Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Alien — concerning the expansive universe of a deadly species of creature known as a xenomorph. The creatures have thus far appeared four feature films, as well as two spin-off films, literature, comic books, and video games. For the purposes of this column we will be focusing on the primary Alien franchise – detailing the saga of Ellen Ripley’s involvement with the xenomorphs and the equally nefarious Weylan-Yutani corporation – and 2012’s Prometheus.
The Installment: Alien 3 (1992)
Once more we pick up with Ripley drifting through space in cryo-sleep. Unfortunately for her – and even more unfortunately for Newt, Hicks, and Bishop, who all die – it turns out that the Queen Alien laid an egg or two on their ship before getting sucked out the airlock at the end of Aliens. Some facehuggers fuck some shit up, and the ship’s computer jettisons the cryo-sleep-thingy as a safety measure. Ripley crash-lands on Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161, a foundry and former “double-Y chromo” penal colony (which means that the inmates are all men and are all extra violent), and is taken in by the residents. It soon becomes clear that Ripley isn’t alone. A xenomorph bursts from a dog, and begins slaughtering its way through the facility. Complicating matters, Ripley not only learns that she has a Queen embryo gestating inside of her, but that The Company knows this and is coming to “rescue” her.
Alien 3 deserves neither the scorn nor the praise it has received in the past. That’s a queer position for any film to be in, and it surely owes everything to the passionate Alien vs Aliens debate that Franchise Me’s comment section and forum thread have recently demonstrated is still pointlessly burning bright. If you loved Alien and hated Aliens, you may feel that Alien 3 is actually superior to Aliens, a return to form. If, conversely, you’re a diehard Aliens fan, you potentially viewed Alien 3 as an offensive step backward that completely tosses James Cameron’s continuity under the bus (by killing off Newt and Hicks before the film even begins). As with most things the truth lies somewhere in between, but these bipolar reactions do have their foundations, especially as pertains to Franchise Me. From a franchise viewpoint, Alien 3 is a success and a failure. In this sense, Alien 3 may be the most intriguing – and certainly the most divisive – installment in the series.
Alien 3 is a good film, as far as films go. Its intimate tone feels a little jarring after the adrenaline bombast of Aliens. But Aliens‘ adrenaline bombast felt similarly jarring after the quiet spook-house tone of Alien. This film is just solidifying what Aliens started, establishing that the franchise can take on any variety of flavor as long as it draws within the lines. And possibly more than the previous two films did, Alien 3 really doubles down on the emphasis of character. Their formats are very different, but all three films are ensemble pieces. Ripley is the hero, but each movie has pulled dramatics from Ripley’s position as an outsider within the ensemble, rising through conflict to leadership. Even the first film, in which Ripley was ostensibly friends and equals with her Nostromo crewmates, demonstrated that Ripley was odd woman out — Ash disobeys her direct order, and in general no one seems to listen to her, which comes to a head when Ripley must assume control of the ship after Dallas dies. Alien 3 pushes this all the way out by literally making Ripley an outsider. The film also pushes the relevance of Ripley’s gender by making her the only female cast member. So what began as a clever casting gimmick in Alien is now the driving force of the character dynamics, with the gestating Queen being the supreme pregnancy dark allegory (we even get an attempted rape scene; the nadir of male vs female interplay). And more so than the previous two films, Alien 3 is all about Ripley…
There was a lot going on in Aliens. Not that it distracted from Ripley, but there was simply a lot of movie happening to and around her. Alien 3 has very little going on. And from the moment Ripley regains consciousness she is consumed as a character by the Alien. In Aliens Ripley was still grappling with her normal life before getting sucked back into the xenomorph game. By now, dealing with the xenomorph is her life. There are no subplots. Even her romantic interest, Clemens (Charles Dance), is kept at arms length by Ripley as she Sherlocks her way around the complex trying to determine if an Alien came with her. And he’s ultimately a False Partner even more so than Hicks was. For better and for worse, Alien 3 hammers home that this isn’t the Alien franchise but the Ripley franchise. No side characters are relevant. Like Larry Talbot (the Wolf Man), Ripley is a cursed soul, forced in almost Groundhog’s Day-esque fashion to relieve the same event over and over as long as the Aliens survive. She has been converted from a reactive protagonist to a proactive one. And the only satisfying way for this sort of saga to end is with Ripley achieving total victory. After Aliens I think audiences were fully satisfied with Ripley and her new family getting back to Earth. It was a happy conclusion. But Ripley simply getting away won’t work this time. The franchise has painted itself into a corner. And that makes what is otherwise a very shocking ending – Ripley killing herself in order to destroy the Queen – feel completely appropriate. I’m frankly not sure how else it could have ended without the movie feeling like an utter toss-off. And despite the doofy special FX (is she falling into the fucking sun?), it is a great ending. Probably the best aspect of the whole film.
