With the June 8th release of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus fast approaching, we thought we’d take a look back at the original Alien franchise with which it “shares strands of DNA.” Whether or not there are xenomorphs as we know them in Prometheus, it’s abundantly clear that it takes place in the same universe.
In the weeks leading up to the release of that film I’m going to revisit the four films in the Alien franchise (sorry, not going to subject myself to AVP) in order to gather my thoughts in anticipation of the new outing. First up is Alien 3. Considered a disappointment upon its release in 1992, the film underperformed at the box office and left many fans with a bad taste in their mouth. Stories about its troubled production have become the stuff of legend and many people fail to even regard it as part of the filmography of director David Fincher (Zodiac, The Social Network, Se7en, Fight Club). Even I hated the movie, and I was pretty easy to please back then.
I recently took another look at the theatrical cut of the film and discovered, to my great surprise, that it’s not that bad after all. For a film without a finalized script, it gets more right than it does wrong – which is pretty surprising. Head inside for more.
It goes without saying that the great divide in quality in the Alien universe occurs between Aliens and Alien 3. This sentiment is about as close as a subjective opinion can get to being a fact. When I first saw the film in the summer of 1992 I was so disappointed I couldn’t even admit to myself how much I disliked it. It was too painful a letdown. I went into denial mode and told myself how great it was for weeks. At some point – probably months later – I just accepted the notion that I thought it was pretty bad and moved on. And, while I can’t be completely sure, I don’t think I watched it again in its entirety for almost two decades.
So I was surprised when a recent revisit revealed that Alien 3 isn’t all that bad. There are some great moments and the tone is actually astoundingly consistent. That’s fairly surprising considering that the “final” script was pretty much written on the fly during the historically rocky shoot using elements from god-knows-how-many screenplays from god-knows-how-many writers (the script is credited to David Giler, Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson but also contains elements from drafts by David Twohy, Eric Red and Vincent Ward). Is it as good as Alien or Aliens? No. But it is a decent movie in the unfortunate shadow of those two titans.
In fact, it’s almost something of a triumph when you consider how troubled the production was. David Fincher, hamstrung by an incomplete script, reportedly clashed almost nonstop with Fox brass. Coming from the world of commercials and music videos he was generally used to getting his way and he wasn’t getting it here, primarily due to budget issues. Still, bits of the genius we’ve now come to know him as shine through. Aside from a few rough shots (the chest burster coming out of the dog is sloppy and the CG throughout is mostly horrible), the film is consistently gorgeous (another miracle considering they had to switch DP’s a week or two in). Fincher’s attention to detail may have tacked days upon days to the shooting schedule, but it provides the film with its strongest and most consistent attributes – its look and its tone.
Alien 3 is a film about loss, hopelessness, exhaustion, sacrifice and coming to grips with death. Those concepts may be muddied by the barely functional script, and they certainly dart in and out of the picture depending on which set of pages Fincher was working with on any given day. But they’re present. When you watch the movie you feel them. Fincher’s not a writer, but he can sustain a mood like a motherf*cker Those themes hit way harder than you’d expect from a film that was basically taken away from its director.
Many fans, along with James Cameron himself, were taken aback by the decision to kill off Michael Biehn’s Hicks and Carrie Henn’s Newt at the beginning of the film. But I think it’s one of Alien 3‘s smartest decisions. I can’t imagine what a mess this movie would have been if Ripley had entered it with a thriving support system. Aliens remains a superior film but its also concerned with something completely different – motherhood. The loss of Ripley’s daughter (in the director’s cut), the Alien Queen’s anguish over the loss of her eggs and the inclusion of Newt into the budding makeshift family portrayed at the end of the film all tie into that. But that’s not at all what Alien 3 is about. It has to negate those positive developments in Ripley’s life because it’s about dropping her (and the audience) back in the fray.
And the fray in this film is desolate and hopeless. One of the themes I talked about earlier is exhaustion and you can feel that in every frame of Alien 3 (perhaps helped along by the real-world exhaustion on set). Ripley is tired. She’s been f*cked with by the Alien and f*cked over by humanity one too many times. You get the feeling that she never expects her dalliance with Charles Dance’s Clemens to end in anything but tears, and the universe proves her exactly right. Even if Hicks and Newt had survived beyond the film’s opening moments, they surely would have had to go at some point. Can you imagine an entire film set on that prison planet with that family unit? I can, and it doesn’t work. And I can’t really see it working in any other context either. Many people (myself included) long to see early director Vincent Ward’s “wooden planet” take on the script, which was also smart enough to omit them.
Also, the death of Newt provides the film with one of its most powerful moments – the autopsy scene. Reports have it that the scene is vastly truncated in regard to the specificity of the procedure (and the resulting gore) – but that doesn’t matter. What matters is Ripley’s reaction. It’s one of Sigourney Weaver’s most powerful moments in these films and it’s a compelling series of shots that earns the catharsis of the film’s controversial ending.
One of the more distinct memories from my first viewing of the film was my dislike for the prison planet setting. But upon revisiting I felt it more or less worked. Surrounding Ripley with rapists and murderers not only ups the sense of isolation and danger, but it enables the film to carve out a redemptive arc for its supporting cast. Even though the proselytizing of Charles S. Dutton’s Dillon grows tiresome and heavy handed, you really feel some of these guys struggling to make make the most out of their final moments.
Sigourney Weaver’s performance is another element that helps carry the film past the shortcomings of its script. I’m not sure what the communication was like on set, but she seems perfectly in sync with Fincher’s ambition to convey the exhaustion and hopelessness of her journey. You feel the miles on her, you feel her loss and grief and you feel how much the character has changed since the events of the first film. Ripley’s been through the wringer, something a film with lesser ambition would have shaken off in favor of dropping her into kick-ass warrior mode once again. Not only has she lost everything she had before she got on the Nostromo, she’s also lost everything she earned back in those final moments on the Sulaco. She doesn’t have it in her to even try for a normal life anymore. While Alien 3 is far from the best film in series, her performance here is at least on par with her work in Aliens (if not surpassing it outright).
Also, the ending of the film is actually pretty effective. Ripley’s demise (aided by Elliot Goldenthal’s powerful final cue) along with the reprise of her Nostromo sign-off from the first film give the conclusion of Alien 3 a sense of finality. It acknowledges the journey of the first two films and attempts to compliment and comment on it (which is more than I can say for the awful Alien: Resurrection). When the credits roll, it’s hard not to feel like this is the end of something. It almost feels like the end of a trilogy.
Alien 3 is still a significant step down from the first two films, but time has been kind to it. During my revisit I considered the possibility that, as a Fincher fan, I may be biased. Perhaps I’m looking at it through the lens of someone who loves the majority of his subsequent work? It’s possible. But still, I can feel this film trying to be something different while also trying to be a worthy entry of the story it’s continuing. The ambition is commendable even if its reach often exceeds its grasp. Alien 3 is a muddled, sloppy story that somehow manages to hit most of its emotional and thematic notes with a fair amount of strength. If you haven’t seen it in a while, give it another go. You might be surprised.