David Fincher’s first film was nearly his last. In the early part of 1991, Fincher was better known as a director of commercials and muisc videos, a 29-year-old filmmaker who’d cut his teeth working as a special effects cameraman on Return of the Jedi before making promos for Nike and Madonna. By the time Fincher signed up for Alien 3, the production was already in disarray. The script had gone through draft after draft as screenwriters and directors came and went; before filming had begun, Alien 3 had already hired and lost directors Renny Harlin and Vincent Ward, and writers Eric Red and William Gibson.
Fincher therefore inherited the mother of all poisoned chalices. Here was the chance to direct his own Alien movie - the 1979 original had long been one of Fincher’s favorites - but with the pressure of meeting a deadline Fox had set months earlier for the following spring of 1992. When Fincher signed on, huge sets had already been constructed at the UK’s Shepperton Studios, all based on a now obsolete draft of the script. When filming commenced in January 1991, the pages were still being rewritten with scenes crafted so they could take place in the set-pieces that had already been built.
By this point, Alien 3’s producers were distinctly nervous. Millions had already been spent, the film’s release date was looming, and here was Fincher, a first-time director caught in the middle of it all. Men in suits were standing on the sidelines while filming went on, arms folded. Faxes were coming in with script changes on an almost daily basis. But if the bosses at Fox thought they had a suggestible director who’d do as he was told, they were sorely mistaken; Fincher clashed repeatedly with producers, insisting on using his own ideas and pushing back against demands to speed up his rate of filming or drop scenes entirely.
After a long and miserable winter’s filming, however, Fincher had walked away from the movie, as Fox demanded a barrage of reshoots following a screening of Alien 3‘s rough cut. Exhausted and frustrated by the experience, Fincher almost left the film industry altogether, and didn’t return until he made Seven for New Line in 1995 - a hit thriller which finally gave him the directorial control denied him during the making of Alien 3.
The theatrical version of Alien 3, released in 1992, contained numerous changes that were forced on Fincher during its chaotic shoot, with several lengthy sequences either cut out or reshot. A later version of the movie, dubbed the Assembly Cut, was released on DVD, and attempts to bring the movie closer to Fincher’s original ideas. The scars of a torturous process are still evident even here, but it’s worth comparing the two cuts to see how significantly the movie changed in the editing room.
The theatrical cut
At a single stroke, Alien 3 cruelly - and controversially - reverses the happy ending Aliens left behind. Ripley’s surrogate family, which felt like fate’s reward for surviving a second encounter with the deadly Starbeast, is killed before the opening credits have finished rolling.
Ripley finds herself on another desolate planet; Fiorina ‘Fury’ 141, a penal colony where its inmates have found God on the other side of the galaxy. With Newt and Hicks dead, and Bishop a mangled wreck, Ripley’s now the alien in a huge prison complex populated entirely by men. Ripley tries to piece together why the Sulaco malfunctioned, ditching her and the rest of the last film’s survivors on a strange planet, and soon concludes that a stowaway alien must be responsible - and worse, that it’s sneaking around in the prison complex too.
So begins another stalk-and-slash horror along the lines of Ridley Scott’s Alien, with Ripley facing off against a lone Starbeast with few weapons to speak of other than a handful of flares and a fire axe. The atmosphere is downbeat and gothic, the pace - compared to the relentless Aliens - measured and brooding. Fincher’s aim is, clearly, to bring a sense of menace to the franchise’s monster again, while at the same time casting Ripley in a different light: as a weary, aging warrior whose nemesis has pursued her halfway across space. Wherever she goes, the alien seems to be a step or two behind her: inhabiting her dreams, hiding in her midst, and, finally, secreting itself inside her.
Inevitably, perhaps, Fincher was only partly successful; at the very least, he’s succeeded in making something more intelligent and layered than your average horror sequel. But Alien 3 is also a muddle, both in its pacing and in its set-pieces - particularly the protracted final third, where it’s seldomly clear who’s standing where in relation to whom. The Assembly Cut does, however, add several scenes which restore some of the clarity to Fincher’s vision, as well as giving some characters - who were almost reduced to cameos in the theatrical cut - more to do.
The theatrical cut greatly condenses Alien 3’s first act, presumably so that the story can get to the monster action more quickly. In terms of scene-setting, this means we lost some really effective shots: exteriors of the prison colony, and a captivatingly strange sequence where Ripley’s unconscious body is found washed up on the beach. The sequence also sets up the planet’s aggressive-looking lice - the explanation for Ripley’s hair being shaved off - which is something only fleetingly referenced in the original cut.
