Alien 3 (United States, 1992)February 21, 2018
Way to go Fox. Way to kill off a franchise where the first two installments were among the best around. Sadly, as bad as Alien 3 is – and it’s really bad – it’s only the beginning of a process. Few films that began with episodes as great as Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens have sunk as low as Alien vs. Predator and its misbegotten sequel. But the slide began with Alien 3. Perhaps “slide” is too gentle a word. “Complete collapse” might be more accurate.
It all started with a lie. Or perhaps bait & switch would be more apt. “In 1979, we discovered in space no one can hear you scream. In 1992, we will discover, on Earth, EVERYONE can hear you scream.” If you’re younger than 35, you probably don’t remember that teaser. If you’re older and especially if you’re an Alien fan, you most definitely do. Coming off Alien and Aliens, there seemed to be only two directions the franchise could go to maintain its momentum: take the story to the Aliens’ home planet or bring the action to Earth. The 1991 teaser seemed to confirm the latter yet, when the film arrived, Earth was nowhere to be found. Instead of advancing the story, Alien 3 regressed and, by failing to fulfill the promise of the teaser, it betrayed the legions of fans awaiting the next chapter.
If only that was the lone problem with Alien 3… It’s not. The change in story direction was a hint of the behind-the-scenes chaos and upheaval that occurred during the years following Cameron’s decision not to be involved in a second sequel. Scripts were commissioned and discarded. Directors were approached. In the end, David Fincher was hired less because of his pedigree (he was a respected music video director but had no feature film experience) than because the producers were desperate. Over the years, Fincher has tried to distance himself as much as possible from the movie, which was marred by infighting and interference. It’s rumored that at one point he investigated the viability of using the Alan Smithee pseudonym. Years after the film underperformed theatrically, Fox released a “special edition” (also referred to as the “Assembly Cut”) that was supposed to hew closer to Fincher’s original intentions. The director declined to be involved, however, saying that his vision had been hopelessly compromised and the footage didn’t exist to restore it. It’s possible to argue that the Assembly Cut is better than the Theatrical Cut, but that’s debatable. It’s less confusing, to be sure, and some of the secondary character arcs are slightly better fleshed out. However, it’s also longer and more of this film can’t be considered to be a good thing. It’s a little like slathering icing on a cake that’s already rancid, moldy, and rotting.
Alien 3 opens with a flaw so fundamental that nothing it could ever do would be able to repair the damage. Killing off Newt and Hicks during the opening credits not only cripples the character of Ripley going forward but it undercuts the entire emotional arc of Aliens. James Cameron, on watching Alien 3, declared that this decision was a “slap in the face” to fans of the previous film. Alan Dean Foster, the writer of the adaptation (who tried to find a way to save Newt until he was told by the producers that he wasn’t allowed to take that much license), declared it to be “an obscenity.” For the viewer, being forced to endure these sudden, meaningless deaths of beloved characters at the outset becomes a major distraction. We have to grieve and that period of grief forces us to detach from the story. (This is why Spock died at the end of Star Trek II rather than near the beginning, as had originally been proposed.) By the time we’re once again engaged in what’s happening in Alien 3, we’re greeted with the news that Ripley has a queen inside her and is going to die.
The movie begins with Ripley (once again played by Sigourney Weaver) crash-landing on a remote prison planet. Her three companions – Hicks, Newt, and Bishop – arrive there in worse condition. Hicks died in a fire. Newt drowned in her capsule. And the already-damaged Bishop was torn to pieces. As we later learn, Ripley isn’t as unharmed as she appears – in transit, a face-hugger latched onto her and impregnated her with a queen embryo.
The planet is a mining colony manned by convicts. There are two officers in charge – the loud-mouthed, belligerent Andrews (Brian Glover) and the meek Aaron (Ralph Brown). The doctor who cares for Ripley, Clemens (Charles Dance), seems the most “normal” of the bunch but he hides a supposedly dark backstory (which, when revealed, isn’t all that shocking). The only other member of the large ensemble cast to make an impression is Charles S. Dutton as a preacher who walks softly and carries a big stick. And sticks are about the only available weapons since, this being a prison planet, there are no guns. That makes for a bad situation when another face-hugger uses a local animal as its breeder and – pop – there’s an alien problem.
Alien 3 fails to move the franchise forward. The line of progression from Alien to Aliens generated expectations of something epic in Alien 3 – expectations that weren’t met. Instead, the filmmakers opted to backpedal. Discounting the queen embryo inside Ripley, there’s only one creature in the film – an odd animal/alien hybrid with a slightly different body type than what we saw in the other two films. The basic story, with the alien hunting down and killing off convicts, is a second-rate copy of what Ridley Scott did in Alien. Fincher delivers atmosphere aplenty but little in the way of tension. The characters are mostly undeveloped, thereby rendering their deaths slasher film-irrelevant. One of the few that attains a semblance of multi-dimensionality, Clemens, is strangely among the first to die. That’s only one of many miscalculations in a film defined by them.