Sigourney back from the dead

It has been said before, but Sigourney Weaver is extremely tall (1.8 metres). And both times I met her - in France, coincidentally, once in Cannes and once in Paris - she was wearing the type of spindly high-heeled shoes which made her look, somehow, like a mast battling against the wind.

A karate green belt with an impossibly low percentage of body fat on her lean frame (when it came time to do underwater scenes in Aliens: Resurrection, she floated), Weaver is all angles and bones and beauty. She looks positively Amazonian in the fourth instalment of Alien and despite the visual orgy the movie provides, all I could think while watching it was: she is amazing. Weaver is 48 now and exudes the kind of cool intelligence that does not need to be sharp to prove its existence.

She is nervous doing interviews, she says, but on both occasions is kind and fun and not at all precious. I came away both admiring and liking her, which is surprising given she is darned scary in Aliens 4, towering over all her co-stars with a butch sneer Bruce Willis could only aspire to. Like every other Alien fan, I sneered (weakly in comparison) at the news that Weaver - whose character Ripley committed suicide in Aliens 3 - had pocketed US$11 million (about HK$85 million) to return from the grave. What next, an Alien shower sequence? But at 48, Weaver knows what she is doing. And Jean-Pierre Jeunet (with co-director Marc Caro-helmed Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children ) ain't no cretin either, as they might say in his native France. Obviously, if you pay Weaver US$11 million, she will go the distance - even if that means an orgy scene with a nest of slimy 'mothers'.

You get Jeunet to sign on the dotted line and he will bring his director of photography Darius Khondji (Seven ) into the bargain, lighting slime to end all slime on Weaver, her co-star Winona Ryder, and a brand new Alien baby who spurts goo from every orifice. Aliens: Resurrection is grotesquely obscene and in it, 20th Century Fox has rescued a faltering franchise: it seemed as if director David Fincher had killed it all off in Aliens 3, but, no, Weaver is back. And maybe she is not better than ever, but she certainly edges close to the Ridley Scott-directed original (made in 1979).

'I laughed, yes, when they came and told me they had a new script,' says Weaver, who is not at all apologetic for her Ripley volte-face. 'Then when they showed me it, I was bowled over. It was an easy decision to make.' Well, easy-ish.

Ryder - almost laughably a physical opposite to Weaver, a tiny, elfin-like actress - committed to her part as the mysterious Coll in the misguided belief that Weaver was already on board.

'There isn't a chance I would have done it without her,' says Ryder. 'I've been an Alien fan all my life - the original was one of the first movies I ever saw and certainly the only one with a female presence - and I couldn't wait to join up.

'I had Sigourney's poster on my wall as a teenager! 'But the next thing I knew, rumours started to fly around Hollywood that I was the new Ripley, that Aliens: Resurrection was going ahead without Sigourney.' Weaver, who was paid US$30,000 for the original - and was extremely glad to get it - was holding out for her pay-cheque. 'It doesn't make me the highest-paid actress in Hollywood,' says Weaver. 'I think Sandra Bullock got quite a bit more for Speed 2. But look at these male stars, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and look at their pay-cheques, which, I might add, are more than US$20 million. To me it was business and political. You read the men's salaries and you think, this is the fourth one, what's going on? So I held out, yes. But once the issue had been resolved, I never thought of it.' When Weaver made Alien for director Scott in England (with a script by Dan O'Bannon and extra-terrestrials designed by surrealist H. R. Geiger), she was 30 years old. She has grown with Warrant Officer Ripley - and she has tried to exorcise Ripley from her life as well. By the time Aliens 3 came around (Aliens was directed by Titanic helmer James Cameron), she felt the story was tired. 'That was one of the reasons I died,' she says. 'They wanted to make a dumb Alien vs Predator and I didn't want to be any part of it. So I just set it free. Let other people discover what it is about.' But Ripley has been reborn, and this time she is not going away. 'I will do another one, I think it's almost certain,' she says. 'For better or worse, this particular Ripley has no intention of leaving. You see, in a sense, it's a different character completely. There have been huge changes. I think this one probably will lead to another one.' However, apart from script and directorial concerns, a lot depends on the location - Weaver, notoriously, is reluctant to be separated from her daughter Charlotte while filming.

