Prior to its release, Alien3 was probably my most anticipated movie up to that point, and few have surpassed it for sheer weight of expectation since. Certainly, while I ended up greatly enjoying the previous year’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (it has since fallen somewhat in my estimation), I went in dubious about a number of elements (not least Arnie becoming the good guy). But I had devotedly followed the ups and downs of progress on the third Alien film over the previous half decade. As with T2, various line-ups (Renny Harlin) and rumours (Arnie would play Hicks?!) didn’t exactly ignite optimism, but the simple fact that Aliens was my favourite movie during that period (again, it has since fallen in my estimation), meant I couldn’t not have high hopes. So, naturally, I was disappointed. As were many.
Although, I’d become used to disappointing sequels to sterling originals around that point. The likes of Die Hard 2, Predator 2 and Robocop 2 were all let-downs, to a great or lesser extent. Compared to those, Alien3 was at least tryingto do something different. While I admired its bravery in that regard, I could only find myself defending its choices so much.
A lot more has been revealed about what might have been in the 25 years since, so the prospect of William Gibson’s involvement probably wouldn’t have been all that, yet the loss of Vincent Ward just seems eternally tragic. Whatever scrapings of his concept remain in David Fincher’s version (or the version that was put out under Fincher’s name, since it appears he understandably had his fill by the point it came down to the line), they simply aren’t enough. They’ve been hammered into something sadly lacking in inspiration and distinctiveness, aside from the funereal air marbling every corner of the proceedings.
If you listen to producer David Giler in The Making of The Alien Anthology documentary, it sounds as if, essentially, they – being he and Gordon Carroll and Walter Hill – bottled it when it came down to actually supporting the vision of the filmmaker they’d secured. After all, they’re the ones who were fixated on the convicts idea (David Twohy also wrote a “great script” in that context, sans Ripley; of course, he would successfully return to prison planets a decade later). It’s one that seemed to go through various iterations with various directors (Renny Harlin, who might never be suggested as a director infused with the creative fire of the auteur, swore off the saminess of the project, which tells you something), before being suggested to Ward.
And then Fincher, for his feature debut, had it dumped on him. Various of those involved appeared to be hung up on aspects of Ward’s wooden spaceship/monks premise (such as the sheer atmosphere in his artificial satellite being scientifically unfeasible) but that would surely have been a small price to pay for something as expressly original. The real problem, as Fox exec Jon Landau attests, was that it was on the “artsy-fartsy side”. Spoken like a true producer.
Giler also notes the idea of going to the planet of the aliens had been on the table (“I’d like to see Ridley do that” – funny that, since this was the idea Harlin wanted to pursue). There was even a trailer “On Earth, everyone can hear you scream” (Alien Resurrection never quite made it, except in The Extended Cut, so thank goodness we were treated to the Alien vs. Predators). Cannibalisation doesn’t stop there: there are even fields of wheat in Alien: Covenant, which may not be consciously lifted from John Fasano and Ward’s screenplay, but was probably lurking somewhere in at least one of the four credited writers’ minds. Although, Eric Red’s version of Alien3 also featured wheat fields (perhaps they were all in thrall to Love and Death?)
To me, Ward’s ideas conjured Alien meets Name of the Rose, accurately or otherwise. Which I’d still love to see. Can’t they still make that? Give it to Neill Blomkamp if you must, just don’t let him rewrite anything. Although, Ridley sounds like he’s ready to hitch his cart to a whole slew of Alien flicks, whichever pegs out first, him or the franchise. What we got instead was… Well, fortunately not Lock Up with an Alien, but neither was it Escape from Alcatraz with an Alien. Or even Papillion with an Alien.
The defenders will claim The Assembly Cut works wonders for the picture, and it is a significantly more interesting film with the reinserted material. I’d even go as far as saying that the front end is a pretty good movie. However, the last half of Alien3 is still a slog (even editor Terry Rawlings commented that it was seventy percent chase – that better be an inventive chase if it’s going to work).
And the problem here – much as I don’t wish to defend Ezra Swerdlow, brought in to beat the corporate drum and generally infuriate the director – is not all interference with Fincher’s noble ambitions. Lest we forget, he was a young guy (29) and some of his ideas weren’t actually so hot. And some of them become an outright burden to the picture. He’ll always get something of a free pass for a situation where, as Landau puts it “as a studio we set out to make a release date, and not make a movie”, but you can see all too clearly what happens when someone tries to build onto a faltering frame, and some of the choices plain don’t fit.
