David Fincher faced the impossible task of completing a perfect trilogy, but is the much maligned Alien 3 worthy of reappraisal thirty years on?
Reappraisals of late 20th century movies are so abundant they’re on the verge of becoming passé. Nostalgia certainly plays a part in our rekindled love for past misfires, but like anything cyclical there’s a generational shelf life, eras eventually lost to the sands of cinematic evolution. We’re not quite there yet, audiences still head over heels with the 80s and 90s, but beyond sentiment there’s always the danger of succumbing to the fickle nature of hip contrariness. People like an outsider, but once a bandwagon picks up enough momentum, many jettison in search of the next countercultural eureka. It’s sometimes difficult to gauge where critical conviction ends and personal gratification begins.
Another reason for late 20th century movie reappraisals is the birth of the franchise and the countless sequels, prequals and reboots that audiences have been subjected to in recent years. Movies have become the victim of hypercapitalism in the 21st century, Disney and the Marvel Cinematic Universe devouring traditional cinema like a merchandise-spewing monster with dollar-emblazoned eyeballs, the likes of Martin Scorsese shunned by streaming platforms for their low cultural marketing potential. In a CGI heavy climate of regurgitated thrills and spills, movies have become fairground attractions that tap into existing properties, slashing marketing costs by offering characters and settings that are immediately identifiable. In an era embodied by superheroes and returning horror attractions, when was the last time a truly iconic character was forged without the aid of past glories?
When those attractions failed to live up to unrealistic expectations, it was only inevitable that audiences would look to the past. Many outsiders were dredged from the graves of franchise ignominy as studios tried and failed to recapture the glory days for modern audiences. 1990’s Predator 2, once written off as a creative flop, looks pretty damned impressive when compared with the miserably mishandled Alien vs Predator films, which managed to tarnish the legacy of two franchises in one merchandise-peddling swoop. Halloween II and Halloween III: Season of the Witch have garnered loyal followings after years of Michael Myers mishandlings, and will likely continue to do so following the recent Halloween Ends, which desperately tried something new having written Michael into a hyper-invincible corner (though don’t be surprised if that particular movie benefits from a future reappraisal of its own with its perplexing plot developments and burgeoning outsider status). Freddy’s Revenge, Hellbound: Hellraiser II and Friday the 13th: A New Beginning have all been treated to newfound fanfare in recent years. Even colossal dud Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines has been given a new lease of life in some corners, but there’s one film that trumps them all in terms of reassessment intrigue.
1992’s Alien 3 arguably qualifies most for genuine reappraisal, despite its propensity to divide opinion like a screeching buzz saw set to purify. For one thing it was the debut film of world class director David Fincher, whose subsequent films Se7en and Fight Club helped define the 90s ― an incredible feat given Alien 3‘s critical fallout. Movies such as 1997’s The Game ― another effort worthy of modern reappraisal ― and later Panic Room, Zodiac, The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, would earn Fincher a series of Best Director nominations and one win, so it’s no surprise that he would all but disown Alien 3, the solitary smear on his enviably flawless resume. Not even the studio’s ‘Assembly Cut’, pieced together by cast and crew members in an attempt to salvage Fincher’s original vision from the ruins of a notoriously difficult production, helped sway the opinion of a filmmaker who would seemingly like to put the whole ordeal behind him forever.
[to the Alien] You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else.Ellen Ripley
Of all the threequels destined for the anticlimactic pits of despondency, Alien 3, perhaps rivalled only by Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, was set to be the most problematic when word reached audiences a half-decade on from its rip-roaring predecessor. The common denominator and proverbial fly in the ointment was blockbuster specialist James Cameron, who ingeniously flipped the script on both his breakout film The Terminator and Ridley Scott’s seminal Alien to devastating creative and commercial effect, deftly capitalising on two pitch-perfect movies by forging two equally flawless sequels. 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, then the most expensive and profitable film to date, was less a numbered sequel, more a cultural happening, ground-breaking stunts, eyewatering special effects and an exquisitely tweaked script forging one of the most astonishing action vehicles of any era, leaving the inevitable Terminator 3, a movie wracked by complacency, dead in the water. Retaining Arnie as the film’s marquee attraction by modifying the T-800 and presenting him as a morally adaptive antihero was an inspired manoeuvre that proved infinitely fresh and rewarding.
