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.
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.