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Alien 3 (1992)

Critical opinion regarding the first two Alien movies is fairly unilateral; the first is considered a masterpiece of science-fiction horror, the second is seen by many as one of cinema’s strongest sequels. When it comes to Alien 3 however, opinions get a little more divisive. The film, directed by then unknown filmmaker David Fincher, came out in 1992 to near universal critical panning. Critics thought it was a mess, audiences were either bored or depressed by it, and fans of the franchise absolutely hated it. Alien 3 suffered from one of the most turbulent productions in film history, and the results show on screen – this was the point where the studio began to meddle, where the creative people lost creative control, and where the Alien series started to stagnate. However, time has been favourable on the third Alien movie, for a number of reasons. The 2003 Assembly Cut went a considerable way to restoring Fincher’s original movie, and audiences these days are kinder to the film than they were in 1992. It isn’t the perfect movie and has its fair share of problems, but looking back on Alien 3 two decades later reveals a complex and dark affair with a surprising amount to offer. Despite the mess that was its production and views of the time, Alien 3 has aged better than it had any right to, and remains a fascinating moment within the canon.alien9The plot picks up immediately after Aliens, with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the rest of the Sulaco survivors evacuated from their ship during cryosleep. The escape pod crashes on prison planet Fury 161, killing everyone but Ripley, who finds herself in a hostile environment surrounded by murderers and rapists. Things get worse still when Ripley learns why she was evacuated – there was an alien on board, and it’s followed her. For the last time, a now world weary Ripley takes on the alien threat she now knows so well.alien2Unlike the first two movies, there was no real creative drive to produce Alien 3; the decision to make it came from the studio, who understandably, wanted to run with the money-maker they’d found in Aliens. The franchise was lucrative and needed continuing. Unfortunately, the studio had no idea where to take the third movie, and the film was a mess even in pre-production stages. Initial scripts focused on making a two parter, Alien 3 and 4, the first of which would feature Hicks and Bishop on Earth battling the sinister Weyland Yutani Corportation, leading directly into the fourth movie, which would feature Ripley fighting giant xenomorphs on the alien homeworld. This was arguably the direction fans wanted, a continuation of Aliens in the same action movie style, but realistically, such ideas were perhaps too big for the screen in the early 90s. Sigourney Weaver, feeling Ripley would become self-parody if they made a third movie (waking up to aliens…again) was hard to get on board, and so scripts were written both with and without the Ripley character. There was some out-there ideas, including a script William Gibson which had the alien infect people via gas spores; people would go through ‘the change’ randomly and aliens would burst fully-grown through their flesh. An odd idea, it at least tried to keep the alien creature fresh, despite blatantly stealing from John Carpenter’s The Thing. Further scripts involved a farm bio-dome with aliens merging with a whole host of animals and machinery. A teaser trailer for the movie hinted that 3 would be set on Earth, which goes some way to explain why expectations were so high.alien6A later script involved sending Ripley to a prison, whilst the most interesting idea came from Vincent Ward, who envisioned Ripley landing on a small wooden planet occupied by monks. Ward’s ideas, discussed at length in the Alien Quadrilogy boxset, would have pushed the series into a striking new visual direction, but sadly, the studio wanted to retain the industrial theme from the first two movies, and so Ward’s script was merged with the prison idea and Alien 3 as we know it was born. Problems however continued into production. The script was unfinished when filming began but sets had already been built, meaning the new story had to bend to incorporate what had already been designed. Fincher had 20th Century Fox on his back for the entire production process, who took the movie from him in post and chopped it up into in the theatrical cut, which was released to poor reviews and Fincher’s disdain. The director washed his hands of the feature, and refused to participate in the Alien Quadrilogy boxset, but a solid Assembly Cut was put together using 30 minutes of Fincher’s footage; the official view is that this version is closer to Fincher’s vision, and it now stands as the definite cut; the one to watch, and the one reviewed in this post.alien3Aliens ended with a feel good family vibe. Alien 3 opens by destroying said vibe. This goes some way to explaining why audiences were so put off by the