No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.David Fincher, Guardian interviews at the BFI (2009)
If there is one thing that we can say about the Alien franchise up to this point, it’s that each movie is an experience. The original movie is one of the quintessential sci-fi experiences of the 70’s. It is the ultimate example of how to turn every element of a cheesy low-budget industrial movie and into a masterpiece. A similar story can be told about the sequel, whose praise is still heard from nearly any movie goer since its release. Even the schlock of either feature, which would usually be critiqued by the standard moviegoer, is ignored compared to deserved aforementioned acclaim. Truly they are cornerstones of their respective director’s and writer’s careers. 1992’s Alien 3, the directorial debut of David Fincher, is…well it’s an experience.
In the third installment of the franchise, we follow Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) as she and the rest of the survivors of the previous film drift through space. As the title sequence goes, a new alien threat attacks the survivors and forces them to crash land on a Weyland-Yutani prison planet. Waking up as the last survivor, Ripley now finds herself among a population of hardy prisoners. Being a small community of men who work on the metal processing machines within the prison, they are not prepared for what is about to kill them. Horror is back in this series as the nearly defenseless Ripley and co. have to survive against yet another xenomorph threat.
Prelude: Some Behind the Scenes
If you’re completely uninterested in the mess taking place behind the scenes, then you can totally skip this segment.
The behind the scenes for this movie, much more than any other in the franchise, was faced with a great many setbacks. Studio interference created problems with what cut the movie go with for its final, relying too heavily on test screenings that demanded more cuts, and going through multiple writers and directors. Wreckage and Rage: Making Alien 3 is one of a few documentaries focused on the production of the franchise, and it chronicles many of these issues. In shows weird versions of the script as it was being written, and the reasoning for multiple writers to be dismissed from the final product. Original writers (and eventually final writers) on the project were David Giler and Walter Hill. Ideas that flung around including some that stayed and some that didn’t. Religiousness and imprisonment were a part of nearly every idea across multiple scripts. In some instances, the prison was a spaceship, and others wanted to set the movie on a planet. The ideas of featuring the movie on a planet went in multiple bizarre ways, one of which was to have the alien attack happen on Earth.
One notoriously weird direction the script went was under the writing of Vincent Ward (who at one point was set to direct the film). This script is absolutely bonkers, including such ideas as having the entire planet setting for the film being made of wood…a wooden planet. Other ideas included a monastic community that would defeat the alien in the end by trapping and shattering it in molten glass. These ideas floated into the final script that was attached to the movie in some form or another, but the only wood in the film was with the men seeing a woman for the first time in years…woof.
Eventually, the final script was melded from a weird combination of multiple versions, and the directorial position shifted from Vincent Ward to David Fincher, marking this as his first feature film. Studio meddling went further than hiring many different writers, culminating in a large amount of interference with what exactly was allowed in the final version of the film. A keynote of David Fincher’s original production included more gore than had previously been in the franchise. One such instance was an autopsy scene where doctor Clemens (Charles Dance) performs a visceral autopsy of Newt from the previous film. It was something that made the studio uncomfortable and became another part in the pile of cut sequences. I guess the studio and test audiences didn’t quite enjoy the visuals of a child having her guts be taking out on the big screen.
Who the new xenomorph bursts out of is yet another odd set of choices the movie was forced to go into. Early on in production, the design of Hicks’s (Michael Biehn) character dummy was molded to look like the xenomorph might have come from him. After feigning litigation Between Biehn, his agent and the movie, they decided to go in a different direction and only featured his likeness as a picture on a computer screen. Another decision was to have the creature burst out of a bull. I think that the logic was something to do with the religious angle some forms of the script took. This makes sense because, as the golden bull was a false idol of tired Jews below Mount Sinai (Exodus), this bull would prove to be the downfall of these religious prisoners. This animal was included as the xenomorph host in the extended cut of the film, but for the theatrical release, they went with a dog instead.
Now a lot of this review has been dedicated to the production of the film, but we must get the golden bull’s beef of it now. For more information on this stuff, I would HIGHLY recommend the documentary listed above. If you can’t afford the box set (its only available version that includes the full documentary), there is a fantastic cut that is on YouTube, where some of my anecdotes came from. That video contains my favorite behind the scenes quote from executive producer Jon Landau: “The movie got greenlit based on a whole different version of the script” (30:10). There is another great retrospective here if you have an extra hour.
And Now the Movie…Setting, Score, and Characters
With all of these issues, the final product should be an absolute disaster, but it has some good to it. Surprisingly enough, after being more than a decade since seeing this movie, I was enjoying it much more than I thought I would. For the sake of naming what I like to begin with, let’s talk about some goodies to establish some changes from the franchise thus far.
