Ridley Scott’s Alien was a masterpiece of sci-fi horror, and James Cameron’s Aliens was a landmark action movie. Together, the films formed a cohesive, satisfying whole that worked as a beginning, middle and end to heroine Ripley’s story.
That was the upshot of our previous retrospective, and I think it’s a summary that most would agree with, at least in part. But with 1992’s Alien 3, we’re in more divisive territory. Some find merit in David Fincher’s compromised debut feature, while others have decried it as a pale imitation of the two films that came before it.
I personally fall into the former camp, and I’ve written about my admiration for Alien 3 before. It’s a flawed movie, but considering the chaos that went on behind the scenes, from its earliest planning stages to shooting and beyond, this comes as little surprise.
It’s arguable that Alien 3 had no particular reason to exist. Aliens had taken the story of both Sigourney Weaver’s heroine and her nemesis to their logical conclusion, where Alien provided the set-up and Aliens worked as a violently cathartic pay-off.
Turning in a script that followed on from James Cameron’s would have been a thankless task for even the most talented writer, and several well-known names made the attempt. The most notable treatment was William Gibson’s, which turned Giger’s prowling monsters into an airborne, Ebola-like disease that emanated from the remains of Bishop’s torso.
Scripts from Eric Red and David Twohy followed which, like Gibson’s, were rapidly binned. Then along came New Zealand writer director Vincent Ward, whose concept was like an alien-infested reworking of his 1988 film, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey.
In it, Ripley landed on a vast monastery in space, a Death Star-like planetoid filled with space monks, windmills, cathedrals and wheat fields. It was an odd, esoteric concept which, while full of imagination, would have been almost impossible to realise with the technology available in the early 90s.
The shooting script that ultimately surfaced, courtesy of Walter Hill and David Giler, was an amalgam of numerous drafts that came before it, and had Ripley crash-landing on a prison planet full of male convicts.
Attempting to pull the mood of the series back to Scott’s original, Alien 3‘s setting is a gothic, crumbling prison full of ducts and long shadows, and the pace of the film is ponderous and brooding.
Crash-landing on the planet, Ripley awakens to find that Newt and Hicks have been killed in the process, and she finds herself alone and unprotected in a colony full of violent prisoners.
The guns, wisecracks and triumphant tone of Aliens are all gone, and the mood of Alien 3 is one of blackness and despair. Ripley is like a warrior weary from battle.
It’s this element of Alien 3 that David Fincher, making his debut here, gets absolutely right. The howling winds of Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161 and the palpable sense of muck and grime are inescapable, and realised in occasionally beautiful sequences, most notably at Newt and Hicks’ impromptu funeral.
The quality of Alien 3‘s cast is also top-notch, and Sigourney Weaver puts in some of her best work in this film. Her grief at the loss of Newt and her resignation when she learns that an alien is once again in her midst are perfectly judged.
Charles Dance is excellent as the disgraced physician Clemens, delivering his lines with a terse pithiness that provides the film with a few of its occasional lighter moments, and Charles S Dutton is similarly charismatic as the colony’s spiritual leader.
Sadly, the rest of the film’s characters fail to evoke the same sympathy. Most are either dislikeable (Brian Glover’s sneering warden Andrews) or simply anonymous. Veteran British actor Pete Postlethwaite is barely given anything to do and, like the rest of the cast, is little more than sushi for the titular monster.
Which brings me to one of the film’s biggest drawbacks: the alien itself. Hatching from either a bull or a dog, depending on whether you watch the theatrical or ‘assembly’ cut, its movements and habits have become too predictable to recreate the sense of menace the first film invoked, and the mixture of puppet and computer effects used in its execution are all too easy to spot.
A climactic sequence, in which Ripley and the surviving inmates attempt to trap and drown the creature in molten lead, is more confusing than tense, and is perhaps a symbol of the muddled thinking that lays behind the film’s production.
Alien 3 feels like a much smaller, more intimate film than Aliens. Its environment is more claustrophobic, its locations limited , and yet, Cameron’s movie had a far smaller budget of around $18.5 million. By contrast, Alien 3 cost a staggering $50 million, 10 percent of which was reportedly spent on Sigourney Weaver’s salary.
Despite Alien 3‘s many deficiencies, the film is filled with occasional moments of brilliance, and its decision to end on such a gloomy note is a brave one. What could have been a mere cash-in is transformed into something far more complex and unusual. Fated to be stalked forever by her nemesis, Ripley chooses to take her own life rather than allow the alien festering inside her to fall into the hands of the ubiquitous Weyland-Yutani.
Regardless of the path the creators of Alien 3 went down, a story that focused on Hicks, as was initially suggested, or the doom-laden journey’s end ultimately chosen, the result would never have pleased everybody.
Like Ripley herself, Alien 3 was doomed from the outset. David Fincher reportedly hates the film, and refused to have any part in the revised edition that appeared in 2003.
Yet, despite the chaos of its production, its revolving door of directors, concepts and scripts, Alien 3 remains a fascinating film, filled with atmosphere and unforgettable images, and some of the finest acting of any in the trilogy.
While not a masterpiece like Alien, or a landmark of action like Aliens, Alien 3 is, for this writer, a dramatic, unforgettable postscript for one of sci-fi cinema’s most fascinating characters.
The Alien Anthology Blu-ray is out now. Tomorrow, we look back at Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection.