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On Second Thought: Alien³ (The Assembly Cut)

To celebrate the release of Prometheus this week, we’ll be taking a look at the other movies in the Alien franchise.

Alien and Aliens are, quite rightly, considered classics of the science-fiction horror subgenre, superbly constructed examinations of the monsters lurking in the darkness. Unfortunately, the two sequels, Alien³ and Alien Resurrection are not so highly regarded. One would imagine that producing a film about a monster in the future really wouldn’t be that difficult, but the films were both dogged by their own pre-production turmoil. In particular, this third film went through several painful iterations before reaching the big screen – and, even then, there was a sense that nobody was especially happy with the result.

However, this series of films has also benefited from a great deal of affection, attention and examination from both creators and fans. As such, it isn’t really a surprise that even the creators have returned to help patch them up from time to time, lovingly repairing and restoring and updating the installments in this landmark franchise. While Alien³: The Assembly Cut is not a literal Director’s Cut, it does afford the viewer a rare insight into what David Fincher’s version of the film might have looked like.

Back against the wall…

It is important to emphasise that this is not a “Director’s Cut” of the film. Fincher’s vision of the film was so seriously impeded by the executives and the powers that be that it was affected even before Fincher had started shooting – the director himself has come out and admitted that the only way we’ll ever see a true “Director’s Cut” of Alien³ is if Fincher actually re-shoots the film. However, The Assembly Cut was compiled by editor David Crowther from the workprint of the film, designed to offer a general feeling for Fincher’s cut of the film.

In a way, it feels almost like Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. Despite the fantastic work done on the Alien Anthology blu ray set, there are points where it is clear that the movie has been scraped together from bits and pieces. The sound mixing still feels faintly off in places, certain sequences feel a little rougher than they should. However, thanks to the care and attention put into it, it’s easy to look past the occasional production blemish and appreciate The Assembly Cut for what it sets out to do, offering a taste for a very different sort of film.

A Fury-ous storm rages…

Of course, it isn’t a classic. It couldn’t be, given the mess of the materials that editor David Crowther has to work with, themselves all messed up due to the masochistic pre-production process. However, it feels more like a worthy follow-up to the first two films, more of a thematic successor and an interesting movie in its own right. While Cameron’s extended edition of Aliens simply fleshed out and developed various threads and sub-plots that were already key to the theatrical cut, The Assembly Cut literally adds entire plotlines. There’s an entire sequence from the middle of film that was surgically removed from the version released in cinemas. The result left us with a film that felt like it had been through triage.

I really thought the extended and developed version truly elevated Alien³. For one thing, it really feels like a David Fincher film now, a film sitting alongside The Girl the Dragon Tattoo and se7en, exploring the strange links between violence, religion and sex. It isn’t that these themes weren’t present in the final released cut of the film, but they feel much more complete and developed here. There’s a greater sense of texture and Fincher’s thumbprint is a lot stronger.

Final cut…

I think that a director’s touch is an essential ingredient for a successful Alien film. These aren’t just generic monster movies, they all have a relatively unique feeling to them, even for a series with multiple installments. The strongest films in the series are very clearly products of a particular aesthetic. The more successful movies are ones where you can almost see the director’s signature. Aliens is very much a James Cameron film, as Alien is very much a Ridley Scott film. Finally, Alien³ feels like a David Fincher film.

And, indeed, more than ever before, it feels like an Alien film. Naturally, the series’ gender commentary was always present. This was, after all, the story of Ripley landing on a planet populated by men – a prison planet, no less, with a strong religious element. It was always there, but The Assembly Cut actually manages to emphasise the notion of a planet populated by “poor sinners in the hands of an angry God.”We get a bit more texture, a bit more background, a bit more direction.

We’re all (in)mates here…

Ripley was always a female character surrounded by men. In Alien, she proved the most effective member of the crew, and managed to survive rather than playing a victim. In Aliens, she proved a better leader of a macho military platoon than their commanding officer. Here, she’s out of place again – not only as a lone woman on an all-male penal colony, but as a woman in a monastery. Clemens describes the religion as “some sort of millenarian apocalyptic Christian fundamentalist brew.”

Befitting the series’ cynical outlook on life, they’re a bunch of powerless men waiting idly for God on an industrial wasteland. In the Year 2525 has been elevated to a hymn. Dillon, the religious leader, explains, “We are waiting for God to return and raise his servants to redemption.”They’ve evidently been waiting quite a while and will probably be waiting for a while longer.

A bad egg…

Once again, Ripley’s gender plays against her. There has, unfortunately, always been an inherent sexism in Christian dogma. Catholicism, for example, won’t allow women to serve as priests. Eve was the temptress in Eden, in most tellings – it wasn’t Adam’s weak will to blame, Eve was at fault. Here, Ripley seems to be squarely blamed for the weaknesses of the men around her. “I just want to say that I took a vow of celibacy,” Morse declares when Andrews reveals they have a guest. “That also  includes women. We all took the vow.  Now let me say, that I, for one, do not appreciate Company policy allowing  her to  freely intermingle.”

