Movie of the Week: ALIEN³ (1992)

David Fincher directs Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dance and Charles S. Dutton in this continuation of the Ripley story where sci-fi’s hardiest final girl crash lands on a derelict prison with her old foe lurking even closer than usual.

If doing this blog over the last few year is evidence of anything, I think it is fair to say I’m far more lenient to a sequel if it carries on a story / character / concept I’m invested in with some semblance of quality and inspiration. I’ve never damned a film for merely being a cash-in if it provides decent popcorn entertainment. Never abandoned a franchise if one entry takes risks that are distasteful to the ever commenting fanbase. Never felt a further chapter in the saga is dismissible if its only sin is not being quite as flawless as the original classic. An original it was always intended to be a mutated clone of. You only have to read my entries on The Thing, Terminator: Genisys or Prometheus to know I have a lot more leeway in me if it is a series I love, a lot more blind forgiveness or open mindedness than most who bang out their petty little thoughts on blockbusters and flops. I don’t believe the hype but I certainly don’t subscribe to the hate.

ALIEN³ was probably the first film that fostered this less puritanical streak in my tastes. It met with middling reviews, middling box office and spent decades as a whipping boy for nerds to call out when bemoaning bad threequels. Whereas the film I rented on VHS in my teens was just as intense, mind blowing, amazing looking, gory, grim and badass as Alien and Aliens had been. Only by this point I had access to the strange line of licensed kids toys, Dark Horse comics and the immersive Alien War tour experience that littered the nomenclature on the early 90s. Alien Wars – a twenty minute dash around a central London basement with strobe light, dry ice, actors with pulse rifles and the xenomorph jumping out at you – in particular indoctrinated me to be a Starbeast zealot. You queued for almost two hours in a tunnel where big chunks of James Cameron and James Horner were blasted at you on a loop before you even got in. But the highlight of the promo cycle was the teaser for ALIEN³. I discovered on Earth everyone could hear you scream, maybe 60 times.

We didn’t have access to the internet back then. You saw a trailer at the cinema or attached to the front of a video rental. But once watched it was gone. Ephemeral like a dandelion clock, a beautiful thing that blowed away easily and seeded to spring up another season hence. And ALIEN³’s promo pretty explicitly suggested we were going to Earth. That seed never found fertile soil. Aliens 2 never happened. Evidence of what a troubled production the third entry had that a year before release the studio was marketing a film where they had no real fix on the content of yet. Evidence that the public’s expectations were going to be very incongruous to the nightmare eventually delivered. We were hoping for Ripley, Hicks, Bishop and Newt to be taking on acid blooded hordes on future Earth. What we got was very different.

ALIEN³ is a brutal and bleak film. It opens with the off screen but keenly felt deaths of Hicks and Newt. The action man and the saved child are cold, chewed up meat in the opening credits. We then experience a rusty prison planet teeming with lice, rape and fanaticism. Most of the cast are bald and clothed in sackcloth robes, difficult to distinguish from each other. A shipwrecked, grief stricken Ripley is treated with suspicion and detest, even when they begin to listen to her warnings about the alien they can offer no weapons to fight it with. Then an alien rapidly hunts them all down. Ripley helps capture and kill it. But she herself is carrying a damning secret that means her survival is unlikely. It pointedly isn’t a war film in space, it favours atmosphere over spectacle and the film embraces relentless stark horror over triumphant set pieces. Hardly a summer blockbuster. 

So what went wrong?

Fox and producers David Giler, Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson wanted a third film following the runaway success of Aliens (a rare sequel of the Eighties that made more domestically than its first instalment, the standard being an acceptable 40% drop off in box office). Yet they had no idea of what that third film would be. Cyberpunk author William Gibson proposed a Michael Biehn centric chapter with an intergalactic shopping mall infected with alien spores. I have the just released comic book adaptation of this attempt sitting next to me as I type. The Hitcher and Near Dark writer Eric Red put in script involving a rural planet teeming with hybrid species. Renny Harlin wanted an action packed trip to the alien home planet. David Twohy essentially wrote a first draft of his later movie Pitch Black. Yet Sigourney Weaver was only willing to return if a) there were no guns in this sequel – a stance that suited her personal politics b) David Giler, Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson were the credited writers c) she died at the end, and d) she was renumerated properly this time. Her $10 million payday would represent 20% of the final budget and her other wishes were ceded to.

