Revisiting David Fincher’s Alien 3
Can the production of a film be used as an example of martyrdom? Heaven forbid that a person dies for a movie’s sake. All the same, the making of one can be gruelling, even more than what the willing participants bargained for. Some are horrific experiences. Enter Alien 3, directed by David Fincher, which turns 30 this week.
Who is the martyr in the case of this 1992 motion picture? Almost anyone who was ever involved from the earliest days of its conception to the final days of music recording. Many people suffered throughout the ungodly number of stages that eventually brought Alien 3 to life. Out of the horror of its development came a film, beautiful in its oddity and controversies. Much like the xenomorph itself.
Alien 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, …
Several excellent resources are available to the public for a full grasp of how taxing Alien 3’s birth was. Alien: The Archive – The Ultimate Guide to the Classic Movies is a terrific compendium of the first four entries. An even greater resource is the making-of documentary that has appeared on all DVD and Blu-ray releases since 2003, Wreckage and Rage.
Twentieth Century Fox knew it had something good on its hands with the Alien series. Producers and screenwriters Walter Hill and David Giler worked tirelessly with an astonishing number of creatives to make a third venture. For the uninitiated, David Fincher was not the first director hired. Nor was he the second. Nay, he was the third filmmaker the studio finally managed to work this. Barely. Furthermore, the term “hired” fully applies in this case. Two predecessors put considerable time and effort into realizing versions of Alien 3 that never came to be.
Renny Harlin of Die Hard 2 fame was the first victim. In a twist that benefits hindsight, the Finnish director desired to take the audience to the xenomorph’s home planet and discover where the creature originated from. No Ripley, no Newt, no Hicks. Deemed too unfriendly towards the budget the project was awarded, the producers and Harlin worked for close to a year on variations until the latter waved his white flag. Production studio Brandywine kept erring closer to what had been done before, which left Harlin disinterested and disenchanted.
Vincent Ward was next in line. His name is mentioned in the final film’s opening credits for its story. Ward himself would not entirely agree with the credit’s accuracy, as per the aforementioned documentary. Even so, the story structure fans know today does echo some key components of the New Zealander’s original creation. It is the stuff of Alien legend.
It involved a brotherhood of monks who have fled Earth’s modern civilization by living on an artificially made, wooden planetoid with its own atmosphere. Ripley’s escape vessel from Aliens crash lands, bringing with it the infamous beast. What ensues is an unexpected slow-burn sci-fi horror film replete with religiosity and psychology. A woman violates the monks’ sense of balanced life, bringing the devil with her no less!
After Ward’s departure, David Fincher was finally the man for the job; only the story had changed once again. Several subsequent alterations would be made, so much so that production was largely halted in the summer of 1991 to hash out something cohesive.
What the youthful Fincher lacked in major Hollywood experience he made up for in other departments. He was a talented music video director, had worked for Industrial Light and Magic, and most importantly knew exactly how he wanted to make his movie and was uninterested in studio cliff notes. Steadfast, confident, outspoken, qualities Fox and Brandywine weren’t expecting from a young buck. To put it mildly, sparks flew. Script changes, heated arguments with line producers, a change in cinematographer when the first one’s Parkinson’s became debilitating, the list of hurdles is endless.
Alien 3 somehow stands on its own despite all the war scars. The sequel is so intent on differentiating itself that it usurps expectations of fans who fell in love with Newt and Hicks by dispatching them in the opening seconds. Their deaths are not pleasant either. The young girl drowns in her cryo-chamber, and a rod impales the Corporal during a fire caused by a facehugger’s acid.
The tone takes its cues from the horrific opening moments. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) crash lands on Fiorina 161, a prison colony that also functions as a lead production factory for waste containment. Glum, industrial, underfunded, the place is where the galaxy’s scum is sentenced to for punishment. Ripley makes the acquaintance of the only decent person, medical officer Clemens (Charles Dance), and its many foul-mouthed inmates like Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), Morse (Danny Webb), Golic (Paul McGann), and its warden Andrews (Brian Glover). A delicious menu for the xenomorph that erupts out of a rottweiler early on. A dog dies too. Wonderful.
Whether by Fincher’s brilliant hand, the extraordinary dedication of the cast and crew, or some intangible movie magic, Alien 3 comes out the other end as something more than palatable. Everything discussed earlier should have resulted in shambles. There is something undefinably spiritual about the endeavour. The vestiges of Ward’s aborted version are to be thanked in part, but so are the ingredients set in place by Fincher and his team.
Alien 3 never makes the inmates look “good” per se, but an effort is made to suggest the last inklings of humanity still clinging to their doomed souls. They are believers of a self-devised religion through which they embrace their fate and punishment, with Dillon serving as their pastor. Ripley’s presence destabilizes their relative harmony, but when the death toll starts to rise, both parties forge a tenuous alliance. Our heroine relies on her experience, her pseudo-scientific knowledge of the creature, whereas Dillon and his men can only have faith that they will find a way to survive while a company rescue ship makes its way.
This third entry lacks the finesse of Ridley Scott’s original and the adrenaline of James Cameron’s military-themed sequel. Army grunts are one type of obnoxiousness; convicted and foul-mouthed inmates is another. A couple of sequences, though well filmed, don’t quite gel with the rest of the picture. Structural issues plague the subplot when the group tries quarantining the xenomorph in a heavy-duty containment chamber. This pertains to both the original 1992 cut and 2003 special edition. A scene in which Ripley is nearly raped features an odd rock music cue.
Fincher injects enough chutzpah to see the project through. Bold camera angles liven a tunnel chase sequence. Set design and lighting both inspire awe. Dance, Dutton, and Webb are terrific, and who can argue that Weaver, shaved head, still doesn’t give it her all when playing the iconic Ellen Ripley. There is even a fun appearance by Lance Henriksen, returning as both the Bishop fans know and another they do not. Elliot Goldenthal’s score does a lot of heavy lifting to instill an operatic and quasi-spiritual tone.
Time Tests Legacies
What is Alien 3’s legacy? Rotten Tomatoes suggests Fincher’s efforts resulted in a subpar outing, and not just from the critics. So many people enjoy Alien and Aliens. The conversation usually ends on that note.
But scour the internet, poll-friendly film aficionados, and the many fans the franchise claims. There is unmistakably love out there for this imperfect child. Some even write for Tilt.
It is not necessarily an easy watch. Frankly, it is not necessarily a fun watch. Aliens is fun. Alien 3 is a descent into a special kind of dirt-infested slum. 30 years later, here it stands, producing lively conversations and debate. It is the subject of making of books, blu-ray re-releases, and adaptations of versions that never came to pass, like a novelization of an early William Gibson draft.
Intellectual property owners are not stupid when it comes to money. If there is none to be made, they shy away from dusting off a property. Alien 3 keeps coming back in some shape or form. It launched David Fincher!
He and many others worked extraordinarily hard for a cause and a vision. The finished product does not reflect that pure vision, but Alien 3 lives on. To that extent, at least, it was well worth their pain.
-Edgar ChaputWatch Alien 3