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Critical Reevaluation: Alien 3
June 5, 2012Posted by on
Most film critics widely regard Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens as untouchable masterpieces of their respective genres (sci-fi/horror and action). Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection, however, are both generally considered flawed at best and downright awful at worst. While I can’t speak for Resurrection (at least not yet…), I wanted to give Alien 3 another shot. The circumstances I first saw the film in were probably not the best to ultimately judge it by. So I thought, with Ridley Scott’s would-be Alien prequel Prometheus opening this coming Friday, that now would be a great time to check out the second Alien sequel and see if time has been kinder to it throughout the years.
Hard as it may seem to believe, I remember the Alien 3 theatrical release and the considerable build up of hype that came with it. I should note I never saw this movie in theaters as it was rated-R, and I wasn’t allowed to see R movies until high school. I turned ten the year Alien 3 came out, but I was already a huge fan of the series. Aliens was my favorite movie at the time — I had seen it over and over again on cable TV, where it had been edited substantially for viewing audiences and formatted to fit my screen more appropriately. I wanted nothing more than to see Alien 3, but it was not to be. I remember an older cousin had gone to see it, and had less than kind things to say about it. I remember the disappointing box office grosses and the intensely negative fan reaction (yes I studied box office charts in the newspaper every week as a kid… I know how sad that sounds). And yet, I still wanted to see it. It was another Alien movie! How could it be bad? Building off the excellent sequel to one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, Alien 3 just had to deliver the goods, right?
It is important to remember that Alien 3 is twenty years old at this point. Several cinematic lifetimes have come and gone since the movie was released into theaters in May 1992. So when I finally saw it years later, edited for TNT or TBS (much the same way I had seen Aliens all those years earlier), it was no longer all that new, special, or interesting to me. I had moved on in that time span to Jurassic Park, Independence Day, Men in Black, and other sci-fi/action films released throughout that era. By the time I saw Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection was almost ready to be released in theaters. Thus, I saw this movie out of its era and out of its context. And while what I saw couldn’t really be called “great” by any stretch, I did not find Alien 3 to be as odious as many others had.
I recently purchased the Alien Anthology Blu Ray set, which is one of the best reasons to own a Blu Ray player there could be (I waited for the price to drop from a super high $80 to a more manageable $40). The first (and only so far) film I’ve watched from the set was Alien 3. So why, if it’s at least my third favorite film in the bunch, would I watch it first? The Alien Anthology set contains a cut of the film known as “The Assembly Cut.” I had never seen this particular version of the film before, though I had long heard it was far better. Alien 3 had a particularly troubled development period, going through at least four different screen writers and three potential directors before filming. Ultimately, the film began shooting without a final script, and first-time director David Fincher (of Fight Club and Social Network fame) had to tinker and rewrite the script (uncredited obviously) just to finish things up. This is never a good sign for a movie production.
If that wasn’t enough for a young, inexperienced Hollywood director (Fincher was primarily known for innovative music videos), film studio Fox and several prominent executives and producers (namely, Walter Hill and David Giler) battled Fincher throughout production for control of the movie. After Fincher had finally completed his version of the film, Giler and Hill allegedly edited it substantially. The problem was that the Hill/Giler cut made less sense story-wise, excising the back story of and motivations for a key character. The Assembly Cut of Alien 3 is, apparently, much closer to Fincher’s vision (although Fincher declined to work on the Anthology set, apparently still bitter, perhaps rightfully so, about his experience on the film). Having seen it, the Assembly Cut makes a whole lot more sense than the theatrical version. It also helps that this twenty year old film has been digitally cleaned up in many places as well.
The main problems in Alien 3 still exist, however. It is completely stupid and illogical to kill off Hicks and Newt at the beginning of the film. I have read that the tone of Alien 3 was meant to be nihilistic, and their deaths (off-screen, mind you) play into a feeling of nihilism greatly. I can appreciate that attempt to establish tone, but after what the characters (and the viewers) went through during the events of Aliens, it is really difficult to see them killed off in such a fashion. The biggest argument for their deaths is that the Alien franchise is really Ripley’s story. Indeed, earlier drafts of the film had the plot of Alien 3 depicting primarily Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn) as the protagonist (and Sigourney Weaver apparently gave this her blessing). Fox had to fight for the inclusion of Ripley, and then had to pay Weaver a substantial salary (5 million dollars, in 1992 money) and give her a producer credit to get her involved again. The problem is that it doesn’t solve the audience’s desire to see more Hicks and Newt.
