The opening images reverberate with distinct tension. A leathery egg appears in the corner of a chamber, recently opened. The window of a cryotube cracks as something unseen scurries nearby. A generic computer voice overhead warns of an internal fire. Then there is a shot of a facial x-ray, with an alien specimen latched on. Acid blood spills on the floor, eating away at it. For those well versed in the stories of the “Alien” pictures, these moments foreshadow a familiar reality: the slimy creatures have left behind a terrible present on this escape pod, and the three survivors of James Cameron’s brilliantly effective “Aliens” are immediately thrust back into danger, all while their vessel passes silently among the stars. That they face this danger while still in hyper sleep is one of the many challenging moments of this, the third picture in the franchise, but their intentions remain in doubt for many seasoned observers: was this collection of shots an attempt by a then-inexperienced director at taking a story arc to the brink of its potential, or were they merely moments of blinding miscalculation meant to abandon the momentum set up in the previous entry?
“Alien 3,” now twenty years old and weathered by the spit and vinegar of its earliest viewers, is the most divisive film of a celebrated series. Notoriety often overwhelms most attempts at a clear and objective analysis; helmed by David Fincher well before “Seven” or “Fight Club” made his name recognizable, tales of a troublesome production plagued the film long before it founds its way into theaters. Fincher, who famously walked off the set before the editing was completed, now disowns all acknowledgement of its existence. Several, especially those transfixed by the effective nature of the first two films, even hoped it would simply fade off into cinematic oblivion. And yet today we continue to revisit it, perplexed by its incongruence but deeply fascinated by the underlying nerve of its dueling architects: an impassioned filmmaker and the studio that sought to control him. And it all happens – with equal confusion and intrigue – under the umbrella of a low-tech style so chilling in its presence that it becomes a character all on its own, manipulating the circumstances even further as walls close in on a small ensemble of people while they attempt to disengage a bloodthirsty monster.
The premise takes substantial departures from its predecessors. Set on Fury 161 (“one of Weyland-Yutani's backwater prison planets”), the well-known escape pod carrying Ellen Ripley and the three survivors from “Aliens” crashes on its shores. Only Ripley emerges alive, and in the thick of an apocalyptic reality: 25 of the most deplorable male prisoners co-exist as watchers of a dingy mineral refinery, and contact with the outside world is limited to supply ships that come around only once every few months. There are also leadership figures: Andrews (Brian Glover), Fury 161’s hot-headed superintendent, and Clemens (Charles Dance), the chief medical officer. They discover Ripley unconscious and near death and are quick to assist in her recovery, but what transpired on that escape pod in order to cause such an unfortunate collision? Their ignorance is thick, even when their new female friend comes to and suspects, quite rightfully, that something stowed away aboard, and is probably running loose somewhere on the surface of this forsaken planet.
Her concern mutes other dangers. The men, all rapists and murderers that have found God after several years in isolation, see her arrival as a “violation of their harmony.” Some, like the spiritual ringleader Dillon (Charles Dance), are barely intimated by her knack to fearlessly stare them down, even as some stare back as if possessed by dark sexual thoughts. But it all serves to propel the inevitable reality: that at some point quite soon, well before either side can engage the other, a new alien being will emerge within the refinery and begin picking off stragglers wandering the hallways. And that certainty bears new challenges, even for the woman who has already spent so many years dealing with these creatures; without any sort of weapons to fight it off, she must convince and then depend on these prisoners as assets in eventually trapping and killing the alien, hopefully long before a Weyland ship arrives to capture it for military study.
The alien itself, designed by H.R. Giger specifically for the movie, is a clear departure from the beings that infested the first two pictures; it walks on four legs rather than two, and gallops down corridors like a canine without skin (that it is also born from a dog reaffirms a detail in alien anatomy, which is that a creature will always inherit the physical characteristics of its host). That detail makes it particularly disturbing, in the sense that it is no longer just a creature lurking in the shadows, and the movie emphasizes this in the last act by taking its point of view during a tense chase sequence. On the flip side, the special effects revolved around the alien are not entirely in synch with believable standards, even for the early 90s. Close-ups – including the now-famous moment in which the creature brushes up against Ripley’s face – are well staged, but full body and action shots are badly realized and indistinct, as if left incomplete in the vapor of post-production.
On the other hand, the film finds its greatest strength in creating a thoughtful atmosphere. The screenplay, a sometimes convoluted rewrite of countless early drafts, offers the kinds of nihilistic insights on human behavior that have been obligatory in many of Fincher’s later films. The characters, often distinguishable, do not seem to be mere set pieces in an intergalactic slaughterhouse, but rather tormented entities with their own interesting stories lurking beneath shared interactions. Then there are the performances, which seem far above the genre standard: Charles Dance is thoughtful and engaging as the meticulous Clemens, while Dutton is firm in his portrayal of the stalwart Dillon without reducing him to a mouthpiece for witty one-liners. And what of Sigourney Weaver, the veteran of this franchise? Clearly more brooding and contemplative here than the previous films, she possesses a quality of immense focus, which adds impact to our inevitable questions. Why, for instance, does the alien being refuse to engage or attack Ripley on their first encounter? Why does it avoid her in corridors, even when she audaciously pursues it? When the answers become known, it is in Weaver’s face that the truth is given emotional weight, and suddenly the story is about so much more than just people hiding from creatures that jump out at you from the shadows.
Much can be said here of alternate versions. For well over ten years, “Alien 3” existed in one format: that of a 114-minute action picture, a culmination of studio heads and film artists vying for control over a costly production that could only end in dissatisfaction. But thanks to the miracle of DVD and the promise of bonuses, Fox eventually opted to release a draft of Fincher’s own “assembly cut” as part of a franchise boxed set, which extended the movie’s running time by an additional 31 minutes (Fincher, alas, would not contribute a commentary). In visiting this more fleshed out draft, three key changes are worth mentioning: 1) Ripley is discovered washed ashore instead of within the escape pod; 2) the alien being is born from a dead ox rather than a dog; and 3) Ripley’s final act of bravery does not end with the “gotcha” moment that became exemplary of the movie’s urgent tone.
Seeing both versions back-to-back, there is an admirable restraint in Fincher’s initial pitch that is far more captivating than what can be seen in the eventual release, which was heavier on instantaneous shocks. The dialogue, more realized and precise, enhances the mood. Plot points are better clarified in alternate takes that do not allow for so many narrative loopholes. Action scenes are trimmed, and do not linger for unnecessary lengths of time. To see this endeavor now, so long after a shorter cut has been ingrained in our minds, is to be reminded of the power of determined directors above eager studio-heads in the filmmaking process. No final edit of this footage was ever going to be flawless given the chaotic nature of its origins, but it is Fincher’s vision that is the clearest and most insightful, and that is the one viewers should be seeing.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Science Fiction/Thriller (US); 1992; Rated R for monster violence, and for language; Running Time: 114 Minutes (Theatrical Version), 145 Minutes (Assembly Cut)
Sigourney Weaver: Ellen Ripley
Charles S. Dutton: Dillon
Charles Dance: Clemens
Paul McGann: Golic
Brian Glover: Andrews
Ralph Brown: Aaron
Produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill, Ezra Swerdlow and Sigourney Weaver; Directed by David Fincher; Written by David Giler, Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson