Although Ridley Scott’s pioneering horror/science fiction masterpiece Alien and James Cameron’s high octane popcorn flick sequel Aliens come nearly a decade apart, the well deserved success these films received set an unusually high bar. Creating a sequel that could follow up to Alien’s slow creeping and well crafted terror seemed damn near impossible, but when Cameron took Scott’s ideas and put his own action packed spin on this one of a kind sci-fi thriller, we saw probably the best thing that could have happened to this series take place. By making Aliens unique and different (both stylistically and plot-wise) in its own right, Cameron allowed Aliens to transcend the barriers of absolute finesse that Alien firmly set in place because of its otherness. Most importantly, Aliens’ success set the precedent and created the possibility for this sequel to become part of an exciting trilogy, promising the potential for a new direction and story that would further explore the treacherous xenomorph species’ space havoc.
Alien 3 comes in 1992 and has an infamously difficult production story. After numerous script rewrites, director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) left the project and was replaced by a very green David Fincher (Seven, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) who started the shoot without a finished script on hand. Alien 3 turned out to be a nightmare far worse than anything that the alien creature was capable of. Its notable that Alien 3 is remembered by most as the morosely entertaining David Fincher’s first feature film, a film that Fincher walked from during post-production. The doomed production shook Fincher back to making music videos before daring to sit in the movie directors chair again some years later with Seven.
Still, Alien 3 is undeniably Fincher in all of its visual appeal – a neat fact which only years of age could give us enough distance to appreciate. Through a montage that looks like it could be part of a Madonna music video, Alien 3’s opening titles quickly explain the fates of Corporal Hicks, android Bishop, Ripley, and young Newt, who we left drifting back to Earth in hypersleep at the end of Aliens. But with an introduction like this, the onset of Alien 3 already poses a very big threat to its individual success: the opening to this film is remarkably unremarkable, as the past Alien films have placed us at fascinating starting points to their tales of the terrors of space. Alien shows us Ripley and crew being mysteriously woken up from hypersleep to answer an ominous and blatantly inhuman warning beacon, Aliens has us finding Ripley awoken only to find out she has been adrift for 57 years, but Alien 3’s opening sequence leaves much less to the imagination. Instead we are shown these happenings in a slap dash fashion. What’s this? Someone on the Sulaco has been infected by an alien facehugger? A life boat has been deployed? Ripley washes up on the rough sands of an unidentified planet? The fast and less than typically intelligent Fincher opening of Alien 3 makes us say “Oh, what a shame,” instead of the “oh damn!” that understanding this information could potentially elicit.
With an opening and back story that is so straightforward, Alien 3 sets a uncharacteristically low standard for its viewers who have become well acquainted (and I guess privileged) with prior Alien films that caused jaws to hang to the floor and left us slobbering to find out why, when, and where exactly we have been set. From a strictly plot oriented sense, the introduction to Alien 3 is quite flawed, however where cinematic interests are chiefly concerned the opening sequence to Alien 3 is absolutely breathtaking. Once the Sulaco lifeboat is jettisoned into space, Fincher means to take the last remnants of the hard to forget Aliens mission and send these pieces into the unknown, and visually speaking Alien 3 does a formidable job at doing just this. The imagery of the lifeboat’s fall to this mysterious planet, later known as Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161, appears as if something precious falling from the heavens, a really awe-inspiring and suitably biblical imagining. And this feeling is intensified when the barely alive Ripley washes up on the shores covered in oil, only to be picked up and quickly brought into a large and unexplained industrial facility. During this scene, when facility doctor Clemens (Charles Dance) carries Ripley into the foundry, I remember turning up the volume on my speakers several times until I finally realized that as the Ripley’s rescuers carry out a purposefully inaudible conversation. It’s here that Alien 3 sets it boldest, yet unfortunately only, foundation: this film is concerned with a sense of unspoken spiritualism, and the opening sequence sets Ripley’s ethereal fall to Fiorina as if part of a transcendental experience.
As for Ripley’s savoir like qualities? Well, when we learn that Ripley has crash landed on the shores of an all male penal colony housing child molesters, rapists, and men with ‘double-Y’ chromosome patterns, Ripley’s being a female positions her further as something of a messiah. Fincher’s sacred undertones are innovative, smart, and well in line with the series’ penchant for ingenuity. However, Alien 3 has quite a bit of trouble supporting its pacing. Even the interesting and equally demented characters Ripley meets in the colony such as spiritual leader Dillon (Charles. S. Dutton) and creepy yet helpful facility doctor Clemens can’t adequately propel this story which after quite a while appears to be going nowhere.
If there is anything that Alien 3 can really be praised for, it is undoubtedly its expansion and exploration of Ripley’s complex character. The last two films of the series had us come to understand Ellen Ripley in vastly different ways: Alien making her the unsuspected final girl/hero, and Aliens the badass “take no shit” lady who would be the only person to make a final stance against the xenomorphs. Alien 3’s positioning Ripley as being the only female on Fiorina certainly highlights her feminine traits, and this is something that Ripley’s circumstances in the past two films have denied us. When Ripley approaches Dillon’s (the self proclaimed ‘rapist of women’) table in the mess hall and tensely sits down, Alien 3 shows that the Ripley on Fiorina is much different than the typically rebellious and strictly survival oriented Ripley that we’ve become acquainted with. Possibly because Ripley’s survived two xenomorph holocausts and has come out as a sole survivor, or maybe because Ripley has no other friend in the universe (not even Jonesy), the broken Ripley in Alien 3 seems guided by an almost divine faith in the order of things.
Definitely the most telling of Ripley’s character development is her telling Clemens “I’ve been out here a long time,” before a cut to their post sex scene. No Alien film before, and none after for the matter, has ever featured a scene with Ripley even remotely expressing sexual interest in another crew member, but Alien 3 breaks this cycle to give us something undeniably different: Ripley as a real human being. The Alien series has shown us that in space many of our most basic human instincts and emotions don’t matter, and further that the vast darkness of the cosmos simply doesn’t care about us. Alien 3 doesn’t necessarily push for something different in that sense, but seeing Ripley’s guard eventually broken down indeed puts her in a newly vulnerable position.
All this aside, Alien 3’s real down fall comes from its use of the alien creature and the film makes a fatal mistake where all other Alien films have managed to triumph. Spawning from a dog (and in the director’s cut an Ox), the alien creature in Alien 3 looks like a Window’s 95 masterpiece, and that’s being generous. The poorly computer generated creature in Alien 3 looks very ridiculous, fake, and altogether not scary. This is a shame because this film is the first in the series to show us what the results of a xenomorph bred animal would be, and with designs by H.R. Giger (who has had a long standing and bitter legal battle with 20th Century Fox for being unaccredited for his work on the Alien 3) Alien 3 disappoints because of its lack of creativity.
If Alien 3 makes any horror clear, it’s the setbacks of ‘production hell’ that so many directors fear. With numerous alternate scripts and story ideas, the at times confused notion of the film makes it obvious that it is the culmination of many different sources. Despite these flaws, Fincher’s auteur treatment of Alien 3 managed to spawn some of the most memorable imagery of the whole quadrilogy and definitely the most intense ending in the whole series.
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