movie; this is a nasty and bleak film, dark and hopeless and not exactly fun to watch, it does a complete 180 on Aliens and veers off into a grim new direction. Even the first movie had elements of beauty and exploration which countered the horror on display. In Alien 3, you get the sense that there’s nothing left. In an operatic opening sequence, the film brutally and unceremoniously kills off Hicks, Newt and Bishop, a move which enraged the fans at the time who were expecting the family to go off on alien-hunting adventures. But killing the Aliens characters off serves an important thematic purpose and works within the context; it’s not, as some fans thought at the time, a gratuitous ‘fuck you’ to James Cameron. The deaths show that Alien 3 is not going to be an easy film, and that the audience, like Ripley, won’t always get the happy ending they deserve. It’s one of the boldest moves in the series, and it works, playing into the movie’s themes of death, abandonment and hopelessness; the audience and Ripley are aligned again by being stripped of their comforts.alien5If the first movie is an allegory on sexuality and birth, and the second on motherhood and family, then the third focuses on death and loss. This is the end of the road. From the opening frames, there’s a hopelessness to Alien 3 and it quickly becomes clear that noone is getting out alive, not even Ripley herself. The rescue ship which provides the movie’s ticking clock is actually only interested in the alien, and there are no guns to kill the beast before they arrive anyway. Fincher’s bleak cinematography, the rolling, dripping sets and lice covering everything add to the bitter, dirty effect; Alien 3 is meant to make you feel wretched – not to unnerve like Alien, or thrill like Aliens, this one is meant to make you feel worn-down, broken and abused. The movie mirrors Ripley’s plight. As cinema, it’s powerful, though of course, not too fun to watch, but were the Alien movies ever about having fun? 3 takes a dark series to its inevitable conclusion, and goes out of its way to reject what the audience wants. Say what you want about 3, it feels final – one of the few trilogy caps to really close things. The final shot, with voice over from Ripley’s Nostromo flight recording, is haunting.alien7Sigourney Weaver gives her best performance in the series here, and arguably, the best performance of her career. This is Ripley at the end of her rope, a world-weary, battered, broken woman, aware of the inevitability of her death and the hopelessness of her situation. She’s lost everyone she’s ever loved because of this monster. However, despite that, and despite the terrible choices displayed here (which are seriously grim – let the alien kill us, let the company have the alien, let the company kill us, let the alien inside kill us, or kill ourselves instead) Ripley doesn’t lose her fighting spirit. It’s the end yes, but she’s not going down without taking the alien with her, and the grim sacrifice she makes at the movie’s climax illustrates a level of depth we’ve never seen; she dies for humanity. It’s the most powerful moment in the franchise. Ripley is tougher than ever here – with a shaved head and vest combo, the character is at her most memorable and iconic here, and her most masculine. But she retains her humanity, particularly during Newt’s autopsy and funeral, and the moment she tells the Company ‘no’ and makes her choice to jump. The character is taken to her complete logical conclusion here, and watching Ripley’s development across the entire series is perhaps the Alien franchise’s strongest feature.alien8Instead of letting the series fall into self-parody, as happened with Alien: Resurrection, the approach here is to align Ripley and the alien and provide a sense of grim inevitability between the two, almost a symbiosis. We’re not quite talking Batman and the Joker here, but by this point, Ripley knows the alien, she expects the alien, and by impregnating her with its Queen, the movie provides a plot-device to keep the alien from attacking her, which reinforces the metaphorical connection between the two. The scene in which Ripley goes off hunting it alone – ‘Youve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else’ – basically sums up Ripley’s character at this point and her relationship to the monster. There’s a doomed unity between the two, which goes some way to explaining why these movies wouldn’t work without Ripley.alien4As for the monster itself, it’s a little different here. Born from an animal (ox or dog, depending on your cut) it scampers on all fours, and seems somewhat stupider and more primal. The creature is shown a little bit too much, though by this point, we’ve perhaps gone too far for that to matter, though some of the effects work is dreadful. For the first time, we get shots from its POV as it chases characters down the corridors. Fincher does restore a bit of the creature’s menace and on the whole, Alien 3 is much closer to the first movie than the 2nd; it’s a slow