Like two breeds of bug-eyed monsters battling for domination of some far-flung planet, two different visions of science-fiction entertainment are fighting for audience favor - and box-office dollars - in movie theaters everywhere.
Which will win? Most likely the more familiar of the two, represented by "Alien Resurrection" and "Starship Troopers," both heavy on violent action and light on thoughtful themes.
Boosting their prospects is their presold popularity with fans of the SF genre. Alien Resurrection continues a smash-hit series - the legendary "Alien" and its two sequels - by resurrecting its heroine (Lieutenant Ripley) and the star (Sigourney Weaver) who made her a mass-culture icon. Starship Troopers takes its cue from a 1959 novel by Robert A. Heinlein, one of the most widely visible SF authors of his time.
On the other side of the SF slugfest is Gattaca, which tries to focus more on ideas and values than adventure and special effects. Moviegoers have not been scrambling to see its story of genetic testing and social engineering run amok, although the movie's very existence - courtesy of Columbia, a Hollywood giant - shows that SF has not entirely abandoned its smarter instincts.
To hear the title of "Alien Resurrection" is to guess its plot, characters, and gimmick. Ripley was convincingly dead by the end of "Alien 3," but you can't keep a good spacewoman down, and the new picture finds her alive and well after a major dose of futuristic surgery, shown in the lurid detail that characterizes the movie's yuckiest moments. Soon she's helping comrades fight a slew of regenerated monsters, unwittingly spawned by her own body.
All the "Alien" movies have boasted imaginative directors - Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher - and the new one sustains this trend. Formerly half of the Jeunet & Caro team, French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet earned acclaim with "Delicatessen" and "City of Lost Children," quirky fantasies with lots of zany visual touches but little human feeling.
"Alien Resurrection" has the same shortcoming, although Weaver's fiercely committed acting (backed up by Winona Ryder in a smaller role) gives it a needed emotional lift. Add some effective suspense sequences and the most hair-raising horror of any SF picture this year, and you have a package that's destined for profitability, if not respectability.
"Starship Troopers" takes place in a future very different from our own time. Earth is warring with insects from outer space, and many feel that only a strong military can save our planet from a creepy-crawly fate.
A strong military is exactly what Earth has, thanks to a longstanding policy that allows nobody but military veterans to become citizens and vote. According to Heinlein's novel, this is because only people with military training understand the need to sacrifice individual rights for the sake of group solidarity.
That's a rather reactionary message, fitting in with Heinlein's praise of capital punishment and other questionable views. All this finds its way into the movie, which begins with brutal army-training episodes and ends with a monster-killing orgy. Of particular note is its glorification of armed might, a trend that received a new jolt of energy from "Star Wars," which "combines traditional models of individual combat with the technology of electronic warfare in a way which re-romanticizes war," as critic Dan Rubey writes in the film magazine Jump Cut.
Whatever one may think of such ideas, they're quickly reduced to a string of smirky laughs and kinetic thrills by "Starship Troopers" director Paul Verhoeven, of "Total Recall" and "Basic Instinct" fame. Even his "RoboCop" had more sociological bite, echoed here in pallid scenes of video-screen satire. The new movie's only forward-looking quality is its celebration of equality between the sexes. Like many SF films, it lets women be as powerful as men, and unlike "Alien Resurrection," it can't be interpreted as a morbid meditation on the scariness of motherhood.
To be sure, few will go to "Alien Resurrection" or "Starship Troopers" in search of food for thought. Still, while both movies deliver the high-tech exploits they promise, it's good to have "Gattaca" around to remind us that SF can be more substantial when it wants to.
The late Judith Merrill, a gifted SF anthologist, once launched a campaign to replace the term "science fiction" with "speculative fiction," hoping to encourage the genre's socially useful side. Her efforts didn't succeed, but her message is worth heeding. With its probing story, "Gattaca" asks us to think - even to act - as well as to enjoy a speculative tale sincerely told.
* 'Alien Resurrection' and 'Starship Troopers' have R ratings; both contain sustained violence, rough language, and nudity. 'Gattaca,' rated PG-13, contains sex and violence.