On the 30th anniversary of the release of Alien 3, it seems like a good time to look at the film’s role in the Alien trilogy. Except calling it a trilogy is pretty controversial. Even now, debate still rages over a simple question: Which Alien films count?
It’s a surprisingly controversial subject among fans. Eight licensed feature films form the franchise, and there are some areas of common consensus. For instance, it is unlikely anyone is going to storm the comments if we say we can disregard the Alien vs. Predator movies for reasons of them being bad.
An area of less certainty is the Prometheus/Alien: Covenant duology. Directed by Alien’s Ridley Scott, you would think these had a cast-iron claim on canon-hood, and yet disregarding the films’ problems, they don’t feel like they are interested in the things that a proper Alien story is interested in. These are stories about faith, about the relationship between God and Man, Man and Robots. Even Prometheus’ score feels better suited to Star Trek than the claustrophobic Alien universe. They also take the terror and wonder of the space jockey’s vast mystery in Alien and reduce them to bald white guys who hate humanity. Meanwhile the Alien itself (I will not call it a xenomorph) turns out to have been engineered by an angry Earth robot.
Alien: Resurrection is murkier still. I’ve always thought this film works better if you ignore it as an Alien movie and instead view it as Joss Whedon’s rough prototype for Firefly. Although on rewatching, it also is a rough prototype for some of his grosser recurring themes, which don’t feel exactly in keeping with the ethos of Ripley’s epic tale of survival.
So while your mileage may vary, no fan could be blamed for disregarding those films from their head-canon. Which leaves us with three movies. Alien, Aliens, and Alien 3.
Except even then there are plenty of fans who are willing to say, “Wow. Aliens was such a good sequel. Shame they never made any more.” One of those people is even Sigourney Weaver, who was reportedly enthusiastic about Neill Blomkamp’s cancelled sequel that would have retconned Alien 3 out of existence.
Indeed, if you want to create your own Alien canon, you can just as easily replace the David Fincher-directed Alien 3 with Alien III, either in audiobook or full-cast audio drama form, which adapts the earlier William Gibson-penned script for the movie, which was set on a giant wooden monastery in space.
To be sure, the actual Alien 3 had a troubled production, and at the end of the day even Fincher has said, “I had to work on it for two years, got fired off it three times, and I had to fight for every single thing. No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.”
The film certainly has missteps. A lot of people didn’t like the non-Ripley survivors of Aliens being killed off-screen, and the number of times people seem to manage to outrun the Alien is a bit ridiculous.
But while there are plenty of knives out for Alien 3, the film itself should stand honorably beside its two predecessors. It even manages to provide a satisfying end to the Alien saga, turning the three films into a unified trilogy.
An Anthology Trilogy or a A Trilogy Anthology?
The reason why assembling a Definitive List of Alien movies is so hard is that Alien is definitely not the work of a single creator. There is no George Lucas or Gene Rodenberry of the Alien-verse. The story has been pieced together Consequences-style over many years and many creators, each with their own interests.
James Cameron’s genius idea with Aliens was to not try and remake Alien but to throw hundreds of Aliens at the screen against trained-yet-out-of-their-depth soldiers, resulting in a story that was completely different from its predecessor while clearly sharing its DNA.
Alien 3 reacted against that again, giving us once more only one, smaller Alien, surrounded by people totally ill-equipped to deal with it.
It is thus possible to interpret the Alien franchise, not as a single story with a consistent universe and in-depth world-building, but as an anthology that shares a single thematic strand.
That strand is: You are a shit-eating blue-collar pleb. You work for The Company. The Company has deliberately put you in harm’s way for some Capitalism. Through cleverness and desperate sheer luck, you may just survive the Harm’s Way, but if you do you will still get fucked by the Capitalism.
It is a format that all four of the original Alien movies fit more or less, as does the video game Alien: Isolation, which is part of my head-canon. So is, incidentally, Duncan Jones’ Moon, Blade Runner, and Deepwater Horizon.
But Alien 3 does this while successfully bringing together the previous two films to form an actual trilogy, a single, overarching saga of the battle between Ripley, the Alien, and the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. Viewed together, each of the Alien films shows us how capitalism—here manifested in Weyland-Yutani—objectifies, uses up, and disregards human lives in the workplace, the military, and the prison industrial complex. Alien 3’s rancid yellow color palette also contrasts nicely with the deep blues of Aliens, or the bleached whites of Alien.
And while Alien 3 returns to the barebones of the Alien concept, it is far more than just a remake of the original, and the reason for that is Ripley.
Ripley (Believe it or Not)
Dan Harmon of Community and Rick & Morty fame has argued that all stories that fit into an eight-part cycle. A character is in a comfort zone but they want something, so they step out of their comfort zone, they get what they want, at a cost, and then return to where they started, but they are changed.