If you ask anyone, Weaver is essential to the series. She brings gravitas, bubbling emotion and a rationality to the strange and overexcited hubris of an Alien film. People often criticise the random behaviour of the characters in Prometheus. They are the actions and mistakes of people who unwittingly have to get the silly plot of a monster story moving. But a classy lead like Ripley’s haunted yet calm survivor would have undercut all that clumsiness with a sigh, a plea and moment of heroic intervention. Like Jamie Lee Curtis in the Halloween saga or Liam Neeson in the Taken films, she is an actor of such in built quality that her prestige tempers and excuses the campest misteps of a genre flick. Even in the abysmal Ressurection she makes it watchable, is the hook that keep you within the sloppy manic film. She even seems to be having fun in that one, whereas ALIEN³ sees her actually acting hard… making a proper performance from a necessary evil. Even in the revered first two films, Ripley is a slave to the machinations of the plot, there just happens to be great actress strapped into the rollercoaster, imbuing the protagonist with an aloof humanity as she hurtles at velocity. Whereas ALIEN³ actually allows space for Ripley to be Ripley. She grieves for Newt, uses the charming Doctor Clemens (a quite wonderful Charles Dance) and explores her symbiotic relationship with the alien. For the first time the part truly matches the reputation of the star and character.

Those demands though do seem petulant. Someone revelling in new found power rather than caring about what is right for the series and audience. For example… her fifth demand to appear in 3 was that she could make love to the alien. In theory this still kinda happens… she is impregnated with a Queenburster… she has two intimate moments with the beast running around. One became the key promotional image. The drooling extendable jaw almost kissing her fearful cheek. Part threat, part sexual assault, (given the revelation of what is gestating within Ripley) part affectionate pat. If you can’t sell 3 on gunplay and carnage you can sell it on your star being in the most intimate peril possible. And by the shoddy fourth entry we actual get some squirmy Ripley on Xeno humping. By that point everyone had given up on quality control and just wanted to get the thing made. Let her actually fuck the alien if it gets her to sign on the dotted line.

I digressed… Weaver is essential to the series. I get the feeling ALIEN³’s just about profitable but reductive takings were due to her. Her presence got people in, her demands neutered the marketability of the product. If there are no guns there has to be a reason for that. Hence the grim setting eventually compromised on. If there are no guns what does Hicks do? Can we afford two or three expensive recurring cast members salaries if we are paying Sigourney a record payday? So Hicks needs to be written out. If Ripley is going to die then that adds a pessimistic air to the movie entire. Even if she goes out with a noble sacrifice it has to be built up and not come completely left of centre.  If she throws herself and the nascent queen defiantly into a firey pit will it be suitably epic? Yep… ending sorted take the night off. Want to catch a movie… I hear Terminator 2 is good…

The idea eventually greenlit was by arthouse director Vincent Ward. Ripley would crashland on a gothic planetoid made of wood, inhabited by monks. Some would see the Alien as a portent of the apocalypse, others a god. No weapons, no Hicks, an air of fatality hardwired in leading up to Ripley self terminating. Sets were built, the script was locked down… a teaser incorrectly suggesting the alien was earthbound was released. Then Fox hit an 11th hour stumbling block. 

Reports are messy as to what happened so late in the day. On arrival to Pinewood some executives and producers wanted to nix the costly and untested wooden planetoid, make the setting an industrial prison. Ward was only involved in the sequel to realise his fantasy vision, certainly not their revision. Ward started to be micromanaged, being sent shot lists and having his daily work being reported back to the studio by his own his assistant behind his back. There was the stumbling block of Sigourney only wanting the producers as credited writers. So despite physical pre-production almost being completed… Ward walked.

