Alien 3

Alien3The 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.”

Alien3 Ripley

Sigourney Weaver reprises her genre-busting role as Ellen Ripley sans perm.

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.

Alien3 Dillon

Dillon, the spiritual leader of the gang of prisoners.

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.


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From Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking 1979 horror classic spawned one of the most interesting and popular sequels of all time, helmed by a pre-king-of-the-world James Cameron.  His 1985 follow-up to ‘Alien’ would take moviegoers out of the horrific confinement of the Nastromo spaceship and into the futuristic mining colony set up on LV-426, the original site of the previous attack from the first film.

Sigourney Weaver returns as Ellen Ripley, 57 years following her escape from a ravenous acid-for-blood monster that wiped out her crew.  She awakens in a hospital where she is informed of the life she lost floating in space over a span of six decades. Her daughter died only a few years before Ripley’s lifeboat was discovered.  What to do now?  The government wants to suspend her pilot’s license and label her a crazy person for blowing up her crew’s starship from the first “Alien” film as no evidence of the creature could be found on Planet LV-426.  Ripley is then made aware that a human colony of over 60 families have been living on the planet with no report of any ‘hostile organism.’  Soon, however, the agency loses contact with LV-426, and through an odd contrivance in the plot, Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) is enlisted to request Ripley’s presence as an advisor to an elite group of hardcore colonial marines.   Ripley decides to face her greatest nightmare and join the band of soldiers sent to investigate the planet.

James Cameron, coming off his moderate success of “The Terminator,” took a great leap in converting the heralded and respected 1979 horror film “Alien,” and spinning the continuing story of Ellen Ripley into a beefed-up grunt of an action picture.  The results are beyond impressive, even for its time roughly 25 years ago.  While Fox Studios and other filmmakers may have simply wanted to immitate what Ridley Scott’s film did, Cameron wanted to expand the horizon of Ripley’s chararacter. Of course he’s always been fascinated with the strength of female heroines (see Sarah Connor in ‘Terminator 2’ or Neytiri in ‘Avatar’).  This makes an ideal match for the Ellen Ripley character, played incredibly by Sigourney Weaver (in an Oscar-nominated performance), and the action-heroine she becomes.  In some ways, “Aliens” represents the pinnacle of scale and intensity of all of Cameron’s resume.  Sure, he has ‘T2’, ‘True Lies’, ‘Titanic’ and now ‘Avatar’ to his credit.  Those films each had at least $100 million thrown at them.  But with ‘Aliens,’ budgeted at $15 million dollars, the particular way the film is shot, to the believablilty of the animatronics used (still the best looking of any ‘Alien’ film to date), and to the film’s epic score by James Horner, you would predict the film (despite its grungy aesthetic) cost three times that amount.

While the man has seen enough praise in his life to become so self-impressed, the credit has to go to Cameron and his abilities to craft a film, at least in terms of scale.  Sure, his screenplays have raised eyebrows here and there for their simplicity, but critics seem to forget that he likes to make mainstream action pictures.  In many ways, while each of the man’s films go for broke every time and he continually tries to top every film he makes in terms of scale, he’s never out of his element.  There’s something to be said about a filmmaker who is passionate about ‘what can be done’ in movies as opposed to ‘what can be written.’  While Cameron may be simplistic in nature in terms of character and theme, his movies have mass appeal, and ‘Aliens’ is no exception.

The film is filled with a fully-designed and realized world of Planet LV-426.  From the marines’ attire and weapons, to the looming darkness and staleness of the mining colony, this movie definitely has grand set pieces and an unsettling atmosphere.  The creatures are barely seen until the final battle between Ripley and the Queen alien.  That’s the way it should be.  Every shot of these creatures impresses and scares.  There’s a great scene where the aliens first make their appearance.  The marines are searching for missing colonists and enter a piece of the infrastructure where the creatures have ‘redecorated.’  Soon enough the aliens start to come out of the walls and pick off each of the marines.  Why is this scene and others like it so effective?  Because we see just enough to keep us enthralled and in a state of wonder.  We are also enthralled by Stan Winston’s animatronic designs, puttetry and creature costumes.  With an actual physical entity in camera, the creatures have never looked better, and probably never will.  Future ‘Alien’ films would suffer from trashy CGI creations, especially the 1992 sequel ‘Alien3.’

As mentioned earlier, despite entertaining characters from Cameron regulars Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and Jenette Goldstein, it is Sigourney Weaver’s powerful performance as a tougher Ripley than seen in 1979 that carries the movie.  While most 80s films would feature a Schwarzenegger or Stallone taking on these monsters, a female character manages to oust her fellow male marine counterparts and take on several beasts, including a macho mano-a-mano dual with the Queen monster.  Luckily, Cameron lets Weaver be more than just a female Rambo.  His story gives her a drive to face these monsters and also protect a young colonist girl, Newt (Carrie Henn), reminiscent of her own deceased daughter.  Weaver manages to make a believable transition from distressed space pilot in ‘Alien’ to machine-gun-toting large-scale exterminator here.  Cameron would later use this kind of transition for his Sarah Connor character in ‘Terminator 2,’ and again with Jamie Lee Curtis in ‘True Lies.’

At the end of the day, ‘Aliens’ is quite simply one of the best sequels ever made.  It’s an impressive-looking movie featuring a powerful dramatic musical score, great visuals, hardcore action, intense thrills, a dash of humor, memorable characters, and genuine emotion.  Sequel or not, this one of my personal favorites.

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