But a killer ending doesn’t do much for the rest of a film. Which brings me back to the ensemble. Alien 3 has a great collection of characters, with a great collection of actors — you know you have a solid cast when Pete Postlethwaite is just a random supporting goon. But the two stand-outs for me are Brian Glover (Kes, American Werewolf in London) as the prison warden, Andrews, and Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) as the troubled doctor, Clemens. Glover is one of those character actors who barely seems to be acting because he’s such a character himself, and his career was not nearly robust enough to satisfy me. He is an utter delight when on screen here, and he has one of the best unexpected deaths this side of Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea. Dance is a similar delight. Few can convey wry amusement while keeping a stone-face quite like Dance can, which has always made him an ideal villain. But it works great for this sort of damaged romantic lead too. He is an excellent counterpart to this stage of Ripley, who is herself damaged past the point of weariness. They’re just two people who don’t give a fuck… and decide to fuck each other. The only negative I can pin to Glover and Dance is that the second half of the movie suffers in their absence. The best thing I can say about the cast/characters is that I would probably watch a prequel movie about them dealing with normal non-Alien conflicts and still enjoy it. It is an interesting world, and the pervasive religious mumbo-jumbo of Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) makes it feel a bit like a monastery, which adds unique wrinkles to the prison tropes. I like how dedicated the vast majority of the inmates are to leading a purer life. The tales of how radically different the Assembly Cut of Alien 3 is are exaggerated. The Alien is born out of an ox, not a dog (which is less interesting to me, actually; people get sad when dogs die after all), but there were a lot of interpersonal scenes between the inmates that hit the cutting room floor. And since the inmates are the best element of the movie, the more scenes we get of them, the better.
In David Fincher’s hands the film looks great, both in terms of cinematography and visual flow. At this early point in his career (this was his first feature), one would expect the shot compositions to be moody and grimy, and they are. The movie looks cool. And though it lacks the kind of iconic set-pieces and moments that characterized the first two films, it still has its fair share of good bits too. Newt and Hicks both get unceremoniously dismissed from the franchise, but Bishop receives a wonderfully creepy and sad scene in which Ripley uses him to patch into their former ship’s flight data, then facilitates Bishop’s wish to be permanently powered down. I also love the scene in which 85 (Ralph Brown) very realistically refuses Ripley’s plea to prevent The Company’s ship from landing on the planet. It is a small, non-flashy moment, but it rings with needed truth. I have some less enthusiastic things to say about the Alien below, but the Alien’s birth is nice and gross and deservedly made CHUD’s list of best movie pet deaths. And the Act III set-piece – in which the remaining prisoners are running around the complex allowing the Alien to chase them so they can lure it into foundry’s molding vat – is a lot of fun.
Compared with the huge leap forward in the franchise’s mythology that we got in Aliens, Alien 3 looks timid in comparison. But we do get one rather major twist: the xenomorph uses an animal host instead of a human. It was always clear that the Alien used humanoid hosts, but until now it was debatable if a facehugger would face-hug anything. It will, which further establishes this advanced parasite as functioning within a somewhat plausible natural order (which is something that I know bothers a lot of Alien purists). Further building on this development is the added twist that the Alien’s look is in fact determined by what kind of host it had. Humans are bipedal, as have been the Aliens. Our newest Alien is a quadruped. This small detail has mammoth implications though. If a bevy of facehuggers were released in a zoo, what would we get? Bird Aliens? Dolphin Aliens? Do they need to be warm blooded? Alligator Alien? Shark Alien? This has the potential to be a major game-changer, though less for the movies themselves, which are unlikely to get so nutty, but surely for the greater franchise of spin-off novels and comic books.
