In 1979 Ridley Scott crafted a high concept “creature feature”, Alien, with the tagline, “In space no one can hear you scream”. This would go on to spawn a successful movie franchise. Today is #Alienday and I thought it would be great to look back on the underrated installment; Alien 3. One of the darkest and depressing summer blockbusters ever.
Alien3 had a tough act to follow, going through a legendary period of “development hell” and was a whole six years after Aliens. At the time expectations were promising “On earth, everyone can hear you scream” audiences began to imagine their own ultimate version of this movie. Alien 3 never fared well in North American but thrived in Europe where it was better appreciated. In recent years, Alien 3 has received a critical reassessment, and with good reason.
This 2003 ‘Assembly Cut’, which contains different scenes that affect the narrative, fill in blanks for the theatrical cut. From the very beginning, Alien 3 sets off on a dark note by cutting off the 20th Century Fox fanfare and picks up from the uplifting ending of Aliens. The surviving crew is unaware that an alien has been wreaking havoc aboard the ship. The emergency escape pod crash lands on a maximum-security prison planet, Fury 161. Inhabited by an all-male group of monk-like inmates. The sole human survivor is Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), but when the body count starts to rack up the inmates assume an alien came with her. Ripley must make a “last” stand with the beast.
If the Alien franchise is seen as a trilogy, Alien 3 is a fitting entry and a natural evolution of the subtexts in the narrative’s life cycle. Alien, is the birth, Aliens, is life at its peak and Alien 3 is coming to terms with death. Director David Fincher is going for that certain sense of closure. It is easy to understand why people were disappointed compared to the first two films with their hopes heightened.
A big cinematic reminder of death is a hard face-hugger-tube to swallow. My first viewing left me with a punched gut feeling. But much like the alien itself, something else was spawned by this curious underdog; my appreciation for the film. As a standalone film, Alien 3 is impressive in its own right. Here a vicious universe has stripped away all warmth and optimism leaving the film bare and beautifully tortured.
This ruined wreck of a penal facility provides another dangerously sharp and isolated environment. A sense of looming menace not only from the beast but from the population adding a new level of peril for Ripley to navigate through with no real glimmer of optimism on the horizon. Even “Help” on its way is another adversary bearing down on the characters in the form of the company Weyland-Yutani, who want the alien for military applications at-all-costs.
“When they first heard about this thing, it was crew expendable. The next time they sent in marines; they were expendable too. What makes you think they’re gonna care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass-end of space? You really think they’re going to let you interfere with their plans for this thing? They think we’re crud, and they don’t give a fuck about one friend of yours that’s died. Not one.”–Ripley
Artist H. R. Giger’s sleek, sexy, biomechanical beast is still the best – still dangerous and frightening, blending completely with the hellish setting. But it is a huge shame that we couldn’t see Giger’s original Alien3 design on the screen. Pushing the alien design into a different and new direction.
“In his mind was a kind of puma, or a… a beast like that, that was difficult, when finally I did it, it came out like a lion something, and that was not exactly that what he wanted. He wanted to have a… an erotic alien also, so I made my… erm… lips and a chin, with this part, you can make a… an erotic lady. You don’t need more than that, this part.” – H. R. Giger (The Making Of Alien 3, xeno-erotic)
The problems with Alien3 are at the script level, although it was heavily edited from the original script, written by Vincent Ward, who created a concept for a wooden planet inhabited by monks. Ripley would crash-land on the planet bringing the alien with her. As usual, the studio got cold feet about the weird concept and took Ward off the project with sets already being built. Producers Walter Hill and David Giler took over writing duties, melding aspects of the Ward script with a prison planet screenplay by David Twohy to create the basis of the final film but shooting started without a finished script. It’s both amazing and crazy that they pulled it off at all.
The canonical logic set up in the first two films, and is very important to fans, made plot holes such as a violation that hurt the overall picture. A few drops of acid blood cause a whole ship to malfunction? When did the alien queen lay an egg in the Sulaco at the end of Aliens? If a face hugger dies after one impregnation, how did it manage to lay his seed twice? It was a queen face hugger in the original version and it could lay two. But this is the problem, no time is given to figure out the ideas in the screenplay.
The core character of the film is Ripley (Weaver); this is truly her film. With few exceptions, the focus is solely on her and dealing with her mortality. Ripley knows this “demon” will always follow her until her final days and that in order for the nightmare to end, she must kill it. Sigourney Weaver gives her best turn as Ripley with a great sense of confidence and understanding of how to convey character’s emotions. Weaver is a great actress, who is not afraid to take risks, and it shows in this role.
Charles Dutton (Dillon) delivers an amazing performance with a strong presence and identity. He is the leader of the group and adds a level of character to the whole dark piece. He delivers some epic and awesome speeches; “Quick easy and painless!”
“We’re all gonna die, the only question is when. This is as good a place as any to take your first steps to heaven. The only question is how you check out. Do you wanna go on your feet? Or on your fucking knees, begging? I ain’t much for begging! Nobody ever gave me nothin! So I say fuck that thing! Let’s fight it!”
First-time director David Fincher does a superb job considering the issues he had to deal with battling on-the-fly rewrites and interference from the studio. The whole experience was a nightmare for Fincher and although such a failure could cut down a lesser director, he would bounce back with the dark nightmare, SEVEN, and a style that would earn him acclaim. Fincher paints with a gloomy palette of rust-orange in the color scheme to completely realize the landscape of the forsaken planet. Gorgeous with used futuristic sets and designs give Alien 3 an apocalyptic gothic tone that pushes the pessimism of his narrative.
Fincher’s background was in high profile music videos, using an array of techniques including image superimpositions, effective fades, slow motion and close-ups, which set a visual style that he would carry with him. His technical skills are imposing and firmly wedded to his bleak tale.
A strong point of Alien 3 is the underrated experimental music. Elliot Goldenthal, working closely with Fincher, crafted an atmospheric score that is organic to the dark rusted world the characters navigate. Fincher seems to really want to upset viewers with this film (actually all of his films) and he succeeds.
Closing thoughts on Alien 3
Alien 3 is a truly profound, sinister tale, underrated and unfairly loathed; it takes risks and does not play it safe by any means. Which is a strong point, It’s daring and uncompromising in its somber and unwelcoming approach. The Assembly Cut improved things a lot but Alien 3 was always going to be judged against the first two films. The film spectator is left to make the ultimate decision on good or bad. If you’re looking for feel-good navigate elsewhere gentle viewer. Alien 3 is about mortality, bold and haunting, and leaves you with an emotional aftertaste. The aura is depressing and in no way a crowd-pleaser. However, with Weaver’s strong, captivating performance alongside the sharp, dark direction all blended with the deep, thought-provoking, grim and nihilistic atmosphere are great! It’s a fantastically clunky and inspired installment to an amazing franchise. I love it!