crime. The final shot of Mary Jane, looking out the window, knowing he could die, takes us by surprise, particularly after the excitement of Spider-Man swinging by helicopters. It reminds us the difficulties that lie ahead for this couple, a very relatable idea regarding being a superhero. You can have love but there will always be risks.
Monday, 25 June 2012
With The Amazing Spider-Man swinging in to theatres pretty soon, what better time to revisit the series that brought the webslinger to the big screen in the first place, the first movie of which, along with Bryan Singer's first X-Men film, led the charge for the superhero films of the last decade. Today, it's easy to take a film like Spider-Man for granted- especially the younger generation. We live in a world where cinema seems to be dominated by superhero films. We have three Spider-Man films and a fourth is on the way. Heck, we got The Avengers this year, which is more than any comic book fan could ask for. But back in 2002, getting a Spider-Man movie was a big deal. I remember being so excited to see it and when I did I absolutely loved it. There's been a lot of criticism directed towards Sam Raimi's original Spider-Man trilogy with Marc Webb's new film coming. I knew watching the first film again after several years, I'd be affected by those criticisms and admittedly I was worried I would have to admit that the film wasn't very good.
I was pleasantly surprised that I still enjoy this film. While it's not as strong as it's sequel, Spider-Man 2, and feels a little too boxed in by being an origin story, it's still a funny, humane and visually exciting film that does a good job of embracing its comic book origins while still trying to tell a down to earth romance.
The film is essentially a origin story- two to be exact. The primary origin is that of Spider-Man- Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), a smart but shy high school student who gets bitten by a genetically enhanced spider, which gives him spider like powers. The second origin belongs to the film's antagonist, the Green Goblin. Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) is the CEO of the manufacturing company Oscorp, who, after testing a performance enhancing chemical on himself, becomes a Jekyll/Hyde character, the Green Goblin being his Hyde.
Having these origins play out simultaneously, albeit with a stronger focus on Peter, emphasizes an important archetype of not just the superhero genre but literature itself, which is that the hero and antagonist are mirror images of each other. Both Peter and Norman are brillant men who have something freakish happen to them. In Peter's case, he uses his powers to help people after being responsible for his Uncle Ben's (Cliff Robertson) murder. In Norman's case, the Goblin wants to help Norman by taking revenge on Norman's enemies. Norman's relationship to Peter and the Goblin's to Spider-Man are also similar. Norman is the father of Peter's friend Harry (James Franco) but treats Peter like the son he never had. Goblin wants Spider-Man to join forces with him. I would have like for them to've played up the surrogate father angle between Peter and Norman. When Norman tells Peter at the end "I've been like a father to you, be a son to me," it's kind of a bizarre line because there aren't enough scenes between Norman and Peter. Maybe it's just a ruse by the Goblin to throw Peter off but I still would have liked that angle fleshed out.
On this recent viewing I actually found a lot of the Norman stuff was shoved in to the background, particularly when he starts becoming aware of the Goblin personality inside of him. I wish more scenes were dedicated to this transformation as well as his relationship with Harry.
The real focus of the film is the romance between Peter and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Spider-Man is essentially a love story-Peter even sets this up in his opening narration, telling us "it all started with a girl," which looking back at it now makes me think, "No Peter, it started with a spider bite." The romance is very sweet and Maguire and Dunst make you feel there's a connection between these two people that can't quite be spoken. What's interesting about the relationship between Peter and Mary Jane is while it's Peter who's always been in love with her, the movie is secretly about Mary Jane falling in love with Peter. The irony is by the time she learns she loves him, Peter feels he has to push her away in order to protect her. It was quite a bold move to end the film on such a bittersweet note- but it's the right one for Peter Parker- a guy who has to sacrifice a lot in order to be a hero.
One element of this film, and the Raimi films in general, fans are disappointed by is that Spider-Man isn't as sarcastic and snarky as he is in the comics. I think this is because Raimi is homaging the 1960s era of Spider-Man and by my memory of recently reading those early comics, wasn't as sarcastic as we usually think of him. Also, he's still jokey and goofy in the film. During the wrestling match he tells his opponent "That''s a cute outfit. Did your husband give it to you?" I also like when the Goblin asks him if he's in or out, regarding joining forces, and Spider-Man with "It's you who's out Gobby. Out of your mind."
