Today I continued my gradual trawl through the Alien Quadrilogy DVD set, watching Alien 3 for the first time in 7 or 8 years. It’s a much-maligned film, and while I remembered it as being pretty solid, I was expecting to think much less of it given that a lot of time has passed and how deeply impressive I found the first two films in the series to be when revisiting them over the last couple of months.
So I was surprised to discover that Alien 3 isn’t half bad. It’s not a great film, nor even a very good one, but it’s not a disaster. Director David Fincher offers a new take on the original’s one-monster-vs-group dynamic with characters that are decidedly less heroic but more proactive than those of Scott’s film. Ripley’s experience allows them to formulate a proper plan, which results in some stellar chase sequences including from the alien’s point-of-view. Plus, Sigourney Weaver is great yet again, really selling the emotional impact of her staggering bad luck with these bloody aliens, which this time has resulted in the death of Newt, who she came to love like a daughter in Cameron’s Aliens. Narrative decisions like this contribute to Alien 3’s unrelenting bleakness. The deaths are numerous and brutal, both the prisoners and their keepers cold and oppressive, and Ripley herself cannot catch a break – Newt and Hicks begin the film dead, the only other character she becomes attached to is slaughtered in front of her, and she has been impregnated with an alien herself. Although the ending allows Ripley to take a stand and decide her fate, this is not the triumphant conclusion to a trilogy.
I imagine it seemed incredibly difficult to follow up on Ridley Scott’s and James Cameron’s entries in the series, not just due to their calibre but because they used the alien in two completely different yet equally logical ways. Scott employed it in a pick-em-off horror picture, and Cameron followed a divergent path and used dozens of the creatures to craft an action/siege movie. Fincher and the screenwriters try to avoid repetition by placing Ripley and the alien in a new environment that’s hostile in its own ways, but Fiorina 161 and its prisoners are not compelling or well-developed enough to move Alien 3 into new territory beyond Scott’s original. Looking back from today’s era of ubiquitous sequels and trilogies, a more encompassing and epic story seems more appropriate for what was intended as the final instalment in the Alien series rather than this distinctive but insular monster movie. Cameron continued the plotline of the nefarious Company who wanted the alien for its own ends, and while they feature in Alien 3, nothing new is really offered. Instead of Ripley crash-landing on a planet, surely a more decisive resolution to this plot thread would have been more satisfactory, perhaps on Earth, so that the themes of playing God and the folly of controlling the uncontrollable could come to the forefront and give the third film a unique purpose in the series. An Aliens-on-Earth film has been fantasised about for decades, and it would have been a logical location for such an introspective theme and for the climax of a spacebound trilogy.
But for whatever reason, the producers of Alien 3 decided not to go in that direction. Besides, the film hardly had a smooth ride to the screen. Beset by script problems from day one (over thirty drafts were commissioned, including one by William Gibson) and the dismissal of original director Vincent Ward (The Navigator, What Dreams May Come), Alien 3 exuded portents of doom from the get-go. And this was not a film whose poor script was miraculously rescued by strong direction. Fincher rarely talks about this film these days, and declined the offer to create his own cut for the Quadrilogy simply because it would be impossible: the film was compromised before production even began, and to salvage it would be redundant (the Quadrilogy does feature a 30-minute longer ‘assembly cut’ that represents the film before outside editing took hold and will be intriguing to watch, but a Fincher cut is unavailable and implausible). I’d be interested to discover how much of the conflict came from the core concept of the film rather than on-set disputes. Were other, grander plot ideas ever mooted? Perhaps budget concerns for Aliens on Earth scuppered a more epic instalment. But then, such a film would have risked resemblance to Cameron’s film instead of Scott’s, which encapsulates Alien 3’s fundamental obstacle.
It’s redundant now, of course, as this and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection have tarnished the series for many, and to resuscitate it now would seem necrophilic, despite James Cameron and Ridley Scott’s rumoured discussions a few years ago regarding a fifth instalment. The franchise’s time has passed. But Alien 3 still stands as a decent movie, albeit an empty one. It lacks the precision and control of Scott’s film and the masterful carnage of Cameron’s. To be honest, it probably shouldn’t have been made at all, as the first two films did tremendous things with the novel Alien concept. But it stands as a captivating footnote in film history of how a series can turn sour and how studio financial considerations can hijack a movie. Watching Charles de Lauzirika’s documentary on the film in this set should prove riveting, even though the real meat has allegedly been cut out by Fox, cautious about public insight into its past indiscretions and power trips. It will be a shame not to witness the full explanation behind this unfortunate project, but this can stand alongside the series conclusion fans of dreamed of in the annals of unseen stories.