Directed by: David Fincher || Produced by: Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill
Written by: David Giler, Walter Hill, Larry Ferguson || Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Danny Webb, Ralph Brown, Brian Glover, Paul McGann
Music by: Elliot Goldenthal || Cinematography by: Alex Thomson || Editing by: Terry Rawlings || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 144 minutes
Not many people, including yours truly, knew what to make of David Fincher’s directorial debut with the second Alien sequel in 1992. Most people, again including myself, didn’t understand it and then largely rejected it, in retaliation for the film’s stark rejection of the accomplishments, character developments, and themes made famous by Cameron’s 1986 film. Alien 3 was a movie that took everybody by surprise, because we all had decided that we wanted another film like Aliens (1986), since that movie was so damned fun. However, years worth of endless script rewrites, director changes, and a long, painstaking trip through a veritable development hell that, among other things, left then first-time director Fincher so scarred from the agonizing production process he quit filmmaking for a time and has since disowned the film — all that ensured that the next sequel in the franchise would be quite unlike anything anybody had seen before.
In many ways, it’s a miracle that any new Alien film emerged from the studio clusterfuck at all. As it turned out, the massive missed potential and slap in the face that was the unceremonious off-screen killing of Michael Biehn’s Dwayne Hicks and Carrie Henn’s Newt in the opening scenes was the least of our worries. The production history of the third Alien movie is the stuff of legend, one of the worst examples of filmmaking collaboration and teamwork (or lack thereof) in Hollywood history. It is now accepted that Fincher, while still learning the ropes of major studio filmmaking in his transition from shooting music videos, deserves a pass on Alien 3’s poor performance in light of Fox studio executives’ abhorrent interference in the film’s creative process and disrespectful lack of trust in their director.
In 2003, a major act of contrition came about in the form of a new version of the second Alien sequel, known as the “Assembly Cut.” Although Fincher refused to be involved in or to have anything to do with the project, the Assembly Cut largely restored most of Fincher’s original creative decisions on the film and added roughly 30 minutes of critical footage. The end product was a film that is far more watchable and coherent than the ’92 theatrical release, with various minor characters no longer disappearing with no explanation and a narrative progression that actually made sense. This is what most fans consider the “definitive” version of Alien 3, and in many ways, restores much needed credibility to the Alien saga’s final chapter.
Fincher imprinted his signature on the Alien franchise by making Alien 3 a hopelessly bleak psychological drama. The movie is by far the darkest of the series, both in terms of mood and actual lighting. The film features Ripley in her darkest moments and at her most hopeless. The ending, while in some ways a bittersweet relief and poignant wrap-up of the franchises’ overarching narrative, is ultimately tragic and incredibly sad. This is another feature of Alien 3 that made it hard for most fans to accept the film in light of the overall optimism of and satisfying conclusion to Cameron’s film; it is an element that is retained in the Assembly Cut. All contrasts with Cameron’s space marine-epic aside, Fincher’s dark conclusion to the series is haunting and incredibly well done. It is a major strength of the film, and is one of the most poetic, definitive endings to any franchise in cinema. It wraps up the series in a nice, shiny bow, however depressing it may be.
Other strengths of the film include Weaver’s continuing excellent portrayal of Ripley. The actress once again completely embodies the role of the series’ heroine, exhibiting both badass resilience, strength, and intelligence while also displaying deep vulnerability and despair. Lieutenant Ellen Ripley is every bit as captivating and interesting as she was in the ’80’s, and certainly more so than in Ridley Scott’s 1979 adventure.
Similar to Predator 2 (1990), where Alien 3 stumbles is in its supporting cast. The role players here can’t compare to the powerhouse lineup from Cameron’s film. Not only are most of the prisoner characters on Fury 161 identical in personality, with everybody being weird, crude, and not relatable in any way, but everybody looks the same too, and you can’t tell one grimy, baldheaded guy from the next. Charles Dance’s Clemens is an obvious deviation from this trend of uninteresting characters, and Dance plays him quite well, making him one of the few new faces in Alien 3 that the audience can connect with. Unfortunately, his character is killed off before he make any lasting impact in the story. I still to this day do not understand why the character was so unceremoniously wasted.