Like Terminator 2, Cameron’s Aliens, released seven years after Alien (1986), veered away from the desolate shadows of straight-up horror for an action spectacular that managed to retain an essence of the original movie. Driven by balls-to-the-wall action and emboldened by pitch-perfect horror flourishes, the movie solidified H.R. Giger’s fearsome eyesore, the xenomorph, as cinema’s most terrifying creation, leaving the likes of Jaws flopping in the shallows of obsolescence like a helpless goldfish gulping down its last breath. Scott’s seminal, space-bound slasher-come-monster movie, teeming with the suspense-ridden isolation of outer space, could never be surpassed, nor could Cameron’s high-tech action assault, which is presumably why another potential script for Alien 3, a mouth-watering war between humans and xenomorphs set on Earth, never materialised. Blockbuster sequels generally took the bigger is better approach back in the early 90s, but who on Earth could do bigger is better like Cameron, the era’s blockbuster artiste? The chance to revive one of the most iconic concepts in modern cinema must have been music to the ears of a rookie like Fincher, but as the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for.
Alien 3 begins where Aliens left off, but the imagined hope of hyper sleep following Ripley’s conquering of the xenomorph queen quickly gives way to a tantalisingly shot and edited stowaway enacting brutal vengeance. Whatever you think of Hollywood embellishment Newt, a character who proved as annoying to some as she was vital to the hugely rewarding maternal aspect of Aliens, you wouldn’t wish the opening scenes of Alien 3 on anyone, let alone a minor, even if, cradled by cryonic stasis, she isn’t conscious enough to experience any of it. When the child is abruptly announced dead after a newly-hatched facehugger starts a fire on the Colonial Marine spaceship Sulaco, causing an escape pod to crash-land on a maximum-security correctional facility, it sets the tone for a sequel bathed in the rusted palette of hopelessness, but when an onboard doctor unceremoniously splits her ribcage in search of a potential alien embryo, you begin to realise exactly what you’re in for. Alien 3 is not for the squeamish.
Ultimately, Newt’s excruciating demise is probably for the best. A desolate foundry in the depths of space, the Fiorina “Fury” 161 is inhabited by prisoners of a deeply disconcerting nature; rapists, murderers and paedophiles who have been extricated from society for their unyielding antisocial personalities. Thanks to Charles S. Dutton’s fearsome yet honourable preacher, Dillon, inmates have been able to quell their urges, but when Ripley recovers from a crash that also finished off Corporal Hicks and faith-restoring android Bishop, the unnatural order is immediately jeopardised, much to the chagrin of belligerent prison warden Harold Andrews (Brian Glover), who naturally isn’t long or this world. The androgynous beauty who went from quietly commanding to all-out badass during the extended arc of the first two movies, overcoming the patriarchal action formula of old, shaves bald and retreats inwardly for her third outing, unphased by a pack of hyenas who pounce on her in the desolate tunnels of an environment where reform is but a ceaseless echo waiting to escape. And why would she be scared? Once again she, and we the audience, know what they will soon discover. When you’ve gone face-to-face with a drooling xenomorph, fear is a little harder to come by.
Many felt that Aliens cheapened Giger’s creation by making the creature numerous and as a result more disposable, and that sentiment is certainly a platform for Alien 3‘s stripped back, slasher-esque, seek and destroy violence, many scenes shot in POV style from the xenomorph’s perspective. The movie is plenty violent too, even by today’s standards, emphasising the creature as a brutal, remorseless killing machine with emphatic splatters of blood, mangled torsos and exploding craniums — a relentless siege of gore-heavy destruction spelled out in no uncertain terms. While the movie’s incredible set design, a barren labyrinth that provides the perfect stomping ground for such a skilled and crafty predator, is worthy of Scott’s original approach, that sense of the unknown lost in sequels negates such a steady reveal, but Alien 3 is closer to Alien than the high-octane Aliens, something precipitated by the fact that a prison like the Fiorina “Fury” 161 has no use for heavy artillery, reducing our prey to short-range, non-mechanical weapons. Good luck with that.