'In this case, my husband [a New York theatre director] turned down work for eight months so he could take care of my daughter because we only have a part-time baby-sitter,' says Weaver. 'I tried to commute about 10 days a month from LA to New York and my daughter would come out, but it was horrible. So I won't be up to do that again, let's put it that way.' Weaver is also very involved - almost controlling - with her character. 'I feel a responsibility because I think I know what works and what doesn't work. I'm the only one who's been there the whole way through. I think I know what the public likes to see and what they don't want to see: they don't want to see a lot of fat aliens played by stunt men running around. I feel a responsibility in that area. I didn't want the others ripped off in a hodge-podge of highlights of the first three put together.

So yes, there was a concern.' But who is this new Warrant Officer Ripley? As we all know, she threw herself into a burning vat at the climax of Aliens 3, impregnated with the offspring of the dastardly 'mother' alien. Aliens: Resurrection is set 200 years further in the future on board the vast - but claustrophobic - spacecraft Auriga, heading for Earth.

Here, a nefarious cloning experiment finally comes to fruition. Ripley, or Clone 8, is born again. A spooky mix of alien and human DNA, Ripley is inhumanly athletic and scarily unpredictable. The scientists in charge of the ship think they can control their experiment but, of course we - and Ripley - know better and when a pirate ship (carrying Ryder and two actors from Jeunet's previous films, Dominique Pinon and Ron Perlman) docks, things immediately go awry.

Yes, the new script counts for much of the surprising success of Aliens: Resurrection, but also vital is Jeunet's style and Khondji's lens work. These contribute to shocking sexual overtones featuring Ripley and the aliens - while this has been hinted at in the past, it's practically overt here.

'I think that at least design-wise there have always been sexual and sensual overtones to the sets,' says Weaver. 'And I've always thought that the Alien is interested in other things than itself. I think it has other, sexual things in mind. But for Aliens: Resurrection, they've cut out a lot of the kinkier stuff, believe it or not. I'd still classify it as sensual, though. Jean-Pierre really understood the relationship Ripley has with the Alien. The French are great. You can't shock them.' Kicking off production in November 1996 and wrapping up last May, Aliens: Resurrection was a gruelling shoot, confesses Weaver. Particularly tough was an extended underwater sequence, in which the pirates and Ripley are pursued through the submerged kitchens by a phalanx of Aliens. The actors had to spend weeks submerged in a tank with no respirators or face masks.

'It was the worst physical experience of my life,' says Ryder. 'You're in a tank that's filthy - the crew is in there for 17 hours a day and there was no coming out to go to the bathroom.' Weaver adds: 'It seemed to go on forever. It actually took a month. And I'm not brave. Ripley's brave. I can say that nothing exists of Sigourney Weaver in that scene at all.' Weaver went from Ang Lee's intense and funny period drama The Ice Storm to Aliens: Resurrection and plans on a break from film-making now, though she'll still work with her husband's experimental theatre company in New York.

Weaver alone among actresses has defied the pull of age - Alien has made her the only bankable female action hero and the roles she lands, including Ice Storm, are still overtly sexual. She doesn't feel constrained by the march of time. 'It seems I'm lucky,' she says. 'I don't worry about my age at all. Why should I? It doesn't seem that I have to.' And don't mention the words 'feminist icon' either in relation to Weaver herself or her most cherished character, Ripley. 'I don't think they call Ripley that only because she's a woman. She doesn't depend on other people to save her. She takes the whole thing on her own shoulders herself.

'Women are strong. Women are capable and have been throughout the centuries. The fact that it is called feminism is actually a chauvinist thing to say. I don't like 'feminist icon'. I think Ripley is a good character, an interesting person who just happens to be a woman.' And the same goes for Weaver.

Aliens: Resurrection opens in Hong Kong on the Edko circuit on February 26