Do I mind that Hicks and Newt die? No, but I do mind that movie as a whole feels neutered, that it fails to rise to the challenge of justifying their demise. The problem is mostly that Alien3 is so one-note, on every level of design, script and production. It’s of-a-piece, I guess you can give it that, but in the Making of doc someone (Alex Thomson, I think) notes that he’d forgotten Charles Dance’s Clemens exits so early, and that the picture could have done with more of him.
That’s absolutely the case, chiefly because his character provides a different stroke, amid the endless yells of “FUCK!” And “BOLLOCKS!” and the interminable careering round corridors chased by a puppet alien. Likewise, I love Elliot Goldenthal’s score, but there are times where its more sound effects-y elements become rather confused with the actual sound effects, and you end up with a wall of industrial noise (I shudder at the idea Fincher advanced of a score-free movie – there’s nothing aurally interesting in there). The sound drop of the Fox fanfare into the opening credits is magnificent, however.
Of course, Fincher inherited the “Ripley dies” element from the Ward version, contributing the shaven-headed protagonist idea himself, while the backtracking on weapons stemmed from Weaver’s discomfort with Cameron’s gun fetishisation in the first sequel. One thing becomes cumulatively clear from the Alien series; Weaver isn’t necessarily the greatest authority on what makes a good movie, and not even a great authority on what makes a great character.
She really wanted Ripley to bow out, but was lured back a mere five years later. Even Connery waited twelve years (well, the second time). And she doesn’t appear to have stuck to the guns of her star wattage, buckling under the demands of studio and producers (of course, she was the one who demanded they write the final screenplay on the grounds of their insight into the former Warrant Officer, so there you go. In fairness, Giler came up with one of the best concepts for the original, Ash, but as writers he Hill and Ferguson all tend to the practical rather than inspired).
If the shaved head is a great visual cue, much of the rest is, conceptually, decidedly less so. Fincher commented “I think audiences find it pretentious and ponderous and resent the fact that it’s not a scary movie. It’s a queasy-scare movie”. There’s some truth to this, no doubt, but there’s more to it. He wanted to put his mark on the movie without really conceiving whether the bare-bones screenplay would support it. I don’t object – per se – to Alien3 not being scary, any more than Alien Resurrection’s atypical Gallic black humour, but I do expect it to be engaged.
Too often Alien3 reveals an almost lethargic lack of substance, exemplified by all that running and shouting and running. The ruminations, or ponderousness, are fine – when we get them – but they’re at the cost of plot coherence. Ripley spends an inordinate amount of time withholding information, which in the final analysis undermines her as a character and becomes a clumsy irritant, one in the way of advancing the story. Sure, you can argue the case for legitimate motivation – she doesn’t want to admit the truth to herself, let alone others; she knows she won’t be believed – but they don’t really wash when depicting someone who has previously shown such levels of determination and fortitude.
The theme of facing of one’s own death is undoubtedly a strong one, and a bold decision for a blockbuster, and Weaver plays it for all its worth (particularly the discovery that there’s one within her, the dreaded terminal prognosis). But you can’t maintain that respectful tone if ninety percent of the rest of the cast are screaming “Fuck!” – or “Wanker!”, or more articulate gems such as “Do you believe in this heaven shit?” and, in reference to the alien, “I want to see it dead. I hate the fucker” – at each other incessantly.
It’s been argued that Ripley – on a planet of double Y Chromosome murderers and rapists, who attempt to rape her – is as much the alien in the movie as the xenomorph itself, and there’s even heavy playing into this – consciously or otherwise – in the advertising (“The bitch is back” can’t refer to the male alien seen in the teasers, and they’re not designed with the nascent queen in mind), although the latter is more a soundbite than clever layering.
Fincher makes ungainly aesthetic choices too, ones that become distracting rather than enhancing the mood. Thankfully, we were spared the erotic alien (with lips), and a whippet dressed up as an alien, but the decision to mess with the design, to turn into something more familiar (a four-legged animal), and so impress one’s own stamp on the architecture of the series’ antagonist is fatally flawed.
Not because it couldn’t have worked – although the redesigns never have, even the queen, I’d argue – but because the execution, even more than at those points in the earlier pictures where you’re conscious the creature is just a man in a suit, undermines its sheer alien-ness. You’re watching a (admittedly, decently-manipulated) puppet, superimposed on live action scenes, and you’re always conscious of it. It’s distancing, lacking in tangible, immediate impact except when the beast is ready for its close-up. Yes, sometimes the effect of it haring through tunnels work well enough, but as with later instalments’ decisions to CG-it, if the viewer can tell the difference, the director should be having a good long think about what he thinks he’s trying to achieve.