In the comics Peter builds mechanical webshooters but some people prefer the organic webshooters and feel it makes sense they'd be part of Peter's powers. It's actually a pretty funny debate and I don't mean that in a mocking way. I like the old school webshooters and am looking forward to seeing them in the new film.
Maguire seems to get a lot of hate which is unfortunate because he gives a pretty solid performance. He goes from the shy outsider who only wants to get with Mary Jane to the man who walks away from her at the end with a stoicism that suggests a man who has accepted he can never go back to living a completely normal life. Dafoe and J.K. Simmons, who plays J. Jonah Jameson are the actors who are clearly having the most fun, especially since they get the most "comic-booky" roles. Dafoe, even behind a big greeb helmet creates a wonderfully sinister voice and attitude and I love the scene where Norman is having a conversation with the Goblin personality through a mirror. Simmons is one of the most spot on castings in a superhero film. Simmons gets the insufferable blowhard known as J.J.J down to a tee. I also liked Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Uncle Ben and Aunt May. I wished there was a few more scenes between Uncle Ben and Peter but I think Robertson exudes the warmth and wisdom needed to show why his death matters so much to Peter and haunts him when he realizes he's responsible.
Visually, it creates wonderful comic book visuals like Spider-Man's first fight with the Goblin and Spider-Man's dodging of Goblin's razors. I think my favourite shot in the film is when Peter climbs a wall for the first time and the camera tilts as he's climbing, making him look horizontal on the wall.
The movie does try to condense a lot in to its running time. As I mentioned before I would've liked more Uncle Ben and more Norman leading up to his transformation. The film's also held back by being an origin story, meaning that much of the film is going over stuff we already know from the comics. It's only when we get to the sequel can we jump right in to story about Peter Parker being Spider-Man. Still, I can't undervalue how important this movie was in my life- and to the decade of costume crimefighters it was part of.
Friday, 8 June 2012
Mild Spoilers Ahead
Prometheus has been one of the biggest question marks in terms of big studio releases for quite some time. This is director Ridley's Scott return to science fiction- the genre in which he made two classic films, Alien and Blade Runner, which are also the two films which have defined his career. But what made the idea of Scott returning to science fiction even more intriguing is that Prometheus is a prequel to Alien. The big question mark of the film that I mentioned earlier was how much of an Alien prequel this would be. Early on it seemed we'd be getting a straight up Alien prequel and then it seemed Scott wanted to make a standalone film, with the title of the film being called Prometheus instead of something with Alien in the title. And then we heard rumblings from the cast that the film would have connections to Alien. And from then on, it's been interesting to ponder how the movie would blend it's own story with elements from the first Alien film.
Essentially, while I feel Prometheus is a good philosophical sci-fi horror film, the things it's doing don't all click together. On the one hand, it's asking big questions regarding the dawn of the human race, who created us and why, what it means to be human, darwinism versus creationism. It's also trying to provide some good old fashioned sci-fi horror scares- while at the same time trying to take the first Alien and put it in the context of these big philosophical ideas. As I said, not everything clicks but I admire Scott for putting all these elements in the same film and I feel he has created an bizarrely fascinating take on the whole idea of making a prequel. It also feels this is the most ambitious and go-for-broke Scott has been in quite some time.
The big philosophical question at the heart of the film is "What if God is an alien?" Two archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a star map in various caves belonging to ancient civilizations. These civilizations have no connections to each other, leading them to believe they were left there by beings from outer space and are invitations to come find them. A few years later, Shaw and Holloway are on board the ship Prometheus, heading towards the planet these "engineers" are believed to have originated from. The ship lands near an ancient structure, which the crew plans to investigate.
Performance wise, I think the movie is pretty solid. Swedish actress Rapace, who was the orginal Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is a slightly unconventional choice for the lead role. That's why I think it works. She brings a certain texture to her performance that I think would be missing with another actress. Elizabeth and Charlie are in a romantic relationship and their relationship is presented rather nicely. They do seem authentically in love. Charlize Theron plays Martha Vickers, who works for Weyland Industries(sound familar?) Theron plays Vickers as cold and detached and as the film goes along and we learn about her relationship to Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), founder of Weyland Indutries, a bitterness and sense of entitlement. I would have liked a little more development with her and her relationship to Weyland. Idris Elba, as Janek, the captain of Prometheus, has some good character moments as well. Overall, the character development is solid but I wish there were a few more character beats for Theron and Elba.
