Prometheus Pre-Game – Glenn Walker Revisits Alien 3

The Alien pseudo-sideways-prequel Prometheus hits theaters in a few days, and as part of our build-up for the release here at Biff Bam Pop!, our editor-in-chief asked me to review Alien 3. At first I thought he was mad at me, punishing me. As you may have guessed, there is no love lost between me at the second Alien sequel. That said, having not seen it since I watched it in a movie theater back in May of 1992, I recently gave it a fresh viewing. These are my thoughts.

What Went Before

The movie world of 1979 was a mixed bag. If a science fiction movie was out it was unfortunately something we had already seen before and were already bored with, or it was pitifully still aping the success of Star Wars earlier in the decade. Horror however was in the midst of a bit of a renaissance, the slasher genre was blooming in its infancy and those kinds of movies were quite successful.

Writer Dan O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott, with the biomech designs of H.R. Giger, decided to turn the movie industry on its ear. They blended the genres, and made a horror movie – a slasher flick – within the trappings of a scifi movie. That’s what Alien is when you break it down, a slasher flick. Done well, done slick, with great acting and a solid plot, the movie did fairly well, and then gained more of a rep on cable and in the growing video rental market.

It spawned a sequel in 1986 called Aliens, directed by James Cameron. In it we follow survivor from the first film, Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, back to the planet of the Aliens many decades later. Where Scott gave us a horror movie, Cameron gave us a war movie, with space marines taking on hordes of the xenomorphic creatures we have come to know as Aliens. It was a big hit, so talk immediately began of a new sequel.

Trouble, Before It Even Starts

The sequel would be the big budget debut of a young David Fincher, one of my favorite directors. You probably know the name from wonderful flicks like Fight Club, The Game, The Social Network and the English version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. We all dig him a lot, now. Then, he was nobody, and he had to make a movie that would live up to the work of both Scott and Cameron. It didn’t help that 20th Century Fox kept messing with the scripts on a daily basis. As it was, the film began shooting without a finished script.

At first, the future looked bright. Cyberpunk writer god William Gibson wrote a treatment that was eventually rejected. David Giler and Walter Hill did rewrites of the script detailing a war on Earth with the Aliens as biological weapons. At first Sigourney Weaver was to be absent for the third film, returning in the fourth, then it was decided that Ripley was the Alien franchise and had to be in it.

More writers came and went including Eric Red and David Twohy, and very little of Gibson’s script remained. Rather than Earth, the survivors ended up on a church planet, and then a prison planet, and then clones were involved. H.R. Giger was even contacted to work on the film. He submitted at least two designs, one for a quadropedal xenomorph and another for an aquatic facehugger, but neither was used. Blame can be laid on many shoulders, and even Fincher can’t be blamed as he was not even the first director involved. No matter what the end result was, one thing was sure, Alien 3 was going to be a mess.

What We Wanted, And What We Got

The natural progression of the story has it headed to Earth. However the Aliens get there, they get there, and then the horror really begins. I mean, come on, that’s what we all want. We had seen what one Alien could do to one crew on one spaceship. We had seen what hundreds could do against a squad of space marines. The next step is obvious – full scale invasion of our home world against the best defenses we have – the real deal, all out war versus the Aliens. That’s what we wanted. In fact, it’s what we were promised. There were movie posters in 1991 with the tagline “On Earth Everyone Can Hear You Scream.”

And most importantly we wanted to see Ellen Ripley who was not only the heroine we rooted for in the first two, but also now a role model for female empowerment after vanquishing the Alien Queen in the last movie. Ripley kicked ass and we wanted to see her do so again. We had also grown to know and love the other two survivors of Aliens, the little girl Newt, and Corporal Hicks, played by Michael Biehn, and were looking forward to seeing them again.

And now all we can really say is “Hey, where’s our movie?” What we were given was something much less lackluster. What we know today as Alien 3 was quite unlike its two prequels. It is slow, dry, long, and boring. None of the tension, suspense and horror of the original by Ridley Scott, and none of the action, humor and excitement of the second film. Alien 3 was like a funeral dirge. In hindsight, I can’t believe the franchise survived.

The Movie Itself

In the first few moments of Alien 3, everything goes awry for most of us as viewers and fans of the franchise. Newt and Hicks are dead, and the escape pod has crashed onto a prison planet, inhabited by only a handful of seriously hardcore murderers and rapists who have found peace in religion. It’s a religion so far untested by the presence of a woman. Enter Ripley. Good tension in the setup but we rarely see it acted upon or played with.

Sigourney Weaver walks through the film almost zombie-like, only acting like the Ripley we know when referencing the first two films. These brief scenes are really the only times the movie itself shines. Charles Dance as Clemens and Charles Dutton as Dillon act their asses off, and make up for Weaver’s sleepwalk performance. This is really their movie, and it’s a shame they are rarely seen together.

