Why I Love… #76: Alien³

Year: 1992

Director: David Fincher

Stars: Sigourney Weaver (Lt. Ellen Ripley),  Charles Dance (Clemens), Charles S. Dutton (Dillon), Brian Glover (Andrews), Ralph Brown (Aaron), Paul McGann (Golic)Danny Webb (Morse), Lance Henriksen (Bishop II)

Genre: Horror / Drama

In space no one can hear a fanboy scream.

I’ve been toying with the idea of covering the much-maligned Alien³ as part of this series on and off for a while now. It is a troubled film; I’m not denying that. But it has a special place for me and I recognise it as a key and influential film in my personal upbringing (make of that what you will). Yet I haven’t written it up before now because, as bad a rep as it had, the tide seemed slowly to be turning in its favour anyway. The film’s been reappraised several times, not to mention re-cut. 20th Century Fox’s superb Alien Anthology contains a wonderfully frank and joyfully comprehensive 3 hour making of feature Wreckage and Rage, which is almost as fascinating a watch as the movie itself. Anything I had to say, I felt, was covered in more detail elsewhere already.

The announcement that Neill Blomkamp’s fifth Alien feature has been given the go ahead sparked in me a renewed interest in talking about Alien³ drawing it back into the conversations about the series, noting it as the legitimate entry that it is. But I dawdled a little. But now news that Blomkamp intends to essentially wash away both this movie and Alien Resurrection has pitched me into the kind of pitiful nerd fury that I usually find myself mocking. Yes, these are generally considered the lesser films of the franchise, but they’re not the AvP atrocities; I can understand us all forgetting about those. But to then further disregard half of the remainder? Fuck you, Blomkamp. Fuck you for your massive disrespect of David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and everyone involved in the making of Alien³  and Alien Resurrection. For what? To bring back Corporal Hicks? Arguably one of the least interesting characters in the entire series?* Take me to the padded cells now. I’m having a clenched-fists moment. I think I now know how Star Wars fans felt when they saw The Phantom Menace, only Lucas didn’t snap the timeline back because he’d changed his mind about Luke’s paternity issues. I know reboots like this are nothing new. But goddamn this has angered me in ways I didn’t think I’d manage to be…

And breathe…

Blomkamp’s film isn’t here yet.  Today, I’m here to talk about this movie. Why it’s great. Why it doesn’t deserve to be swept under the rug of the reboot. Why it’s worthy of placement alongside Alien and Aliens. I suppose first I ought to recognise my own attachment to the film. This was the second Alien film I saw, following a furtive late-night experience with Ridley Scott’s first film at an impressionable age (see Why I Love… #46). Growing up in the nineties, Alien³ was the installment most frequently featured on television. Hell, it seemed like ITV couldn’t get enough of showing the movie in whatever 11pm time slot it had available. And I couldn’t get enough of watching it.

Scott’s film had piqued my interest in a rougher, meaner, more visceral splicing of science fiction with horror. Fincher’s film crystalised that into a startlingly bleak vision. I wasn’t the cheeriest of teens, or the most sociable (though I was no outcast). So, like so many navigating their angst, the oppressive gothic architecture and philosophical soul-searching of Ripley and the inhabitants of Fiorina 161 appealed to a certain sensibility in me; it didn’t pander or request to be liked. It felt sophisticated.

The production design is still phenomenal. The sets were built on massive stages at Pinewood, erected amid the initial confusion over the path the film would take, and cleaved closest to Vincent Ward’s eccentric early ideas for the film to be set within a monastic cult in a wooden planet. The steelworks penal colony in which Alien³  ultimately takes place has a grand, medieval feel to it, skewed through the brutal practicality of the industrial age. A severe mix of the past and the future.

Perhaps importantly, I saw this film having not seen the second. Thus, the loss of Hicks and Newt meant very little to me. I didn’t grieve their loss the way Ripley does; the way so many fans seem to. Now, in context, I can understand this feeling of betrayal by the creative forces behind the film, but I came to know Alien³  with no such resentment, merely an understanding that Ripley had suffered, and that her fate was intertwined with that of the alien. Here, impregnated by ‘the beast’ that suffering came to seem almost profound; literally consuming. Like someone living with a disease or affliction, Ripley is followed, haunted by a shadow connected directly to her, darkening the lives of all of those pulled into her wake. This is hardly news, then, but Alien³ is largely about accepting death. An extremely downbeat proposition for a mainstream film, especially given the gung-ho nature of Cameron’s exciting predecessor.

