Picking up where Aliens left off, the concluding part of the original trilogy, sees Ripley crash landing on a maximum security prison planet among murderers and rapists and yet another alien that has stowed away in her shuttle. An initially unsettling presence to the entirely male population “who have found God at the ass end of space”, she inevitably helps to organise the weaponless rabble against the alien.
Though never courting the same level of adoration as Scott’s Alien or Cameron’s Aliens, David Fincher’s film has a lot to recommend. There’s a coherent and focused story set within a context that gives the film a modest philosophical angle. Furthermore, stylistically speaking, it has a very strong sense of itself and no little amount of directorial class. The bridge between Aliens and this film is deftly constructed as credits are interrupted with snippets of the Sulaco’s ill fated return journey and of its face-hugging intruder. That style is stretched out more subtly throughout the remainder of the film reasserting itself fully only twice more. Once when Fincher and co. parallel the burial of Hicks and Newt with the birth of the mature alien (the “chest burster”) and again in the final scene. It’s this style that allows Fincher to crash the two ostensibly duelling themes of Alien 3 together, that of spiritualism and nihilism, while ultimately turning the entire film into a tome for a type of nihilistic spiritualism. It’s a clever conceit and one that is really quite effectively drawn out despite the director’s exit from the project before completion of post production.
Fincher’s withdrawal and his subsequent disowning of the movie was only one of several issues to arise during the production and the conveyor belt of script writers and treatments which ran through the project can be most clearly felt in how peripheral the actual alien becomes to the whole thing. There’s certainly an attempt to have the alien and Ripley define each other but the former pops up in such an understated manner that it inevitably drifts into the background. This leads us to the real problem with Alien 3, namely, that it never quite feels like it belongs to the same universe of the first two instalments. In addition to the alien playing second fiddle to Ripley, the production design, though rich and impressive, is exceptionally dreary and after a while, as the pessimism of the story bleeds through, it all begins to wear heavily. Moreover, whereas the first two films were strongly technological in their visual conception, the story here demands a technologically spare approach. All this makes Alien 3 the least visually interesting of the original trilogy and rather out on its own.
Of course, it could be argued that this distinction gives it a powerfully dark edge over the original films and the sinister manner in which “the company” is depicted in the final twenty minutes does support that. Nonetheless, there is one department where Alien 3 undeniably falls far short of its predecessors. The aforementioned disharmony in the last stages of post production ensured that the creature effects are inconsistent and often excruciatingly bad. Moreover, Alien 3 is a far less exciting movie as the action is restricted to the final act and with the restrictions in the story, it plays out in a comparatively flat manner when placed alongside Aliens and even Alien. That said, in the same way that Alien and Aliens were separable by genre (sci-fi horror vs action sci-fi respectively), Alien 3 can be simply understood to be maintaining that tradition by setting its stall out as a sci-fi drama. It certainly allows for greater exploration of the dramatic subplots and we see a new dimension to the well established character of Ripley as she and Charles Dance’s medical officer develop a brief but intriguing romantic partnership.
Dance is outstanding but this movie more so than any of the other movies in the franchise (four at this point not counting the recent Prometheus) is all about Sigourney Weaver. She hand picked writer David Giler and insisted Walter Hill be brought back on board to properly tease out Ripley’s potential and though the script was ultimately worked on by a troop of other writers, much of their contributions to her story were maintained. Weaver responded with a wonderful turn and one that is strong enough to shoulder the entire film. Ironic as it may appear, given she’s the only female cast member, that strength combined with some overarching themes of motherhood give the film a very feminine vibe. Fans of traditional horror won’t be too disappointed though because this, after all, is a David Fincher film and consequently there’s plenty of squirming scenes.
Overall, Alien 3 is a laudable effort to bring yet another layer to the franchise and indeed overcome the production issues which beset it from early on. It’ll always divide opinion among fans of that franchise and it’s the most independent in style but that just adds to its intrigue.
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