The setting is another factory. While this may seem like old hat at this point, it is still very purposeful within the context of the movie. I understand that most of the sequences shot for every movie in this franchise are all ACTUALLY shot on a set that emulates industrial looks, but the looks are factory-like nonetheless. In the original movie, It was an industrial looking spaceship that was cramped; it worked to show the audience all of the nooks and crannies that a monster could pop out of. The second movie took place in a colony station that was very reminiscent of the first. This doesn’t work as well because a “colony” gives the impression of living quarters, and yet the movie looks like it’s just on another space station. Alien 3 takes place in a very industrial looking prison that’s like a mash between that and a lead foundry. Like the first, this set is good because it shows us the spirit of the characters, reflecting their personalities as dark and gross. Natural lighting from fire and sparks also create great shadowing to hide the creature. While this isn’t my favorite movie in the series, it very much has my favorite look.
Another change involves the scoring of this film. Alien and Aliens have very subtle scores, relying more on the industrial noises, intercom messages, and sound effects from guns. Aside from the militaristic horn-like music in Aliens, and the subtle woodwind instruments in Alien, I can’t quite remember other music from the first two movies. Scoring for this third movie was done by Elliot Goldenthal, who approached his music using the same foundation of sound design from the previous films with industrial noises. In the music, it really seems like Goldenthal wanted confusion and cohesion to be two interlocked dimensions to the sound. There are truly gorgeous sequences where the music is nearly religious sounding, as well as others where it sounds like someone gave monkeys instruments and set them loose. Critics come away from this movie with all sorts reactions on Goldenthal’s score and how chaotic it can be at times. He claims in an interview that he had never heard to scores of the original two and was shown in the movie that there was a lot of chase scenes. His product, he concluded, needed to involve the sense of being chased AND the highly religious tones of the movie.
The characters are far from the likes of others in the franchise. There are no more friendly space truckers or one-liner slinging space marines. Each of the prisoners in the story have all been incarcerated for heinous sexual crimes. They are disgusting, much like their prison backdrop, and they are all devoted to their pseudo Christianity, which was designed to make them atone. Charles Dance, the prison’s doctor, is especially good in this movie with his performance that is the best in the film. He acts with an air of superiority in most roles I have seen him in that makes for characters that seem believably confident in their abilities.
Ripley makes her third appearance in this film and, I would be a prisoner myself if I didn’t talk about her in yet another Alien movie entry. She is very jaded at this point in the series, having experienced yet another slaughter of everyone she knows. She has shed her motherly persona introduced by James Cameron and has come back in this movie as a cold woman, seemingly cursed by the xenomorph. There were a lot of interesting choices taken in this movie as compared to the times we’ve seen her before. One such choice is that we see nudity and sex for the first time in the series. It is done very well, and I think that it is done as a way to show that Ripley wants to have some kind of control over her life. She decides she wants Clemens for a sexual partner as a result of that.
Ripley also dies in this one, despite being the third in a tetralogy of films. Based on the research I’ve done, this was the result of some writing done by Vincent Ward and advocacy from Sigourney Weaver herself. I would say that this is my favorite movie for her character: despite the first one being her best appearance, this third movie is where her character is finally feeling the weight of the circumstances of her life, and I think that is really powerful. More powerful than even the mix of a rifle and flamethrower from the previous film.
Those Religious Tones, And Not in the Music Either
Before we got the mess of religious tones from Ridley Scott and his later films in the series, we got the religious tones in this movie. As was mentioned earlier, Vincent Ward and others had the idea of having Ridley and the Xenomorph be placed in the context of a holy group of people. While they are prisoners on a planet and not monks on a wooden space station, the monastic prisoners make sense. Many people when faced with intense changes in their lives often resort to religion for guidance. If I were someone that had committed a heinous crime and was sentenced to life on a prison/lead foundry in space, I would also probably try to find meaning in life through God. It is also implied that some of the men are pressured into finding their religion, by taking a vow of celibacy. Given that they are all sexual deviants, I’m glad the pressure is on.
The xenomorph being part of the cycle of life and death is really intertwined with the theme of this movie. In the sequence when Newt and Hicks are being thrown into liquid metal, the religious leader Dillion (Charles Dutton) gives a speech about the strangeness of death and life. We are seeing the bodies of the last two vestiges of what could have been Ripley’s normal life being thrown into fire. As this is happening, grandiose music is sweeping, and the mourning is inter-cut with the birth of the new xenomorph by the animal (whichever one is in the version you happen to watch). Life animates the new creature at the exact same moment that Ripley sees fire complete the cycle of people she cared about. It’s really an interesting sequence, marking this film as slightly above the others thematically. The editing is very well done for setting up these scenes for the audience to think about.
