Embracing the grime and grandeur of Alien 3 on its 25th anniversary

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May 22, 2017

It's tough being the unloved, unwashed and unwanted third film in the Alien Anthology, teased about your clever title's little square root symbol and chastised until the end of time for being a lice-ridden, maggot-infested, deeply depressing chapter of the saga that shaved Ripley's head, then killed her off. And if that wasn't enough sorrow, they suffocated Newt and impaled Hicks in the film's first two minutes!

The result is the underrated near-disaster called Alien 3 and a classic case of studio interference in a high-risk corporate environment that is still being enacted today in blockbuster movies like Suicide Squad. Its greenhorn director, the now-anointed David Fincher, detests this film and will rarely ever talk about it in interviews.

 

After the overwhelming critical and commercial success of James Cameron's Aliens, you'd think directors would be madly clamoring to champion the next installment of the franchise ... but this wasn't the case. Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2) was first linked to the project but bowed out after recognizing the coming creative maelstrom. Ridley Scott was uninterested in doing a sequel and was off on other projects like Thelma and Louise, and James Cameron was looking past Terminator 2: Judgment Day and onto brighter waters with Titanic.

 

Even Sigourney Weaver had little desire to do a third outing and only reluctantly agreed to star near the end of preproduction, and only if her character was given a death scene. 20th Century Fox had the golden goose in its roost and let the hen rot in the nest for a few years as dozens of ideas were tossed around, including a take with aliens dropping in on Earth, a solid version by David Twohy (Pitch Black) aboard an orbiting prison and even a brilliant politically-charged, Hicks-centric draft delivered by cyberpunk legend William Gibson.

But it wasn't until writer/producers Walter Hill and David Giler got more involved and rescued a wild idea by The Navigator's Vincent Ward and John Fasano that the studio was set at ease. Ward and Fasano came up with a pitch involving a techno-medieval setting aboard a wooden biosphere and a lost tribe of anti-technology monks who inhabited the splintery man-made satellite. From this auspicious start the project slowly took shape as the official release date loomed like the mist-shrouded juggernaut on LV-426. But the studio was wary and the realities of crafting the wooden world began to cave in on themselves. Concept art was drawn and sets were built, then retrofitted as pages were rewritten of the fly while tension mounted and dollars were spent.

 

Filming began in January of 1991 at London's historic Pinewood Studios with a half-finished screenplay draft by Giler, Hill and Larry Ferguson and much derision between the cast, producers and its young director, besieged by 16-hour workdays and an out-of-control budget of nearly $55 million. Fincher was in an impossible situation and he did the best he could under the stressful trial-by-fire circumstances. Certain aspects of the Ward/Fasano script were retained, others rejected or reworked. The monastic order is replaced by born-again convicts. Gone is the wooden planet. Gone are the cathedral-like sets. The gothic glassworks are replaced by a rusted leadworks.

Giger's xeno-erotic alien designs were utilized but refined to create a single, fast-moving creature that would grow as the story progressed. Its special effects from Amalgamated Dynamics (ADI) were nominated for an Academy Award that year, helmed by Alec Gillis, Richard Edlund, George Gibbs and Tom Woodruff Jr. ILM had initially bid for the job but were turned down after Doug Chiang's sketches were rejected.

 

Cinematography was handled by legendary British filmmaker Alex Thomson, the acclaimed DP who brought us the sumptuous photography on John Boorman's Excalibur and Ridley Scott's Legend. Thomson's work displayed Fincher's judicious use of color and precise classical composition, saturated in somber hues of ruddy brown, rusty orange, faded gold and drab green.

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dance and Charles S. Dutton, Alien 3 was released on May 22, 1992 over the Memorial Day weekend where it competed against Lethal Weapon 3 (released a week earlier) and did mediocre business, barely making back its budget domestically. Overseas it performed better, earning twice as much as its American run.

The plot has Ripley's Emergency Evacuation Vehicle (EEV) ejected out of the USS Sulaco in the year 2184 due to an electrical fire and crash landing on Fiorina 'Fury' 161, an outer-veil mineral ore refinery housing a fundamentalist faction of apocalyptic, Double-Y chromosome convicts working as custodians to the abandoned Weyland-Yutani outpost. Newt and Hicks are found dead in their cryo-tubes with remnants of alien blood on the stasis pod hatch. Bishop is Saran-wrapped and remains in the wreckage. Ripley is nursed in the facility's med-lab and paranoid that something is slightly afoul.

 

Inside the prison, Ripley finds a kindred soul in Charles Dance's disgraced doctor and actually gets laid in this film. Hey, she deserves some human connection after all the torture she's endured! A Weyland-Yutani rescue team is requested by the stern prison administrator after receiving a high-level communication from HQ and will arrive within a week.

