In addition to the 'Back to the Future' trilogy, last week saw the release of another hugely-important, geek-friendly franchise: the 'Alien' quadrilogy. Redubbed 'The Alien Anthology' for its Blu-ray iteration, the set offered not only all four of the 'Alien' films in remastered high definition, but included all of the extra content from previous releases as well as several hours of all-new material. But while these films superficially seemed perfect for at least one installment of this column, both 'Alien' and 'Aliens' are pretty much undisputed classics, even if I'm one of the few people on the planet who still prefers the theatrical cut of 'Aliens' to James Cameron's director's cut. And even though 'Alien: Resurrection' is probably exceedingly well-suited for a look back on its, well, limited merits, given David Fincher's ongoing but especially recent success, it seemed appropriate to take a trip back to 1992 and revisit his feature directorial debut, 'Alien 3.'
Fincher, of course, has since become one of Hollywood's premier directors. But upon its release in '92, the third film in the 'Alien' series was looked upon as a disappointment, not the least of which because Fincher's muscular visual sense still occupied the post-music video ghetto that critics and many other filmmakers found empty or distasteful. But with the benefit of hindsight, was 'Alien 3' a better film than we gave it credit at the time?
The Facts: David Fincher's 'Alien 3' was released on May 22, 1992, and cost approximately $50 million to produce. The film went through several drafts and several directors en route to production, and Fincher was brought in very late in pre-production, as a result having very little time to immerse himself in the development of the story and the visual look. Although the end result received mixed reviews and domestic box office receipts were tepid, 'Alien 3' went on to earn almost $160 million internationally. Nominated for one Academy Award for visual effects, the film won nothing, and it currently enjoys a 40 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: Even in its earliest stages, Fincher's visual sense is undeniable, although it certainly owes more to his music video work than it does his subsequent feature film directing. Even taking the helm at a late stage of pre-production, Fincher does a capable job of keeping things together in terms of the look and tone of the material, which has a burnished, rusty sort of atmosphere that extends even to the personalities and behavior of the inmates. The ensemble is sort of like a collection of outdated machines, operating based on programming or memory, and which doesn't like the intrusion and change of a new presence.
Meanwhile, Ripley continues to evolve into a tougher and tougher leading lady. Sigourney Weaver delivers as good a performance as one can reviving Ripley, particularly after depriving her of the companionship of the characters she helped rescue in 'Aliens,' and she communicates real strength even in the context of the rest of the cast's shaven-headed, unkempt and unscrupulous convicts. And as her longtime adversary, resuscitated in a context that is intended to be familiar to fans of the original 'Alien,' the creature effects are particularly well-done, and the beast's point of view is well-rendered via the storytelling and of course with Fincher's agile camerawork.
What Doesn't Work: Pretty much everything else. First of all, the decision to kill off Newt and Hicks at the beginning of the film feels like a real betrayal of all of the emotional energy audiences generated to care about them in 'Aliens,' and while in the context of the story it feels understandable, it is like a slap in the face to longtime fans. But whoever decided that a group of murderous convicts – all of whom have shaved heads, making them virtually indistinguishable from one another - would be a good ensemble to play against the murderous alien was just an idiot.
Even according to the rules of slasher movies where all of the characters die and we indulge our appetite for blood by thrilling at their grisly murders, there's no reason to care about them at all. Especially after a group of them attempt to rape Ripley, and in spite of her retaliatory knock-out afterward, they are almost completely unsympathetic throughout the entirety of the film, and the screenwriters offer us almost no reason to care for them at any point.
As beautiful as Fincher's cinematography often is, as a feature director he seems unprepared to match his visuals with content that complements it, and many of his flourishes are beautiful but bereft of greater depth. More specifically, the theatrical cut includes several shots that look like they were filmed anamorphically, or just differently than the rest of the film, and they seem like ideas that were never fully realized. But beyond that, the whole film feels disjointed and uneven, without a coherent sense of concept, look or story, and as it winds towards its conclusion simply deteriorates and falls almost completely apart.
Although it's perhaps understandable why after two terrible experiences that Ripley would plays things close to the vest, it seems inexplicable why she would refuse to explain or reveal the existence of the alien threat to the rest of the inmates, much less the man with whom she briefly becomes involved. There are numerous scenes in which she avoids questions, even after her companions have basically figured things out, and given her history (even counting the fear that The Company might arrive and try to capture one live), she was previously too empathetic to conceal that information if it meant lives might be lost. Additionally, I'm entirely unsure why the Alien queen takes so much longer to gestate than any of the regular drones, except for the calculated – or more accurately, forced – reason that its emergence from gestation can only occur at the end of the film.
And finally, the choice to return to a single-alien attack story is weakly motivated by nostalgia, betraying the momentum Cameron generated by turning aliens into an army of killers. As a result, the story feels mostly redundant, and certainly the additions/ changes feel similarly underwhelming or otherwise like bad decisions made to restrain the budget rather than tell the best or most appropriate story possible.
What's The Verdict: 'Alien 3' is pretty much a terrible movie, and doesn't hold up. Or more accurately, it holds up perfectly as the stillborn 'Alien' sequel it was seen as at the time of its initial release. Watching it again, I certainly gave it the benefit of the doubt at the beginning, but my mild interest soon gave way to boredom, and finally just exasperation. Not only is there nothing in 'Alien 3' that's interesting or original, it's just a poorly constructed and even worse-conceived film. And while of course that makes for great revelations from filmmakers who were involved when folks like DVD producer Charles De Lauzirika chronicle its troubled production, it also means that the "making of" content is more compelling than the movie itself.