Dillon, re-states his position clearly, “What brother means to say is we view the presence of any outsider, woman, as a violation of the harmony, a potential break in the spiritual unity.” Andrews, the warden, places responsibility for the conduct of his inmates at Ripley’s feet. “I don’t want to disturb the order,” he states. “I don’t  want ripples in the water. And I don’t want a woman walking around giving them ideas.” Dillon’s initial conversations with Ripley seem almost antagonistic or adversarial. “We got lots of faith here,” he explains. “Enough even for you.” He tries to clarify that his position is purely institutional, “That’s just a statement of principle. Nothing personal.”

Dutton to do with this…

It’s an interesting idea, that Ripley herself is seen as the more abhorrent creature here. The Alien has been a monster of reproductive horror, designed by H.R. Giger to evoke the fear of rape. To the inmates, Ripley’s gender and femininity is inherently threatening and potentially destructive. To these inmates and their close-minded approach to sexuality, Ripley is a reproductive horror herself. It’s actually a very clever way of thematically linking Ripley and the Alien, building to the revelation that Ripley herself carries one of those monsters inside of here.

The presence of the Alien – an explicitly sexual monster – feels like it resonates on some level with the religious undertones of the film. The result of what can only be described as an “unholy” birthing process, the creature is a Freudian nightmare given tangible form. It seems an appropriate manifestation of evil for the inmates to confront. “We give you thanks, Oh Lord,” Dillon prays at one point. “Your wrath has come  and the time is near that we be judged.”The creature’s arrival – paired with that of Ripley – seems a strangely appropriate trial for an apocalyptic cult.

Was this the cause of death of the franchise?

In fact, the extended cut does an excellent job illustrating how Ripley herself has become increasingly dehumanised, to the point of arguably becoming a monster akin to the one she fights. The theatrical cut removed an entire subplot where Ripley captured the monster (appropriately named “the Beast” by the residents of the prison), but she did it by locking the creature inside a room with an inmate. She seals it inside while he is screaming. It foreshadows her later conversations about how the inmates must come to see themselves as expendable, while illustrating how detached Ripley has allowed herself to become.

It says a lot about how severely broken this version of the future is that these murderers and rapists are among the most heroic characters to appear in the series. Here, in this cut, even Dillon is portrayed as more fundamentally human than Ripley. “You don’t wanna know me,” he warns here. “I am a murderer and a rapist of women.”Despite that, it’s Dillon who is more able to emotionally connect (and appeal to) the men around him, and it’s Dillon who refuses to compromise by assisting Ripley in her suicide attempt. While Ripley is comfortable locking the alien in a room with a screaming inmate, Dillon almost dies pulling a seriously-injured colleague from its jaws.

Wey(land) out there…

It’s almost darkly humourous that this is the first film to feature Ripley having sex – these movies are, after all, reproductive horrors and there’s a strong sexual subtext running through the series. Ripley has been curiously asexual throughout the series. In fact, Ripley’s most intimate relationship in the series was with Hicks in the previous film, and yet it remained completely unconsummated. However, by Alien³, Ripley is so emotionally disconnected that she uses sex as a means to avoid answering any of Clemens’ questions.

Despite the fact the pair have sex, there’s no intimacy between them. Ripley is completely disconnected. “I’m on your side,” he pleads. “I want to help. But I need to know what’s  going on, or at least what you think is going on.” Interestingly, it also means that Clemens effectively suffers death-by-sex, being murdered by the creature only after he manages to foster a connection with Ripley – it’s normally female characters who suffer that fate, and it makes for a rather interesting inversion.

A flare for trouble…

Arguably, the development of Ripley’s disconnect somewhat justifies the unceremonious deaths of Newt and Hicks off-screen at the start of the film, as Ripley loses her surrogate nuclear family. In The Assembly Cut of Alien³, it seems even more apparent that Ripley’s quest against the monster is almost religious. Just as the inmates must sacrifice love and passion in service of their God, Ripley has given up everything to continue to fight “the Beast.” I’ll freely admit that some of the religious undertones felt a bit clumsy in the theatrical cut, but here it’s a lot more apparent what Fincher was trying to do.

The cut also gives us a much stronger sense of Fury 161. While the tweaking of the origin of the creature doesn’t seem especially important, save maybe theatrically (livestock being traditionally sacrificed for religious purposes), it does give us a broader idea of what life must like in this distant, lifeless future. Save the “shake and bake” colony on LV-426 in the previous film, we haven’t really seen what planet-based life must look like in an Alien film. Naturally, this is a prison, but it also seems a lot more “lived in” in this version of the film.

