Even when a sequel fails expectations, you expect it to at least be penitent about it. You don’t consider that the transgression might be on purpose, that somewhere behind the curtain there’s a child laughing about pulling the wings off the series’ story and making dumb ol’ grownups barf at the test screening.
What else could these screenwriters be, when you consider how Aliens ended – the four adventurers like a patchwork family sewn together by adversity, in those fairytale cryo-tubes on their way home? Then observe a scene from the work-print of Alien 3, in which the ten-year-old “Newt,” now a pale replica on an operating table, has her breastplate sawed open, the doctor pulling apart flexible ribs and prodding foam organs suspended in pig guts. When the pressure mechanism kicked in – making the cavity spurt blood in Ripley’s face – can’t you just imagine the look of wicked cruelty as whoever responsible for that idea watched nice people flee the screening, sobbing?
But I think we can now look at Alien 3, as at any trauma, and ask not how it hurt, but what it taught us.
If David Fincher is part of the directorial genome, he seems like a bad apple after this film, his very first. But maybe he added something to franchise moviemaking even as he debased it, as Napoleon and Attila might have increased the future’s IQ level by siring so many children. In an age where “sequel” and “remake” have been crossbred into one perfect corporate organism called “reboot,” I can look back at a risk-taker with some amount of comfort, even if there’s no pleasure in his work.
Fincher refused to stoop to the series’ laurels and re-engineer the template of past successes. And in other circumstances he would have been praised for it – Alien 3 is no more aesthetically incompatible to its predecessor than the drastic tonal shifts that occurred in The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, or, if you’ll recall, Aliens. Indiana’s especially was a turn towards discomfiting sadism, disinheriting an adventurous hero tale of its Americana and introducing its innocent spirit to cannibalism and child slavery and torture. Empire made Star Wars guilty to be itself.
Fincher was not wrong because he took risks, or accepted a job as director of a film in which this was a necessity – he was wrong to take them for seemingly no greater reason than to put a spider in your collar. Maybe he felt like he had one too, and wanted to share the feeling.
I’m aware that Alien 3 had a troubled development and a schizophrenic screenwriting cycle, all documented to any reasonable human’s satisfaction on Wikipedia. I'm aware that Fincher boarded a sinking ship, a film over-budget before he arrived, and one that he has since denounced entirely ("No one hates it more than me," he said in 2009). But Fincher took the job. If the result had been miraculous, he would have reaped the credit as a directorial miracle worker. Blame is now the price of that possibility.
The first thing that strikes me about Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien 3 is that her character isn’t the same. It gets so bad that I suspect, though I do not know, that she was supposed to be another character at some point. Despite losing her lover and surrogate daughter from the previous film, her anguish doesn’t last longer than the film’s introduction of the new problem. The Ripley I know would have been haunted for the film’s entirety in dreams and sweat-matted hair and clenched snarls of guilty regret. Just losing her crew in the first film prompted her in the second one to brave the monster that took them, just so the nightmares might stop. Here, she actually has sex with the prison doctor (Charles Dance) after he autopsies her baby girl, grinning like a discount prostitute about the good job she did. What would Newt think?
The story here is that an alien hitchhiked on their escape pod from Aliens. They crash into a penal colony where the beast gestates in a dog (or a cow in the Special Edition). This slightly alters the physical appearance of the alien, shortening its head and changing its gait to a quadrupedal prowl, but those differences don’t affect the kind of script that already has its motives in mind (it makes for some nice new cast resin statuettes though). Note that the performance of the creature is a work of puppeteering magic, even if the actual compositing of the photography leaves it hanging (Tom Woodruff is beneath the alien here, whose work rarely finishes a film undefiled -- see his work on the unused practical effects for the 2011 The Thing for reference).
One initial problem here with the series' consistency is writing justifications for the alien’s mortality in film after film. The alien isn't invincible: Bill Paxton reminded us in Aliens that it's susceptible to bullets and sharp knives and pointed sticks. In the first film, its corrosive blood made it impossible to kill on a delicate ship under pressure (you can’t have a firefight on a submarine). The second film compensated for being on a planet by putting everyone in dark hallways outnumbered by the things. Here, the explanation for why they can’t just shoot it is that there are no weapons at a prison so far from the government, a prospect Ripley has trouble swallowing. But you’d think there would be something that could be rigged together, or weapons from Ripley’s ship (a military vessel) that could have been salvaged. All you really need is a pointed stick.
It just seems suspiciously like they thought writing this excuse would automatically make it so. I had this problem with Jurassic Park, where their vulnerability is all circumstantial – let’s see life find a way around a tank and a stealth bombing. It’s a casualty of the genre. Jurassic World thinks itself so much more advanced, but the conversational excuse-making that eliminates plot-threatening cell phone communication reminds me quite a bit of the one in Alien 3 where Ripley asks the prison warden (Brian Glover) why there are no guns in this plot.
It’s hard to describe how Alien 3 is shot without saying how it feels. It feels dank. Like the lens is sitting in half an inch of urine. The shots are often well-composed, as that relates to the subjects in the frame, but the texture of the film is gooey and off-putting. Awkward shots from the point of view of the alien only re-enunciate how forced the reality of outrunning the thing really is. Isn’t every chase at this point just an illusion for the sake of the movie? When left to its devices this alien clops down the hall at a blistering pace, made even more flurried by some matting troubles in post-production. Could all these British stock actors emptied from some backlot pub really get away as well as they do? It reminds me of Matthew Broderick outrunning Godzilla in a taxicab.
Being able to tell the victims apart is a staple of the series, and that may be the worst transgression in Alien 3, where the supporting cast members of The Good Neighbors drop like identical shaved-headed flies. The deep themes of faith and sacrifice, enunciated in monologues by the prison deacon (Charles S. Dutton), only cheapen the experience by announcing how inadequate the drama is, by also requiring it to be meaningful (Aliens did not do this better – it just didn’t try). They call the alien "The Dragon" and pray for survival with monkish penitence: a leftover from the superior first draft of the film, which took place on a wooden monastery planet that befitted its spiritual pretensions. This aspect reminds me most of The Matrix sequels, which are worse and yet not so reviled, perhaps for being more sincere about their abuses.
Whatever the case, I’d actually rather watch Fincher’s Alien 3 than most sequels, particularly those that take the events of their predecessors as sacrament. But I'd like to see it before Fox Studios interfered with it, as they continue to do with projects deemed too startling (see the Fant4stic debacle for the latest incarnation). Had it been more grossly sadistic it might have worked as a cruel novelty. What’s left when Fox took a boring, gory movie and made it more acceptable to those with sensitive stomachs? That’s the only hint I’ll give you.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Vincent Ward (story)
Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett (characters)
|Ellen Ripley||Sigourney Weaver|
|Dillon||Charles S. Dutton|
|Jonathan Clemens||Charles Dance|
|Harold Andrews||Brian Glover|
|Bishop II||Lance Henriksen|