Ripley’s story comes to a natural close in David Fincher’s hugely underrated trilogy capper.
Who made it?: David Fincher (Director), David Giler, Walter Hill, Larry Ferguson (Writers), Giler, Hill, Gordon Carroll, Sigourney Weaver (Producers), Brandywine Productions/20th Century Fox.
Who’s in it?: Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Brian Glover, Ralph Brown, Paul McGann, Danny Web.
Tagline: “The Bitch Is Back.”
IMDb rating: 6.4/10.
Alien³ was a logical end to the adventures of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). If you could call it a cycle, then Alien was about birth (quite literally) and Aliens family (Newt was Ripley’s surrogate daughter), making the much-maligned trilogy closer a rumination on death. As critic David Thomson noted, “nothing about Alien³ encourages us to be of good cheer.” That might be why audiences and critics were dismissive toward it in 1992. It doesn’t reach the transcendent heights of Alien or Aliens, but a masterpiece was too much to expect from a film so mired in production problems. Alien³ endured one of the most traumatic journeys to the screen in modern Hollywood lore, so it’s a minor miracle that the finished product is as watchable as it is; a gutsy and misanthropic sequel that dared to put a lid on a profitable franchise.
Alien³ has several problems but I’ve always defended it. There’s a lot to be said about the film’s integrity in terms of what came before it, with the narrative relying on one creature and the tone leaning more towards the horrific. Therefore, it has more in common with Ridley Scott’s original than James Cameron’s guns-blazing predecessor. It also recaptures that feeling of bottomless despair. Alien³ begins by depriving us of two popular characters, and it only gets more depressing from there.
The third film picks up more or less where Aliens ended: Ripley, Newt and Hicks are in cryo-sleep aboard the military vessel Sulaco, but their dreaming is soon interrupted. Somehow, alien eggs were smuggled aboard – did the queen leave them or was it the weasel Burke? During an opening credits sequence that effortlessly sets the macabre tone, we see the familiar sight of a facehugger cracking the booth of Ripley’s cryo-tube. A spurt of acidic blood sets off the alarms and the chamber is ejected into space. It crash-lands on the forbidding Fiorina “Fury” 161, a rock home to a decaying prison. Ripley survives the wreck but Corporal Hicks and the young Newt perish (the fan’s biggest and most understandable pet-peeve). Surrounded by the scum of the universe, Ripley’s survival is made all the more difficult when the dreaded beast returns. It won’t be an easy fix – there are no weapons to be found in this “maximum security” facility. Ripley also discovers that she is carrying the embryo of an alien queen inside her. With time running out, can she destroy the xenomorph and herself before the Company arrives to claim their bio-weapon?
The director was David Fincher, a music video prodigy with no feature experience. He would be forced to begin production without a finished script (credited to series producers David Giler and Walter Hill), and suffer ceaseless interference from the Fox executives. The troubles didn’t end there, with a change in cinematographer part of the way through and daily rewrites affecting the coherence of the film. As a story, Alien³ just doesn’t live up to the first two films. That’s a given. I agree that the film devolves into a hackneyed stalk-and-slash picture in its final reel, but Fincher’s talent was evident even then. The visually-proficient filmmaker, who would later create Seven (1995) and Fight Club (1999), tested out many of his trademark tricks here. He sustains a tangible atmosphere for the prison backdrop. It is just as lived-in as the Nostromo, not to mention creepier, a never-ending procession of darkly-lit tunnels for the alien to slink through. Like much of the director’s work, the palette is seemingly bleached of bright colours and quirky choices abound; since there is a problem with lice in the complex, Ripley takes a further step towards masculinity by shaving her head. It was one of the many suggestions that convinced co-producer Weaver to give him the job.
The film also has an undeniably powerful hook: Ripley’s pregnancy. It is cruelly ironic that the character who has survived two encounters with the xenomorph would befall such a fate, but it seems so right. That’s in line with the formidable universe encountered in Scott’s film. Weaver also makes the most of the script’s dramatic focus and delivers a characteristically-fantastic performance. She is Alien³‘s true stand-out, giving Ripley an “end” that lives up to the legacy of the character. Her purity is made all the greater when the other protagonists are murderers and rapists. There isn’t the deep emotional bond she had with her crew mates aboard the Nostromo, and none of the camaraderie of the doomed marines from the Sulaco. These people are despicable convicts, and while they may have “found God at the ass-end of space,” their motives are shaded.
Standing out from the pack of bald, barcoded cons is Charles S. Dutton as the soulful Dillon. He gets one of the most powerful scenes in the film – the funeral for Newt and Hicks. His soliloquy is inter-cut with the birth of the alien – exemplifying the primary theme of the picture better than anything else. He’s also a fascinating character, proclaiming himself to be a “murderer and rapist of women,” while also being honourable, brave and strangely moralistic. Dillon is the only supporting character that feels fully-realised.
Other cast members are less memorable, of course, but they do sterling work with the archetypes afforded them. Alien³ is practically a Who’s Who of British character actors in the 90s. Brian Glover has great fun as the exasperated Superintendent Andrews, who goes from sceptic to alien chow in a heartbeat; Charles Dance exploits that flirtatious side we saw to Ripley in Aliens as her implied love interest, Dr. Clemens (these films are curiously guarded when it comes to same-species sex); and Ralph Brown fumbles about as the useless Aaron to muted comedic effect. You’ll also spot Paul McGann, whose character Golic has more to do in the original cut (explaining his rather high billing), and even the late Pete Postelthwaite is on hand to do very little before dying horribly. Alien³ continues the streak of fine ensembles, although the characterisations, especially in the theatrical edit, aren’t given room to breathe. That might be the biggest blow to the film, but Fincher does a fine job with the set-pieces.