The only time where my eyes rolled at the maximum level was the very end when Ripley dies. Near the middle of the film, Ripley starts to come down with some form of sickness. It is later confirmed that she was the person who was contaminated by the facehugger in her spaceship. As the film ends, Weyland (more on him later) approaches her and tries to convince her to not kill herself. She goes through with it by jumping backwards into the liquid metal of the foundry. Martyrdom isn’t itself an entirely religious act, but the way that she jumps and the whole rest of the scene is a weirdly religious thing. As she falls, she outstretches her arms and recreates Jesus on the cross before falling into the metal. Understandably thematic as it was, the scene was really weird to see just after an alien explodes and people are cheering for the end of the movie. It was one thing to have underlying themes of religion and religious people in the film, but it’s another altogether to show Ripley as Christ.
More on Weyland
Alright I straight up don’t get Weyland-Yutani. They are the amorphous “bad guy” company throughout the series (including the dreaded Alien vs. Predator movies). They hide in the backdrop as a huge company that is responsible for the contract given to the Nostromo in the first film. They also are responsible for dumping colonies onto planets like LV-426. These are things I can understand: a company in a sci-fi movie isn’t worth its salt unless it owns literally everything ever. What I don’t understand is their relentlessness to acquire the xenomorph. As the series goes on, it becomes comical how far they go to get the “perfect organism”. It would make much more sense if there was some fringe science division of the company that wanted the creature for study or weaponization. Burke from Aliens could then be justified as being some sort of zealous science division guy who was a plant in the mission to LV-426. But in this movie, we continue to see just random company men try to get the creature with no specific goal in mind.
The Six Man Puppet That Ruins the Movie
The execution of the creature in this one is…laughably bad. It constantly has a green outline, making it very obvious that it was keyed into the scene. In the instances of being keyed in, the alien is a little puppet. Craftsmanship of the puppet and the way they filmed it are fascinating and in the mini documentary that is linked above. While watching the film, it is less fascinating and more vomit inducing. I’m not sure how it came out looking as bad as it did. If I were to take a wild guess, I would say that mishandling of time over cuts in the film did a number on the effects. When the creature is a guy in a suit, it looks really good. In fact, this is the best xenomorph suit yet…but that puppet…
The effects surrounding the puppet are also incredibly strange. For some reason, the decision was made to have a POV sequence whenever the xenomorph was chasing people. It happens a handful of times and it is awkward that borders on comedy. As I was watching, all I was thinking about was how reminiscent the shooting of the chase sequence was to the Evil Dead movies. No matter how good the costume design is for the xenomorph, most of its screen time was spent with me trying to stifle laughter.
Final Verdict: 4 out of 5 (or, Bishop Yelling “no”Dramatically)
The acting and the setting in this movie are both my personal favorites for the franchise, but this movie has some slight issues. I had a hard time watching the actual alien creature and the Weyland-Yutani plot is becoming really old. It is not as tight as the other two films, but I have more to think about coming away from this one. I happily announce that I no longer hold the weird stigma that a lot of people do for this film. The biggest eye opener for this project thus far has been the research I did into the production of the film. Watch the provided clips to get a glimpse at how a movie can very easily die before it begins. I really REALLY hate saying this as a defense for a movie, but I have never felt more strongly that a movie did its best despite production problems than I do with this film. The religious stuff is kept at a low and…well, it could have been a wooden planet populated entirely by perverts.
4 thoughts on “Alien 3: A Studio Mess-terpiece (An Average Pt. 3)”
I have a major soft spot for this film. It’s one of those weird things where it feels more like an Alien film than Aliens did for me. It’s the hopelessness, I think. I always feel with the original like everyone could die, no matter how many times I see it. This had a similar feel.
With Aliens, the moment the marines arrive, I automatically think ‘a few people will live then.’ It’s a great, cool action movie that I enjoy when that’s what I want. If I want an Alien movie though, I go for 1 and this.
Exactly this! I hadn’t seen this movie in a long time, but I now have the unpopular position of preferring 1 and 3 over Aliens. James Cameron sequels be damned!
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I’m glad I’m not the only one in that regard. It’s not even like 2 is a bad movie at all, it’s just not what I tend to look for now. It was my favourite as a teen though.