Three times the terror.
How could you possibly follow two very distinctive and highly successful films? That was the very same question producers Walter Hill and David Giler had to answer when pressured by 20th Century Fox to deliver another sequel. In the answer proved more difficult than anyone would have anticipated.
Not wanting to repeat the formula the producers explored a number of ideas and approached many writers in their quest for a fitting follow-up. There were suggestions of making Hicks the main character and either reducing or even removing Sigourney Weaver’s involvement, but by then Ripley was so ingrained into the audiences mind that the studio simply couldn’t let her go, and thus she was given an increase in salary as well as creative input.
For the next few years a succession of writers and directors boarded and left the project, their ideas deemed either too weird, expensive or uninteresting. Plot points included an Earth infestation, genetically modified aliens and most famously, Vincent Wards’s wooden planet. Despite leaving the project due to creative differences with the studio, Ward’s ideas would form the basis of the final film.
The problem with most of the approaches to the third film was they were not unique enough. They all felt like an extension and mimicking of Aliens with their focus in even more creatures, military and colonists. Following this path might have sat down with fans and do commercially well, but it would have been a betrayal of what the Alien series was.
In Ward’s script Ripley is stranded in man-built planet made out of wood and inhabited by extremely religious monk refugees who see Ripley as a temptation who has brought the devil with her. Pressured by time Hill and Giler decided to take over the script themselves and turned Ward’s monks into prisoners and the wooden planet into a Weyland Yutani owned prison. It was at this point that the studio approached David Fincher as the director.
Like Ridley Scott before him, David Fincher had built a successful career as a commercials director, and he was eager to jump into feature films and put his own stamp unto an Alien movie. But Fincher’s dream would soon turn into a nightmare as he became another victim of studio pressure, an unfinished script and a fixed release date, not to mention the insanely high expectations from an audience eager to see where Aliens would lead.
But Fincher breaks such expectations as soon as the film begins. Newt and Hicks, the surrogate family Ripley had fought so fiercely to protect die in the cryptic opening sequence, dictating the course of the rest of the story and immediately disconnecting with most fans.
But despite fan outcry, it’s those deaths that give the film the powerful meaning it carries. Having lost the ones he cared about once more, Ripley is left alone and in a dangerous place filled with dangerous criminals, including murderers and rapists. These criminals also happen to have found religion on this desolate place in the galaxy, and Ripley represents the very temptations they are trying to escape from. Her arrival disturbs the fragile peace they have achieved.
A far cry from the cocky and quotable Colonial Marines, at first sight these prisoners are unlikable and almost indistinguishable from one another bald heads and all, the sort of people you just wouldn’t care to see die. In a moment of temptation they even attempt to rape Ripley, but through her the film asks you to empathize with these people and look past their crimes and see them as human beings with weaknesses, fears and the desire to live. Acknowledging what they are is what has made them look for a higher power.
Attempting to guide this group of misfits as their spiritual leader is Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), a charismatic sort of priest whose purpose is to keep the peace among his flock, and who punishes them when they fail. Dillon’s own faith and determination are what give Ripley the necessary strength to carry on when she’s lost all will and, like a good shepherd, he manages to bring this group of lost souls with nothing to lose together to fight the monster chasing them.
Ripley finds some sort of comfort in Clemens (Charles Dance), a former inmate of the prison who’s now serving as its medical officer. Clemens is dealing with demons of his own, having caused inadvertently the death of several people because of malpractice. In his own view he still hasn’t paid his debt to society and after his sentence is over he chooses to remain in the prison because he feels that’s the place where he belongs.
In the aftermath of the chaotic post-production there’s one character whose story was completely excised from the theatrical cut but restored in 2003’s Assembly Cut. Golic (Paul McGann) is a mentally disturbed prisoner, someone none of his cellmates enjoy being with. At first disturbed by the sight of the alien killing one of his cellmates, Golic becomes obsessed with the creature and starts worshiping it to the point of killing one of the prisoners and freeing the beast in an attempt to get closer to it.
The removal of Golic’s story is but one example of the tribulations Alien³ went through, with a script constantly changing and a director who was limited by time, budget and the producers’ pressure. While the religious and spiritual aspects of the story are still hinted on in the original version, it’s the Assembly Cut that brings them forefront, including more development for the characters, their relationships and motivations.
