Alien III (1992)
‘Three times the suspense, 3 times the danger, 3 times the terror’ growls the film poster, what they neglected to include was ‘one third the box office’ and ‘one third the positive reviews’ as six years after Cameron’s carnage had assaulted a generation of SF action fans the next gestation of the Alien franchise burst onto the screen. Although the shoots for both siblings were charitably considered as ‘difficult’, operating admidst particularly poisonous production atmospheres the horrific Alien 3 experience eclipsed these endurance tests, with even veterans of the previous two skirmishes reporting it as the most hostile and vicious filming environment they had ever endured. Alien 3 harkened back to the first film with a single critter on the rampage in an enclosed and claustrophobic environment, in this case an isolated penal colony populated by an assortment of peculiarly accented future criminals, as Ensign ‘Don’t call me lucky’ Ripley is molested by the hand of fate once again as her hypersleep capsule crashes into the mining colony of Fiorina ‘Fury‘ 161, the collision killing both survivors of the previous movie she’s soon on the run from her xenomorphic nemesis and a garrison of sex starved criminal psychopaths – a textbook Friday night down my local boozer. Watching the film again, now almost twenty years since its original release, I was initially struck by two things; firstly how strange a beast it is with the British cast and environs really not gelling with the sensibilities of an American action film, and just how torturous a production it must have been with the shards of ideas and visions embedded in the DNA of the film from previous iterations of the screenplay and a revolving door of directors before débutante music video visionary David Fincher made his uncertain transition to the big leagues with a project that he has all but disowned, so painful was the studio interference and corruption of his vision. Quite how he mustered the strength to go on and make Se7en, one of the defining films of that decade which ushered in a new sub-genre of film (and Se7en still stands up today as a remarkably bleak but brilliantly made mini-masterpiece of its sort) demonstrates his tenacious talent, he’s certainly proved himself as one of the great American directors of the past twin decades and the shards of this talent occasionally shine through what I have to say is rather a poor film, but an arresting production.
Unlike most of the cast & crew I have fond memories of Alien 3 from its original release back in 1992. Being a SF fan of course the prospect of another issue of the franchise was immediately appealing, back in those days a trip to the cinema involved an hour walk to a recently opened multiplex situated on the outskirts of town (which subsequently killed off the two town cinemas I’d frequented since childhood), and we also tied onions to our belt which was the style at the time. I recall enjoying the film for the most part and then attending a particularly excellent house party, maybe it was the naive flushes of youth as the film is really rather flawed, although the Blu-Ray transfer is equal to the handsome visuals of the two previous reviews. As is my idiom I selected the superior assembly cut for review (Fincher refuses to do a ‘directors’ cut), and if memory serves there are no enormous differences between this and the original theatrical cut, but the slight changes do illuminate the slightly amended directions the creatives were heading in before the money men sabotaged their intentions. You can see the joists in this version, certain sequences are abruptly curtailed and there are some dramatic mood shifts where attendant footage presumably wasn’t captured due to budget cuts, or the fevered scissors of an Executive aligned editor butchered potential brilliance. In that sense the film is a fascinating failure from a film lovers perspective, where the act of watching the film can be eclipsed on ruminating on what it could have been, and where this franchise could have gone before it deteriorated even further in the next installment – but we’ll come back to this.
I think one of the unconscious failures of the film is that it looks like it was shot in a sewer and frankly that just ain’t pretty. It’s probably intentional on the part of Fincher and his DP Alex Thompson but the ochre yellows and tangy browns do suggest a squalid experience which is visually quite unattractive, as Finchers muted palette superseded Cameron’s electric blues in a fashion which conceptually repels viewers, albeit in a unconscious and indirect fashion. Whilst its amusing for a British audience to see the likes of Paul McGann, Ralph Brown (best known as Danny in Withnail & I), Brian Glover and an early screen appearance of Pete Postlethwaite in the film one wonders how these curiously accented rogues and swindlers were viewed by an international audience, although the stereotyping of English accented dramatis personæ as sophisticated liars, killers and swindlers is accepted throughout Hollywood history (think of Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff and James Mason to name just a few) well before this was identified as trend in the nineties and noughties. It should be interesting to see how Michael Fassbinder will slot into this geneology in Prometheus, if he is referenced as some prototype or distant relation to Ash then that would be pretty darn cool – I mean he’s bound to be a villain, right?