Alien 3 is further hindered by bad special effects. The bad green screen and xenomorph puppet are almost laughable. Viewers became alienated by not knowing who was who, as everyone (there’s a lice problem) has a shaved head, even Ripley. This is one of those times where logic can be bypassed for entertainment. An unattractive heroine does not gain an audience’s sympathy or adoration.

I hated it when I initially saw it. Hated it from the start because we lost Hicks. This is not a good way to start any movie with recognizable characters – don’t kill them in minute one. As far as the studio tampering with the scripts, dumbing it down, making it more accessible, another epic fail. The lady I saw the movie with years ago had never seen an Alien movie before, didn’t know what was going on, and would never see one again. Epic fail.

Taken as a movie on its own, without vengeful thoughts for Hicks or Newt, it does hang together fairly well. Just as the first was a horror and the second a war both hiding in scifi trappings, this is a prison movie. The somber depressing setting fits it well. It still doesn’t make it fit well within the franchise, but it does make a bit more sense in hindsight. That said, with fresh older eyes, it doesn’t make me like it any more, but I do appreciate Dance and Dutton with their contribution.

Aftermath

In the end, the box office suffered due to word of mouth. The film died fairly quickly. If anyone continued to see it, it was a matter of either curiosity, or just franchise loyalty. Eventually a sequel, Alien Resurrection, wherein Ripley returns as a clone, emerged, and did quite well. I didn’t care for it. There have also been two crossover flicks with the Predator franchise that I liked quite a bit. Director David Fincher has disowned his film, and even refused to participate in the ‘ultimate collection’ that came out on DVD a few years ago.

Alien 3 remains, two decades later, a monument to studio meddling, and what could have been. And because of this dark mark on the movie, many of us have missed brilliant performances by Charles Dance and Charles Dutton, and that’s a shame. The film is worth checking out just for that. Maybe someday we’ll get the Earth invasion we have been promised. Perhaps for now we can move on with Prometheus, a new step in the evolution of the series, and perhaps a new beginning. Let’s hope.

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11 Replies to “Prometheus Pre-Game – Glenn Walker Revisits Alien 3”

  1. My poor little Alien 3 – my favourite, although I view it as separate from the franchise. I also find solace around the dog alien in Giger’s animal imagery… yeah it’s a stretch, but I like the feel of A3; closer to A1 and not the Hollywood blunt-force-imagery from A2 and A4. Imho 🙂

  2. Glenn, this was great. I was upset with the 3rd Alien too and especially how quickly the little girl and soldier are killed. So I never watch it on reruns. I’m really hoping that Prometheus doesn’t disappoint . Have you heard anything about this new film that you can share with us.

  3. You know, I get the fan hate, but I always loved Fincher’s art-house sci-fi horror project. I think there’s some great acting in this film (Dance and Dutton, as you mention) and the franchise definitely evolved for it. New “alien” designs gave way to new “alien” genealogy and for the first time, we got to see the world from the alien’s POV. Pretty cool. The fact that these characters called the creature a “dragon” made for a more grounded menace. There was no option to “nuke the site from orbit” here – no easy way to victory. And Lance Henriksen’s return as a broken down Bishop was no less moving than his performance in Aliens.

    Alien 3 was an enjoyable film and had a good heart at it’s core. Nowhere near as genre-shaping as the first two – but much, much better than the dreck that followed.

  4. In hindsight I’m actually pretty happy Andy got me to watch Alien 3 again after all these years. I do appreciate it more now. And it should be noted, this just repositions Alien Resurrection as the worst of the bunch now, whereas formerly I thought it was Alien 3. It’s a good film, just not on par with the first two, and it’s the comparison that hurts it. And off topic, but just for the record, I loved the AvP movies.

  5. I’ve always enjoyed this film; sure, it’s not perfect. But it’s truer to the first than the 2nd movie – remember, the first movie was a horror film. ALIENS was action. I didn’t mind Newt being killed, though I did like Hicks.

    ALIEN RESSURECTION has always been my vote for worst in the franchise. It’s a horrible movie. This one is not horrible, though it could have, and should have been, much better.

  6. Which version of Alien 3 did you screen, theatrical or the Assembly Cut? Quite a few differences between the two, and it would help the clarity of your otherwise well-written article if we knew.

    1. I viewed both the theatrical and the one from the boxed set, TS, but felt it was best to confine my commentary to the theatrical version for the purposes of the article. And as far as I know, Fincher never signed off on the boxed set version, did he?

      1. You’re right, Fincher had no involvement with the 2003 release (other than to give the studio the finger, I guess). Having just watched the longer cut for the first time the other night, I was impressed by how much stronger the film was in its own right. I haven’t seen the ’03 or ’10 ‘Making of Alien 3’ documentary yet (DVD & Blu-ray respectively), but really need to check it out as it might offer clues as to how much say-so Fincher originally had over the Assembly Cut. If I remember right, it’s not an Alan Smithee film, so there’s that…

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