January 16, 2016

Alien³ (1992)

An onboard incident causes the colonial military vessel Sulaco to eject its sleeping crew in an escape pod, which crash-lands on the isolated and inhospitable planet Fury 161. Of the four passengers only former flight officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) survives. While she struggles to comprehend the deaths of her companions Hicks, Bishop and Newt - not to mention the all-male penal colony in which she has woken - Ripley learns that an alien has followed her down inside the escape pod. With no weapons and no escape, Ripley must lead a group of rapists, murderers and other violent criminals in an effort to trap and kill the alien before the Weyland Yutani corporation arrives to retrieve it.

Suffering from both a protracted and confused development and a group of studio executives obsessed with interfering with its production to the point of catastrophe, Alien³ is the most difficult of the Alien films to properly embrace. Its director, David Fincher, was fired from the production twice before it was completed. The theatrical edit is missing enough footage to render several key plot points close to nonsensical. The film also seems wilfully unlikeable. It begins by murdering a child and then adds insult to injury by populating its cast with near-identical violent criminals. It follows up the military action of Aliens with a story where there isn't a single gun to be seen and it deliberately ends on the most downbeat and depressing note that it can find. Upon release it was widely derided as a colossal misfire, and has since gained a reputation as something of a commercial disaster - this despite it grossing more money in cinemas worldwide than either of its predecessors.

Putting the biases of the time aside, it is clear from its troubled production if nothing else that Alien³ is not as good a film as the original Alien. It is, however, easily the most intriguing of the four original Alien movies. It remains since its 1992 release my personal favourite of the entire saga. It's a film that makes you work a little to engage with it, but which brings great and entertaining rewards once you do.

Alien³ is an uncharacteristically bold film. It's easy to see why 20th Century Fox's executive producers started to get cold feet over the film as soon as it went into production. It deliberately takes the audience out of their comfort zone. Like Hicks? He's dead. Like Bishop? Aside from a very depressing scene of Ripley using his dying body to read a flight recorder, he's gone too. Like Newt? Within minutes the film reveals she drowned in her cryotube. The Fury-161 medical officer Clemens (Charles Dance) reassures Ripley he didn't think she suffered. A split-second shot of her corpse in the cryotube, her face contorted in a panicked rictus, suggests the opposite. Fearing Newt was killed by a facehugger alien, Ripley demands an autopsy - which Clemens reluctantly performs and which gets depicted on film. We don't get forced to see Newt's body get cut open - we just get to see Ripley's traumatised reaction, shots of Clemens wiping blood on his gown and the physically nauseating sound of a bone saw and rib-spreader at work. It is unbelievably unpleasant. It is also the point of the exercise. Ripley is upset, horrified, and utterly heartbroken, and David Fincher goes out of his way to make the audience feel the same way. It's not likeable, but it's enormously effective.

Then, in the aftermath, Ripley is forced to adjust to life surrounded by a group of convicts until a ship can come and retrieve her. One of the most common complaints I have heard about the film is that it is close to impossible to know who is who: the entire supporting cast consists of English men with shaved heads. As with Newt's death and autopsy, the cause of the complaint is one of the points of the film. Ripley is isolated in this new unwanted environment, and by making everybody around her seem so self-similar we initially share in her dislocation. Rewatching the film changes that, however. Before long they each separate out from one another, until it's actually as diverse and entertaining a cast as Alien or Aliens. There's the sensitive, patient Clemens, wearily accepting his fate among the criminals. There's the gruff, pragmatic Superintendant Andrews (the always sensational Brian Glover), who just wants his prison facility to calm down and for Ripley to be taken away as soon as possible. Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) is a murderer and racist who's found peace and Christianity on Fury-161 and wants nothing more in life than to be a good man until he dies. Golic (Paul McGann) is a genuinely deranged prisoner with low intelligence and dangerous flights of fancy. I think my favourite is Morse (Danny Webb), a jumpy, fidgeting smart-alec who ultimately gets the somewhat dubious honour of being the only character to survive the original Alien trilogy who is not a cat. He also has the most sensible response to seeing somebody get killed by the alien of anyone in any of the films. He pretty much stands there, a chair raised in his hands, shaking until all he can muster is an exasperated cry of 'Fuck!!'. Generally speaking he receives most of the film's best jokes.

Yes, the jokes. People weirdly seemed to miss it the first time around, but Alien³ is far and away the funniest Alien film ever made. Alien is almost entirely humourless. Aliens had a couple of gags, usually involving Hudson (Bill Paxton). Alien³ is rolling in moments of humour. It's a bleak humour, and often wildly idiosyncratic, but the more familiar one becomes with the various inmates the funnier it becomes. For a film with a reputation for being cold and unlikeable, there is an unexpected amount of warmth and human feeling buried inside.

There is also an unexpected amount of visual beauty. For me Alien³ is the most visually attractive film of the series, and by a considerable distance. Its cavernous, dimly set sets and vaulted chambers give everything a very grand, operatic look. The golden-brown colours and rich shadows give the film a vaguely Carravaggio-esque aesthetic. It really does not look a lot like Alien or Aliens: Fincher have given the film its own visual identity. The film's re-designed alien is particularly effective, burst from a dog instead of a human, and styled as a quadruped instead of the previous bipedal form. It has a lot more personality as well. We still never get the best look at it. Ridley Scott obscured his alien with darkness and oblique camera angles. James Cameron obscured his by piling it into a writhing mass of other aliens. Fincher manages to obscure the alien by simply making it run really, really fast. It's all rather terrifying in the moment.

If one imagines Alien as a trilogy of three films - which was certainly how it was envisaged when this film was made - then Alien³ is the perfectly appropriate conclusion. It is a funeral in movie form: mournful from the first scene, deeply tragic and hopeless, and yet despite this it is remarkably beautiful and peppered with sparks of comedy. Of course Ripley dies at the end, sacrificing her life to stop another generation of aliens from being born. How else could her story have properly ended? Despite its troubled production and ultimately scrappy structure - the subsequent 'assembly edit' fixed many of these problems, but not all of them - this is a bold, provocative and magnificent take on the Alien concept, and the perfect way to close the door on the entire series.

Which is a pity, because five years later Fox opened the door again.

The Alien/Predator Rewatch
Alien (1979, d. Ridley Scott.) (review)
Aliens (1986, d. James Cameron.) (review)
Alien³ (1992, d. David Fincher.)

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