With the release of Prometheus next year, I felt it was time to re-examine the merits and failures of Alien 3, which has to be one of the most hated and confusing sequels to a big time sci-fi series.
Actually, the various screenplays and ideas that were created when 20th Century Fox was trying to get a third Alien movie off the ground are actually more interesting than what was eventually put on screen, but that’s for another time (if you do want to catch up on that, I recc “The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made”, which is somewhat dated, as many of those movies were eventually made, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.)
The reality of Alien 3 is that it represents different pieces from all those screenplays, and it’s at best an incomplete idea. I saw it in theaters with my pops back in 92, and I had no idea what I was watching. My pops outright hated it, and he’s not alone in that feeling.
People loved Alien/Aliens so much that I think it was probably inevitable that no matter what the third movie ended up being, it was destined to disappoint on some level, but it seemed, and seems, that the filmmakers almost wanted to assault the fans with the third movie, which is dark and brooding and weird and not very fun at all.
If the original was the haunted house version of the story, and the second is the action movie version, than the third is likely the religious version of the story, but that’s not really true either because they really pulled back on making a full blown religious allegory for the creatures. But I’m getting ahead here.
The third flick starts with survivors Ripley, Hicks and Newt being attacked by a face hugger, causing their pod to be ejected from the Sulaco and crash landing on a prison planet, which is populated by men who have turned to a life not unlike that of monks. They are serving their time for violent crimes, but many have chosen to serve it dedicated to a higher power. Then the Alien plants its seed in a dog and it bursts out and the chaos begins.
I really have no issue with this set up because it makes sense. The Alien Queen was on the ship in the conclusion of Aliens, so it would not be too far of a stretch to think she might have laid an egg or two while lying in wait for Ripley and their fight.
But they kill off two very important characters in the first five minutes, and that really scrambled people’s minds and just pissed them off I think. Ripley fought awful hard to save Newt, and Hicks, in Aliens, and to just wipe them out was a very odd choice.
But, that’s okay, too. Because if they really wanted to make a dark, nasty, sonofabitch of a movie, that’s the best way to go about it. Put our hero in a position where she has nothing left to lose and it definitely creates a sense of total abandon. What is Ripley capable of if she doesn’t care if she lives or dies? What could she really do if there was truly nothing to lose?
But instead, Ripley just ends up in shock the whole movie, and she never really cares about kicking ass or being in control. Instead, they cut her off at the knees and render her impotent.
Which, again, is fine. As long as she has some sort of coming out party near the conclusion. Instead, she seems like a passenger in her own movie. That happens to her in the first two, until she decides to take control. But she never does that. Instead, she remains suicidal and morose and detached because she’s impregnated with one of the little things and just fumbles from scene to scene for two hours.
Which, again, is fine. And to keep myself talking in circles any longer, this is really the whole problem of the movie. Not the set up, not the location, not even the conclusion. They simply had no idea what to do with Ripley, which is their greatest failure. The set up should have led to Ripley’s greatest moment, but she whimpers off, kills herself and then it just ends. Well, until she’s cloned and returns for a truly shitty sequel, but that’s for another time.
Alien 3 gets a lot wrong, but they get some stuff right, and it has never gotten any credit for those things. They did mess a lot of it up. But the reality is that Alien 3 has most of what you would come to expect from an Alien movie: tight atmosphere, all out dread, dealing with something most of the characters don’t understand, a unique visual design, a cool alien, Ripley and claustrophobic confines. It just doesn’t quite work or come together and it just seems like a weird, misguided, attempt to make an Alien movie.
A lot of the blame fell on David Fincher. But things worked out for him pretty good, so no need to worry. The blame should fall on David Giler and Walter Hill, who really ended up trying to cobble together something from all the other screenplays that came before. That’s really the weirdest thing, because they produced two classics, previously.
Also, the real hate should be directed toward the fourth movie, which really bastardizes the whole series. Resurrection is so fucking stupid that I can’t believe it was even made, and I actually paid to see it in 97. Fuck that movie. Even with Ron Perlman in it, the whole thing fucking sucks.
To that end, at least they tried with this one, tried to make a real Alien movie, instead of some cloning plot with Winona Ryder stunt casted as an android.
Alien 3 shouldn’t be condemned, I just think people should be more realistic about it is all. It’s not too bad, or good, it’s just not quite right. It’s a miss, at best.
That’s very non-committal, I realize, but I think the filmmakers are responsible for that. Characters are wholly underwritten, subplots are abandoned or not properly served and you never get a feel of the geography of the prison facility.
But Ripley had to die and it makes sense that Ripley would be faced with some heavy theological questions at this point. She survived some real wild shit, and now, facing her own death and the death of those she’s loved through the years, it’s easy to see that she would explore some of these questions. They just pulled back on it is all. Which is another great sin, I think.
Back to the religious feel of the movie: to fully appreciate this approach it’s necessary to watch the Workprint version of the movie, which restore over 30 minutes and changed around a lot of what was eventually released in theaters.
The religious components are greatly enhanced with the Workprint version, which really deserves its own review. But, the Workprint version gives you a greater sense of what these guys believe – a kind of apocalyptic-Waco-Judeo-Christian type of thing – and the presence of the Alien only solidifies their beliefs: the end of days is upon them and face of that evil is truly frightening. Injecting these things into a closed society would have that kind of effect, I think, where people would likely feel their convictions have been vindicated. The arrival of the devil is some crazy shit, especially when you’re isolated from the entire universe.
The Workprint version also greatly enhances Charles S. Dutton’s character as their spiritual leader. He was wholly underserved in the theatrical version and he almost seemed like an afterthought. He really matches Sigourney Weaver beat for beat in the Workprint version, and he’s so crucial to what the message or purpose of the prison is that his expanded role almost makes it an entirely different movie by itself.
So much is switched around and different with the Workprint version, that the little changes and beats mean a whole hell of a lot to the story. I felt like I was watching it for the first time, in a way. And it also made it feel like a ‘David Fincher’ movie, if there is such a thing, which was an interesting surprise.
Some changes: Ripley washes ashore instead of being rescued directly from the pod; the alien gestates in an Ox instead of a dog; Ripley’s detached behavior is somewhat explained, as being awakened from hypersleep causes the body to react as if it has the flu; as stated before, there are longer scenes of the prisoners leaning on their faith through prayer and habit; they actually capture the Alien, but its eventually released by one of the prisoners who comes to view the Alien as his new god; lots of establishing shots of the prison, the planet and the interior give the viewer a better sense of where they are and geography of the prison; the alien doesn’t burst out of Ripley when she plummets to her death.
Overall, Ripley’s behavior makes a lot more sense with the Workprint version, but, we’re talking about the Theatrical version here and in that version you catch glimpses of what could have been a really unique, new and interesting entry into the Alien mythology. And make no mistake; Alien 3 completely serves what came before it, both in story and approach. And it’s a really fitting ending to the trilogy. If you consider what movies David Fincher made after this, you get the feeling, even with the theatrical version, that he was poised to make something worthy of what came before it.
The bottom line is that the movie is an incredible disappointment and a let down on many levels, there’s no denying it. But I think it has aged well, and its important to re-examine it, nearly 20 years later. There’s a lot to appreciate here.
It’s so dark and hopeless, and that’s something that is so important to the series, that lack of hope. They just turned it up to eleven and didn’t deliver on the ending. Sins, I realize. But go back and check it out. Its pretty interesting, even though it’s a mess.