If there’s one thing that is, for me, an unqualified triumph in Alien 3, it’s Elliot Goldenthal’s score. With its cacophonous drums and heart-rending strings, it soared where the film itself faltered.
But as I’ve argued many, many times on these pages, Alien 3 is itself a flawed masterpiece. Sure, it stepped roughly all over the story established in Aliens, but there were plans to kill off Newt and Hicks before first-time director David Fincher even came aboard.
Saddled with a film without an adequately finished script, an interfering studio and a looming release date, Fincher remained true to the gloomy vision laid out for him: Sigourney Weaver wanted the sequel to be her last, and so her character Ellen Ripley’s story would end here in a final confrontation with her nemesis the alien.
The result is one of the most unusual sequels ever to emerge from Hollywood: a gothic horror drama about lost loved ones, alienation, and death. The action sequences were muddled, but some of the performances were magnificent: Charles Dance lends a wonderful air of regret to his digraced physician Clemens, and Charles S. Dutton is robust and charismatic as the prison planet’s religious leader. Towering above them all was Weaver herself: this beaten-down, weary, and yet defiant incarnation of Ripley is perhaps the most rounded and empathetic of them all.
Ripley’s sacrificial dive into a burning furnace, infant alien queen clutched to her chest, seemed like a downbeat yet heroic end to her story – the alien may have chased her halfway across the universe, but she fought it to the bitter end.
Except it wasn’t the end, of course. Ripley was raised from the dead 200 years later, now a human-alien hybrid, and the resulting film, 1997’s Alien: Resurrection, was an awkward, ungainly beast. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Resurrection appeared to suffer precisely none of the calamitous problems of Alien 3’s production – but then again, it also lacked that film’s mercilessly dark bite. Perhaps it was the production’s shift in location – Resurrection was the first film in the Alien franchise to be shot outside the UK – or maybe it was because of Jeunet’s quirky sensibility, but the dank, chilly atmosphere of the previous three films was conspicuously absent.
After a splashy, violent rematch with escaped aliens aboard the USM Auriga, Ripley found herself orbiting Earth with Winona Ryder’s android by Resurrection’s end. The longsuffering heroine had almost made it home, yet the franchise itself seemed to be further adrift than ever.
The 20 years since have seen the release of two Alien vs. Predator spin-offs, and the much debated prequels Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. But for years, there was no discussion at all about continuing the resurrected Ripley’s story.
Additionally, Neill Blomkamp has attempted to make a likely now-dead Alien 5, with Sigourney Weaver reprising her role as Ripley. But Blomkamp’s movie wouldn’t have taken place after Resurrection; it would have picked up from 1986’s Aliens. Blomkamp has hinted in interviews with Sky and The Guardian that his sequel would overlook the events of the two subsequent films (although he has added a clarification to that too).
This certainly makes sense of the crowd-pleasing concept art which appeared in 2015, showing Ripley reunited with Hicks, his face still scarred from the conclusion of Aliens. It was the first hint of what Blomkamp was up to: Hicks was, after all, killed at the start of Alien 3.
It was a move welcomed by many Alien fans on the web, since it rights the course of a franchise which many felt went on the wrong trajectory with Alien 3. But at the same time, I can’t help wondering whether the decision to ignore two films’ worth of story is a little too drastic; for those of us with a box set sitting on our shelves, it means that a large percentage of the franchise was about to be rendered non-canon.
While ignoring the two sequels doesn’t erase them from cinematic history forever, it does seem a bit of a shame to give them such short shrift too. For all its flaws, Alien 3 has lots to recommend it, as outlined above. Even Alien: Resurrection, full of ill-advised comedy though it was, had some great special effects. Do we really need to turn our backs on all that collective effort just so the Alien franchise can continue?
And yet, having written all this, I can’t help but see the promise in the idea. As a matter of fact, I began writing this as a lament for the impending loss of Alien 3 and Resurrection from the Alien universe, but the more I think about it, the more I can see the wisdom in picking up from where Aliens left off.
I can imagine Alien 5 picking up several years after the events of Aliens. Ripley, Hicks and Newt have been awoken from cryosleep, perhaps due to a malfunction, but the Sulacco has drifted in unknown space for decades. Perhaps picked up by a passing vessel, the trio are drawn into a new fight with the aliens – and, of course, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation.
This scenario would certainly solve the problem of recasting Newt actress Carrie Henn: they can simply replace her with an older actress. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a 20-something Newt fighting aliens alongside her now much older adoptive parents? If this happened, future Alien sequels could even carry on with Newt as the new protagonist. (Where’s Bishop in all this? If Lance Henriksen doesn’t want to return, I guess he can just stay in cryosleep.)
Whatever Alien 5 would have brought, it didn’t necessarily even matter whether it rendered two of its predecessors non-canon or not. For those who’ve long despised Alien 3 – even more so than I dislike Alien: Resurrection, for the most part – the revision will be a new chance to conclude Ripley’s story.
For those of us who liked Alien 3 (and Resurrection), we’d always have them on our shelves, and we can continue to watch and enjoy them, flaws and all.
***A version of this article ran on Feb. 27, 2015.