Another problem with the movie is that it is really fucking grim. It is the most grim and hopeless movie in the franchise, hands down. The prison planet itself is an entirely unattractive, dark, and cold locale where nothing works. It is also populated with men who have done absolutely unspeakable things in their pasts, leaving the audience feeling entirely unsympathetic with them when they inevitably die at the hands of the xenomorph. Charles S. Dutton, portraying the religious zealot Dillon, even describes himself as a murderer and rapist of women (though he does come to Ripley’s aid several times throughout the movie and serves as something of a moral compass for the other prisoners). The most sympathetic character in the film (outside of Ripley) is Dr. Clemons (the great Charles Dance), who is ostensibly the main character for the first third of the film. Dance’s performance is fantastic as the troubled Medical Officer with a dark secret in his past. He seems to be acting in a much better, more interesting movie as well. It’s just too bad he’s one of the first ones to get picked off.
In our recent Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (another flawed movie) podcast, I noted that my biggest issue with the film was its script. I feel the same way about Alien 3. This feels like several movies stitched together into one, and it indeed was. Original drafts had large portions of the film taking place on earth, with Hicks and Bishop (Lance Henriksen) as the main characters squaring off against aliens like the gung ho marines of the second film. Another draft took place on a planet populated by monks who built their structures and buildings primarily out of wood, which would have looked especially amazing in 1992 when it would have to be practical sets and not just a CGI effect (this was also apparently the best of the scripts). Filmmaker and screenwriter David Twohy (of Pitch Black fame) contributed a script that took place on a prison planet. Ultimately, producers Hill and Giler combined the scripts, leaving the movie feeling non-cohesive in spots.
Despite my innumerable criticisms of Alien 3, I still like the film. I’ve long championed films that I find to be interesting failures, because at least they inspire conversation. Weaver’s performance as Ripley remains magnanimous, and is her best and most career-defining role. Fincher’s directorial style is also apparent here, even in his young age. It is easy to see the industrial-tinged sets of Alien 3 as a clear inspiration for later films like Seven and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Supporting cast members like the aforementioned Charles Dance as well as Ralph Brown (one of the very few sympathetic characters in the movie) are great. Set design and special effects are fantastic too. The alien is thankfully still primarily a puppet and puppeteer/human performer, although there are a few green/blue screen shots that I imagine looked awesome in 1992 (and still look ok to be honest). The bulk of the film looks absolutely amazing. The planet Fury 161 looks especially great on Blu Ray, with the shores and crashing water looking unforgiving and appropriately alien and uninviting. The final scenes, wherein the surviving prisoners attempt to trap the creature in a lead refinery withing the larger facility, are pretty exciting as well.
I still can’t exactly call Alien 3 a good film. It has some pretty good, maybe even great, parts in it. But it’s not a good movie. It was a critical and commercial failure and earned heaps of scorn at the time it was released, but it definitely doesn’t deserve that reputation either. Additionally, I wouldn’t exactly call Alien 3 a middling, mediocre film either. It doesn’t fit neatly into any of our preconceived notions about what a film should be. It’s just an interesting failure; it’s part of the pantheon of sci-fi sequels that fell just short. The difference is that it is clear that the people behind the scenes of Alien 3 loved the source material. This was not a cash-in on the franchise like it could have been. Someone somewhere tried to make the movie as good as they could. Maybe they recognized that the film just wouldn’t be as good as the first two no matter what and did what they could to make Alien 3 a notable movie. I’d like to think that whoever did this did so because they thought it would at least make things more interesting. It was probably impossible to replicate the critical and commercial success of the first two films, but I’m at least glad someone tried.