Why Alien 3 deserves a second chance

After the colossal success of Aliens, David Fincher’s Alien 3 was considered a terrible disappointment. Here’s why it deserves a second look…

Alien 3

The production woes of Alien 3 are well documented. Its script was written and rewritten. A potentially fascinating draft was turned in by cyberpunk godfather William Gibson, only for it to be thrown in the bin.

Eric Red, the writer behind horror classics The Hitcher and Near Dark (a brilliant vampire movie directed by Kathryn “Hurt Locker” Bigelow) wrote a script of his own. This too was thrown out. Scripts were written which excluded the character of Ripley, before the president of 20th Century Fox insisted she be reinstated.

With time running out before filming was due to commence, producers Walter Hill and David Giler cobbled together a shooting script of their own, taking elements of the earlier drafts and melding them into something like a workable whole.

Into this environment stepped rookie director David Fincher, whose previous work had amounted to flashy, stylish music videos for artists such as Madonna (he was responsible for the toe-curling Vogue video) and George Michael. Aged just 27, he had the unenviable task of following the spectacular form of Alien and Aliens.

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In many ways, Fincher failed. Alien 3 lacks the steadily rising fear of Alien, and the relentless action of Aliens, and it would be wrong to suggest that Alien 3 is in the league of those movies. But neither is it the disaster that many have claimed. Rather than attempting to ape the visual style or themes of Ridley Scott or James Cameron, Fincher bravely forged ahead and made a movie that stands on its own both visually and thematically.

Following on directly from the events of Aliens, Alien 3 opens with the crippled Sulaco crashing on the storm-swept planet Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161, a godforsaken rock which doubles as a penal colony for a handful of monk-like male inmates.

Awakening from hibernation, a weary-looking Ripley discovers that both Hicks, the tough space marine who provided the love interest in the previous movie, and surrogate daughter Newt have both been killed in the crash. Worse still, there are signs that an alien stowaway may have been responsible for the ship’s catastrophic malfunction.

Compared to its predecessors, Alien 3 is sometimes predictable and lacking in genuine scares. Its attempt to take the franchise back to the more low key shocks of Ridley Scott’s Alien seldom come to life as they should. Nevertheless, what Fincher did achieve in Alien 3 shouldn’t be underestimated.

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The ruthless decision to kill off the characters closest to Ripley was a brave one, and Weaver’s acting has never been better than in this film. Her grief and sadness are palpable and moving, her sense of resignation, when she learns that her body is a host for her worst enemy, beautifully judged.

In fact, the acting is uniformly excellent throughout, with an entire gallery of excellent UK character actors filling in as the Alien’s lunch: Charles Dance appears as disgraced physician Clemens, Brian Glover is Andrews, the sceptical prison warden, ably supported by Ralph Brown and Paul McGann, who last appeared together in Withnail & I.

It would have been easy for Fincher and the rest of the production team to simply churn out another gung-ho Aliens to keep that film’s legion of fans happy. Instead, they chose a far murkier path, and confounded audience expectations with what amounts to a Greek tragedy in space.

Shorn of her hair and cut off from the relationships she formed in Aliens, Ripley is a character fated to struggle against her toothsome nemesis to the bitter end.

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Fincher’s direction lacks the requisite shocks for an Alien movie, but there’s no denying the desolate beauty it nevertheless contains. Fiorina is a planet of howling winds and decay, its prison an entity even more imposing than the skinny, lightning-fast Alien itself.

Plagued by production difficulties from its earliest conception, it’s understandable why the picture failed to make much money at the box office. After the macho, triumphant action of Aliens, Alien 3 came as an unpleasant surprise.

Nevertheless, Alien 3 deserves a second look. Its bleak, fatalistic tone and occasionally startling visuals make it one of the most daring and unusual sequels in Hollywood history.