Then there are the low angles… Gawd, help us. I can handle the pervasive rusty brown. Some might see it as a premonition of these digitally colour-corrected times, but the decision to shoot the entire picture from below is just… odd. I’ve seen it suggested it creates “an air of helplessness” or “generates movement” or emphasises its protagonists’ “vulnerability”. Which is all very charitable. What it really does is underpin the sense of monotony. An environment where everything is shot the same way, all the characters look the same, speak in the same vernacular, and very little happens to break the flavourlessness. Added to which, it often makes the action, for want of a better word, ungainly.
Of all the decisions here, it may be the most artistically misconceived, and it’s one that feeds into the prolonged final chase. John Kenneth Muir misses the point when he claims those decrying the confused geography of the climax are missing the point; he attests this is a reflection of the characters’ states and so succeeds admirably. Alas, if you cannot grasp who is where in relation to the action you quickly cease caring about the action (as cinematographer Thomson commented, he was “confused who was who and what was what and all the sense of geography had gone to pot”). That. And it just goes on. And on. And on (the alien POV shots quickly become irritating for the same reason).
But then, the general tone of Muir’s essay slots into the classic get out of, effectively, “It was supposed to be a bad film”, whereby any deficiency is proclaimed an artistic triumph in terms of affecting the audience in a certain way (“You were supposed to be bored!”… Oh, wait). I’m overstating the case. A bit. I can happily rewatch Alien3 – I have done numerous times – but I’m only sporadically really engaged by it. And always more so during the first half…
That said, Muir’s defence of the picture is a gallant one, including his assertion that Ripley’s choice in Alien3 tumbles the proceedings into a spiritual realm. The problem you have here is redolent of the entire picture, though: you need sufficient flesh on the bones for such a subtext to resonate. A martyr’s death is only profound if it actually means something, and that needs more than stretching your arms out in a Jesus Christ pose. Further, there’s a rumination on life and death herein, but it isn’t a terribly arresting one. Ripley’s shaved head conjures imagery of terminal patients and gas chambers (death either way), rather than Sinead O’Connor, but it still represents imagery detached from substance; like the barcodes, it’s a “cool” idea.
There are also those elements that fell outside of Fincher’s control. The excision of the subplot concerning Golic and imprisonment of the beast was a knuckle-headed move (Landau defended its removal on the grounds that it undermined the threat of the alien, which indicates his particular brand of limited thinking), since it’s one of the few thematically rich aspects of the picture that isn’t over-stated.
Pretty much everything else in Ripley’s head is given voice to (“Don’t be afraid, I’m part of the family… You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else”, not to mention going down to the basement to find it, where all the monsters are). But Golic’s particular derangement – he is an Adam to Ripley’s Eve, the creature a dragon/angel of mercy – is mostly undefined, and all the better for that. Which still leaves McGann’s change of accent (it’s different in his med unit scene to anywhere else, a continuity problem resulting from Fincher asking him to drop it; but still, he’s a loon, anything goes with loons). Far more intriguing was having the character survive until the end of the picture, unfortunately changed during the many script revisions.
I was always less forgiving of the problems with Aaron (Ralph Brown). Apparently, Fincher came to see the character as something of an unsung hero of the movie, and the producers were having none of it, thus enforcing lines about the limited size of Aaron’s IQ on the production. The result? Such a stated dim-watt character is nothing of the sort in most of his scenes, and so his persona doesn’t make any sense.
On the subject of Golic and Aaron, as much as I rate Withnail & I, fortunately I wasn’t in the privileged position of populating a $40m movie with its stars (just where was Richard Griffiths in this lovefest?). Fincher nearly outdid even Noonie in his Withnail adoration, securing McGann and Brown, but failing to bag Richard E Grant. It’s the kind of story that evidences his then callow judgement. Grant wouldn’t have been a patch on Charles Dance (for that kind of role), and it’s an instance where the producers were right to veto their director. Dance performance yields possibly the most interesting character in Alien3 – even more so than Weaver/Ripley, thanks to some sloppy and/or unsubtle writing – and suggests an intelligence, reserve and respect in his scenes that breathes life into them. That’s one positive aspect of a picture this spartan: when something stands out, it really does.
As should be clear, I generally prefer The Assembly Cut. I can’t for the life of me fathom the explanation for changing the impregnated host from an ox to a Rottweiler (the ox’s presence on Fury 161 was “cumbersome and incongruous” – WTF?) I’m less persuaded by Fincher resisting the final chestburster. Both versions of the climax are botched in terms of execution, but the idea presented by the imagery in the theatrical cut is, at least, more potent, Ripley clasping it to her bosom as a newborn. What failed to get as far as The Assembly Cut sounds like a mixed bag, though. Fincher hasn’t generally been noted for his gore.