Michael Fassbender as the robot David was my favourite performance and character. I think one of the hardest things for an actor do to is play a robot without coming across as...well, robotic and boring. Fassbender makes David both charismatic and mysterious. What are his motives? How human is he? You feel a tiny bit of Blade Runner- and also 2001 seeping in regarding. I wish the film had pushed these questions about David's humanit and nature a little further, particularly sincce they do link to the idea of creation in the film. I love how David draws inspiration from Lawrence of Arabia- essentially Fassbender is doing a riff on Peter O'Toole. He quotes a line from the film and when asked where's it from, he replies rather sincerely, "from a film I like." I liked that moment a lot.
A conversation with Holloway draws comparisons between the "engineers" and humans. David asks Charlie why he was made by humans. Charlie tells him it's probably because they could. David then asks Charlie how'd he feel if the "engineers" told him the same thing. What if the creation of human existence was as simple as that? It implies that if we were made just because it was possible, also means we are expendable, which becomes the major threat of the film in the third act.
I do love the idea of aliens creating humans. It's a bizarre and almost awe-inspiring idea, especially since, and others have brought this up, if aliens created us, who created them? Elizabeth is a woman of faith and it's interesting she accepts this notion that aliens could have created us. She's accepting of a re-interpretation of God or at least another element in God's design.
As the film moves along it's hard to get Alien out from the back of your head. I hung to every image that was reminescent of Alien and every reference that seemed to tie in to its mythology but I always wanted more from that universe even though I knew I wouldn't get to see the Xenomorph. I don't think it's a flaw in the film so much as it's a result of the unshakable perception that this is a prequel to a great science fiction horror and one wants to see as many connections as possible. At the same time, I found it hard to reconcile all the film I was seeing with the film and mythology it was tying in to.
I think if the script, by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof had reconciled these elements in to a straight line or a more cohesive whole, I feel I could have settled in to it a bit easier. I feel the main problem with the script is that it's not always clear on certain aspects of the "engineers" or how they relate to the origins of the Xenomorph. The final moments of the film are kind of awesome but there's also that feeling "Okay...that was weird." Now, I wouldn't want the film to literally explain every detail but I would have liked to have had a clearer sense "Okay, that's how everything fits together." The ending of the film also can't shake the whole "setting for a sequel" feeling. I wish the film had a more definitive ending that felt that it connected smoothly with the events of the first film. That would be the more satisying ending but it seems we'll have to wait for a sequel to reach that point.
One thing Scott does in this film that I like is how he creates a different feeling towards space travel in this film than in Alien. In Alien, space travel had this feeling of banality. They were truckers in space, just doing a job. Even when they fine the alien ship, it's more creepy and mysterious than awe-inspiring. In Prometheus, it's more about the thrill of discovery, of what's out there. When things turn darker, it's a good seg-way to what Alien is about- the possibility that what's out there has the possibility to destroy us. In Alien, the robot Ash says the Xenomorph has no delusions of morality and one could draw the same conclusions about the "engineers."
Scott has put his very lean horror film on a mythological scale. Looking back at the Alien series, I felt after the second film the series didn't move the story or mythology forward enough. This seems like the first Alien related film in some time that truly feels like it wants to do something different with the mythology. Scott had to go back and a little to the side to give us a fresh take...but he did it.
Wednesday, 6 June 2012
What's remarkable about the first film in the series, Alien, is that, on a plot and character level, it's essentially a B movie, a haunted house movie set aboard a spaceship with an Alien. What makes it an A movie is Ridley's Scott direction, which slowly builds up tension, then giving us a great payoff that never feels just like a jump scare- but he never really relieves us of the tension. The film is also benefited by strong performances from the cast. While the characters are not super complex, the actors make them feel like real people. Who come to sympathize with them and all their deaths really hurt- especially when the captain of the Nostromo, Dallas (Tom Skeritt) is taken by the alien. Once that happens you feel the rock of the film is gone. What also elevates the film in to A film level status is how terrifying the Alien is. Based off designs by H.R. Giger, the alien is never cheesy or lame. And like the shark in Jaws, only a few years prior, Scott doesn't show the alien all at once but slowly shows us more as the film goes along. The fact that we don't always see the alien adds to the terror of the film- by hardly ever seeing it, we feel it can just jump out of nowhere.