Ripley’s interaction and relation to the xenomorph in Fincher’s film is more personal than ever. She has a queen growing inside of her and the alien can sense this; they are truly connected. The resonance of the creature as a disease echoes through Ripley’s very physicality; her head, shaved bald because of the colony’s problem with lice, openly creates an association with terminal illness. Importantly, we’re back to one xenomorph again also. It draws focus specifically to this one beast, as opposed to the hoards in the second film which just became so much cannon fodder. Conceptually, the creature was going through it’s own evolution as well. Alien³ sees the xenomorph birth from an animal for the first time, and thus it takes on some traits of its ‘mother’ (a dog or an ox, depending on the cut you’re watching). This was a new element, and the great puppet and body costume work of Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. help to sell the alien as a predatory villain now more so than ever. It is really only a few of the more fledgling CG composite shots that let the overall effect down thanks to the interim advances. But even then these feature some exciting firsts; like an alien scuttling across the ceiling.

The series thrives on its ability to work in different genres. Scott’s first is very much a haunted-house-in-space horror movie and an efficient and deeply effective one at that. Cameron changed gears and went for an action-orientated thrill ride, succeeding in setting a new benchmark in the process. Later down the road, Jean-Pierre Jeunet would twist the black comedy of Joss Whedon’s Alien Resurrection script into a Grand Guignol freak show of gore and weirdness. Fincher’s film is ultimately the human drama in the middle. Ripley, suffering loss and a kind of existential crisis at the end of the universe is confronted by society’s forgotten wastrels. Where you’d expect hopelessness she finds faith; a deeply human concept. And while the all-male colony doesn’t exactly evoke sympathy being made up of murderers and rapists, they prove to be the series’ ultimate underdogs; fighting back against the alien in what truly feels like a last stand. There’s an apocalyptic gravitas to Alien³  that comes from the idea that if these people lose their way of life, that way of life stops existing forever.

All of this is brought to the screen by Fincher, wrestling conflicting studio pressures, in one of the most striking feature debuts of the last 25 years. Look at the thing. It’s truly beautiful. If you have any appreciation for the gothic or industrial, then surely you can see how rich and achingly bleak this movie is. Fincher was ahead of the curve, as he’s been on a number of occasions. The cinema of 1992 wasn’t generally lit or shot the way Alien³  is. It genuinely feels, at times, as though it is taking place in some kind of hellish mausoleum. Few mainstream films are brave enough to portray such inhospitable environments. Alex Thomson’s cinematography is some of the best of the series. And then… then there is Elliot Goldenthal’s score. For my money the best of the franchise, it maximises the grandeur of the piece, intended as the closing chapter on its release, echoing the first movie’s sense of tangible abandonment in a vast, cold universe.

Cheery, huh?

I can understand (to a degree) why people didn’t like Alien³ but with all of its artistic beauty (however downbeat), it still seems maddening to me when people dismiss it outright. I hope they’ve seen the extended cut, which exaggerates the sense of scale and tragedy in the story by returning the inexplicably exorcised sequence in which the convicts capture the creature only for one among them (McGann’s otherwise marginalised Golic) to let it go again. Arguments that this section neutered the threat of the alien never held water for me. The idea that there is no value to Alien³  is ludicrous. It even features the series’ most overt romance; that between Ripley and Clemens (the superb Charles Dance). For my money this plays with greater authenticity and chemistry than her brief interactions with Hicks in Aliens. Clemens satisfies an intellectual curiosity in Ripley; a strong woman who has always defined herself as an outsider. His untimely demise only underpins her Job-like journey to accepting her fate at the end of the film.

Maybe living in the UK makes more receptive to the largely British cast (Brian Glover, Ralph Brown etc)?  Maybe it also makes me more inclined to the dour atmosphere echoing our ever-raining climes? I’m not saying the film is flawless; the final 15 minutes or so clang with some clumsy notes as the ongoing involvement of Weyland Yutani is haphazardly brought to some kind of closure, while the near total failure of any of the inmates to survive at all feels, despite everything, a little mean-spirited. Yet crucially, I don’t see Alien³  as the step down that so many others seem to. I hold Scott’s film as the series’ perfect organism, but I’d place Cameron and Fincher’s entries toe-to-toe. Though vastly different (pleasingly so), they’re both remarkable pieces of science fiction cinema.

I’ll leave Alien Resurrection for someone else to justify. I’ve gone on long enough, and still not touched on everything that pleases me about this movie. So we’ll leave it at this for now, we’ll leave it with Blomkamp to pave over its memory, erase the pain that went into its strained production. Alien³  was born with as much strife and anguish as any fledgling xenomorph, bloody and mewling, tearing itself from 20th Century Fox’s shredded torso. But in time it’s grown into a marvelous beast, fitting of Giger’s nightmares.

I’m hoping it’s just as tough to kill.

*Yeah, I know that’s not going to be a popular opinion, but seriously, I do not get the love for that character.

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