The battles on the film were legendary and it just goes to show how that old adage of too many cooks fucking the soup can up can be observed outside the world of cuisine. After numerous drafts of the script (including one pass by SF impressario William Gibson and another by David Twhoy) the studio then proceeded to claw through numerous directors, before alighting on wunderkind Fincher whom one assumes they thought would be more malleable and controllable given his age and big budget inexperience – how wrong they were. After the likes of Renny Harlin (frustrated with the constant tinkering) and Vincent Ward (whose bizarre visions of a wooden planet housing a devout monastery recall the unique approach of Giger) had been pushed or jumped Fincher arrived on set without a coherent script, a fatal induction which hobbled the project from birth. His screaming battles with the likes of David Giler (who really comes across as the most arrogant fucktard throughout the box-sets interviews, he’s back for Prometheus) and Michael De Luca disrupted the set, and the constant second guessing and thwarted artistry are plain to see. The suits cared about one thing and one thing only, of restricting the cost and generating product, to a release date that had been set before a single frame of film was locked and in the can. There was talk of crafting a male action figure to partner Ripley as ‘not many women turned out for the last one’ which I find gobsmackingly patronising and sexist, but these are dual qualities that are presumably sought on any studio executives psychometric application. Yet it’s interesting to see how different iterations of the tale, taken from dozens of creatives warped into what can loosely be called a story, with some small ideas building into core kernels that survived various modifications. I mean, they even overlooked the prospect of taking the franchise to earth as mooted by Harlin which of course would have been a much cheaper shoot, right? Stupid executives…..
The real problem with the film I think is quite simple – it’s the story, stupid. The first mistake was killing off Hicks and Newt which might make sense from a production standpoint (Biehn wanted too much money, maybe Newt was unavailable?) but from a franchise perspective this was a near fatal blunder. Fans had much invested in these characters after tensely holding their breath throughout Aliens and quite how the creatives missed the trick of developing this bastardised family, culled from three separate tours of terror, seems shockingly blind in retrospect. This accidental sacrifice leaves Ripley in a martyr position that drapes a death shroud over the picture, a futile struggle against the inevitable which casts such a sour note of pessimism that the film feels like a turgid slog – and as someone who embraces dour, depressing, hopeless films on occasion I’m as surprised as anyone to find this such a turn-off. Some of those early concepts such as the medieval ambience and the monastic (and presumably celibate) background, with the idea of the ‘alien’ as a dragon like interloper, an angel of death called to the order due to the appearance of a female temptress in their midst also links nicely into the sexual and gender politics of the previous two incarnations, but alas much of this was lost in a shotgun script which never settled into a central groove. That said the return of Bishop in the form of Weyland Yutani’s CEO is a nice touch and one of the few moments that references the wider universe, it’s the only place where the first hesitant connections to franchise lore are forged, but it comes far too late in the final movements of the picture. There is no real subtext, no compelling narrative, just a collection of half imagined and barely conceptualised themes that never collate, and even the infrequent action beats and dull kills cannot salvage the film. Even Sigourney seems to be going through the motions, and the final sacrifice pay-off is unmoving and shrug-inducing.
I’d say the SFX actually look worse than both the previous films, despite the shortening gap between the then infancy of CGI in 1992 compared to the quadrillion of polygons bouncing around the screen. They tried their best but some of the matte work is screamingly obvious, although that’s a historical technological failure (by todays standards) that feels a little unfair, at least the restored and extended opening scenes in the assembly cut manage to expand the world, with a more vibrant sense of a vast and decrepit planet, rather than an isolated location which just happens to house some sneering criminals. Some of the more gelatinous qualities withstand harsher scrutiny, as some of the gory elements such as the Ox birth expulsion echo Alien, with an emphasis on genuine body horror that the film subsequently ignores. Nevertheless the peek into the on-set experimentation during the hours of supportive behind the scenes material is fascinating, one brain wave of dressing a whippet in an alien costume looks comically bad and was thankfully abandoned – it reminds me of the CE3K roller skating orangutan idea – no, I’m not making things up. In the final analysis you can see why the film didn’t work, Fincher is very much a ‘directors director’ and he needs a solid script, a tactile foundation to springboard his visuals and concepts, (just consider the strength of the scripts for Se7en, or Fight Club, or of course The Social Network) and even when handicapped and frustrated on a daily basis he turned in something that has some interest, with a visual texture that at least influenced the likes of Doom and a plethora of subsequent computer game aesthetics. Alien III then is a noble failure, a grasp at greatness frustrated by commerce, and a valuable lesson to all budding film-makers of the perils of capital. It’s not the worst of the franchise though, as four years later a less committed director whom could barely speak English found himself in Burbank, for a production that had been shifted back Stateside to further interrupt any artistic impulse. His name was Jean-Pierre Jeunet and after coming off the hotly received gallic smash Delicatessen he was looking to play with all the toys that Hollywood had to offer….