What Doesn’t Work:
Alien 3 has one of those tragic “studio chasing a release date” back-stories, involving endlessly evolving concepts and re-writes, hurried design work, directors coming and going, and a general sense that no one knew what the fuck was going on. David Fincher, who took on the entirely thankless task of directing with an unfinished script and ticking-clock production schedule, has completely disowned the film and hates talking about it to this day. To his credit, he does a pretty amazing job of hiding the disastrous behind-the-scenes clusterfuck that was this film’s pre-production. But the film’s biggest failings have little to do with how well the finished product was put together. It leaves me wanting in three conceptual areas:
1) Novelty. I don’t think Alien 3 needed to follow in Aliens‘ foot-steps, in size or tone. But simply dropping Ripley into yet another cloistered scenario full of mostly men and narrow corridors makes the film feel slight right off the bat. It has that Beneath the Planet of the Apes vibe — this again? We’ve had two sequels in a row that begin with her surprise awakening from stasis. As a sequel, the film at least owes us something that feels as fresh in scope as Aliens, to allow us to experience a whole new aspect of this universe (remember how interesting it was to see the space station in Aliens?). This is an A-list franchise, not a Friday the 13th movie. Cameron made us expect more from a sequel than just seeing the Alien run around chomping holes in people’s heads. I wouldn’t say the film is redundant by any means, but it feels like a stall, which undermines the huge importance of it being the final chapter for Ripley. This should be Ripley’s Return of the Jedi.
2) Threat. Now three films in, the franchise is developing a similar problem to what we saw in the Jurassic Park series. Blue balls. Like Jurassic Park, this franchise continually presents us with a gigantic umbrella threat that far overshadows the trivial threat posed to our actual characters. Yes, it would be lousy if all our heroes died, but the real threat is allowing the Aliens to make it to civilization — so we’re told. Now, as with Jurassic Park, I don’t believe Aliens running around on Earth would result in the total annihilation of human civilization, but whatever, let’s just say that’s totally what would happen. Ripley believes it will, and that’s what matters most. Alien 3 doesn’t send us back to LV-426 again (that would have been unforgivably stupid), but it basically does. The movie’s problem isn’t that it is step backward, so much as a lateral move. Like I said, a stall. And this stimies the evolution of the Alien threat.
Before wisely jumping ship from the project, Renny Harlin had been working on a story involving the Alien home world. That is too far, in my opinion (not to mention too expensive), but it is the kind of forward movement we should have been getting. Personally, I think we should have gone to Earth. Especially given that Ripley was going to die saving us all, Jesus-style. Wouldn’t that inherently be more dramatic on Earth? Twice now the Aliens have killed almost every single human they came into contact with. So in all probability, the team The Company sent to Fury would probably be wiped out by the Alien too, or be forced to kill it to save themselves like Ripley always has been. Point being, the ticking clock of the Company rescue ship is a bit mundane. And while the idea of Ripley sacrificing herself to save humanity is great, because the threat level feels so small, it sadly makes her sacrifice feel small too. It feels less like she is saving Earth, and a lot more like she is just giving the Weyland-Yutani Corporation the middle finger. “Have fun trying to weaponize the xenomorph now, assholes!”
3) The Alien. This is the film’s true failing. The Alien just isn’t cool, and it isn’t used well. Its design is dull, when this was the moment to spice things up with our brand new quadruped Alien — oddly, it was an over-paid H.R. Giger who gave us this lazy design. The uninspired design combined with Fincher’s rushed schedule, and the fact that the film came out in 1992 (oh, hello there early computer FX), make the Alien the worst part of Alien 3. The compositing shots are dreadful, and the puppet Alien – used to achieve the creature’s new all-fours running shots – doesn’t even remotely match the guy-in-suit Alien used in the medium shots. I could have lived with all that, but worse than the visual presentation of the Alien is how the Alien is presented as a character. What exactly is the Alien’s game plan in Alien 3? Normally Aliens abduct as many victims as they can to build up their own population. This Alien just runs around killing every poor sucker who comes across it. It doesn’t abduct a single person, even when that person is completely alone. What makes this even weirder is that the Alien knows there is a Queen inside Ripley. All the more reason to cocoon some motherfuckers. If the Queen had successfully been born, she presumably would not have been very happy with this underling’s performance. “Wait, there were over 20 humans here… and you killed all of them?” Part the xenomorphs’ horrific nature was that they weren’t just going to kill you and put you out of your misery. They take you! Now it really is just a Slasher movie. This isn’t the end of the world by any means, but coming on the heels of Alien and Aliens it lacks impact and intrigue. We needed something new.
