Alien 3 is one of the most misunderstood movies of the 1990s. Prompting mixed reviews when first released, it has become a convenient shorthand for badly judged studio interference, a case study for those who continue to argue for director?s vision over studio money-making. Most reviews of Alien 3 heap the blame onto the studios but fail to acknowledge any positive aspects. Whilst it is undoubtedly messy and confusing, there is much about Alien 3 which deserves rehabilitation.
The production problems of Alien 3 are very well-known; one might almost call it the definition of development hell. After the success of Aliens, 20th Century Fox commissioned two further sequels, ending up with Ripley leading a full-scale war against aliens who were mass-produced by expatriated Earthlings. This idea was eventually scrapped when Vincent Ward was hired as director. He envisioned a story about a community of monks living on a wooden planet, with Ripley?s battle with the Alien representing a clash between God and the Devil.
By the time David Fincher came on board, Ward?s story had been pared down through further rewrites. The monks were now prisoners who had converted to Christianity, and the planet was noticeably un-wooden. Fincher began shooting without a completed script, and when production wrapped his cut was effectively dismembered by the studio. Being a newcomer, Fincher was not given final cut, and therefore had next to no control over the finished product.
Reading through all this, you would expect Alien 3 to be every bit as dismal as David Lynch?s Dune or Terry Gilliam?s The Brothers Grimm. In both projects the director?s artistic intentions are in direct conflict with the commercial ambitions of the studio, a conflict which is clearly visible on screen and which produces a film of profound incoherence and annoyance. Just as Dune was attempting to cash in Star Wars, so several scenes in Alien 3 seem to have been shot with a quick buck in mind. The final act, which involves death using molten metal, is clearly derivative of Terminator 2.
In fact, the film which Alien 3 most closely resembles is The Exorcist III, William Peter Blatty?s conclusion of The Exorcist triptych which was compromised by studio reshoots. As a result of these reshoots, the same character ended up being played by two different people: Brad Dourif in Blatty?s sections, Jason Miller in the rest. But despite this problem, the film still adds up and Blatty?s vision remains largely intact. In spite of everything, Alien 3 is not a totally derivative cut-and-shut sequel. There is more substance here than we would expect, and much in its visual style which hints at Fincher?s future greatness.
One of the film?s most impressive and startling qualities is its complete and utter nihilism. While neither of the previous films gave you any indication as to who would survive, Alien 3 is incredibly cavalier in its treatment of characters. It makes no bones about who gets killed and how, creating a vein of much-needed unpredictability. Newt, Hicks and Bishop are all dead in the first two minutes, and Charles Dance?s character cops it just when you think he?s known Ripley long enough to live. Ridley Scott?s original was a depiction of blue-collar space, full of dark corridors and grimy machinery. Alien 3 takes this one step further; you really feel, standing in the prison, that you are in the bowels of interstellar existence.
Of the three sequels, Fincher?s vision is the closest to Scott?s original. To some extent this is unsurprising, since Cameron?s sequel was a deliberate departure, and Alien Resurrection is a clear example of a director being out of his depth. But there is more similarity than just the dark, grimy visuals. Just as the Nostromo was an interstellar haunted house, so Alien 3 has architecture like a cathedral. The prison has echoey rooms and corridors, which are dimly lit often using candles, and is inhabited by people whose form of Christianity brings out inordinate levels of guilt (or at least self-pity).
Much of Alien 3 is a clouded Christian allegory, an element which survives from Ward?s original concept. Ripley?s arrival ?from the stars? to a planet resembling Earth sets her up as a Christ figure. Her presence as a woman amongst an all-male population leads many to view her suspiciously, believing her to be a temptress who will lure the masses away from the righteous path. The warden?s order that she shave her head is an attempt by the powers-that-be to make her blend in, to prevent trouble from occurring. Brian Glover?s character is a modern day Pontius Pilate, desiring order and harmony over doing the right thing.
With this allegory in place, the alien becomes the devil figure whom Ripley must defeat, a balance reinforced by Ripley sacrificing herself (in the original cut) to prevent evil spreading through the hands of corrupted men. The twist, however, is that Ripley is carrying this evil inside her; the alien won?t kill her because it recognises the queen growing in her chest. This shifts things closer to Eastern doctrines, in which good and evil are intertwined and one has to cancel out the other. It is a real stretch to compare it to The Last Temptation of Christ, but there is the same hint of a Christ figure having the same desires (and potential for sin) as the rest of us.
In a Guardian article for the 30th anniversary of Alien, David McIntee described the evolution of Ripley as one ?from maiden to mother to crone?. The Ripley in Alien 3 is battle-hardened and weary of the world around her. She is more cynical and wracked with guilt, because of what has happened to her friends and because of what she carries. Incubating a queen is the physical expression of a bitter irony: she is giving life to the very thing she has devoted her life to destroying. Her position is ultimately fatalistic: she is fighting a losing battle to keep evil from the world, and her choice to go out fighting is a last desperate bid to aspire such devotion in others.
On top of its allegorical connotations, Alien 3 contains a number of visual tricks which supplement its dark mood. Fincher?s decision to shoot the chase scene from the alien?s point of view is ingenious. As the alien scuttles along the ceiling, we become disoriented from seeing the prisoners fleeing upside down, giving us some sense of the blind fear they experience. A lot of the alien CGI is cheap and obvious, but the mechanical sections (including the scene in the nest) are generally well-played.
The weakest parts in Alien 3 are those which play against this dark tone for broader, mainstream appeal. In the midst of a thrilling chase scene, we don?t need characters running into each other in a broadly slapstick manner. Much of the acting is ripe, with Glover over-enunciating every line and many characters being reduced to twitches and other nervous tics. The first 45 minutes, which includes an attempted rape scene, is a complete scramble: it gives us very little clue as to the tone or style of the film, and threatens at points to throw us out of its world completely.
Like Event Horizon after it, Alien 3 is a flawed but underrated film with intelligence and insight buried under layers of dumb action and bizarre plot points. It doesn?t stand alone like the previous two films, and it isn?t as consistently scary as one would have hoped. But given the right circumstances and the right amount of patience, the artistic visions of Ward and Fincher begin to bubble to the surface. In the end it is a troubling but strangely rewarding effort, with individual moments of brilliance and much in between to be admired.