With the original Alien movies’ 35-year anniversary this year, I thought it interesting to go back and watch the series again. It is a most peculiar franchise consisting of four movies made over a timespan of nearly twenty years from Alien in 1979 to Alien: Resurrection in 1997, directed by four different directors, and taking place in vastly different settings and genres. As a sidenote, it should be said, that two of the four directors – Ridley Scott and David Fincher – never had made a feature film before. Perhaps the most notable difference between the films however is the general shift in public opinion from James Camerons beloved Aliens to David Finchers polarizing Alien3. It is the latter of these movies I wish to discuss in the following article, both focusing on why Alien3 is loathed by so many, but also whether the movie holds up on its own and as a part of one of the most iconic and revered horror-franchises ever to be put on the silver screen.
If you’ve never seen an Alien-movie before, allow me to explain: They follow the continuing battle between space trucker Ellen Ripley, played in all of the movies by Sigourney Weaver, and the titular alien race, the Xenomorph. The Xenomorph is a particularly nasty form of hostile alien, whose reproductive system is somewhat…. strange. The gist is, that a small alien lifeform known as a ‘Facehugger’ forces itself onto the face of a host, paralyses and impregnates said host with a Xenomorph, which in turn bursts out of the hosts’ chest and quickly grows into 2 meter tall monster complete with an extremely suggestive formed head and two mouths. Basically a nightmarish sexual assault with a big, ugly, phallic monster as the end result.
The third movie starts of directly after the second one, which had Ripley and three other survivors in cryostasis after having successfully blown up and fled the alien-infested space colony Hadley’s Hope in a space shuttle. Alien3 immediately turns the tables on our sleeping protagonists by arbitrarily placing a Facehugger-egg on board the space shuttle. When hatched, the Facehugger ostensibly starts a fire, resulting in the crash of the space craft, which conveniently lands on the prison planet Fiorana “Fury” 161.
Only five minutes into the movie, it already contains two glaring problems never to be addressed in the following 110 minutes (or 133 minutes if you’re watching the Special Edition-cut of the movie). First of all, how the hell did the Facehugger-egg come aboard the space shuttle? In Aliens, it is established that these eggs are laid by an Alien Queen. Said Queen does follow Ripley onboard the space shuttle at the end of that movie, but only after Ripley has incinerated her eggsack. In other words, there is no sensible explanation as to how an egg ended up in the vicinity of Ripley other than out of pure plot convenience. Secondly even looking past that, it is completely baffling as to why the egg is shown hatching in the beginning of the movie. One of the great strengths of the first two Alien-movies is in their restraint to almost never show the audience something the characters are not aware of. This shared dread between the audience and the characters is in part what makes Alien and Aliens such effective horror movies. But Alien3 smothers any such potential build-up in its crib, by making sure to point out from the word go, that yes, the Xenomorph is indeed still a threat.
After the crash, Ripley finds herself as the only survivor of the aforementioned space shuttle and stranded on a barren planet which is solely inhabited by 25 male prisoners most of whom have converted to some kind of pseudo-Christianity, infatuated by the idea of the coming Apocalypse. The rest of the plot follows in line with the other films of the franchise. Ripley and the rest of the inhabitants are forced to fight a highly adaptive, superior foe, using their wit to ultimately isolate and kill it. Said Xenomorph comes into the picture about half an hour in, this time not from a human host as it is the case in Alien and Aliens, but instead using a dog for host in the theatrical version and an ox in the Special Edition-cut. The significance of this is mostly relegated to the Special Edition-cut. The ox somewhat fits into the movies’ overarching religious themes in that, in the same way that a golden statue of an ox brought sin to the Israeli people in the Exodus chapter of the Bible, so does an ox bring a Xenomorph – and thereby death – to the residents of Fury 161. It does look different visually, crawling on all fours and in general being more nimble and agile than its counterparts in the other films. This does highlight the fact that the Xenomorph, as the name suggests, is partly related to its initial host. Ultimately though this design results in an alien monster that is less imposing and more generic than its predecessors.
Speaking of generic, while the first two films both had a great cast of characters each with memorable lines, horrid deaths and fantastic personalities, the alien is this time relegated to kill 25 interchangeable meathead prisoners. The only noteworthy character is the prison doctor Clemens, played by the always charismatic Charles Dance, who acts as Ripleys love interest during the first act of the movie after which he is unceremoniously killed off. I’ve heard this baffling character death defended by fans of the movie with the argument, that the Xenomorph is an unstoppable force of nature and so it is only natural, that it does not care whether a character is important to the plot or not. Except that in the very same scene, it is established that the Xenomorph refuses to kill Ripley, because she is carrying the embryo of an Alien Queen. So any sort of tension flies out the window and the lack of any remaining, interesting characters leaves the rest of the movie stale. This culminates in one of the most confusingly shot, unsatisfactory climatic battle scenes of any movie this humble writer has ever witnessed.
Even with these problems, there is certainly a case to be made for Alien3. It was David Finchers debut film and while rewrites of the screenplay and studio interferences hampered the young directors initial vision of the film, many of his trademarks found in his later filmography is very evident in Alien3. The overtly religious themes and general dark and depressing atmosphere the movie strives for is very reminiscent of Finchers later films, such as Se7en and Fight Club and gives it a unique feel compared to its predecessors and a leg up over the fourth movie Alien: Resurrection that just wanted to be a cheesy horror/comedy. And by focusing on one alien, it tries its damndest to deepen the relationship between Ripley and the Xenomorph, while building its own identity in the franchise with a focus on religious and apocalyptic themes and a setting that is more reminiscent of a prison drama than a horror movie. It thereby avoids the problem of just rehashing the original films’ story arch, visual style and themes, which also only contained one Xenomorph. These factors certainly makes it worth watching at least if you’re a fan of Finchers’ more popular work and want to see where he started or just as a curiosity. I would recommend the Special Edition-cut over the theatrical, as the extra scenes spliced in does give a bit more context to the muddled story and the characters get more time to develop. No matter what version you pick though, it is still a boring slog that lacks any sort of tension or scares, which makes its attempts to be profound that much more infuriating. Because there is potential here, it’s just buried under a bad movie.