The dread in this film just keeps escalating as we realize nothing can stop this monster. What also enhances the dread is that the real villain of the film is never seen. It's the corporation that sent out the ship and which views the crew as expendable- all that matters is getting the alien back to Earth. It's a theme that's present through all the alien films. The alien is a killing machine but what really causes the trouble is Weyland-Yutani. I think that's what makes this film so disturbing. The faceless villain that has doomed the entire ship.
After Dallas is gone, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) emerges as the main character of the film. At the time I believe people believed Dallas was going to be the hero of the film. What's also interesting is that supposedly Ripley was the only character written specifically to be a man- but with Weaver in the role, the film takes on feminist undertones. What I like though is that Ripley never really becomes a traditional hero in this film. At the end, left alone, she's scared shitless as she tries to blow up the ship and escape in the hatch pod. They don't make her "tough"- that comes later. She's strong though, scared, but strong.
Aliens, the second film, does what most sequels never have the leisure to do. Most sequels are the same genre of the previous film. Aliens, despite still having the ingredients of a horror film, is actually more of an action film than horror. James Cameron, who had made his name with the first Terminator film, didn't want to remake the first film so he essentially made his own riff on the concept. But while Aliens is very different from Alien, Cameron does a great job of expanding upon the universe Scott created in the first film. In the first film, it was a lone alien in the shadows, stalking the crew. This time, it's war, as the film's tagline declared. Things are no longer just contained to a spaceship, and it's not just one alien.
I think Cameron's main interest in this film is developing the character of Ripley. Ripley has been in hypersleep for 57 years after escaping from the Nostromo. Weyland-Yutani find her but don't believe her story. In the special edition of the film, which Cameron says he prefers, there's a scene where she discovers her daughter has died- she sees a picture of her, a grandmother and recalls she promised she'd be back home for her 11th birthday. This scene, cut for the theatrical cut, provides a great deal of subtext and emotional weight to her relationship to Newt (Carrie Henn). She wants the mother-daughter bond she can no longer have with her real daughter- and by protecting Newt, somehow may want to redeem herself. Cameron makes Ripley a woman out of time, with every one she ever knew dead or old. She's also plagued by nightmares every night. Only by confronting the aliens with the marines can she be at peace. I think the arc Ripley goes through in this film is the strongest out all the films.
Aliens, I think, is the warmest of the Alien films, the one in which I'm most attached to what's happening on screen. But while it has it's tender moments, it's not overly sentimental. Cameron deftly combines and switches between tenderness and real terror. This makes the stakes higher as we know this young girl, and Ripley's redemption, lies in the balance. The film also develops the "Alien" universe's fear of American bureacracy, personified here by Paul Reiser's Carter Burke. At first Burke seems like a decent enough guy- but we learn what he'll do in order to get an alien specimen.
Also- on an action movie level, this film is spectacular. Cameron stages intense sequences of action without losing any of the suspense or fear needed in a movie like this. This feels almost non-stop- but it never becomes overbearing.
Alien 3 is where the franchise started to lose its way. It was a troubled production from early on. There was trouble settling on a script and on landing a director. Renny Harlin,was hired on as director but left to direct Die Hard 2 once the production wasn't coming together. Vincent Ward, who has a story credit on the film, was called on to direct but was fired due to disagreements with producers. Eventually, directing duties fell to David Fincher. At the time, Fincher had never directed a feature film before- only music videos. Fincher, from my understanding, was not treated well by the studio (20th Century Fox) during production- and there were constant re-writes on set. Fincher is one of the things that makes Alien 3 worth watching. Even on his first film, and a troubled one at that, one can see his directorial talent, his eye for great visuals, shining through.