Alien 3 very much hits the “return to where they started, but they are changed” point in the cycle. Yes, we’ve got no weapons, and we’re only fighting one alien who keeps bursting out of air vents to kill people, again, but this Ripley is a very different person from the Warrant Officer of the UNSCC Nostromo in Alien. Also, tellingly for a story like this, “changed” doesn’t simply mean “becomes more of a badass.”
The big difference in Ripley here is that she is no longer willing to play Cassandra. She has spent her whole story warning people of dangers only to be ignored, overruled, gaslit, and usually have at least one person try to kill her. This time around Ripley makes only a half-hearted effort to warn the prison warden about what he’s facing before everything goes to hell.
Tragically, for the first time, she meets someone ready to trust her from the outset, Charles Dance’s Clemens, who without knowing the first thing about Ripley takes her concerns seriously and shows himself ready to listen, only to have his head ripped off by the Alien before she can tell him the truth.
This is particularly raw as one of the big criticisms of Alien 3 is that it undermined Aliens’ ending by killing off Newt, Hicks, and Bishop off-screen between movies. As a consequence, Alien 3 has to deliver Ripley a satisfying ending because, by this point, she is completely maxed out on trauma. It’s telling that afterward, Alien: Resurrection reintroduces us not to Ripley but her Alien-hybrid clone, and that rather than being a resourceful, competent every-person viewpoint character she is now a superhero who is feared by the rest of the characters.
But this is also the film where, like all good trilogy climaxes, the hero and the villain finally have a proper face-off, because this is the film where Ripley realizes who her enemy is.
From the very beginning, Ripley has always had a healthy distrust for her employer, but even in Aliens she still believes that Weyland-Yutani is trying to capture and control an Alien specimen because they don’t know how dangerous it is. Alien 3 is when she realizes they don’t care.
As she says near the climax of the film, “When they first heard about this thing, it was ‘crew expendable.’ The next time they sent in marines—they were expendable too. What makes you think they’re gonna care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass-end of space? You really think they’re gonna let you interfere with their plans for this thing?”
At the same time, Weyland-Yutani seems to notice Ripley for the first time, if only as a vessel for the Alien growing inside her.
The climactic battle of the film, of the trilogy as a whole, is not the (by Alien standards) pretty routine plan to drown the monster in molten lead.
It is the moment when the man with Bishop’s face (we never really learn who he is) offers Ripley the life she has been denied, the possibility of killing the Alien off forever, of escape, and Ripley responds by hurling herself, and the nascent Alien Queen inside her, into the molten lead. Ripley, the ultimate Final Girl, the one who always survives, finally wins by taking the Alien Queen with her and denying The Company its prize.
But Who Is the Real Monster? (It’s the Monster, Idiot)
And yet, despite traumatizing its hero as much as a person can be traumatized, then killing her after killing all of her friends, and the villains of the piece walking with no greater defeat than “they don’t get an acid-blooded killing machine today,” Alien 3 is also strangely optimistic.
In the horror genre, it is a common, if justified cliché that “the real monster… is man!” If you’re in a zombie apocalypse, the biggest danger isn’t the rotting cannibals outside, it’s the guy you’re locked in a mall with who has a scary look in his eye. The Alien trilogy itself is no stranger to the trope either. Weyland-Yutani doesn’t count as human; it’s a faceless corporation owned and run by people who have less in common with Ripley than the Alien does.
But Aliens has Burke and the famous “You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage” line.
In Alien 3, however, Ripley finds herself surrounded by some monstrous humans. “A murderer and a rapist of women” as one of the nicer ones describes himself (to which Ripley responds with “Well, I guess I must make you nervous,” which Sigourney Weaver delivers completely ice cold). There is even a disturbing scene where a gang of prisoners attempt to rape Ripley. We are left in no doubt that, their professions of faith aside, these are not good people.
But once the Alien shows up, all of that is put to one side. Faced with a threat on that scale, even the worst humans will band together and help each other. It is an oddly hopeful message to end the trilogy on.
The Worthiest Alien Ending
Alien 3 still went on to have its own legacy. Without its “Dog Alien,” the idea that the Alien took on the qualities of its host would never have caught on, depriving us of the Operation: Aliens aborted kid’s cartoon and its gorilla alien, bull alien, killer crab alien, and snake alien action figure spin-offs. For many millennials this was their first encounter with the franchise, rendering the uniform hordes of Aliens a bit of a disappointment.
But while Alien 3 may not have had the plaudits of Alien or Aliens (although personally I’ll forever argue that one Alien will always be more scary than a hundred Aliens), it is a noble addition to the franchise that understands and respects what Alien is ultimately about, and more than that, it manages to bring all three films together into a single saga, elevating the entire trilogy.