The Film: Alien³ (special edition)

The Principals: Director: David Fincher. Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dance, Charles S. Dutton, Paul McGann, Brian Glover, the corpse of Carrie Henn.

The Premise: In space, no one can hear you scream, again. After two run-ins with a terrifying species of alien, space officer Lt. Ellen Ripley’s escape shuttle crash lands on the planet Fury 161, a penal colony inhabited by religiously converted convicts. The sole human survivor of the crash, Ripley soon learns that she has brought an unwanted passenger with her, namely one of the xenomorphic aliens she has gone through lengthy trials to destroy. The prison planet of male convicts are ill-equipped to deal with such a creature, and to make matters worse, Ripley discovers that she may have one of the creatures gestating inside of her. Word of this reaches the evil space corporation that has been trying to harvest the aliens as a bio-weapon, and it becomes a race against time for Ripley and the convicts to trap and kill the creature that is on the loose, and to destroy the horrifying monster growing within her.

Is It Good: If you put a gun to my head and asked me if Alien 3 was a good movie, I’d have to say no. On the whole and considering its franchise pedigree, Alien 3 is a disappointment and too full of glaring flaws to qualify it as good. But I would offer a caveat that taken on its own, Alien 3 has merit, and if viewed in the form of the superior “special edition” or “director’s cut” or whatever, a lot of the glaring flaws of the theatrical release are remedied. The film does have its defenders (for some weird reason British people seem to like this sequel over the inarguably superior Aliens), and first time director David Fincher would go on to prove himself as a force to be reckoned with in modern cinema. But none of that can change the fact that this film was a rushed, undercooked yet over handled mess from the get-go, and the finished product reflects that in a deeply flawed effort.

But let’s talk about merit.  I tend to be a minority on this one, but I like the basic story and set-up of Alien 3. By killing off the surviving supporting cast of the previous film (including the surrogate daughter, which is really ballsy for a tentpole sequel) the slate is wiped clean and Ripley is put into a real position of pathos. This woman has nothing to lose. Another film of Ripley trying to save Newt from aliens would have been a drag, and plus, they would have had to recast because the original actress had gone through puberty at that point.  And Hicks wouldn’t have served much use either. The only reason to have them in this story would be to please the fans, which is never a good reason to do anything. They didn’t need to be here so they were wisely jettisoned. Not only that, but a grisly autopsy is performed on Newt’s corpse, which I find enormously satisfying. This immediately establishes an uncompromising tone for the film which serves to let you know that no one is safe.

Sigourney Weaver is at the top of her game here, and though this isn’t the badass mama performance she was so lauded for in Aliens, she never hits a single false note. Shaved of her curls, Weaver is all tight-lipped anguish; this woman has been through hell, is at the end of her rope, and you can see it in Weaver’s bloodshot eyes. I would argue that it’s her most layered performance in the entire series, and what she is asked to do here in terms of character is meaty and interesting. The rest of the cast are primarily British thespians and they all rise to the challenge, particularly Dance as the haunted prison doctor and if you watch the extended cut, Paul McGann as the unhinged and fanatical Golick. McGann’s character does not get his due in the theatrical cut, and I felt that excising his storyline was a real detriment to the film on release. Golick represents the dark side of the inmates’ fanaticism and has a major role to play in the plot, which makes it all the more puzzling that it was cut. It also gives the film a nice, slow-burn pacing that is more in line with the original Alien, which I think is what Fincher was intending. The theatrical cut has that rushed, uncomfortable pacing that you always get from a movie that has been butchered in the editing room. I think for this reason alone, the extended version is clearly superior.

There are changes in the extended cut, like the alien being birthed from an ox, that are largely superficial, and it’s not to say that all of the film’s problems are solved. The creature itself is still an issue. Alien 3 was made in that awkward time when CGI was just coming into prominence but hadn’t been mastered enough to render convincing creature effects. Because the creature in this film was a quadruped, there were shots that required it to be seen running and climbing walls on all fours, and the effects team came up with a solution that unfortunately doesn’t look good. They used a rod puppet that is comped into shots, and the result is a creature that doesn’t look like it is in the same space as the characters. The lighting is off slightly and the matting is rough; it just looks awkward. To make matters worse, in close-up shots the creature is clearly a man in a suit, which works fine but you can tell it’s not a quadruped and it doesn’t match.  Time has not been kind to the puppet effect, and to the untrained modern eye it probably just looks like crummy computer graphics. This could be overlooked as charming if we were talking about a B movie creature feature, but Alien 3 is a big franchise film, and the monster in this one is a poor showing when compared to the clever and sparingly seen creature in the first film, and the mind-blowingly cool alien queen from the second. It’s a flaw that is really hard to get around.

Another problem the film can’t overcome is that there is a real monotony to the design. Fury 161 is a grimy industrial maze, and it’s really hard to discern a sense of geography to the sets. Adding to the problem is the fact that the cast is uniformly shaved bald, which while sensical to the story, serves to make them largely indistinguishable, especially when it comes to the pasty Brits.  It’s really difficult to keep track of who is who on first viewing. It’s too bad because everyone’s bringing their a-game in the acting department.  The film also has very little levity to offer, and this coupled with the oppressive palate makes for a depressing viewing experience. It’s hard to feel any sense of elation coming out of Alien 3. This would be fine if it worked gangbusters as a horror film, but unfortunately it doesn’t. Alien 3 can’t conjure up any fear or dread better than Ridley Scott’s masterful original, so ultimately Fincher’s film is left feeling redundant. If it can’t scare or excite you more than the previous outings, what use is it? Other than what it chooses for Ripley’s fate in the end, this sequel is mostly an exercise in been there, done that. To add insult to injury, the climax of the film is remarkably similar to the climax of Terminator 2, which beat this film to cinemas by a year and was a huge success that was seen by pretty much everyone. So yeah, redundant.

But there’s no point in revisiting flawed films to reaffirm what you didn’t like about them, and if you are a fan of the Alien franchise and you’d like to revisit this film, I think you’ll find some stuff to enjoy, especially in the extended cut. It’s important to note that I watched the recent Blu Ray release, and not only does the transfer look great, but they cleaned up the previously unfinished sound mix of the DVD release. You would swear you were watching a fully completed director’s cut from 1992. They even got actors back to loop dialogue. It’s a  really great cut of the film and in my opinion should be considered the definitive version of Alien 3. So while I don’t think that it is a great or perhaps even good film, I do recommend that you watch the extended cut on Blu Ray and decide for yourself. Throw this one on the pile for your David Fincher film fest as you gear up for his version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,  or as you eagerly await Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Prometheus.

Random Anecdotes:  The film was original conceived as a wooden planet occupied by space monks! I would have liked to have seen them pull that crazy idea off.

Cinematic Soulmates: Alien, Aliens, Alien Resurrection, Alien vs. Predator, all of the other movies inspired by the original Alien. Not Alien vs. Predator Requiem though. That film has no soulmates, cinematic or otherwise.