Alien 3’s Perfect Shot

Divisive among fans though it is, David Fincher's 1992 sequel Alien 3 contains the most powerful shots in the whole franchise, Ryan writes.

Producers didn’t want to make it. Many fans were outraged by it. To this day, David Fincher won’t talk about it. Released in 1992, Alien 3 was a violent and some would say disappointing contrast to James Cameron’s triumphant, Reagan-era Aliens.

Where Aliens formed the near-perfect chapter to Alien, reintroducing Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley as an emotionally wounded survivor who faces down her inner demons, Alien 3 served as a mercilessly downbeat coda. The treasures that Ripley managed to snatch away from the loathsome aliens at the end of the 1986 sequel – a surrogate daughter in Newt, a faithful partner in Hicks – were eliminated during Alien 3‘s opening credits. Ripley the triumphant victor was recast as a lonely warrior at the end of her journey.

Alien 3‘s tortuous path to the screen is so well documented that it doesn’t need rehashing in detail here: the revolving door of writers and directors. The frenzied construction of sets in an effort to meet a pre-defined release date. The repeated and self-defeating clashes between Fincher – then a rookie director aged just 29 – and studio bosses who sought to control him. It’s sufficient to say that the production seemed doomed to struggle from the very beginning.

The resulting film simply couldn’t hide the scars of its troubled conception, yet Alien 3 is, for this writer, a flawed yet magnetic movie. Leaving aside the controversial decision to kill off Newt and Hicks, it’s visually and aurally stunning, with Elliott Goldenthal’s eclectic, eerie score underlining Fincher’s relentless march of nightmare images. Alien 3 isn’t scary, but its chilly tone gets under your skin; of all the films that followed Alien – including Ridley Scott’s own PrometheusAlien 3 comes the closest to recreating the sense of cosmic horror found in the 1979 original.

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Alien 3 also recaptures the gothic sensibility lurking in Scott’s franchise opener. Just as the Nostromo in Alien was as much a metal cathedral as a space-going industrial building, so the setting of Alien 3 has a distinctly medieval feel, carried over from a concept left behind by director Vincent Ward. Having survived the events of Aliens, Ripley wakes up on Fiorina “Fury” 161, a miserable, gale-blasted planet inhabited solely by a group of male prisoners. 

Once a thriving foundry, Fury’s furnaces have long since shut down, and even its status as a prison seems slightly confused; the inmates are allowed to roam seemingly as they please, and on the far reaches of space, have managed to find God. Ripley’s arrival throws the whole place out of balance, as the sudden presence of a woman tests the inmates faith; worse still, Ripley’s escape pod has brought with it another visitor with acid for blood.

For much of the first hour, Ripley remains unaware of the alien’s presence in the prison’s gloomy corridors, until the place is beset by a series of unexplainable deaths. Hard-headed warden Andrews (Brian Glover) ignores Ripley’s growing suspicions that a creature may have stowed away with her, and is more concerned with the “ripples” her alien presence is having among his inmates.

Everything changes in one key scene – one that not only kicks Alien 3s story into gear, but also contains one of the most iconic shots in the entire franchise.

In it, Ripley’s listening to the heartfelt confession of the prison’s medic, Clemens (Charles Dance). It’s a poignant moment, since we learn that, like Ripley, Clemens has suffered his own history of sadness and regret. Yet we’re given little time to digest the spark of compassion – Clemens is just about to give Ripley an injection when a shadow appears in the background. A pair of dark, clawed hands grab Clements; jaws open; blood gushes from a head wound.

As Clemens’ lifeless body crumples to the floor, Ripley cowers in horror against an infirmary wall. The alien, now in full view, rears up and approaches Ripley, its elongated head glistening.

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We then cut to this shot: 

It’s a moment that was used repeatedly in Alien 3s advertising, not least in the film’s main trailer. It isn’t difficult to see why, either: the image of the alien’s dripping maw nuzzling up to Ripley’s shaven head is an indelible one.

The power of it is such that it immediately papers over the problems with the effects in the preceding shot; Alien 3s production seems to have been so fraught that its makers couldn’t quite get the miniature rod puppet alien to match up to the full-sized one, a distraction which is evident both here and elsewhere in the film.

As composed by cinematographer Alex Thomson (who replaced Jordan Cronenweth after just two weeks), this simple yet incredibly effective shot is full of drama and mystery. We know from the earlier Alien films that it’s a brutal and efficient killer, so why does it hesitate when it approaches Ripley? The creature’s extendable jaws, so often an instrument of death in the past, here seem to be trying to sniff something out. But what? 

The shot marks the moment where everything changes for Ripley. As the body of Clemens is dragged off like a side of beef by the retreating alien, Ripley tries in vain to alert Andrews and the rest of the inmates of the beast’s presence. Even as Ripley stumbles away from the encounter, a realization must be forming in her mind; the alien didn’t killer her because it sensed something unusual – something alien.

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The underlying theme in Alien 3 is that Ripley is almost as unwelcome an anomaly in the story as the starbeast itself. On a planet full of dangerous men, Ripley herself is an alien. Then there’s the other beast within: the alien queen hiding inside Ripley. After multiple encounters with the alien, Ripley’s found herself in a struggle she can no longer escape.

Alien 3 is therefore a film of opposites: male and female, faith and sin, human and alien. Nowhere is this duality better summed up than in that perfect shot above, the screen divided almost precisely in two by the hissing, drooling alien on one side and the pale, quaking face of Ripley on the other. Ridley Scott’s Alien was about the incursion and expulsion of something loathsome from the depths of space. Aliens was about meeting old demons head on and, through defeating them, emerging as a stronger, more complete person. 

Alien 3 sees Ripley’s nightmares come home to roost. It offers up a gloomy yet interesting question: what kind of comfort can be found in the face of certain death? The spectre that has stalked Ripley across the universe finally has her cornered in this third film; at first, she’s fearful and overcome by grief. As the movie goes on, the warrior within resurfaces, and she resolves to defeat the alien and sacrifice herself rather than allow the heartless Weyland Yutani corporation to get hold of its pet subject. In the end, Ripley is rewarded with a different kind of victory; she dies with the knowledge that her nemesis has finally been defeated.

For those affronted by the story choices made by Alien 3s writers, none of this will hold much comfort. Yet for those willing to look beneath the surface, Alien 3 bears the hallmarks of a great filmmaker only just coming into his own. Boldly crafted and superbly acted, Alien 3 has moments of raw, unforgettable power – not least that classic shot of Ripley coming face to face with one of the most terrifying monsters in cinema.