Enter David Fincher. Fincher is a modern movie wunderkind. His career of immaculate thrillers and risky blockbusters have seen him take dark, controversial subject matter and twist them into successes that please audiences and critics alike. He is to my mind the finest director working today. Clearly someone who understands cinema craft, not just his job but everyone’s – from a cinematographer’s use of lenses to an editor’s sense of rhythm. In 1991 he was a hot name director of commercials and music videos. He had started his career doing VFX for an animation studio, then honing his craft with matte work on ILM projects such as Return of the Jedi and Temple of Doom. He created memorable adverts for Coca-Cola, Levi’s, Nike… worked extensively with Madonna at her peak. You can see what attracted the producers and Fox. A hungry new visualist, who understands corporate needs as much as effects work. I’m going to guess they thought they hired someone who would toe the company line while delivering an acceptable product. If he could sell soft drinks and Michael Jackson, he could sell the alien. 

It is fair to say neither Fincher or Fox got what they bargained for. Fincher has made a career of including imagery that psychologically scars into mainstream studio products. He has a fascination with serial killers and dystopian environments. No doubt he took the Alien job on with the intention of topping the shock of the classic chestburster scene, ramping up the pessimism of the heavily armed space marine realising that it was “Game Over, Man! Game over.” Sure he made adverts. David Giler even insulted him on a production conference call stating to Fox “Why are you listening to him for, he’s a shoe salesman!” Yet the commercial he was most famous for was of a foetus smoking a cigarette for the American Cancer Society. Fincher wasn’t going to smooth the unpalatable edge off of their sci-fi horror franchise… he was going to accerbate them. 

Not that he would have an easy ride. Fincher still refuses discuss the film in interviews. Is the only filmmaker absent from the in-depth making of documentaries produced when the Alien Quadrilogy boxset was released. His sets pre-built and his cast prescribed to him before he was hired, his script constantly changing and the producers being credited with it, a release date looming and quality control oversight tightly monitored… Fincher seemingly had a Kafka-esque struggle. The studio was so adamant to limit further costs and keep the film on track that many cast and crew members joked that there were often more producers and executives on the set than actors. Fincher was allegedly fired three times. Ezra Swerdlow, Fox‘s Line producer, said of the chaotic shoot “It was a haemorrhage situation. It was just lots of small things. We had to to stop shooting.  We didn’t wrap the film. We just stopped filming.” After a disastrous assembly screening that missed shots and left US make-up guys feeling unwell, Fincher spent much of a year of post-production locked out of the process than in. His one contemporary comment on his debut film was in The Guardian 2009 “No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.”

ALIEN³ is openly repellent film at times. The bulk of the cast play murderers and rapist, they talk in thick British accents, shout “Wanker!” at each other a lot. It opens with the death of a child. Se7en style subliminal shots and suggestions of her autopsy. A difficult scene, amplified by some particularly disgusting sound effects. You only glimpse enough to let your imagination run riot. Now if you are a studio in need of a hit this sequence alone should give you pause. Like Hicks, Newt is a hinderance to this story. You can’t have her survive and wander around such a hostile environment. If you do, the world loses its threat. And let’s say Ripley somehow protects her from the animalistic urges of the inhabitants and the alien, where is she left at close of play. Ripley dead, the company taking her off to be experimented on or tied off as a loose end to protect their brand. Fincher made the right call killing Newt in the credits, and delivers his first moment of searing horror in her farewell. 

