The third entry in the Alien franchise has been the series’ whipping boy ever since its release in the early 1990s. Whereas the fourth film, Alien Resurrection, is such an oddity it’s more of a redheaded stepchild than a true Alien movie, the third film walks a fine line between terror and action–the hallmarks of its two predecessors–and though it ultimately succeeds at neither one, it is a compelling film and certainly worth watching. Much has already been written about how the movie more or less betrayed fans by eliminating Hicks, Newt, and for all intents and purposes, Bishop, the main characters from Aliens, and re-imagining the action heroine Ripley as a brooding emo girl. Add to that the film’s notoriously problematic production (including a walkout by first-time director David Fincher near the end of the shoot) and one could easily dismiss this as a throwaway sequel far better suited for the $5 Wal-Mart DVD Bargin Bin than on the shelf of any true science fiction fan. However, despite these shortcomings I have found Alien3 to be far better than most people give it credit for. Is it a worthy sequel to Aliens? Not exactly. But it is a good film, and worth a second look for those who have not seen it in a while or dismissed it altogether.
Where Alien set a new benchmark for realism in science fiction films, as well as a reinvention of monster movies that continues to influence filmmakers today, and Aliens set the gold standard for action films that has yet to be topped (save perhaps by the the director himself with Terminator 2), Alien3 excels at nothing in particular and introduces nothing really new into the franchise. But in place of groundbreaking filmmaking, David Fincher brought incredibly deep thematic elements into the mix for the first time ever. Essentially starting with a clean slate on a dirty planet, Fincher uses the Alien mythology as a backdrop from which to examine heavy themes of life and death, spirituality and salvation, and a look into human nature that bears a striking similarity to Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.”
As the movie begins, Ripley’s escape pod from Aliens has crash-landed on Fiorina “Fury” 161, a prison planet run by the infamous Weyland-Yutani corporation from the first two movies. The planet is all but forsaken, and only a handful of men are still around to “keep the pilot light on.” These men, we are told, are all convicted murders, rapists, and generally nasty human beings who are kept in check by the ill-tempered warden Andrews (Brian Glover) and a spiritual guru-of-sorts named Dillon (Charles S. Dutton). In essence we see humanity at its worst: criminals devoid of any contact with the outside world, struggling to maintain a sense of order and decency lest they slip into anarchy. They have all taken vows to maintain a sort of peace and order in the prison, and despite the lack of a true disciplinary force, they all realize the consequences should they get out of line. Venerable actor Charles Dance is along for the ride as Clemens, a medical officer who has made some very costly mistakes years ago that continue to haunt him. It’s a motley crew to be sure, and a rich tapestry from which to present a tale about morality and humanity.
During the opening moments we see an image of a cross silhouetted against the setting sun as debris and junk rolls across the landscape surrounding the prison–a harbinger of the thematic elements that will be explored in the film. Dillon’s pastoral leadership of the prisoners, from his refusal to let them break the Third Commandment to his moving spiritual eulogy during the cremation of Ripley’s fallen comrades, is a stark contrast to the gun-toting reluctant leader Ripley was in the second film. (In fact, the entire cremation/birth scene has some serious parallels to Coppola’s masterful baptism scene in The Godfather.) Dillon in essence shepherds the prisoners–a task warden Andrews, not one to upset the order or cause ripples in the water, is all to happy to have him do. But how does one deal with a metaphysical God and satan when a very real monster is literally killing off inmates one by one? The idea of rebirth, both spiritual and physical, is also very prominent in Alien3. It is only through the death of a host that the alien can live, but the prisoners on Fury 161, all serving life sentences, are essentially dead anyway and it is only through death at the hands of the alien that they are set free from this mortal coil. Ripley, with an alien queen implanted inside her, must decide whether the good of the one outweighs the good of the many, and is in fact the only human on the planet that the alien will not kill. Elements of David Fincher’s classic directorial style are present in abundance: a notoriously dark color palette, a cast of tragically flawed characters, and an ending that could hardly be classified as happy (not quite as bleak as the ending of Se7en, but close). A typical action/horror film this is most certainly not. And while Fincher lays it on pretty thick, at least there is a message and a subtext here, unlike many action blockbusters.
But for all these high marks, there are serious flaws in Alien3 that are hard to overlook. There are only a couple characters who are even close to relatable, and I must admit that in all my times of re-watching the movie I never felt a true emotional connection with anyone in it. In any survival movie there must be someone whom we want to survive, but virtually everyone in Alien3 (including Ripley, unfortunately) is so unsympathetic that watching the film is akin to reading a report filled with bullet points about the tragedies that ensue when letting killer aliens run amok on a bleak prison planet. It’s a tough bit of oil to swallow, to be sure, especially after the brilliant Ripley/Newt relationship from Aliens. The prisoners are almost indistinguishable from one another, and possess nothing in the way of distinct personalities–a transgression that is compounded by the fact that they all look virtually identical thanks to their tattered brown clothes and shaved heads. And as if to salt the wound, Fincher’s alien looks like a sock puppet compared to James Cameron’s ultra-realistic living, breathing xenomorphs in Aliens (with one notable exception).
For those who dismissed the film years ago, I urge you to give it another shot–you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. For those who never saw it, by all means give it a rental. While not exactly a worthy successor in the franchise, there is far more to this film than people often give it credit for.
Last 5 posts by Simon R.
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