Now, for some lesser issues…
Sigourney Weaver seems a little bored here; going through the motions. And the character of Ripley also feels a little wrong to me. I know that this is the third film, and that thirteen years have past since Alien, but let’s not forget that nothing has transpired for her between Aliens and Alien 3. Yet she talks about the xenomorph like an old time-tested expert. “They’re like lions. It wants to stay close to the zebras.” Look, I get it, the film is trying to give us character expansion in lieu of story expansion, but still… just a couple days ago (for her) she really didn’t know much of anything about them, as she repeatedly pointed out to Burke in Aliens. I would have liked some uncertainty still, and general bewilderment. This is an incredible nitpick, I know, but it does tie into the larger blah presentation of the character we’re given. I do not entirely understand why Ripley was turned into a tragic character. While I think it was creatively boring to just reboot things and kill Newt and Hicks, I’m not going to pretend like I really wanted to see Newt and Hicks working together with Ripley as a super team. That part I can easily swallow. But giving Ripley so little to lose also lessens the dramatic nature of her having a Queen inside her. Yet another reason that setting the movie on Earth, or hell, close to Earth (maybe an orbiting space station), would have been great. She starts the film off at rock bottom, essentially hopeless. Then she proceeds to stay that way until killing herself.
Really the problem here is the behind-the-scenes nonsense. The script was clearly a hodgepodge of things from a wildly different original draft, and on-set attempts to patch these pieces together. It is impressive how few big holes there are, but there are a lot of little ones. Ripley’s actions often don’t make much sense as we’re accustomed to from this franchise. Why won’t she tell Clemens the truth? He asks her to tell him the truth about the xenomorph in literally every single scene they share and she literally never tells him. Why? It is pointless movie-ness and doesn’t feel like our Ripley — it is the new battle weary Ripley. And Ripley wants to die before the Queen comes out, yet Dillon is the one who stays inside the mold to make sure the Alien gets liquid metal poured on it. Why didn’t she stay? Or at least jump in to finish herself off too? Ripley, remember how Dillon was going to kill you, like you asked? Well you just let him die to save you. Obviously she needed to be around after when the molten metal fails to kill the Alien, but she didn’t know that was going to happen. What the hell was her plan at that point?
Tonally the movie is somewhere between Alien and Aliens, which at times can make it less effective. It is aiming for something closer to Alien‘s naturalistic vibe, but it still has the kind of movie dialogue Cameron gave us. This never genuinely detracts from things, but it does hold Alien 3 back. Particularly at the end, when the film should be at its finest. I love Lance Henriksen, and I particularly love him as Bishop, but the way Fincher has him (or let him) play his big scene as Bishop’s inventor is remarkable hammy and does a lot to undercut the dramatic impact of Ripley’s big goodbye.
Kills: 25, plus one dog.
Best Kill: Andrews getting yanked up into the ceiling while giving a speech to the inmates, his ubiquitous squash ball dropping and bouncing onto the floor. I also love the denouement to the scene, where an unlucky inmate is mopping up Andrews’ blood, continuously casting nervous glances up into the hole where the Alien had been.
Best Scare: When Ripley sees the silhouette of the Alien rise up behind a medical curtain while Clemens is giving her a shot.
Best Line: After Ripley attempts to make nice with him in the cafeteria.
Dillon: You don’t wanna know me, lady. I’m a murderer and rapist of women.
How ‘The Corporation’ Fucked Up: Sending Bishop’s inventor to trick Ripley. That dude is the worst liar I’ve ever seen. Lies that unconvincing are definitely deserving of the ear mutilation he suffers at the hands of 85.
Should There Be a Sequel: Well, Ripley is dead now. So the sky is the limit. Aliens are still intriguing and we’ve seen almost none of the bigger picture of this universe.
Up Next: Alien Resurrection