The lone interesting supporting character whose connection with the audience yields some sort of payoff is Charles S. Dutton as Dillon. Unlike the rest of the prisoners, Dillon’s character is explored in detail and his relationship with Ripley goes somewhere by the end. He’s an integral part of the screenplay and a big reason why the film doesn’t fail.
From a more general standpoint though, the film is quite accomplished. The narrative is well paced for its long 144 minute running time, and the atmospheric lighting, camerawork, and set-design are terrific despite the general drab, monotonous palette. The dank, dirty prison setting feels alive, and Fincher’s eye for cinematic detail transforms the otherwise ugly environments into an eerily captivating backdrop for the bleak narrative. Perhaps the most surprising strength is the musical component of the film. Alien 3’s score, composed by Elliot Goldenthal, is a haunting, gorgeous, beautiful ensemble of soundscapes that perfectly capture the mood and dark themes of the story. The sheer variety of elements at play, from beautiful vocals to emotionally resonant orchestral tunes, is astounding; Goldenthal cements Alien 3’s soundtrack as the best in the series.
The lone hiccup in Fincher’s rookie direction is the confusing penultimate scene that builds into the film’s climax and Ripley’s ultimatum. While the scenario involving the prisoner’s final master plan to trap and kill the alien in the prison’s leadwork facility sounds neat, the setpiece is largely incoherent due to endless, repetitive shots of identical, indistinguishable bald heads running around screaming down a series of identical, indistinguishable hallways. It’s more or less impossible to tell who’s doing what and where everybody is running in relation to everybody else, and for this reason, this key scene before the narrative’s resolution is robbed of much of its tension.
As far as creative additions to the alien mythology go, Alien 3 doesn’t do much. The main contribution to the mythos is the idea that the Xenomorph partially adapts the genetic makeup of its host, in that depending on the species of its host, the fully metamorphosed adult will look and move slightly different. The host for the alien monster in Fincher’s film is not a human this time, but rather an animal— a dog in the theatrical release, and an ox in the Assembly Cut. As a consequence of its gestation in these organisms, the Xenomorph antagonist in Alien 3 is quadrupedal, lacks dorsal spines, and “gallops” rather than runs as a bipedal humanoid.
As for the creature design, the choice to make the Xeno’s movements and overall frame more “animalistic” is a nice change-up from the older antagonists, but I’d be lying if I said I thought the artistic changes were anywhere near as cool as the creature realizations from the first two films. More importantly, the overall quality of the alien FX are far below the high standards set by Alien and Aliens, and in many instances the rendered dog/ox-alien monster looks awful. Some shots are better than others, but overall, the film uses the new artistic contributions from H.R. Giger poorly.
In the end though, Alien 3 is far from a poor or even a mediocre film despite many fan’s disparaging judgments over the years. The film is in many ways misunderstood, and it deserves credit for ending the series in such sophisticated, ballsy fashion (we’ll get to Alien Resurrection  next time). The third act of the Alien franchise makes mistakes for which it should be held accountable, but dismissing Michael Biehn’s and Carrie Henn’s fan-favorite characters is not one of them. I may still to this day disagree with the creative decision to dial back the series’ focus on just Ellen Ripley, but I cannot in good conscious mark the film down for not being “Aliens 2.” Alien 3 has plenty of its own artistic merits, and it should be judged accordingly. In the grand scheme of things, in a highly imperfect world and given such a horrendous developmental history, it’s as satisfying an official ending to the Alien series as any fan could have asked for.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Alien 3 rides high on yet another powerhouse performance by Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley. The film makes you stick with the series’ heroine till the bitter end. Charles S. Dutton as the philosophical prisoner Dillon is a much needed strong supporting character. The film is technically more than capable, displaying an excellent setting and mise-en-scene for the film’s thriller genre. Everything from the atmosphere to the set design to especially the film’s score are well done.
— However… most of the supporting cast is bland, and are a far cry from the memorable team in Cameron’s film. Charles Dance is shamelessly wasted as Clemens. Much of the narrative’s climax is shot in a confusing fashion. There aren’t many new additions to the series’ mythos. The special FX as a whole are disappointing.
? We’re all gonna die. The only question is when. This is as good a place as any to take our first steps to heaven.