Every decade has its ups and downs when it comes to cinema, no matter the genre. Horror fans love to loft on high the output of the ‘30s & ‘40s, the ‘70s & ‘80s, and the more recent decades. More often than not, however, the 1990s are labeled as the worst decade for the genre. Not only that, but ‘90s horror tends to be written off as a whole, beyond a handful of undisputed classics. The purpose of Exhumed & Exonerated: The ‘90s Horror Project, is to refute those accusations by highlighting numerous gems from the decade. Stone cold classics will be tackled in this column from time to time, but its main purpose will be to seek out lesser-known and/or less-loved titles that I think deserve more attention and respect from fans. Let the mayhem begin!
Directed by David Fincher
Screenplay by Vincent Ward, David Giler, Walter Hill, and Larry Ferguson
Produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Ralph Brown, Charles Dance, Brian Glover, Danny Webb, Paul McGann, Pete Postlethwaite, Holt McCallany, and Lance Henriksen
Released on May 22, 1992
I was originally going to tackle something a bit more offbeat for this entry, but upon being reminded of “Alien Day”, I switched gears. Last week (4/26…LV-426…hooray for joke holidays) saw many around the nation (world?) celebrating Fox’s Alien franchise, particularly the first two films. What better way to follow things up the next day by taking a look at the dark horse third entry in the sci-fi/horror saga? David Fincher’s Alien 3 has its fans (spoilers: I’m one of them) but to this day it remains a wildly divisive installment in the series.
Why is it so divisive? Because the previous films, Aliens, saw Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) come out of her second traumatic encounter with the alien species not only triumphant, but with a new surrogate family. With Ripley as the mother, we were also given Rebecca “Newt” Jorden (Carrie Henn) as an adopted daughter, Corporal Dwayne Hicks (Michael Biehn) as the would-be father, and the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) as the weird uncle, something ever family seems to have. In short, director/writer James Cameron had given the franchise’s lead a fairytale ending. Unfortunately, not all fairytales remain happy.
The opening sequence of Alien 3 sees these characters in hypersleep aboard the Sulaco, where we last saw them. So what goes wrong? You guessed it, there’s an alien on board! A fire breaks out, forcing the escape ship to be launched, but not before the little face-hugging fiend possibly manages to impregnate one of the three humans with an alien embryo. Life is a cruel bastard at times.
Making matters worse, the escape ship crash lands into the waters on a sparsely populated backwater planet. A planet whose inhabitants are all ex-convicts tasked with keeping a metalworks factory maintained. In the crash, one of the ship’s support beams impales Hicks in his sleep, killing him instantly. Bishop’s already-trashed android body is also further damages, with “pieces of him all over the place”. The malicious cherry atop this tragedy is that Newt is also dead; having drowned in her sleep after her cryo-tube became cracked.
Ripley is left alone; her new surrogate family ripped away from her even quicker than her co-workers were in the original film. Whereas the original film was about survival and the sequel about conquering your fear, the third becomes about a loss of faith and hope. It’s no coincidence that the writers chose to make the former prisoners into people who had found religion during their incarceration. Ripley is the faithless tossed among the faithful, attempting to find some meaning and purpose in the wake of another traumatic event.
What good is film dealing with faith that doesn’t have a demon running about? In addition to the mystery of whether or not one of the original trio has been impregnated by an alien, a second facehugger is revealed to have made it onto the escape pod. Upon landing, it “mates” with an animal. What kind of animal it latches onto depends on which cut of the film you are watching, of course. In the theatrical version, it attaches itself to a dog. In the extended producers cut, which hews closer to Fincher’s original vision of the film, it is an ox.
Regardless of the cut, we have a far faster and animalistic alien to deal with this time out. Complicating matters further is the fact that the facilities administration doesn’t believe a word of Ripley’s tale, at least not until the beast slaughters a handful of people. Worse yet, there are no weapons at this facility. After all, it wouldn’t be smart to have a bunch of guns or flamethrowers lying around where convicted murderers and rapists can access them, even if they are all supposedly “reformed” and have “found God at the ass end of space”. All of this contributes to the film’s mounting sense of hopelessness and dread.
All the franchise’s hallmarks are on full display here. We have Ripley at the center of it all as the voice of reason, just like she has been since the opening moments of Ridley Scott’s original. We have a colorful cast of characters, mostly of the blue collar variety, running about a dirty and rundown space facility. We have a few characters with their own agenda that does not gel with the rest of the group, especially in the extended cut. And, of course, we have the company, Weyland-Yutani, still trying to get their hands on the titular fiend…no matter the cost.
We could argue all day about whether or not it was right for Hicks, Newt, and (effectively) Bishop to be torn away from Ripley right out of the gate. Regardless of whether or not you personally agree with this decision, one made by Weaver herself, it’s simply the way the dice rolled. Whether or not that sits well with you, it’s impossible to deny the craftsmanship here. The theatrical cut of the film is compromised, but still a worthwhile sequel. The extended cut is even better, further exploring the new characters and the film’s themes.
Would it have been nice to see at least one more adventure with the three fallen survivors of Aliens? Of course! I love those characters as much as anyone. For a time, it was actually going to happen that way. Before Vincent Ward was brought in to craft a faith-oriented tale involving Ripley, there were three other completely different scripts written for a potential Alien 3. The first one, penned by Neuromancer author William Gibson, saw Ripley in a coma, with Hicks, Newt, and Bishop as the leads. There were also two further, wildly different scripts after that which contained no returning characters at all. One was penned by Eric Red (Near Dark) and the other by David Twohy (Pitch Black). All three can be easily found online, if you are curious, along with Ward’s own (quite different) script.
Alien 3 is an ugly, nihilistic sequel slathered in grease and grime and filled with a wide assortment of troubled characters. In addition to its unceremonious dispatching of the other survivors of Aliens, this also seems to be a sore point with those who do not care for the film. Alien 3 is almost the complete opposite of Aliens, even of Alien, and that’s exactly what I love about it. For most of the films in this franchise, the filmmakers behind them have been allowed to craft their own completely different take on this universe. Ridley Scott’s Alien is the ultimate monster movie. James Cameron’s Aliens is one of the best action films ever made. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection is more of a dark comedy. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is a weird Planet of the Vampires-esque space exploration flick. Only the Alien vs. Predator films really sidestep a signature style, instead opting for a more comic book-like approach.
Alien 3 might not be the sequel you wanted when you first saw it after watching the first two. I completely get that, but I believe that it is a great fill in its own right. The story and themes are compelling, the cast is great, and the visuals are striking. It’s an ugly sequel in every sense of the word, practically oozing with a feeling of hopelessness that is understandably off-putting to some viewers, but a unique and unforgettable one. It may not have impacted genre-filmmaking as much as its gargantuan predecessors, but it absolutely deserves its place as one of the best genre sequels we have received.
Up Next: Cast A Deadly Spell (1991)