It’s that spiritual and reflective approach that elevates Ripley’s story beyond what we’ve seen so far. Having woke up to yet another nightmare Ripley is in a state of constant mourning. Her purpose is no longer survive, but to take revenge, kill the beast and end the nightmare once and for all, and after her biggest fear is realized there’s no more place for heroics, only sacrifice.
While Sigourney Weaver has received universal recognition for her role in Aliens (a rare achievement for sci-fi), it’s in Alien³ that she delivers her best performance in the series so far. You can see the constant pain and despair in her eyes after the shock of find out she’s the sole survivor. This is specially painful in the autopsy scene where she forces herself to watch as the little girl she tried to save is being cut, just so she can be sure what killed her.
Displaying many of the traits that would become his signature in future films, Fincher permeates the screen with a constant sense of dread. The film is saturated with browns and oranges highlighting not only the fact that the prison is now working as a furnace facility, but the hell that has been unleashed onto the inmates. The camera takes long shots of the prison showing just how an oppressive and cold place it is, while focusing on extreme closeups of the characters to isolate them from their surroundings. Fincher also frequently shoots scenes from low angles always exposing the ceiling and the helplessness the characters feel, death, not salvation coming from above.
Fincher envisioned a more vicious creature this time, and invited H.R. Giger to design the new look for the alien. Giger obliged and came up with a four-legged design reminiscent of a panther, and added more feminine and sensual features to it. But Giger’s vision was another victim of the rushed schedule and this is where former Stan Winston employees Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. stepped in, delivering a design that incorporated Fincher’s ideas and also reminiscent of Giger’s new design.
While the alien’s new look is beautiful, the visual effects used to bring it to life were often the weak points of an otherwise flawless production, technically speaking. To allow for a wider range of movement not possible with the man-in-suit approach a puppet was used, and while the movements are fluid and beautifully animated, the composition of those those into the film often makes it look like cheap CGI.
The religious and metaphoric aspects of the story is further enhanced by Elliot Goldenthal’s captivating score. Unlike his predecessors Goldenthal enjoyed full freedom in writing the music for Alien³, and he fully took advantage of it with a score that combined gothic sounds, church-like choirs and dramatically beautiful melodies with brassy and experimental sounds that often crossed the line between music and sound effects.
Goldenthal leaves his mark right at the beginning of the film, distorting the 20th Century Fox Fanfare into a screech before revealing the ominous “Agnus Dei” that ties together the confusing opening credits. Like the movie itself, most of the music is rather bleak, but still allows for that melancholic glimmer of hope to pass through from time to time, culminating on the powerful and extremely beautiful “Adagio” that accompanies Ripley’s final scene and sends her off in an almost angelical way.
Ripley’s ultimate sacrifice is the perfect ending to her story. After fighting to survive and protect others, and now with a Queen on her chest she realizes death would be the final victory, not for her but for a greater cause. When Bishop II (Lance Henriksen) offers her the chance to keep on living and have a family and children, Ripley chooses to sacrifice herself because she understands that even if they managed to keep her alive, the creature inside her could mean the death of countless others.
And so through all the chaos and tribulations behind the scenes, Alien³ emerged as a misunderstood masterpiece. Audiences were enraged by its deeper, more meaningful and reflective approach, far from the crowd-pleasing affair that Aliens was. But the thing is, the Alien series was never meant to be an action series and it was James Cameron’s desire to take the concept and make it his own that has both elevated and doomed the franchise. Had Cameron simply repeated what Scott did the series would have quickly descended into B-movie territory.
Like the directors before him, Fincher tried to make his own movie and doing it on his own way, and despite all the tribulations he had to go through, he delivered a powerful and emotional film, maybe not in the way that he intended, but the spirit of what he tried to do and his filmmaking style are still there. As the years went by, people have slowly opened their minds to what the film is and what it tried to be, helped in no small way by the Assembly Cut that attempted to restore Fincher’s original vision. For all he’s grief Fincher himself went on to develop a successful directing career and while he would rather not talk about it, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Alien³.