What Alien 3 has going for it, despite its flaws, is a startling twist (at least in more heroin-friendly times) that further strengthens the peculiar, inescapable bond that exists between cinema’s most accomplished killer and its toughest ever opponent, the kind that leads to one of the most iconic, instantly identifiable shots in the entire saga. When the xenomorph gets the drop on Ripley having quickly disposed of love interest Dr. Charles Dance (Jonathan Clemens) — a Psycho-esque development that plunges audience expectation into disarray — we’re initially horrified but immediately perplexed as Giger’s drooling monstrosity, having claustrophobically examined its potential prey, suddenly retreats without violence. In a movie that can’t hold a darkness-repelling flame to its more spectacular siblings, it’s a truly cinematic moment in the fledgling career of a serious future talent like Fincher. The fact that the scene was later immortalised in homemade video form thanks to a xenomorph-esque staple gun and a printed image of Ripley’s terror-stricken visage never fails to leave me smiling. It’s also indicative of a wider cult following that many, including myself, may not have imagined.
The one thing that Alien 3 does retain from the markedly different Aliens is the whole maternal aspect. In Aliens, Cameron smartly drew parallels between Ripley and the newly discovered alien queen. With her newfound maternity towards the orphaned Newt, Ripley waged war with the queen’s own paternal instincts, an iconic battle epitomised by the immortal line, “Get away from her you bitch!” and a matriarchal showdown for the ages. In Alien 3, Ripley experiences, to put it mildly, something of an unwanted pregnancy, her initial fears regarding the now-deceased Newt giving way to her own living nightmare. Not only is Ripley carrying an alien embryo, she is set to give birth to a queen, a creature with the ability to spawn thousands of face huggers that could potentially populate the entire planet, especially if the Weyland Corporation, still hellbent on weaponizing a creature they couldn’t possibly control, has its way. Will they ever learn?
This being the early 90s, Alien 3 also experiments with early CGI effects, the kind that have aged pretty horribly. Part of the reason why Alien and Aliens refuse to age is the fact that no CG temptations existed, the xenomorph creature design, its framing, and some inspired use of lighting allowing those movies a timeless visual quality. When Alien 3 sticks to that formula, it can be equally as impressive, the xenomorph as terrifying and formidable as ever. There’s an incredible visual banquet, perhaps a nod to John Carpenter’s The Thing, that sees the prison’s pet pooch impregnated and devoured from the inside out, but when the xeno scurries across ceilings and shoots through tunnels with transparent CGI fervour, the visuals leave much to be desired. CGI, especially in its shaky formative years, is bound to major obsolescence, even more so when viewed against a rampant digital age that sees newly spectacular sights date ad nauseum. Produced on a budget of $50-60 million, Alien 3 benefited from a bigger budget than its predecessors, even when adjusted for inflation, but watching today you wouldn’t know it. Compared to the sublimely cinematic Alien and the distinctly blockbuster Aliens, Alien 3 feels like a glorified B-movie at times. There’s certainly a charm to that, but it no doubt hurt the movie’s reputation, even if, with box office returns of roughly $160,000,000, it almost held its own financially.
At the time of the film’s release, Alien 3‘s SFX were hugely impressive, earning Richard Edlund, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr. and George Gibbs Academy Award nominations for Best Visual Effects and Best Special Effects, which rules out that particular element as a reason for its poor reception. So what was it that displeased critics and audiences back in 1992? The fact that the volume was turned down considerably in terms of action probably didn’t help, particularly with Terminator 2‘s action-heavy colossus dominating the headlines and infiltrating culture on a massive scale the previous summer. It was a hell of a lot to live up to, especially since Aliens had taken a similar route with the same director. But the plan was for Alien 3 to be markedly different from previous entries from the get-go. The initial idea of producers Gordon Carroll, David Giler and Walter Hill was to bring Sigourney Weaver back in a small role, promoting Michael Biehn’s Corporal Hicks to marquee star for a two-part story, filmed back-to-back to lessen production costs, that explored the ever duplicitous Weyland–Yutani Corporation’s struggles with a “rigid socialist ideology” that has “caused them to separate from Earth’s society,” leading to “an epic battle with alien warriors mass-produced by the expatriated Earthlings.”
