My usual stance on this movie is living in Denialville; lalalalala not listening, Ripley, Newt and Hicks made it back to Earth and lived happily ever after with Jonesy the cat. For whatever reason, recently I felt an urge to revisit this dour and divisive entry in the Alien franchise, maybe because watching Alien: Covenant gave me a new appreciation for the installments that at least attempted to do something different.
The film had a notoriously tortured production history, with director David Fincher later disowning his debut feature, so the 2003 Assembly Cut I ended up watching is basically a Director’s Cut minus the director’s involvement. My memories of the theatrical version are too vague to really compare the two, but I thought that having the xenomorph gestate in an ox rather than a dog was an improvement on a seriously goofy idea.
One of the original concepts for Alien 3 involved Ripley crash landing on a bizarre space monastery, a giant wooden planet populated by an all-male community of monks. After that costly and esoteric idea got scrapped, in the final film Ripley crash lands on a gloomy lice-infested prison planet, mostly abandoned save for a small group of convicts and officials, all men. She awakens to find Newt and Hicks dead, and herself stranded in a company of violent thugs who haven’t seen a woman in years. It’s not a spoiler to say that Ripley’s escape pod carried one more extra passenger, whose deadly presence is soon discovered.
Save for a few key moments I definitely forgot most of this film, including the fact that Charles Dance was in it as Clemens, the penal colony’s physician with a criminal past of his own. On a rewatch, he ended up as hands down my favourite thing in the movie; Clemens’ dry and sarcastic sense of humour injects some lightness into the proceedings and he develops an intriguing relationship with Ripley that comes close to tenderness. Of course like everything else Ripley cares about in this downer of a movie, their bond is tragically short-lived.
I adore Sigourney Weaver and Ripley, but while it’s gratifying to see her once again be the most capable and moral person in the room, without any compelling characters to interact with in the second half of the film Ripley unfortunately becomes rather one-note. Charles S Dutton’s spiritual leader of the colony comes closest to being memorable, but the rest are a cartoonish bunch of interchangeable shaven-headed brutes. Why on earth would you cast a distinctive character actor like Pete Postlethwaite and make him yet another anonymous fodder for the xenomorph to munch on? You get a sense that Fincher doesn’t give a damn about the prisoners either, choosing to film much of the action from the point of view of the alien as it chases its prey, thus distancing the viewer from the characters and their experiences.
The xenomorph is by far the film’s biggest disappointment; the horribly dated special effects made me pine for a man in a suit doing jazz hands in the original Alien. Any sense of danger this most terrifying space creature of them all used to inspire is nowhere to be found, save for a few moments where practical effects were used instead and the difference is light and day. To give the movie its due, the scene where the alien comes literally face-to-face with Ripley is tense as hell.
My personal distaste for ruining the optimistic ending of Aliens aside, Alien 3 is a deeply flawed movie, but it’s not without some merit either. Fincher is a master of tone and atmosphere and I rather like the grimy claustrophobic setting of the prison. The decision to end the film on such a dark note is quite brave. The film’s stretches of tedium are relieved by the moments of genuine brilliance and memorable imagery, just not often enough to redeem it completely. Once I finish this review, I’m going back to Denialville.