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Non-Review Review: Alien³

Alien³ is generally regarded as an inferior Alien film, and the start of a slippery slope that would lead us through Alien: Resurrection into Aliens vs. Predator and even Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. It’s also regarded as something of a hiccup in the career of David Fincher, and an example of how meddling from greedy corporate executives can potential derail the rise of a young talent. That’s a lot of pressure for a single film to carry – particularly one which has enough trouble standing on its own two feet. However, I am quite fond of this particular incarnation of the franchise. Not enough to call it a “classic” or even “great”, but enough to argue that it was a relatively brave and ultimately valid experiment for the franchise – much more so, arguably, than the fourth film.

It’s an emotional reunion, to say the least…

In many ways, Alien 3 seems intent on pretending that Aliens never happened. It’s a very definite continuation of Ridley Scott’s Alien, at the expense of James Cameron’s follow-up. Here, Ridley’s transmission identifies her as “the last survivor of the Nostromu” rather than of the colony. The bizarre sexual imagery which peppered the design of the original film (right down to giger’s phallic design of the monster itself) is brought back to the fore here, with Ripley finding herself a lone woman trapped in a prison facility that is also run by clerics. The facility couldn’t be more sexually repressed if it tried. The script clears away the clutter from Cameron’s script swiftly – killing off the other survivors in their sleep. And thus it sets the tone for the film, one which is arguable more in step with the original than the sequel: there is no such thing as a happy ending.

It’s dripping with atmosphere – a gothic horror in the future. Even the storm outside feels more like a staple from an old English novel rather than a follow-on from the atmospheric disturbances in Cameron’s Aliens. It’s all lit in shades of gold and brown, lending it a sort of classical decayed appearance. It harks back to Ridley Scott’s Nostromo sets, the sense of a future that has been lived in. On the other hand, the aesthetic isn’t exactly the most visually stimulating and makes quite a change from the techno-chic with its sterile shades of black, white and grey. It’s certainly interesting as an experiment – I find it somewhat refreshing in its aesthetic differences from the other films in the franchise. It doesn’t feel as markedly different as the films that would follow, but it does feel decided distinct from what came before – while still feeling somewhat related.

Needs shot in the arm…

The film does have its problems. It has some pacing issues, and can’t decide whether it’s more interested in the alien creature or the inmates of the penitentiary. It also makes the somewhat risky (at the time) choice of rendering the creature through CGI. It was the nineties, so the technology wasn’t there to render the effects as well as they deserved to be rendered, but even by the standards of the time – think Terminator 2 – the special effects aren’t so special. The CGI is particularly conspicuous because the movie alternates between actors and models and computer-generated imagery. It tends to diminish the impact of the creature, quite a bit.

On the other hand, the performances are solid. Sigourney Weaver is excellent as always (even in the darkest days of the franchise, she was superb), but she’s ably selected by an assortment of respected character actors – including Charles Dance and the superb Charles Durning (that man was born to give stirring speeches). Fincher drew in an extremely talented British supporting cast, and it’s fun to spot familiar faces among the assorted inmates, including future Doctor Who Paul McGann and the wonderfully talented Pete Postlethwaite. Of course, none of the characters are drawn particularly well (with the exceptions of the two played by Dance and Durning – but that might be the performances), and have a tendency to blur into one another.

Too late for a franchise autopsy?

In the movie’s defense, it brings the saga a complete circle. The ending seems perfectly suited as the closing moment of a trilogy – regardless of the difficulty the movie has in getting there. It’s a fitting conclusion to Ripley’s story, one which has been intertwined with the creature. While I’m still not convinced the script needed to clear the slate by killing the other survivors of Aliens, it serves a blunt example of how much this beast has cost Ellen Ripley.

However, the consequence of tying this back in is that the series feels like it mostly ignores the middle part of the trilogy (despite a token appearance from Bishop). Given that Cameron’s sequel improved on an incredible original film, it seems particularly harsh for a follow-up to pretty much ignore it. There might have been a better way for the movie to integrate the conflicting themes of the first two movies, rather than picking one at the expense of the other.

Not as monstrous as its reputation suggests…

Of course, one can forgive the film a lot of flaws by examining its chequered production history. Indeed, the movie went through several unsuccessful iterations before settling on the idea of the prison planet, and it arguably went through several more iterations after Fincher finished shooting it. The result a jumbled mess that feels consciously hacked together at points. One can only detect the faintest trace of Fincher in the end product, with a lot of the juicier Fincher-esque material (linking religion, sex and violence, as he did in se7en or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) only barely visible.

Alien³ isn’t a classic by any stretch of the imagination – it isn’t a success measured by the impressive yardstick of its two direct predecessors – but it is a relatively entertaining film, with a few moments of greatness thrown in. Unfortunately, it ends up as a bit of a jumbled mess, unsure whether it’s going one way or the other (indeed, the long production history suggests that we are lucky it didn’t end up a complete disaster on its own terms).

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

4 Responses

  1. I’m glad you found a lot to like in Alien 3. I was one of many who couldn’t stand it when I first saw the film but realised I was unfairly comparing it to the first two films. On subsequent viewing it stands up well as it’s own film – it isn’t like the first two, just as Aliens was very different to Alien. And, if we’re speaking of comparisons – it’s head and shoulders above Alien 4 and the AvP films. I tried to sing its praises in my review: http://www.top10films.co.uk/archives/367

    • Yep. Not a classic, but better than it’s given credit for. Did I hear there was a Director’s Cut out there somewhere?

  2. Yes there is a directors cut / extended version. I have it on DVD and there are a couple of extra scenes in it that are pretty interesting. I forget the name of the crazy guy but when he goes to let the alien out he slits the guards throat in a really nasty way with a razor. I will never forget that scene. :-/

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