Like the finished theatrical version of Alien 3, a script by cult cyberpunk author William Gibson, written all the way back in 1987, drew heavily from Giler and Hill’s Cold War influenced treatment, with A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master‘s Renny Harlin an early candidate to direct. A misleading poster was even released promoting an entirely different concept to what audiences would ultimately get. The script would pick up where Aliens left off, the Sulaco drifting into an area of space claimed by the “Union of Progressive Peoples”, Hicks later teaming up with the survivors of a contaminated space station full of bloodthirsty aliens. Though featuring Gibson’s punk aesthetic and a commentary on the still rampant HIV virus, the action-oriented sequel was dropped for lacking thematic bite. Gibson declined the opportunity to make script amendments, losing faith in the production, his version released and made available on Audible in 2019. It was also adapted into a cult comic book series, but Gibson’s unceremonious parting was one of many setbacks that would plague the movie’s protracted development.
More scripts would follow. Near Dark and The Hitcher scribe Eric Red was next up, penning a version of Alien 3 that, like later entries in the series, would introduce different breeds of aliens, though affairs quickly turned sour. Relationships became so strained that, much like Fincher in the ensuing years, Red would completely disown the project, claiming that Alien 3 was, “the rushed product of too many story conferences and interference with no time to write,” one that turned out to be “utter crap.” Brandywine productions rejected Red’s script for deviating too much from their story, leading to further re-writes from future Chronicles of Riddick writer/director David Twohy, who changed the setting to a prison planet used for illegal alien experiments for a biological warfare division, though his decision to remove Ripley entirely didn’t sit well with Fox president Joe Roth, who rightly saw her as the main attraction and centrepiece of the whole saga. Twohy left and took legal action against Fox after discovering that initial directorial candidate Vincent Ward, who thought very little of Twohy’s script, was simultaneously working on another concept for the film, writer John Fasano hired to expand his story into a screenplay.
Ward’s premise, which involved an archaic planet full of God-fearing monks, divided the production crew. With Weaver back in the driving seat, further demands were also made on her part, such as an unwillingness to be involved with a Hollywood ending that saw Ripley survive rather than die while taking on the alien queen. Once again the development stumbled, though the main plot of the finished film mostly follows Ward’s basic structure. Drafts to enhance that structure were undertaken by Hill and Giler, with Highlander scribe Larry Ferguson hired as script doctor, but Weaver was once again disappointed, this time with Ferguson’s handling of her most iconic and marketable character, even having a clause inserted into her contract stating that the final script be completed by Hill and Giler. It was around that time that Fincher, then working as a music video director, was approached to replace Ward, he and Sideways author Rex Pickett undertaking further re-writes. By the time shooting was set to commence, the whole ordeal had left a sour taste in the mouth of all involved, something that Fincher later admitted to that no doubt contributed to his disowning of the project.
[searching for the alien] Don’t be afraid, I’m part of the family.Ellen Ripley
Onscreen, affairs aren’t so dire, but fans of the first two movies weren’t exactly enthralled, taking particular umbrage with Alien 3‘s decision to wipe out the survivors of the previous film, all but ending the hard-fought achievements of the much beloved Aliens. For me, it was the ballsy, less obvious move. Like Aliens, Alien 3 had to set itself apart, and such an unexpected, unsettling opening was the ideal start. A mostly British cast probably added to audience discontent, further detracting from the Hollywood blockbuster recipe that was all the rage as the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger reached new commercial heights. It didn’t offer something completely different as initially planned either. Tonally, it was different enough to displease a generation attuned to the thrills and spills of the era, its subdued, despairing tone a case of bad timing. It obviously wasn’t what audiences wanted from an Alien movie in 1992. Alien 3 never reaches the heights of its predecessors. It’s a fair ride, much better than many give it credit for, with interesting set design, a killer variation on the xenomorph designed by former Stan Winston employees Woodruff and Gillis, who, at the behest of Fincher, built the creature to be more catlike in both appearance and abilities, and a series of fine performances from some pretty notable actors.