Holy cow…

I think that the great thing about the long pauses between the films means that each film reflects a consciously different era. Here, Fury 161 seems to reflect early nineties sense of urban decay. It is, after all, the only location in the first few films that seems to be built mainly of concrete and tile rather than the metallic and lifeless inside of a ship or an Ikea-style colony base. There’s graffiti on the walls, the facility seems to be in a state of constant disrepair.

In contrast to the grey shades of the earlier film, there’s a dull brown here – a sense that this future has been used and worn down. It seems so decayed that nobody really tries anything anymore. “They were gonna dump a lot of nuclear crap in there – store it in drums,” Aaron tells us about the facility they plan to use to hold the Alien. “They never got around to  it.” In this craptastic future, I have no difficulty believing that the toxic waste is instead residing at the bottom of some colony’s drinking water or under a school because Weyland-Yutani were too lazy to even ship it off to a waste of a prison planet. Even corruption seems half-assed.

“Oh, the lunch order’s arrived!”

I’d actually argue, even in the theatrical cut, that Alien³ probably has the strongest cast of any of these films – which is quite something for a star-studded series like this. I just think that Charles Dance and Charles S. Dutton work very well, developing their characters in a way that no other film in the series does. The Assembly Cut even includes a nice extended role for Doctor Who and Withnail and I actor Paul McGann which plays nicely into the themes of the film about religious fundamentalism and personal responsibility. The plotting is, of course, a little clumsy, but no more than some of the stuff in the theatrical cut.

Even after the careful and affectionate restoration, The Assembly Cut doesn’t elevate Alien³ to the status of a misunderstood classic. However, it does provide a hint of Fincher’s unique vision for the film, and add a considerable amount of depth to a fundamentally flawed film. It gives the film a much stronger sense of identity, and allows it to feel like a more solid follow-on from the earlier films. In fact, Ripley’s character arc seems to flow a lot more logically here than it did in the theatrical cut, and indeed the ending feels much more appropriate. In short, The Assembly Cut makes the film feel like a fitting attempt to round out the trilogy.

Scrap that!

It’s not perfect, and it’s not as good as the two films before it, but I would certainly feel more comfortable recommending the film. It’s proof that sometimes these cuts can make a massive difference to the films in question, but it’s also a testament to the love that many have for this series of movies.

You might be interested in our reviews of the other films in the Alien series:

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10 Responses

  1. It’s a testament to the cast and Fincher that anything remotely watchable emerged from this production. There was no singular vision for the film as Fincher was being pushed and pulled in every direction. Sets were being dressed to either be a Space Cathedral or heavy industrial in look. As a big admirer of Aliens the death of Newt was a total slight on Cameron’s film as Newt was the driving force of Ripley regaining some of her humanity and Hicks was also part of that narrative thrust. Michael Biehn made more money from his image being used in Alien 3 than he did for actually starring in Aliens. I can even remember a teaser for Alien 3 that teased a different movie. Had the tagline “This time it’s Earth”.

  2. Reblogged this on BookRepublic.

  3. Out of the three Alien films this one is my favorite. And I think that is because it has a definite ending. Which was a little heavy handed (with all the doors slamming shut at the end) but I liked it better than the uncertain endings of the first two. The characters also felt a little more developed, the first film had very good characters but they don’t develop, the second were mostly faceless (in my opinion).

    Also I’m a big fan of Warhammer 40k and this film contains a lot of similar elements.

    • I’m glad to see it get some love, Tim. I love the Assembly Cut, as much as it forms an outline of Fincher’s vision. I don’t think it’s quite as good as the first two, but I think it’s also unfairly ignored. I wish that – if Fincher couldn’t have made the movie he wanted – this would have been the cut released in cinemas.

  4. After the jingoistic & macho blowjob of ALIENS, the only thing I dont get about ALIEN 3 is its dumb-as-a-rubber-bumholes title. The nihilistic intro serves to return the series to its unforgiving roots, and give Ripley her will to self-destruct. Even after seeing the theatrical cut of this gum as an adolescent, the imagery lingered long in the memory and I was thrilled to discover the Assembly Cut, a version to truly spotlight the franchise’s dim witted followers. Don’t get me wrong, I adore ALIENS & can watch it repeatedly, which is more than I can say for ALIEN, which, although my favourite, has its time and place. As does ALIEN 3, which despite going back to basics examines the humanity at the source of the hellish adversity and provides a fitting end to the series (Resurrection does not exist in this dojo). This review is a superb examination of what makes this effort do enduring. In spite of his own adversity, Fincher did a supreme job, despite ‘The Company’ trying to fuck it up, and keep the Xenomorph for their own nefarious purposes.

  5. I love to Alien franchise (the first two films) so greatly that it’s been hard for me to even sit through “3” and “Resurrection.” Maybe this new cut of the third film will somewhat salvage Fincher’s go for me – maybe…

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