The director handles the alien attacks with unheralded skill for a first-timer. The creature has rarely seemed as vicious and appeals to the logic behind the Alien mythos; this xenomorph, having burst from a dog, takes on more animal-like attributes and runs on all fours. It is faster, more cunning, and able to scale its surroundings with unparalleled ease. Like Scott and Cameron, Fincher never shoots it in full, keeping the alien to the shadows to maintain its menace (something that Alien Resurrection would disregard five years later). Aside from some fleeting CGI that displays the film’s age, the practical creature shots by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. are some of the best “man in suit” moments of the series. In fact, I can’t understand anyone being disappointed with this iteration of H.R. Giger’s monster – the creature runs the risk of overshadowing the cast. Alien³ could also be the goriest of the quartet, boasting everything from autopsies to men diced by giant fans. The alien doesn’t so much kill people as set in motion a deeply unfortunate chain of events. A failed attempt to catch it even results in a blaze that wipes out many of the secondary characters.
Aesthetically, Alien³ more than met the challenge. Alex Thomson’s cinematography is beautifully Gothic, depicting this bleak world in haunting swathes of black. It is a lot prettier than the gritty Aliens, if never quite hitting the bar of Derek Vanlint’s work on the original. Special mention must also go to composer Elliot Goldenthal who provides a truly amazing score. Next to Weaver and Fincher’s compositions, the music could be one of the film’s true accomplishments.
Many have outright vilified Alien³, but I feel that the finale makes up for some of its perceived faults. There’s a sense of the franchise’s B-movie roots as the terrified prisoners are chased through the complex’s endless corridors. You could say that it finally feels generic, but Fincher wrings every last drop of suspense from the familiar scenario. The way he builds to the gut-punching conclusion is exciting and seemingly final. I see no better way for Ripley to go out, killing the xenomorphs once and for all, and teaching the Company a lesson in the process. The inexperienced, traumatised Warrant Officer we saw in the original Alien departs fully-bloomed into the human race’s saviour.
But they had to spoil it by making the queen burst from her chest at the precise moment of her self-sacrifice. That rather coincidental excuse for one last gore shot is notably absent from the “Assembly Cut,” which more accurately reflects Fincher’s original vision for the film. Included in the Quadrilogy and Blu-ray box sets, this edition is greatly expanded with fuller characterisations and more cohesive plotting. It also differs in two key areas: the alien gestates inside an ox rather than a dog, and an entire sub-plot in which the prisoners actually catch the beast is included in full. Those who categorically hate Alien³ might not be swayed, but it is easily the superior edit of the film and the one you should revisit. I have no doubt that if Fox released this cut in 1992, the legacy of Alien³ might be different.
Over twenty years later, Fincher’s debut is still a controversial bitter pill of a movie, but its detractors may be surprised to learn how little it has dated, if only from a visual standpoint. This was a film stymied by “too many cooks” rather than a director out of his depth. Given everything that was going on behind-the-scenes, Alien³ is remarkable for being as entertaining as it is. Fans will nit-pick the obvious flaws forever, but it’s still an ambitious, worthy continuation of a series that had confidence in its nihilistic ends. It just doesn’t deserve the hatred it has generated. There’s also the fact that, next to Alien Resurrection, it looks all the more profound. Only comic book fantasy could bring Ripley back now…
Ripley comes closer to the creature than ever before, giving the trailer (above) an indelible moment to savour. Here’s an alternative cut.
- David Fincher disowned the film, citing constant studio interference and actually walked out of production before editing began. The film wouldn’t be listed in his filmography on the Seven DVD, and he has always been hesitant to talk about it publicly. He was also the only director to decline participation in the Alien Quadrilogyand Anthology box sets. The “Special Edition” cut of Alien³ was therefore cut together from his original notes and plans.
- An original concept for the film by Vincent Ward involved a wooden planet and a group of monks who thought they were living in post-apocalyptic dark ages. The group refused all kinds of modern technology, and when Ripley and the alien crash-land on Earth they would blame Ripley for the alien attacks. Ripley was to be impregnated by the alien “the old-fashioned way” rather than through a face-hugger, and therefore being impregnated with a human-alien hybrid. According to the storyboards, she would dream of half human-half alien hybrids. Other storyboards included horse-alien and sheep-alien hybrids. Ward left the project after the producers insisted that he change the monks to prisoners and drop the wooden planet idea.
- Both Paul McGann and Ralph Brown appeared in Withnail and I (1987). Fincher originally wanted that film’s co-star, Richard E. Grant, to play Dr. Clemens.
- A series of Aliens comic books were published that were set after the events in Aliens, featuring an adult Newt returning to space with a shell-shocked Hicks to stop the retrieval of an alien specimen by Weyland-Yutani corporation. The books were re-published to accommodate Alien³, with Newt re-named Billy.
- One possible idea for the film included a chest-burster coming out of Michael Biehn’s character, Hicks. A replica of the actor with his chest torn open was created, but after Biehn discovered this, he threatened to sue the producers for using his likeness without his consent, and the idea was dropped. Later, the producers paid him to use his picture at the beginning of the film for the computer sequence. Apparently he received more money for use of this one image than for his role in Aliens.
- Cinematographer Alex Thomson replaced Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner) after only two weeks of filming, when Cronenweth fell ill.
- Although the alien that hatched from the dog was a rod puppet, early filmed tests used an actual dog in an alien costume.