Dutton is particularly impressive as Dillon, often outshining a typically dependable but somewhat burnt-out Weaver, though Ripley has been through so much by this point it makes sense for the character, purposeful or otherwise. The fact is, you just can’t get behind Ripley the way you could the seminal female heroine in Alien or the matriarchal powerhouse from Aliens. The lack of a unique purpose just doesn’t allow for it. Lance Henriksen also makes a welcome return in a dual role, first as a briefly glimpsed, wonderfully droll Bishop, who in his mangled state requests to be put out of his misery, sharing a somewhat touching moment with the woman whose trust he somehow won, despite her bleak and treacherous history with duplicitous droids. He later reappears as Bishop II, a character claiming to be the human designer of an android constructed in his image, a part that probably should have been expanded on. British acting royalty Dance, Glover, Withnail & I‘s Paul McGann and Pete Postlethwaite make the most of similarly underdeveloped roles, as do others, but the litmus test is in the film’s watchability. Will you have the urge to watch Alien 3 as many times as Alien or Aliens? Firmly in the shadow of two cinematic titans, it was destined to be the ugly stepsister, whatever the final product.
Despite Fincher’s own opinion of the movie, and the apparent distaste of many more, it’s still a worthy entry that I’m glad exists. At a time when trilogies were usually the cutting-off point for a popular mainstream film series, Alien 3, which was initially the series closer, plunges Ripley, grasping the wretched half-born queen, into the fiery pits of martyrdom in a scene that’s uncannily redolent of the T-800’s demise in Terminator 2, so much that an alternate ending was shot for fear that they’d crossed a derivative line. It would have been a fitting end for both the series and the character who so uniquely personified it, but the property was too much of a sure-fire hit to put to bed, and in the world of science fiction anything is possible, leading to a Ripley clone and the silliest (though somewhat entertaining) instalment in the series, 1997’s transparently titled Alien Resurrection.
Today the Alien franchise is in the throes of a highly successful 21st century reboot, the visually lush, origins-heavy Prometheus and dazzling back-to-basics onslaught Alien: Covenant receiving rave reviews, yet another prequel, produced by Ridley Scott and written/directed by Evil Dead‘s Fede Alvarez, currently in the pipeline. Unlike the Predator and Terminator reboots, they didn’t exactly trigger the need for Alien 3 reappraisals, but they exist anyway, which I suppose speaks volumes. Weaver’s Ripley has long-since vacated the franchise marquee, the series slipping into the mythological realms of the modern cinematic formula. I’m pretty sure she could have done without Alien Resurrection on her resume, but despite decreased enthusiasm from the actress, a case of going to the same creative well one too many times, Alien 3 does the Ripley character very little harm. It simply had the odds stacked against it and then some.
Great piece! I really like Alien 3 and I think it makes for a good bookend as the trilogy then stood. It’s certainly a darker, grungier looking film than either of its predecessors, and the way it totally trashes the finale of ALIENS is probably why is wasn’t popular at the time. I remember seeing it when it was released. It was the first Alien film I’d ever seen on the big screen and I loved it – especially the gritty art-house style Fincher brought to it. Considering its production hell it’s a marvel Fincher achieved what he did. The early CGI and puppet effects haven’t aged well, guess the ambition was just bigger than time and budget allowed? I think Alien 3 has enjoyed a renascence of sorts now, especially in the wake of the Assembly cut, and I still really enjoy the movie.
Agreed on all accounts. It’s not perfect (movies with such development problems rarely are) but there’s still much to admire. I think the violence was a welcome addition. It certainly set it apart as a grungier sequel. SFX aside, I certainly enjoyed it.
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I enjoyed your appraisal a lot. I’m a big fan of 3 despite its few flaws. It was a bold and shocking move to kill off Hicks and Newt, which for me worked and set the tone of the terror to come. Yikes – those screams from murdered convicts echoing through the corridors and tunnels… you don’t see them die but can well imagine their grisly demise. I have the cinema release copy and extended version with an extra 29 minutes of cut scenes. I thought the British casting was a good move, too, and made for some dark humour to add to the overall bleak and industrial mood of the film.
Agreed wholeheartedly. There are flaws, which is to be expected considering its drawn-out development and the fact that it had to live up to two pitch-perfect movies, but there’s much to admire here, despite Fincher’s own reservations. CGI notwithstanding, I certainly enjoyed it all these years later.
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