Originally published on November 6, 2014.
I’ve always enjoyed the Alien films. Yes, even Alien: Resurrection which is definitely not good, but I enjoy it nonetheless. Mostly as a guilty pleasure, I watched the theatrical release of Alien3 quite often as well because of the surprisingly high kill count (I loved slashers back then. Kill count/creativity was everything to me). The main characters from the previous film were all dead, minus Ripley, and characters set up to fall into traditional Alien franchise roles are almost instantly axed. That was something the film does well in both cuts. But I’ve recently watched the Assembly Cut on my Alien Quadrilogy set at the behest of some Twitter friends. I never paid much attention to the Assembly Cut because the theatrical releases for both previous films are superior so why bother with this one? Woah, boy. Far less choppy in its editing that by the final confrontation with the Xenomorph, I was actually on the edge of my seat. No more guilty pleasure bullshit. Alien3 fucking rocks. Maybe that’s overselling it but I stand by my new discovery that Alien3 is actually pretty good. There’s a lot to like with this movie (and still plenty to complain about) so let’s go to work.
As we open with the film, one thing is certain. The roots have gone back to straight up horror. The cold tone is established as dreadful despair seeps into our consciousness by killing off the entire surviving cast from Aliens. The environment is more gothic and gritty instead of the clean future seen in Aliens back on Earth. After the popcorn appeal of Aliens, it’s easy to see why so many people were turned off by this entry. Alien3 makes no attempt to be like its predecessor and I can admire that ballsy approach. Now that we have over 2 decades of reflection, I can appreciate this willingness to play it unsafe. In many iterations of the Alien3 script, Ripley was always going to end up being the sole survivor. The Alien trilogy really is all about Ripley’s ongoing battle with the Xenomorph and how she will always lose everything to this species. She lost her crew, she lost 50+ years of her life, her new family, and eventually her life. But if she’s going down, she’s going down fighting.
Probably my favorite thing about the film is the precise atmospherics. The unrelentingly oppressive tone and confined architecture of planet Fury 161 make for a tiresome experience. But that’s exactly how both Ripley and the audience should feel. That’s a credit to Fincher’s direction. Even with all the studio mandates, you can’t take the Fincher vibe out of a Fincher project.
On the topic of Fincher and studio mandates, it’s impossible not to look at this film without feeling the potential still being capped by Fox. They wanted a puppet and he wouldn’t play ball. His ideas were so poignant, even in its worst version, Alien3 has some good in it. Given everything that went wrong with pre-production (Nobody willing to touch the project, Fincher’s multiple disputes with Fox, an unfinished script, $7 million in unused sets), it’s a miracle that there is any good in it. If that doesn’t define Fincher as an auteur then I don’t know what will. As Josh pointed out in his ranking of Fincher’s filmography, “it’s kind of a miracle that Fincher ever worked again.”
Back to the good.
I quite like that every Alien film has a new tone and supporting cast with each new installment. And when your cast is as strong as Alien3’s, I’m just surprised more people don’t come to its defense. Tywin Lannister as the prison doctor, Charles S. Dutton as the spiritual leader of the Fury 161 inmates, Paul McGann as the human foil of the film, and a severely underutilized Pete Postlethwaite. In the theatrical cut, the extent of the cast is as strong as Superintendent Andrews falling into the role of initial human antagonist while Charles Dance seems like the main supporting player. Both are killed off unceremoniously and I mean that in the best way possible. The potential for repeating a familiar formula was present, but the decision to axe these characters brought a feeling of finality to this movie. No one has ever been safe here. No reason to start letting us get comfortable now. The trade-off in the theatrical cut is that the cast doesn’t get nearly enough screen time and feel too interchangeable to really get invested in.
Assembly Cut gives us more time with this motley crew and their struggle with faith. They’re rehabilitated convicts that have found God. Until Ripley’s arrival, there were no temptation, so of course they’re going to act all fine and dandy. But Ripley was more than just “temptation” since she brought along with her their true trial. Dillon says, “The apocalypse is upon us” and he’s not wrong. The overt religious themes are especially hard to miss when it comes to the sun setting once Ripley lands with the Xenomorph, and the sun rising with Ripley’s sacrifice in the end. Fury 161 was purgatory, and the prisoners are paying for their sins. Anybody can go ahead and say they’re a changed person. You only know once you’ve been properly tested. Some fail this test by attempting to rape Ripley, but thankfully, it’s only an attempt. Dillon gets a great line about needing to “re-educate” some of his brothers.
The true trial is their survival against the Xenomorph. These men’s lives are essentially worthless. Ripley and Dillon are able to give them one redeeming quality by working together to stop Weyland-Yutani from using the creature for their own personal gain. Nobody will ever know about their sacrifice, but their lives are responsible for saving the human race. That counts for something.
A monster movie is only as good as its monster, and the Xenomorph is the perfect killing machine and arguably the greatest movie monster of all time (As a murderous android once said: Perfect organism). I do wish the design had been more creative with the Runner/Bambi-Burster/Dragon/whatever they end up calling it. The major design change was the removal of tubes on its back and the creature ran on all fours. The production team relied far too much on animatronics, unfinished CGI, and puppetry for it to look convincing. There are a few moments where the creature looks well enough and genuinely threatening again, but shoddy CGI and puppetry really bog down the experience, even in the Assembly Cut.
The climax is actually kind of exhilarating, although, the geography of the final chase scene gets confusing. During the final chase sequence, the camera switches to a POV of the Runner as it crawls along the walls and ceiling so we don’t have to see sloppy puppetry and CG at work. We get some cool kills and eventually it’s down to the only characters whose names we can remember. The game of cat and mouse comes to a close as Dillon sacrifices himself to trap the Xenomorph with him in a molten chasm of hot lead. Now that’s a team player. When it comes to Dillon, his belief in a greater power is more than a character trait. It ties into the conflict that Ripley has been fighting all along. What happens to them doesn’t matter as long as they stop the threat of the Xenomorph once and for all. I like to think he knows Ripley has what it takes to end the life inside her as well.
In proper Alien tradition, the film has multiple climaxes. Weyland-Yutani is one of the great evil movie companies. I recently began playing through Alien: Isolation and as soon as they Weyland-Yutani employees were introduced, I immediately said “They will be assholes” (I haven’t played long enough to see if they’re assholes but I don’t feel like I’m wrong). After losing everything to the Xenomorph and, by association, the company, the final act of Ripley’s life is finally denying the company from ever grabbing hold of the Xenomorph. Once she openly accepted death as her fate, she can finally rest knowing that she’s defeated this evil.
On a final note I want to take a second and appreciate the soundtrack for this movie. What Elliot Goldenthal was able to do with this soundtrack was to craft a suitable macabre mood with the inherently dark Fincher atmosphere. The music during the chase scene is thrilling, while the opening scenes of prisoners rushing to the crashed ship is operatic and bombastic. But the bit that gets me the most is during Ripley’s sacrifice – I believe it’s called Adagio on the soundtrack. After spending 2 hours with a film that is overwhelmingly fucking grim, this one piece of music inspires hope . That Ripley’s tragic life wasn’t all for naught. She lost everything so nobody else would have to. Maybe I’m just a sucker for earned sacrificial hero endings.
After all of this, I understand you possibly not liking the assembly cut of Alien3. There’s still no denying it gave us one of the most iconic images in horror film history.
This is Diego Crespo, most recent addition to the Alien3 defenders, signing off.