I’m a child of Ridley. Blade Runner and Alien are two of the top-three all-time greatest science fiction films ever made (second place going to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). James Cameron’s Aliens is not too far back, it’s one of the finest genre films in film history, and Ellen Ripley is the greatest female protagonist ever. EVER. You’ll get shit from me if you say otherwise.
So as you can tell, the Alien franchise holds particular reverence for me, and when I talk to equally fervent fans of the franchise, I hear a great amount of disdain for the later sequels of the quadrilogy, Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection and David Fincher’s Alien3, the latter which is universally panned as the worst of the bunch.
I saw Alien3 in 1992, in an empty theater during a hot summer in Greenwood Village, Colorado. Literally, I was the only person in the theater, as it was later in the film’s release and word had gotten out that it wasn’t that good.
But I fucking loved it. Maybe it was the first and only time in my life I had a theater all to myself (I went alone - yes I do that, still do it, and I’m totally okay with it), but I was completely mesmerized by the movie, as much as the original Alien, which I’ve never seen on the big screen. Fincher’s film was filled with gorgeously dirty widescreen compositions, and the prisoner colony theme was something that bizarrely echoed another favorite film of mine, Milos Foreman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Charles S. Dutton was a supreme badass on television (in the tremendously underrated show Roc) and he translated his brooding intensity to the screen, matching Sigourney Weaver beat for beat. The Alien itself was incredible, taking on a canine form and being able to run along the ceiling, which was shown with an ingenious, vertiginous steadicam trick. The set pieces were epic and mammoth, echoing the epic work of Dante Feretti mixed with a dash of Moebius.
I don’t understand the vitriol thrown at the picture. From a directing and professional standpoint, I can empathize with Fincher’s distancing himself from the film - which was his first feature - as the studio incompetence surrounding the picture has become the stuff of legend. The film was greenlit without a completed screenplay, and Fincher essentially had to retrofit a on-the-spot story into sets that had already been constructed at great expense. Incongruous studio notes cockblocked almost every major decision at every stage of production. Legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who had made magic on Blade Runner, had succumbed to a lifelong battle with Parkinsons Disease, and had to be replaced one quarter into photography. The film was the case of too many cooks in the kitchen, and I can imagine for a precise and obsessive director like David Fincher, the shoot would’ve been pure hell, and totally forgettable.
But it is a testament to Fincher’s skill that if this is his version of ‘patchwork,’ then he truly is one of cinema’s great filmmakers working today. And it was his first film. The film’s script, perhaps out of necessity, was stripped down to a long chase sequence, taking full advantage of Norman Reynolds’ labyrinthine studio set. The film feels primal and elemental, but yet carries the formal and rigid artistic composition that would later become the pillar of Fincher’s work. Like most first time feature directors, Fincher also quotes the techniques of masters he grew up on, including Ridley Scott, John Ford, Orson Welles, George Miller and Terry Gilliam. The camera is placed low on the floor, distorting the already-epic scale of the prison colony, and Fincher makes use of deep focus and multiple planes within the frame. The film pays great respect to the previous visions of Ridley Scott and James Cameron, and while it may appear to collapse under the greatness of its predecessors, I personally think it stands equal to them, but in a totally different way.
The design of the xenomorph is a thing of beauty, and even garnered the film an Academy Award nomination with its combination of puppetry, miniatures, and early adoption of CGI. I loved that it taking on the form of a canine reinforced the mythology of the creature, that it took on the physiology of its host. Also too was the maternal / hive roots of the character, portrayed brilliantly in the film’s most iconic scene, a tete-a-tete between Ripley and the Alien.
Because I had to.
Despite some rough edges around the CGI, the film is eminently rewatchable, and I begin to notice things that I hadn’t before. Despite the aesthetic power of the film, it is in actuality an ensemble performance piece, and its strength comes from the oddball gang of prisoners who battle issues of faith and brotherhood throughout. It is an emotional note that strikes far deeper than the bond between Marines in James Cameron’s Aliens, who are simply battling for physical survival. The inmates in Alien3 behave as if they’ve come face to face with the Devil, and they engage in an agnostic battle to rid the world of Evil. It feels epic and much larger than it appears to be.
Is Alien3 perfect? Not by any means. It still pales in comparison to Ridley Scott’s original. It is a sequel that was forced into existence, and one that should have lived a different life under Australian director Vincent Ward’s original vision, which was to have Ripley moor upon a planet made entirely of wood inhabited by a tribe of Luddite monks. Early production design documents hint at the world Ward was envisioning, and had the studio honchos had the guts to stick with it, Alien 3 would have been something truly special.
But we have Fincher’s take, and it is one hell of a take. I think it’s pretty damn amazing. Hopefully time will be kinder to it than the film’s critics, who have called it “grim,” “nihilistic” and “conceptually disjointed.” Call me nuts but those are the exact reasons why I think it’s so great. There’s talk of a sixth Alien film (after the resoundingly dreadful Prometheus) and in a perfect world there wouldn’t even be a sixth film, but if there had to be one, I would hope someone would make Vincent Ward’s film as he intended it. The groundwork is all there, and if Fincher’s pastiche is any indication of what a fraction of that film could have been, then it is absolutely worth resuscitating.