Horror defines ALIEN³. The gothic introduction on the planet surface with Frankenstein clothed men dashing around rusting monoliths with Elliot Goldenthal sonorous wail of a score adding urgency and mystery. Like Weaver’s performance and Fincher’s daring shock, Goldenthal’s score is another perfect element of the film. His uses of very fast French horn passages with bending tones and whining more than holds it own with Jerry Goldsmith’s atonal desolation and James Horner militaristic triumph. Roger Ebert called ALIEN³ “one of the best looking bad movies he’s ever seen.” Thanks not solely down to Fincher. You have to give credit to Norman Reynolds’ epic set designs. They are so grand, so gorgeously layered. Watching the Assembly Cut on the big screen you notice Victorian tiling, scratchy graffiti, fin de siecle stained glass. This prison has had many lives. It is more than just a set of corridors to run around in. It is a haunted house with a deep long history.

The Assembly Cut also reveals an infamous sequence, severed out of the original release. Paul McGann plays a dangerous simpleton called Golic. In the original release he survives an early alien attack but is blamed by the warden and placed in a straight jacket never to be heard from again. In the longer cut he plays a more significant role. He believes the Alien to be an angel, tying into the apocalyptic religion the prisoners have adopted but he misunderstands. The first extended action sequence involves the prisoners and Ripley trying to corral the alien into a silo using fire. In the theatrical cut this proves unsuccessful, but in the Assembly Cut they do trap it. Only for a Golic to escape, go on a killing spree and release it to his own demise. The producers axed this middle act fearing a trapped alien robbed the iconic monster of its fear factor. So Golic’s subplot went with it. In terms of protecting their brand maybe the right call was made, but in the absence of anything else it left the middle section of the film relatively actionless and bloodless. 

Signs of studio interference litter ALIEN³, whichever version you watch. The alien changes size and shape depending on what the sequence demands. The mixture of CGI and puppetry that chases them down tunnels is starkly different from the humanoid giant that leaps out of the shadows occasionally. I’m surprised there aren’t conspiracy theory fan articles suggesting there are two different xenomorphs on Fiorina 161. Also the movie gets stuck in a repetitive loop just as the final act is warming up. We get various scenes of Charles S Dutton making the same speech to the same characters… we have to fight to survive. Now Charles S Dutton makes an excellent orator but the third time he goes over this old ground you start to notice the incongruous product placement Coke bottles and the flat framing…. and… and… Are we sure Fincher directed this clarifying scene or a nervous producer?

We end on a big chase and a choice. My wife’s assessment of ALIEN³ is “Solid entertaining film. Too many closing doors.” And the final action sequence is essentially the survivors using themselves as bait, being pursued and cutting off the retreat of the alien so they can douse it in boiling hot lead. Visually it is a compelling set-piece. The steadicam flips 180 degrees as we enter the monster’s POV. Slow motion and fish eye lenses are deployed engagingly. It does suffer from many of the runners being barely established characters, once again often indistinguishable to each other on an initial watch. Yet in the moment the tension of an alien nipping at your heels, and antiquated steam punk doors and pistons unreliably lurching into life is compulsively thrilling. 

Once the alien is defeated we are left with a final problem. Ripley has an alien queen growing inside her. The company have arrived to claim it for their weapons division. They come in the form of Bishop (possibly another android, possibly the human the android was based on… it is open to debate).  Knowing just how dangerous her cargo is Ripley decides to self terminate. A poetic end to the Lieutenant’s recurring nightmare. The movie ends on a note of mournful triumph. The prison planet is shuttered, the company snubbed, Ripley finds peace in the firey depths that consumed Hicks and Newt earlier. Not a happy ending but a fine one.

What went wrong then?

Absolutely everything. Yet to my mind the warts and all end work outshines its flaws and reputation. It is dankly beautiful, consistently disturbing piece of big budget horror that gave us David Fincher the moviemaker and shifted Sigourney Weaver into an acting headspace rather than a going through the motions as a mere action hero. Those scars of a problematic production these days just feel like wood grain, evidence that a real ambitious movie was produced against all odds. ALIEN³ is a personal favourite of mine that holds it own with the more beloved predecessors.

10 (Assembly Cut)

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