Review: Alien 3 (1992)
This review is the first entry in Kevin’s David Fincher Retrospective.
How to even begin with a film like Alien 3? Do you simply take the film at face value, evaluating it on its own terms? Or do you take the now infamously troubled production history into consideration? Certainly, the latter is an important factor. The film went through 6 different re-writes, all with conflicting ideas and visions for what the project should have been. At one point, Corporal Hicks (Michael Beihn) was set to take over the lead from Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) until she returned to lead again in the fourth film. One draft had the film take place on a “prison planet”, the next was a “wooden monastery”. Ultimately, the film began shooting without a completed script, and the finished draft was something of a hodgepodge between the prison planet and wooden monastery versions.
The film went to David Fincher to direct it. Fincher was a rising star in Hollywood who had become very successful directing and editing music videos up until that point. He was also known for having a rebellious and anti-authoritative streak, one that caused him to butt heads with employers and studio executives constantly. Here was a new filmmaker who knew exactly what he wanted, and damned if anyone was going to tell him otherwise. This, of course, did not sit well with the executives at 20th Century Fox, with whom Fincher constantly clashed during the production. Being brought on to direct a film without a finished script would be stressful enough, but never being left alone to see one’s vision through must have been infuriating. Ultimately, Fincher abandoned the project during the editing phase, and Fox recut the film to their liking, butchering what Fincher had intended.
So the question remains, how does one approach a film with such a troubled history? The future DVD and Blu-Ray releases of the film included a restored workprint edition of the film that made various changes and was allegedly closer to Fincher’s original vision. With that in mind, for the purposes of a David Fincher retrospective, I thought it best to review that cut of the film, since it’s the closest we’ll ever come to the version he wanted. How close is it? Since Fincher refuses to even acknowledge the film in any way anymore, I fear we’ll truly never know. Unfortunately, it seems that regardless of which cut is watched, the film is still a Frankenstein of half-baked ideas, themes, and conflicting interests. In short, it’s a mess, and lacks any singular creative vision to guide it from one scene to the next.
To start, the film abandons any and all themes and ideas explored in the first two films. Whereas the first film was a haunted house horror film set in space, it dealt with many issues of corporate corruption, the value of life, and above all else, was terrifying beyond measure. The second film was more of an action blockbuster than horror film, but it still delivered the scares when it needed to. But most importantly, it explored powerful themes of female strength in a patriarchal society, motherhood, and leadership. Alien 3 has none of these threads, and what is there is never developed beyond a few moments.
The film mixes ideals of quasi-religious redemption and nihilism, attempting to contrast these philosophies but never once doing so in any satisfying manner. Every time either theme is brought up, the characters in the scene dodge questions and fail to provide any further exploration of what the film is trying to say. It’s a constant back and forth between characters that never goes anywhere, and needless to say, it’s an incredibly frustrating viewing experience. Just when the film looks like it might go somewhere interesting, it changes the subject and dodges the questions, just like the characters do. This might be forgivable if the plot ever had any momentum whatsoever. But the story just sits there on screen, never advancing in any forward manner. For an entire hour, absolutely nothing of any significance happens. We see Ripley mourning over the death of her companions from Aliens, but these scenes are never used to develop Ripley beyond the status quo of where she was at the beginning of Aliens. In fact, the entire first hour of Alien 3 is so strikingly similar to that of Aliens that one might be forgiven for thinking it was a semi-remake of the previous film. Ripley literally goes through all of the same character beats as she did in the first 30 minutes of Aliens, and it makes for incredibly regressive storytelling. After an hour or so, the Xenomorph itself finally makes an appearance, but by then, it’s far too late to care. Nothing about the story, characters, or thematic landscape of the film have been developed in any way that could get the audience to care about anything happening on screen.
But this brings us to the chief failure of the film. Amidst all this muddled writing, the film is dreadfully boring. It’s one thing to be deliberately paced, but Alien 3 is simply dull. Whereas Alien took its time to build mood and setting, Alien 3, once again, just sits there on screen without any forward momentum and without developing anything we’re seeing. More importantly, every single scare and set piece fails to be thrilling in any way. Alien used the same method as Jaws, creating scares by building tension with a less is more approach. The less we saw of the creature, the scarier it became, because it allows the viewer’s imaginations to run wild with fear of the unknown. Aliens took a different, but no less effective approach of perfectly blocked and choreographed combat sequences mixed with the sheer terror of swarms of the Xenomorphs overwhelming the characters at every turn. Alien 3 tries to have it both ways, while simultaneously failing to have a basic understanding of how each approach works. In an extended chase sequence towards the end of the film, Fincher attempts something different and puts the viewer in the creature’s POV as it hunts down characters through hallways and corridors. But the scene falls completely flat because it reeks of limited budget and frankly, every character except for Ripley is completely indistinguishable from one another, in appearance and personality. How can the creature hunting down and killing characters we don’t care about thrill us? Ripley is the only character worth caring about, and due to a gravely miscalculated plot device, she is never in any danger whatsoever. You heard right. The alien literally can’t and won’t harm her in any way. By taking Ripley’s well-being out of the question, the film is irrevocably neutered and completely fails at what it should be doing even if the drama is weak: thrill and scare us.
Whether or not this version is closest to Fincher’s true vision is irrelevant, the film is abhorrent no matter what. At two and a half hours long, one would think that something, anything of importance or interest would happen. But alas, the film is dreadfully boring, poorly plotted, and pretty much indefensible in any way imaginable. It’s no wonder Fincher would rather not speak of it ever again, and it’s hard to believe that the director who went on to direct masterworks like Seven and The Social Network could have ever made this film, regardless of studio interference.