The third of the Alien films was a murdered movie — abandoned by its director, David Fincher, cut to shreds by its studio and savaged by both critics and audiences — but it was, sadly, never that good to begin with. For years people had speculated about a director’s cut, but Fincher went on record to say that he would never bother; the less he had to do with Alien³, the better. When Fox reissued the other Alien movies in a fantastic series of 2-disc reissues, they decided to produce a special edition for Alien³ as well. Without Fincher, however, they had to rely on using the film’s original answer print, a two-plus-hour version with many additional and extended scenes that represented the state of the film before the tampering began.
I saw the original Alien³ many moons ago, and I was in agreement with its detractors: it was a magnificent-looking movie that completely failed to enlist my interest. The extended version supplies us with far more interesting characters than the first one, gives them more to deal with, and looks terrific, too — but the biggest problems with Alien³ were and still are its weak story. If the first movie was a haunted house in space and the second movie was a war movie in space, the third movie is — what? A monastery in space? A prison in space? Not that the exact label would matter much, but it’s one way of showing how patched-together and haphazard it all is.
Alien³ opens more or less where the second movie left off, with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and two of the survivors from the Sulaco in hypersleep. Over the credits we see that one of the alien’s eggs wound up on board the ship, and that Ripley becomes infected shortly before the ship’s computer declares an emergency and ejects everyone in escape pods. They crash-land on a planet cal led “Fury 151”, a prison planet staffed only by an all-male skeleton crew of double-Y -chromosome lifers. The local medico, Clemens (Charles Dance) has the ship towed to shore, and there’s a great shot of him discovering Ripley on the beach, covered with maggots, skin black with soot.
The colony is a mixture of madhouse, work farm, Gothic cathedral and crumbling factory. No one particularly wants Ripley around — the very fact that she’s female is a disruptive influence. She enjoys a certain amount of protection from Clemens, but the others would just as soon kill her as rape her, if they had the chance. The only other inmate who is remotely accommodating is Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), the “spiritual advisor” to the inmates, alternatively palliative and inflammatory. (One of the things better spelled out in this edit of the movie is that Dillon keeps the prisoners in line with an apocalyptic brand of Christianity that is peculiarly suited to the circumstances they find themselves in.) All of the equipment is smashed, everything’s filthy, and most of the movie is suffused with a gloom that makes Fincher’s own SE7EN seem upbeat.
One of the interesting touches in the original draft of Alien that never made it to the screen was Ripley’s rather mercenary sexuality. It comes to the fore here when she ultimately trades sex for the promise of having the other crash victims autopsied (to determine whether or not they were infected). She doesn’t seem to savor doing it, but she doesn’t get much criticism for doing it, either. They are, however, wondering why the Company that never cared much for them is rushing out a medevac team for Ripley’s sake. Then another alien pops out and begins running around (this one born of a bull, interestingly), popping out of ventilator shafts and tearing people in half. As they have no weapons, very little working technology and are mostly a bunch of selfish cowards to boot, their collective chances for survival are near zero.
It gets worse. Ripley discovers that she’s not only been impregnated herself, but that she’s carrying a queen. No wonder the alien doesn’t snack on her when it tears into the sickbay and ganks one of the inmates, and she’s torn between using this as some kind of weapon against it or simply killing herself outright. She tries to persuade Dillon to do away with her, but he isn’t having any of it. In a better movie this would generate more emotional concern, but the number of moral and motivational flip-flops he goes through in the movie are so disjointed and varied it hardly seems to matter. The fact that everyone else worth giving a darn about is killed off at the start is a strong hint as to how much care we can work up for the movie. What could have become an interesting story about moral choices becomes instead a grimy, dingy action movie about running around and screaming and getting bitten in half.
The problems with the movie began in preproduction and persisted until its release. The original director was to be Renny Harlin (who opted out for Die Hard 2), and the first script, by Neuromancer author William Gibson, eschewed action in favor of a draggy plot about intrigue over the alien within the Weyland-Yutani Com pany. (Ripley wasn’t even present for most of the script; Hicks had more or less assumed her role.) They then tapped Vincent W ard, a New Zealand director whose remarkable fantasy The Navigator had become an instant cult sensation. His story idea had Ripley & Co. crash-landing on a planet of monastics who believed themselves to be living in the End Times (Ward is fascinated with the role of religion in society), but left the project after more infighting with the producers. He did receive story credit, though, and many of the half-built, monastery-like sets were re-used in a different fashion. Production at Pinewood Studios in England shut down halfway through and had to be resumed in Los Angeles months later. Rather than shell out a bonus to compel Sigourney Weaver to shave her head again, Fox spent a portion of the same money to contrive a (very convincing) baldpate makeup appliance for her.
For a not-very-good movie, the acting is admirable. Weaver’s Ripley has always been the best reason to see any of these movies, and she has several excellent scenes, among them one where she steels herself to look at an X-ray of the monster inside her. The performances are all the more impressive thanks to the restored footage, too. Among the added scenes are ones where Ripley and the doctor get to know each other better, and even build a sort of trust, and a remarkable moment where Ripley realizes that Dillon’s religion doesn’t prevent him from being a functional nihilist — at least until his own safety is threatened. There are other, similar moments with the other inmates, where Ripley’s moral outrage clashes with their indifference. And at the very end, there is a final and crucial exchange with the Company’s representatives that cements her certainty that they are not “here to help.” [Swipe here for spoilers: The image of the alien queen bursting out of Ripley’s chest as she dies was also eliminated, a touch I always found personally gratuitous.]
The critical and financial failure of Alien³ (it barely made back its production costs) should have been warning enough to Fox. Unfortunately, they made many of the same mistakes with Alien: Resurrection. Despite a creative directing job by Amelie’s Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the film was no less grimy, disjointed, haphazard and uninteresting. The original script by Buffy mastermind Joss Whedon never made it to the screen intact, and the best ideas in the film — Ripley’s genetic modification, the alien’s new life cycle, etc. — were second to the kind of generic chase-and-shoot sequences that could be found in half a hundred other films. Whatever made the first two movies so special got lost, and I suspect at this point it’s not worth hanging around to see if that magic will return again.