Alien 3 – Revisiting a Misunderstood Work of Art

Ridley Scott, James Cameron, and David Fincher walk into a bar…

If you finished that sentence with “And made amazing movies,” then you would be correct. But when it comes to the Alien series, the response is generally Alien (spectacular!), Aliens (awesome!), Alien 3 (meh…) and then they learn, horrified that there was a fourth entry in the series that is just…not great…so they never speak of it again (no offense to Jean-Pierre Jeunet, because he did give us the beautiful Amelie later on).

Scott’s first entry is atmospheric sci-fi at its best, something he would use to marvelous effect later on when he did Blade Runner. Cameron’s explosive second entry is just a whole lot of fun as only Cameron can manage it. Really big guns, spaceships, mech suits, and just enough sentiment to remind us that there is still something worth fighting for in this crazy world. The third entry, David Fincher’s first theatrical film, is notorious for its painful production and poorly organized plot. After throwing out two plot ideas, the crew began working on a third one (having the film be set in a prison) without a script. The plot was literally written on the fly and everyone just sort of gritted their teeth and prayed for it to be over. It’s a testament to Fincher’s leadership skills that the film was even finished at all.

Part of the reason why the public didn’t receive the film very well when it was released in 1992 was because it wasn’t the film they had been expecting. Early publicity for the film made it seem that the xenomorphs (the aliens) were going to be making it to Earth and wreaking havoc there. The tagline on many posters is still “On Earth everyone can hear you scream.” When that idea was scrapped, there were rumors that the film would be set on a monastery in space, literally a giant wooden planet (and this idea very nearly made it to the final draft), but when audiences went to see it, they were expecting a big follow up to James Cameron’s brash sequel, and instead got a very different film, one that seemed like it was trying to recapture the atmospheric tension of the first film, but that was unevenly paced, and that did some unpopular things to two beloved characters (Hicks and Newt) from the previous film. And so it’s sort of fallen out of popularity. As a note of comparison, Alien holds a 97% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes; Aliens  has a 98%, and Alien 3 holds a 44%. Interestingly enough, the critical reception is pretty sharply divided. Out of 45 reviews, 20 critics liked it and 25 critics hated it.

So, why should we even revisit this movie at all? Well, because it’s worth revisiting now that we’ve moved away from the hype surrounding its release. And, because a new Alien movie is looming on the horizon and director Neill Blomkamp has said that he wants to completely ignore everything after Aliens. So, before Alien 3 is retconned away forever, I wanted to give it its due.

The film exists in two versions. The theatrical cut is the one audiences hated, and it’s no wonder why. It’s got a great idea, but it’s all over the place. It’s full of plot holes and characters appear and disappear at random. The alien itself doesn’t really feel that threatening because it shows too much of itself, and the motion capture puppetry used to animate it just isn’t advanced enough to really make it feel truly menacing. You don’t really care about the characters because you’re so bewildered by the haphazard plot.

There is also a second version, called the Assembly Cut (or Special edition). Now, it’s not a Director’s Cut in that Fincher was not involved in the re-editing (he had such a painful time making the thing that he’s said in interviews that the only way there will be a director’s cut would be if he re-shot the whole thing). But the film’s editor, David Crowther, used Fincher’s workprint to create a film that more closely resembled Fincher’s original idea. As a result, as one critic says, this version actually feels more “like a David Fincher film.”

This Assembly Cut is definitely the version to watch. It feels almost like a completely different film. One plot element that I especially like is one that involves Doctor Who veteran Paul McGann as an insane convict who begin to worship the xenomorph as a sort of angel/demon come to punish sinners. After Ripley traps the alien in a cargo hold, McGann’s character (named Golic) kills the guard (while frantically apologizing) and releases the beast to terrorize the colony all over again. It’s a fantastic subplot that shows how easily Ripley is able to sacrifice other people to accomplish her goal (which she does when she traps the alien in the cargo hold, ignoring the screams of the other convict who happened to be trapped in there with it). This is a good foil to her disgust at the Weyland/Yutani corporation in the previous film who did the exact same thing on a bigger scale. Also, Golic (my favorite character in the film) represents the darkest fringe of the post-apocalyptic Christian extremism that these convicts practice. He literally loses his mind to his beliefs and becomes a danger to himself and others. While we end up cheering for the other characters, Golic is there to remind us that the extreme variation of the Christian religion that these men cling to offers little hope of redemption and instead fixates on the brutal punishment of sinners and little else.

There are many other variations and changes throughout the script, and they don’t always fit together neatly, but they offer a much more intelligent and satisfying viewing experience than the theatrical cut did. It’s still not a perfect film and can never live up to its predecessors, but it does redeem the film somewhat. Plus, it makes me feel better about my life because I’m a huge Fincher fan, and it makes me sad that this movie was such a disaster. Other movies are disasters because they are badly made, but this one was a disaster because of studio politics, not the filmmakers. So, before the Gods of Hollywood consign this film to the black depths where X-Men: The Last Stand now lives thanks to X-Men: Days of Future Past, give it another go, but watch the Assembly Cut. And watch it with an open mind. Ignore the uneven quality (many of the restored scenes don’t feel quite as “finished” as the rest of the film, but they’re not terribly noticeable and actually help to enhance the rough and grimy look of the film itself) and instead look at it as an attempt to “fix” a flawed movie.

You can watch Alien: Resurrection if you want…I guess… It’s visually pretty, but doesn’t have much else going for it save for a really awesome over-the-shoulder basketball shot from Ripley. But do give Alien 3 another go. Ignore the critics and come to your own conclusions. It’s actually my favorite of the three (even though I’m aware it’s not the best of the three) because of its visual style and its quieter, more subtly horrifying tone. I’ll be sorry to see it go as the new film takes over the continuity, but I think the series as a whole will be stronger for it, so I’ll just have to deal with it.

I should be thankful that we’re getting another Alien film at all (and from a fabulous director.) Also, there will maybe, possibly, be a Prometheus sequel eventually in the distant future, so that’s fun. Hopefully it is able to redeem the first Prometheus movie which is actually 2/3 really good and 1/3 not great. I’m not holding my breath, though.

That’s all for this week, folks! I hope all of my American readers have a lovely 4th of July, and I shall see you next week!

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