[I recently ran a poll on my social media over which sci-fi classic film series I would be covering over the next few weeks, and the winner--by a slim margin--was this one. To have a say in future polls, make sure you're following me on Facebook, and if you want to have even more influence on the topics I cover, consider joining my Patreon.]
Considering the insanity behind the scenes surrounding the third entry in the Alien series, it's pretty remarkable that Alien³ even exists. There were several working scripts that were sewn together to make the final product, which was still being written well into principle photography. It was built off of several--sometimes conflicting--ideas about where the series should go after Aliens, and it was ultimately directed by a man who'd never directed a feature film before. That director, David Fincher, was interfered with so much by ever-changing studio mandates and whims that he would eventually disown the final product and does not answer questions about it today. The fact that the movie isn't a total disaster, though, can be chalked up to Fincher's since-proven skill as a director, and looking back on Alien³ now, you can see his influence.
On its own merits and without consideration of the previous films in the series, this is a stylish little sci-fi/slasher movie. Sure, it's existentially brutal and down-beat, but it contains some magnificent acting, especially from Charles S. Dutton and Charles Dance. The set design and general aesthetic of the film are absolutely brilliant, and Elliot Goldenthal delivers a memorable score that feels tempestuous and operatic. In its day, the visual effects were groundbreaking enough to earn prestigious awards, though they have aged pretty badly. As for the story, there are a few interesting ideas and some inventive action set pieces that make this entertaining enough for casual audiences.
Granted, it's Charles Dance
As a direct sequel to Aliens, though, it's pretty disappointing. During the opening credits, it undoes the hope and redemption of the previous film by mercilessly slaughtering Newt and Hicks off-screen. What follows is a story that takes place in a far more bleak and depressing universe where a group of outcast, irredeemable criminals futilely search for meaning "in the ass end of space." Ripley's character arc makes a lot less sense, forcing her to start from a place where everything she'd worked for is lost and then turning her into a one-woman crusader who sacrifices her life to destroy the alien before the evil company can get its hands on it. (There is a weird digression in which she gets romantically involved with a disgraced doctor, which unceremoniously goes the way of every human relationship she's ever forged, but that seems to have little bearing on her character progression.)
Sequels in long-running franchises often run up against this problem. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines undoes the hopeful conclusion of Terminator 2; Star Trek III: The Search for Spock cheapens Spock's sacrifice and kills off Kirk's son, effectively rendering the previous film moot; etc. There comes a point where a story has effectively been told as completely as it can be, and any attempt to resurrect it--especially using the same characters as before--requires walking back its conclusion. Think of Annie Wilkes' complaint about those old adventure serials, where the hero is seen at the end of one episode falling off a cliff, but at the start of the next, he is shown to have never actually fallen.
Taking the rape analogy a bit literally
The producers of Alien³ faced a few significant problems in following up Aliens, but nearly all of them centered around their insistence on keeping Ripley front and center. Granted, a sequel that didn't include Sigourney Weaver's heroine would have faced its own unique challenges, but it would have been easier to craft a satisfying narrative that didn't reverse the relatively happy ending of Aliens had they gone with a different protagonist. To this day, I'm not totally convinced that the Alien franchise is devoid of stories to tell, but the script for Alien³ is a fairly good example of a franchise going more backward than forward.
The reversal of Ripley's fortunes, however, is not the only problem. The script also falls victim to multiple plot contrivances and conveniences that strain the suspension of disbelief. The Sulaco escape vehicle just happens to crash, not only on a planet with a breathable atmosphere, but on the one place on the whole of a barren world where there happens to be a colony that just so happens to have no weapons. The alien face-hugger uncharacteristically hides until it can stealthily find a host that nobody notices has been incapacitated by it. Several characters are killed off the second they become troublesome for the plot (Warden Andrews), once they've outlived their usefulness (Dr. Clemens), or in ways that are coincidentally believable as being something akin to natural (Murphy and the fan). A lot of this, no doubt, can be chalked up to the way the script was being written during filming, but it still comes across in the final product as feeling a bit cheap and lazy.
This one shot almost makes it worth it
On the other hand, Fincher manages to film each death with style, flexing filmmaking muscles that would go on to serve him well in serial killer movies like Se7en and Zodiac, not to mention the exceptional Netflix series, Mindhunter. He makes the most of a fairly average script, and in the hands of a lesser director, Alien³ could have easily gotten lost in the sea of mediocre sequels that plagued the eighties and nineties, earning more money in video rentals than in box office receipts.
As with Aliens, there is an extended cut of Alien³, the so-called "Assembly Cut," which is largely superior to the theatrical version, despite a handful of notably terrible visual effects sequences and some poor audio mixing in the added scenes. However, the Assembly Cut doesn't add anything that drastically affects the characters or the themes of the film, so it's not quite as essential as the Director's Cut is for Aliens. I still recommend it, though, because it fills in a few gaping plot holes and feels more appropriately paced.
I don't personally dislike Alien³, nor am I particularly thrilled by the idea of Neil Blomkamp or some other filmmaker coming along one day and erasing it from the series' continuity. (The Annie Wilkes in me absolutely hates the "soft reboot" trend of picking and choosing your continuity.) It's not a satisfying follow-up to Aliens, but it is a film that stands pretty well on its own, a kind of funereal dirge that fits better into David Fincher's filmography than it does the Alien franchise. It's certainly not on the same level as its predecessors, but it shouldn't be written off. Now, as for the fourth entry in the series, I've got a review for that as well.
-e. magill 3/19/2020
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