Mention of Newt highlights a problem with Alien3, in particular, that separates it from the rest of the series; the amount of baggage that came with it (possibly a warning to Alien: Covenant in that regard). That isn’t just the acrimonious fates of Newt and Hicks. Even once they’ve not so much exited as failed to enter, the picture feels caught between two stools, with the desire to push forward to Ripley’s final curtain and the obligation to call back to the series’ continuity, as if it doesn’t quite know how to stand on its own two legs.
This culminates in the real Bishop offering Ripley a deal with the devil. At the time, I was pleased to see bona-fide Lance Henriksen back (Bishop might be my favourite character in Aliens; notably, Henriksen said he didn’t like the Alien3 script and only appeared as a favour to Walter Hill, for whom he starred in Johnny Handsome, the inverse tale of Mickey Rourke’s daring adventures with plastic surgery). Now, it seems like a distraction, shifting the focus from Ripley to the series’ satellites. Yet, even recognising this drawback, it’s a reflection of the slim pickings here that I’ll greedily take it as meagre sustenance in the arid landscape of the picture’s last half.
Sigourney’s Chuck Heston in Beneath the Planet of the Apes star posturing might have resulted in as distinctive a sequel – albeit, Beneath isn’t such a great movie, even if’s a very different one to its predecessor – had Ward been on board. Instead, it leads to a conclusion that is “okay”, makes its point, and then leaves the room rather indifferently. It isn’t a bad exit for Ripley, but it should have been a much more substantial one; it should have felt like it mattered more.
A few further observations on Alien3, good and bad. I always love a Brian Glover performance (and it’s heartening to learn that Fincher saw him as something of a mentor), even if the sheer artlessness of Andrews’ dialogue rather undoes his impact. Of the rest of the cast, Charles S Dutton as Dillon and Danny Webb as Morse make the most impact, the former for actually having a character, albeit one shot through with clichés, the latter for repeating “Fuck” and “Wanker” in the greatest number of variations and line-readings, and surviving, through some quirk (how about bringing him back?)
One of the problems I have with the overhang from the Ward script, even though I’d rather have it than not, is that it always seems like an overhang. There’s never any insight into what this group believe (Morse thinks he will live forever, and indeed survives, Clemens observes that it’s some kind of “apocalyptic, millenarian, Christian fundamentalist, uh…” – which, I’ll bet you, is as much thought, Giler, Hill and Ferguson gave it: five words), so it feels like exactly what it is: grafted on.
I like that Ripley is allowed a few moments of intimacy with Clemens, and that his character is given enough self-awareness to recognise it for what it is (again, Dance’s performance is masterfully subtle). I’m not so keen on some of the contrasting overstatement, where you know less would be more (“I’m a murderer and rapist of women”; “Really, well, I guess I must make you nervous” is a great response, but in a comic-book movie closer to the Aliens mould – Alien3 aspires to something less glib).
Scenes like the funeral of Newt/birth of the alien are evocative, but also kind of clunky. Ripley, who dies, arguably brings death to them all (Morse aside), through withholding or otherwise making prevaricating choices (Andrews may not want to know, but Clemens does). The indications of an overreaching, all-powerful conglomerate are effective, where everything you do or say is uplinked (“The company knows everything that happens in the ship. It all goes into the computer and gets sent back”), one that has commoditised everything, including prison services (but still makes time to sell Coke, in a particularly egregious piece of product placement; maybe Weyland-Yutani owns Coca-Cola in 2179).
I’m not sure if I like that Ripley doesn’t really like what remains of the Bishop android, but perhaps, by this point, he represents only a bad memory. I’m not so sure about Ripley going to face the alien, as she’s already deduced it won’t kill her, and we’ve seen as much in the earlier scene in the infirmary; it’s one of those plot decisions that rather turns the “We’ll see how smart it is” around to reflect negatively on the protagonist. I like that Morse tells off another prisoner for running with scissors. I don’t like that actors like Pete Postlethwaite and Phil Davis barely get a look in.
Most of all, I appreciate that there was a core idea for the picture that distinguishes it from its predecessors (which the other Alien3 scripts, prior to Ward’s, arguably failed to achieve). Whatever its flaws, and they’re significant, Alien3 stuck to its downbeat through line. The problem is, if you don’t have tension and scares in this kind of movie, you need to be sure you’re replacing them with material that’s sufficiently thematically or dramatically diverting, and that has the characters to sustain this.
Alien3 falls short, particularly in its potential for positing death (the xenomorph is the Grim Reaper) as a force putting in their place all man’s foibles and distractions. Nothing can withstand it, be it science, religion or capital. It will, ultimately, emerge victorious. But, as Ward said, “the stakes dominated the creative content, and undermined it”. It is, at least, an interesting failure, but all the more frustrating for what it might have been.