The beach scene is a great moment, and one that must have been horrendous to film - we can only imagine what Sigourney Weaver must have thought when she realised it was excised from the final cut. (In the theatrical version, Ripley’s unconscious body is simply found in the salvaged escape pod.)
The Birth of the Beast
The deleted scenes above also establish that the prisoners have livestock on the colony - a foreshadowing of the alien’s host as presented in Fincher’s original edit. In the Assembly Cut, the alien bursts out of an ox; in the theatrical cut, the host is a dog - a pet belonging to one of the inmates. Several shots were also inserted into the opening few minutes where the dog is shown peering into the escape pod and a facehugger scuttling around nearby.
It’s another sign of trouble behind the scenes, the story goes that the effects shot’s for the alien’s birth were shot first, and a real ox was brought in later for certain additional shots with the facehugger. When the ox refused to do as it was told, the decision was made to switch the host to a dog - requiring a considerable number of new sequences to be filmed. The theatrical version also introduces a glaringly weak line, almost delivered direct to the camera: “What kind of animal would do this to a dog…?”
The Mysterious Golic
In the theatrical cut, Paul McGann has what amounts to a handful of scenes as the psychopathic inmate, Golic. In the original edit, McGann had far more to do; at one stage, Ripley and Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) come up with a plan to capture the alien in a secure room designed to house toxic waste - a gambit which ultimately succeeds. Golic, who’s convinced that the alien is some sort of superior being, foolishly lets the beast back out again - and winds up as another of its many victims.
The alien’s capture and escape remained in Alan Dean Foster’s novelization, but was left out of the theatrical edit - presumably because the film’s producers thought that the inmates’ ill-fated gambit didn’t add much to the plot other than bump up its length. The unfortunate side-effect was that McGann’s character disappears from the movie without explanation; some viewers might have assumed that Golic died with a bunch of other prisoners during the muddled final showdown, where it’s difficult to know exactly who’s running around or being slaughtered in the flurry of quick cuts and fast pans. It was only when the Assembly Cut emerged that Golic’s true fate became clear.
As originally planned, Ripley’s fall into a furnace of molten lead wasn’t accompanied by the chestburster erupting from her torso. This was a further detail added in the extensive reshoots which took place in Hollywood through late 1991 and into ’92; indeed, the filming was so extensive that a special bald cap was created for Sigourney Weaver, since her shaved hair had long since begun to grow back.
Like so many other enforced changes to the movie, the addition of the chestburster fails to add much more than a final burst of gore; if anything, it distracts from Ripley’s otherwise dignified moment of self-sacrifice. The Assembly Cut removes the chestburster again, though the glaringly rushed fire effect in the background still remains.
Other moments of Character Building
Aside from the major changes already outlined, the theatrical cut also removed numerous dialogue scenes which went a long way to help audiences distinguish between all the shaven-headed inmates. There are brief sequences in which Golic’s sanity and suspect personal hygiene are discussed, for example, while Charles S. Dutton has lots more to say as Dillon. All told, the Assembly Cut runs a shade over 30 minutes longer than the theatrical version, which provides some indication as to just how much extensively Alien 3’s character moments were chopped down.
Even in its re-edited Assembly Cut, Alien 3 is far from a perfect film. For one thing, it can’t reverse some of the weird decisions made during filming; one example being the drastic changes made to Ralph Brown’s character, Aaron. Aaron was originally written as a much smarter character, and one of the few who survives to the end of the movie; to Brown’s horror, the part was rewritten as an intellectually-challenged guy who dies horribly. Brown lobbied to have the character restored to the one he’d agreed to play; the writers’ response was to give Aaron the nickname 85 – the character’s IQ. Brown’s recollections of the paranoia and in-fighting on Alien 3’s shoot, which you can find on his website, are essential reading.
Compared to the messy, curtailed theatrical release, the Assembly Cut of Alien 3 is undoubtedly the better one: a clearer expression of Fincher’s original intentions, and a more coherent rendering of a script that was flawed to begin with. Some of the criticisms rightly levelled at the movie still apply; having Hicks and Newt killed so unceremoniously feels less than satisfying, and undercuts the sense of hope they brought to Aliens’ conclusion. But then again, any sequel to Aliens - short of a complete reboot - would have felt extraneous somehow, like an extra chapter appended to a fairytale which already neatly ended with the words, “happily ever after.”
Nevertheless, Fincher’s talent as a filmmaker is still evident in Alien 3. Nobody at Fox, it seemed, could quite agree what they wanted Alien 3 to be: a straight sci-fi slasher, or something more nuanced and intelligent. Fincher shot for the latter wherever he could, crafting a movie about a lonely heroine searching for meaning when all hope appears to have vanished.