FEATURE: A Second Look - Alien 3

Just why would anyone want to set a release date before having a script, or even a firm concept, is beyond human comprehension. And yet it seems many properties in Hollywood are being developed this way. However, such practices applied to a hot studio property make one wonder whether those people know anything about this process at all. In any case, that’s how Alien 3 came to be. After numerous rewrites, different directors taking over, this film ended up in the hands of inexperienced young David Fincher. No time to ponder, no script to work with. What can possibly go wrong here?

The 1992 cinema audiences were treated to a messy Frankenstein's monster of a film. The narrative is choppy and fragmented. Many characters are not properly introduced, others disappear without a warning. The tone is inconsistent, pacing uneven, production values compromised. The optical effects developed for this project didn’t age well at all – feel rushed and badly integrated with live action footage. This list of sins is long.

Even if we ignore this film’s shortcomings on the technical level, it is still easy to understand why so many people dislike it. There is no baroque stylishness of Ridley Scott’s Alien to be enjoyed, nor does this story excite and exhilarate as much as Aliens. After two grand entries, the filmmakers served something more muted and almost contemplative. The monster itself doesn’t really appear a lot – cuts are quick, a lot of close-ups. On top of that, three beloved characters get killed off right at the start. Which, of course, completely undid the hopeful climax of James Cameron’s chapter.

Fincher, whether by improvisations or design, creates a strange and uneasy mood, oppressive and nihilistic. In that sense, Alien 3 anticipates his later works such as Seven and Fight Club. The bleak autopsy scene is a perfect summation of this theme – the sweet innocent child is now a paper white corpse being dissected and examined. Things get bleak and all of that is additionally enhanced by stark, unglamorous and cold photography of Alex Thomson. Again, quite a shock to a regular cinemagoer.

Whatever issues one might have with Alien 3, one thing is certain: Sigourney Weaver’s performance improved considerably since the previous two films. In Ridley Scott’s original, she was merely a technician and her acting was mostly functional. Ellen was a vulnerable element and one of Nostromo crew’s weakest personalities. That in itself made her a perfect proxy for the audience. James Cameron gave her a little more to do; there are human traits to be explored and Ripley’s relationship with both Newt and Hicks served that purpose well. And that’s how we got to the third chapter. This time, the actress gets to explore much deeper. Her character is no rookie anymore. After so much suffering and losing everyone she cared about, there is an element of resignation to her actions and her heroism is muted and quiet. There’s no more fear left, not for herself anyway. It’s astonishing that throughout this series, Weaver got to explore different aspects of the same person and her story lends itself quite naturally to those three acts as different as they may be from each other.

What’s additionally interesting about Ripley is that this time her sexuality gets touched up upon. True, there was a subtle hint of romance between her and Hicks in Aliens, even if only in a very basic and platonic way. Seeing Ellen undressing in the very climax of Ridley Scott’s entry felt completely asexual as well. Perhaps refreshingly so, in a way. What makes it strange, however, is that H.R. Giger’s designs were extremely sensual and that discord between the two was intriguing. Then we got to (then) final chapter of this story, in which she, quite randomly, offers sex to Charles Dance’s Clemens. It’s a really awkward moment, originating perhaps from constant script rewrites. One might draw a conclusion, the character at this point needs to feel something human and direct. For someone who spent of their lives running, having simple needs like this might make sense. Even if narratively those elements feel rather jarring.

The prison colony population of Fiorina 'Fury' 161 has its obvious roots in Vincent Ward’s unmade version. That film would have been even more bizarre than anything other filmmakers even attempted in this series. The somewhat believable setting of both Alien and Aliens would be replaced by Bosch-like wooden planet populated by technology-free monastic society. That script played on the more hallucinatory and symbolic meaning, rather than a literal one. Some of those elements still remain in the finished film – especially the quasi-Chirstian religious themes. The xenomorph is often referred to as a dragon, which very much suits those medieval sensibilities. On top of that, a theme of penance runs through Alien 3 as a major thread. It’s interesting that Ripley also seems to have a need to atone for something, perhaps her unusually extended life feels like a curse in the light of not being able to keep her loved ones alive as well. Her ultimate demise seems like a relief from the horrors and the only logical solution (which, of course, got subsequently ruined by Alien: Resurrection).

What makes all of those themes even more poignant is the masterful score from Elliot Goldenthal. The music combines numerous contemporary Corigliano-like compositional techniques with subtle electronic textures and, yet again, Catholic Mass elements – the Latin “Lamb of God” metaphor serves an important purpose throughout the score. The results fit requirements of horror genre but also elevate it to more haunting and operatic proportions. There’s something beautiful about all this sonic brutality that this composer conjured for Fincher’s film. What is interesting, he might be the only person involved in making this project that remembers it fondly.

One cannot talk about Alien 3 and not mention multiple versions available. The situation of this film is quite unique. Apart from the theatrical cut, an extended so-called “Assembly Cut” was created eleven years after initial release. It’s not simply an expansion but a drastically different presentation, containing alternate scenes not appearing in official release. While neither of them really makes a very good film, they nevertheless offer a fascinating glimpse into filmmaking process and how changes are being applied in editing and reshoots. Definitely worth investigating.

Ultimately, Alien 3 is a strange beast, stuck between two worlds - good and bad films. It’s powerful emotional resonance and boldness are undeniable, as is an excellent performance from Sigourney Weaver. However, shortcomings are multiple and cannot be ignored either. David Fincher just released his tenth feature – Gone Girl (reviewed here). Whatever he might think of his very first project, let his subsequent output serve as proof that good things in it were not just happy accidents – there’s a real talent there. In the end, we’ve all seen worse films worthy of disowning. This one is a respectable attempt all around in comparison.

- Karol

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