Until then, a nasty xenomorph has hatched from a flea-bitten mongrel and is now scampering around the installation snacking on dirty convicts. Ripley reactivates the disheveled android Bishop and learns there was an alien stowaway inside their escape pod all along. She later scans herself in the EEV and discovers that she's been impregnated with an embryonic queen, further illustrated by the homicidal monster neglecting to kill her once it gets a whiff of the royal baby she's carrying.

 

The greedy suits at Weyland-Yutani consider Ripley to be a priority asset and want her kept safe until the incident team arrives. This all leads to a plan to lure the marauding xenomorph into a lead mold and douse it with molten metal with the help of Charles Dutton's rapist/preacher character and his Y-Chromo boys.

Weyland-Yutani's team arrives with heavy firepower and a surprise squad leader ... Bishop!! He claims to be the real, human Bishop but ends up just being another synthetic and Ripley makes a sacrificial leap into the flames to prevent the company from snatching the wicked creature inside her. The facility is shuttered and Bishop II goes home empty-handed and his left ear rearranged.

 

 

Dutton is the standout performer in both the theatrical and extended editions of Alien 3, especially during his early "with a glad heart" speech during the funeral for Hicks and Newt, intercut with the painful birth of the alien in the slaughterhouse room. Dutton's Dillon is the stoic heart and rock of the story and it's his redemption for his past sins, as much as Ripley's salvation and ultimate sacrifice, that we see unfold. His final spirited monologue to rally the convicts is one of the best in the series and if there's one shining spot in this grimy third Alien movie it's his fantastic work in a grueling, troubled production.

 

Another bright spot is the soaring, penetrating score by Elliot Goldenthal that I believe to be one of the best of the series, ranking right after Jerry Goldsmith's original Alien music. This was the young composer's first major Hollywood soundtrack and he spent a year crafting the music. It has a haunting, avant-garde quality that rises at times to a comforting symphonic crescendo and contains other moments of unsettling, searing menace. It's one of my go-to scores to listen to when writing and exists on a separate plane all its own.

Recorded during the 1992 L.A. riots, Goldenthal believed that violent event added an additional level of simmering fatalism to the completed sonic-scape.

 

The real shame is the twelve-year shelving of the Special Edition, restoring a modicum of Fincher's vision, available only on home video in 2003 and never released to the public in theaters. It was more of an assembly cut of deleted scenes, reshoots and footage presented to Fox in late 1991 before executives took a brutal hatchet to the 29-year-old's work.

This was long before Fincher had established himself with masterpieces like Seven, Fight Club and Zodiac, so he got pushed around as the newbie director on the block. It runs 31 minutes longer and opens in the same manner with the stasis pods being interrupted on the USS Sulaco and an acid-seeping Facehugger causing an electrical fire. The EEV unit is spat out into space only to crash-land on the bleak terrain of Fiorina 'Fury' 161. The noticeable opening on the super-max prison planet is a pleasant alteration from the rushed theatrical cut.

We're offered moody shots of the abandoned docking cranes and desolate shoreline that immediately deliver a different tone, as Charles Dance takes a meditative evening stroll and spies the half-submerged pod bobbing in the ocean. Ripley is found unconscious, slick with oil and washed up on the sand, where she's picked up and carried back into the installation by Dance. The shot composition is more artfully arranged and paced slower here, with a heightened emotional impact forged by the silent evocative imagery. Remember, this is from a virgin feature film director with a few high-power music videos and Nike commercials under his belt.

It's nothing less than impressive when viewed under the critical lens of 25 years.

 

Another director's cut scene has inmates hauling in a hulking dead ox and hanging it up to be chopped up for a stew and finding a crunchy stiff Facehugger. This is a welcomed change as the xenomorph hatches from the corpse of the steer/ox instead of a dog and the sequence is dramatically more effective, with gorgeous cinematography showcased in the eerie abattoir. Seeing the newborn creature gallop away from the bloody, split-open livestock framed by shafts of blue light is particularly cool. Now if it only had sprouted horns!

 

Overall, this edition shows much more of the foundry and installation and is less claustrophobic and more visually intriguing, with added layers of character interaction, especially between Dutton and Weaver. One major departure is during Ripley's finale swan dive into the furnace, no baby queen bursts from her chest, which is my only complaint in this extended director's cut. Otherwise it's far superior to the theatrical print.

Among its many positive attributes, Alien 3 spawned one of the greatest directors of our generation and for that we thank its filth and foulness.

Seen fairly as part of the entire Alien spectrum, it's a rough-hewn gem, one that is unfortunately branded by a lot of bad attitudes, but it's still part of the family and therefore must be loved unconditionally, warts and all.

How would you have stood up against the annoying studio distractions and do you think Fincher delivered a worthy addition to the Alien canon?