My main problem with Alien 3 is that it feels too much like a franchise movie- and I think this is when the series started to be seen in those terms by the studio. When I say it feels like a franchise film, what I mean is that the script essentially finds a new location to put Ripley in, surrounds her with a bunch of characters to be killed off by the alien, and lets the alien run loose and do its thing. Now to be fair, that description fits the first two Alien films. But with Alien, it was okay to have a straightforward plot and Aliens had a larger scale and a different emotional centre. Alien 3 seems like it takes the basic ingredients for an Alien movie and puts them on screen. The scale of the film also feels too small after Aliens. While I wouldn't want a sequel to Aliens to just replicate that film, I feel this film should have gone to the alien homeworld or bring the aliens to earth- two ideas which were tossed around in the early development stages on Alien 3. By having Ripley crash land on Fiorina "Fury" 161, the film also feels it has crash landed in a story that's not the one the series needed to tell.
Now, I'm not a hater of this film. I can't say I like it because it is such a cold and distancing film- but I do admire some of its elements. I said it feels like a franchise film but there are elements of the film which make it unique. I like the idea of these prisoners "finding God at the ass-end of space," as Ripley puts it. Redemption is a big theme in this film and finds an interesting outlet through these prisoners. My favourite sequence in the film is near the end when Ripley and the prisoners have the alien chase them through the tunnels, locking a door at certain check points. I also like the relationship between Ripley and the doctor Clemens (Charles Dance). It's the closest thing the film has to an emotional centre. Unfortunately, the alien kills Clemens pretty early on- particularly in the 2003 Assembly Cut. The Assembly Cut, which was the cut I watched when I was revisiting the series, does feel a little more developed than the theatrical cut- but it does seem to drag a bit. The Assembly Cut does restore an interesting subplot involving one of the prisoners, Golic (Paul McGann), who releases the alien after Ripley and the others have captured it. Golic worships the alien like a God because the alien did not kill him when he encountered it. Golic meets his end at the hands (or mouth) of the alien. Golic's subplot fits well with the theme of religion in the film and it's an fascinatng reaction from a character to the alien.
The main criticism people have of Alien 3 is the killing off of Newt and Hicks (Michael Biehn). While I can see why their presence wouldn't have worked in this film, I do feel killing them off killed off the possibilities to develop them further as characters as well as their relationship to Ripley. There is an unshakable feeling that their deaths makes the emotional arc of Aliens, not so much pointless but pointless to this film- and I feel the film should have continued their story. The android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) also gets the shaft. It's a shame he gets reduced to a pile of scrap metal and gets only about a minute of screentime.
The most important element that raises this film above the franchise film label is Ripley's suicide at the end of the film- she chooses to kill herself and the alien inside her to stop the Weyland-Yutani from getting it. It's an appropriate ending to the film- and at that time-the franchise.
Of course, a franchise like this never stays dead for long. Alien Resurrection is the fourth and last (in the standalone Alien series). It's my least favourite film of the franchise. It feels very soulless and pointless. The only really interesting thing about the film is having Ripley being cloned and having her come back as a human with alien DNA. Can she be trusted? How human is she. I wish the film had gone a little bit further with these ideas. They seem be there mostly as subtext that's slightly on the surface but it's not taken to the extreme levels it could have reached. There's also no emotional centre for the audience to get attached to. No Newt, no Hicks, not even Clemens. There are a few nice moments between Ripley and Annalee\Call (Winona Ryder), the android who wanted to kill her due to her alien DNA, but it's not developed enough to be something we find ourselves getting involved with. My favourite moment of the film is when the ship enters earth's atmosphere. Call asks Ripley what's going to happen and Ripley says she doesn't know- "I'm a stranger here myself." It's a very poignant moment that acknowleges how epic Ripley's journey has been- it's been 200 years since Alien 3, and 57 years passed between the first two films, making it 257 years since Ripley left earth on the Nostromo.
I also like the scene where Ripley finds the failed Ripley clones and proceeds to destroy them all. If the film had been as haunting and compelling as that scene, it would have been a stronger film. The director of the film is Jean-Pierre Jeunet and like the previous three directors, he has a great visual eye, creating a very good looking film. This is the only film of his that I've seen and I'd see a film where his direction is paired with a stronger script. Joss Whedon wrote the script for this film. In an interview he says in terms of direction and casting, the script wasn't treated that well. I feel even with a different director and cast, the script is where most of the problems lie.
So, those are my thoughts on the Alien series. I should also say that Sigourney Weaver gives consistantly strong performances through the franchise. She and Ridley Scott created a terrific female action hero and it's a testament to the character that we remember her as vividley as the alien.