An interesting part of the Alien series is its intent and ability to attract quality directors. Alien³ (1992) being the first feature film from David Fincher—who, to this day, has yet to make a below-good film—makes the “intent” half of that a dubious retrospection, but he must have given them reason to entrust a 63 million dollar budget in someone who had only done music videos. Apparently, he wasn’t their first choice and Fincher has disowned the film due to the large degree of studio interference and related drama. Still, the man directed the movie and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (also directed Amélie (2001)) helmed the final film, Alien: Resurrection (1997). Is it luck or survival?
Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) just cannot catch a break. First, the mining ship she happens to be on brings in an alien that kills everyone but her and the cat. Then she has to go back to the planet they found the beast and help the people there—which turns out to be a girl named Newt (Carrie Henn)—and they lose more than they save. Now, finally on the way home with the girl and the hunk Hicks (Michael Biehn), and what do you know? An alien screws it all up and Ripley is the only survivor in a crash landing on the planet Fury. Odd name for a planet. That’s because it’s an oil-refinery/maximum security prison inhabited by super nasty criminals (all male) that have all converted to a millennialist cult with only medical officer Clemens (Charles Dance) as a semi-normal. And, sure enough, there’s an alien about. So, with the aid of cult-leader Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) and a lot of familiar British and American faces (including Pete Postlethwaite, Paul McGann, Danny Webb, Holt McCallany, and Christopher Fairbank who you don’t know you know), they’ve got to put together some kind of plan. Why is Ripley coughing like that?
Completely eschewed is any sense of low-cost production. The set pieces are massive and the use of models is limited (considering the scope). Even the sequel Aliens (1986) stands up over time almost completely because of the terrific story and characterization and not the effects. That’s slightly ironic since it was directed by the great effects master of his generation James Cameron. Perhaps what makes Cameron so good is his ability to know the limitations of technology. We all remember the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and the additions to the original Star Wars trilogy. You look at the CGI and you wonder, “How did anyone think that this passed for believable?” In Aliens, Cameron stuck to models and a lot of fog. But Alien³ is enormous and looks phenomenal. That, at least, Fincher can appreciate.
However, not all production values are unambiguously excellent. The central piece—the alien –has always had serious problems. It does its best work when standing there next to its kill, dripping with steely saliva and looking ominous. At its worst, it always had to bound down corridors, looking more the fool than anything else. This time, they’ve got a puppet (against green screen) alien with a little too much glow to be timeless. But it holds up surprisingly well and certainly looks better than the fellows on suspended wires from the previous films. The largest Fincher improvement is an increased use of the alien’s perspective in the chase sequences which are blessedly more successful for the humans than in the previous films—you always had to think that at least someone would be able to get away from this thing.
From the start, there was a considerable Blade Runner (1982) feeling in the music and some of the early images. But in relatively short order, it moved into proto-Michael Bay territory. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The music, for one thing, is subtler and less congratulatory. But what lacks most is the kind of maturity that greater control might have offered to Fincher. There’s a lot of moving low-angle shots (so as to suggest impending danger and allow for impressive poses) and gore. A lot of gore. It’s a bit shocking when compared with the first two films and Fincher’s other work which are heavier on suspense and personal violence than shards of body matter or considerable blood spatter. It’s too much and it’s distracting.
That said, it only distracts from the rather limited connection established with the characters. There are enough moments that are endearing to hold the movie firm, but compared with Aliens…well, there’s no comparison. The script is an ungodly amalgamation from David Giler, Walter Hill, Larry Ferguson, and Vincent Ward (story) with elements from other prior incarnations. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that little enough space was dedicated to characterization rather than keeping the plot alive. That’s too bad since Ripley is probably the greatest film heroine of all time. She’s relegated to near irrelevance here despite the considerable opportunity for reflection the plot provides. Gone is the fearless survivor, and in her place is this wandering, aimless figure without much strength. She just continues on towards the end because that’s the way it turned out.
Despite this, however, I was thoroughly entertained and didn’t roll my eyes once. That said, I went in expecting something good and was willing to give a large amount of leeway on the story side. I mean, Ripley crashed on a maximum security prison—that requires some serious belief suspension. But the cast and director make it all work better than it had any right to be and cannot be considered anything more than the mildest blemish on anyone’s career. Opportunity lost? Perhaps, but when you avert a disaster, you don’t really consider the opportunities.