burn, even slower than the first perhaps, with lots of long scenes of characters being picked off by an unseen menace. Some of these scenes are good, though when compared to Brett’s death in the original, which is what these scenes are aiming for, they all fall a bit flat. The movie, at times, has more in common with slashers and the kill sequences lack the art of the first movie, though contain considerably more gore. Generally, problems with the movie come from its odd pacing, length, and abundance of dull stalk scenes. Some sequences with the monster however, such as when it finds Ripley in the infirmary, are incredible and stand as iconic moments within the series. alien1Where Alien 3 falls down is the majority of its cast and characters. Ripley and Weaver are incredible, and Charles Dance gives a likeable and understated performance as the prison’s doctor Clemens. He’s given a fascinating backstory and remains the most developed character outside of Ripley, for whom he provides an element of happiness, though of course, the movie’s point is that things will go wrong – Clemens’ death has the most pathos in the movie. Charles S. Dutton is great too, starting out as antagonist, he becomes an ally mid-way through, delivering some nice speeches and displaying a nice, contradicting relationship between his men, Ripley, and religion. He does a lot with a character which in lesser hands, would have fallen flat. Lance Henriksen is a little brushed by as broken Bishop (though strangely chilling and ominous) but his performance as real-Bishop in the climax is a nice audience psyche and reinforces the disorientating nature of who to trust. Paul McCann’s Golic isn’t bad either – his story with the ‘dragon’ is interesting and he has some nice mad moments, which play into the futility of survival explored here; essentially, when if they do trap the beast, some madman will always let it back out.alien3The rest of the cast however play fairly interchangeable characters and this is where the movie really falls down. Whilst no-one is bad as such, it can be hard to tell who anyone is, especially with the shaved heads. The problem is that during the stalk-and-kill scenes, we simply don’t care about anyone, which is where the film fails in comparison to the first, which took time to develop everyone on board the Nostromo. Some of their dialogue is atrocious too, and they can be irritating at times. The religious elements provide a nice balance as to why they don’t attack Ripley (at least, why not more so) though these seem to be an odd hangover from the Ward monk script. Where the prisoners do work however, is by forcing Ripley into a male orientated world. This has always been the case across the series, but never as overt as here, with Ripley amongst rapists and murderers and men who haven’t seen a woman in years. It provides interesting tension, and reinforces the strength in Ripley when she takes charge.alien33Alien 3 is the smallest and most personal of the Alien films, a sad little swan song to end the series on. So why has a movie which was once universally hated aged so well? Alien 3, and sacrilegious as this is to say, has actually aged better than Cameron’s Aliens, though it remains a far cry from the first film, it does make for an interesting thematic tie-up to the series. There’s a few reasons why Alien 3 feels stronger now. The strength of the Assembly Cut goes some way to restoring Fincher’s vision. Fincher himself, has gone on to become one of cinema’s boldest and most innovative directors (Seven, Fight Club, The Social Network) and his style is more understood now; the bleakness doesn’t feel as jarring. On that note, in the modern age of darker, post 9/11, post The Dark Knight blockbusters, the bleak tone is a lot easier to take. This, combined with the fact that these days, all expectations for the series are gone, alongside the fact that the series got much, much worse from this point out – Alien: Resurrection was awful, and the Alien Vs Predator films worse still – all of which means that Alien 3 has been re-valued.alien333It’s not perfect, and isn’t for everyone, it’s a worthy final movie in the franchise, and caps off a wonderful trilogy. Alien 3 is certainly worth a second look. A sad, elegant and tragic final movie, it brings the series to a logical conclusion.


Eventually, I’ll get around to doing Alien: Resurrection, though it pains me to watch it again…


9 thoughts on “Alien 3 (1992)

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  4. I just saw the 2nd one for the first time, I do want to give this a shot despite the negative reviews. I think it’s interesting what they’ve done with Ripley’s character and I want to see Weaver’s performance in this.

    • It’s reputation makes it seem worse – it’s not perfect, but does provide a kind of sad closure and Weaver’s at her best here. Try and see the Assembly Cut if you can, it’s much more balanced!

      (the fourth is the one worth skipping!)

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