On May 22nd, 1992, after years of fascinatingly troubled production, Alien3 (or just Alien 3, if ya nasty) burst onto screens like a parasitic extraterrestrial escaping its host’s chest. It had a lot to live up to, following Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking horror film, Alien, and its James Cameron-helmed blockbuster sequel, Aliens.
At the time, critics and audience members responded to Alien3 with a resounding “meh”, failing to connect with the characters and somber tone of the film. At best, people seemed indifferent towards it, and at worst they actively hated it. Even its director, David Fincher (who made his feature film directorial debut with this movie), went on to brutally disown it, saying, “No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.”1 Alien3 quietly slipped through the cracks of popular culture, existing in a strange Twilight Zone of sorts. It was an odd footnote in a massively influential franchise- reviled when compared to its predecessors, but never as notoriously hated as the movies that followed it (Alien: Resurrection and the Alien vs. Predator films). As a result, no one really talks about Alien3.
But Alien3 fascinates me on so many levels, and goddamn do I want to talk about it. Originally, I planned on doing a deep dive into the truly batshit insane making of this film, but I figured that there was no way I could properly research and write it in time for Alien3’s 30th anniversary. So, I’m putting a pin in telling the tale of the Godfather of Cyberpunk’s draft that kept on giving, the wooden planet full of monks, the biggest piece of false advertising in the history of film, and the dog that almost played a xenomorph. It’s a big, weird story for another day, and right now I want to discuss the two versions of the movie that actually came out.
I think the thing that soured people’s perception of Alien3 is how it instantly renders the heroes’ triumphant escape at the end of Aliens meaningless, as Hicks, Newt, and (more or less) Bishop unceremoniously die in a crash during the film’s opening. That’s actually a very valid grievance to have with the movie, and it’s one that even I used to have. But I’ve come to see the original three Alien movies as existing in the same *canonical* universe, while simultaneously existing in three different universes in terms of the types of movies they are- universes that are defined by things like genre, tropes, themes, and storytelling techniques. Alien is a straightforward horror film: we’re meant to be a little emotionally invested in the characters, but not too invested, as ultimately most of them exist to be picked off by the monster one at a time. The character we connect with the most is the “final girl” (Ripley) who kills the beast at the end and escapes as the sole survivor. Aliens is more of an action movie with bits of horror sprinkled in: some of the characters we care about die along the way, but in the end a found family unit makes it out alive.
Meanwhile, Alien3 is… a nihilistic drama dressed as a gothic horror film. It’s set in a universe that’s completely indifferent to whether characters are innocent or guilty, or if they’re kind or cruel. Ripley has the promise of a new life and family ripped from her right at the start for no reason at all, and winds up stranded on a prison planet full of men who either resent her or lust after her. The only decent person she meets is the doctor, Clemens. Clemens tries to get Ripley to open up about the vague threat she’s concerned about and seems to be willing to accept whatever she has to say, but Ripley dodges his questions and assumes that he’ll refuse to believe her about the alien. However, as the two finally start to be honest with each other, the alien suddenly kills Clemens halfway through the film. On top of that, Ripley finds out that there’s a Queen embryo inside of her, meaning that she has to die before it fully develops and breaks free from her, starting a whole new cycle of death and suffering.
Writing all of this out, Alien3 sounds like an excessively cruel movie, which is probably what many people who watched it took away, but at the same time there are a lot of layers to it. Characters frequently find themselves in positions where they need to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, while also finding a personal sense of redemption for the atrocities they’ve committed. While the uncaring universe will kill them one way or another, there’s still a choice they can make, a way to scrape meaning out of their inevitable demise. This is best encapsulated in the finale, where Ripley throws herself into the raging fires of a furnace rather than allow Weyland-Yutani to take the Queen out of her and try to weaponize it. One woman dies on an isolated prison world to save a galaxy that will never know that she existed, and the status quo is returned to before the events of the first movie. And yet, there’s a bittersweet finality to Ripley dying in order to end the thing that has tormented her for so long. As big and dramatic as the sequence is, it’s all about something as personal as a choice. Alien3 is a film that’s angry and brutal, but in the end it presents a sliver of hope that the choices we make actually do change things after all. At least, they matter until the fourth film brings both Ripley and the aliens back through some cloning bullshit.
The religious imagery in this film could be read as heavy-handed, but its bluntness is what makes it so effective. The metaphors are mixed a bit, as the film has no interest in the specifics of religion, just the general beats that come from faith. This is even the case within the film: Clemens struggles to describe the inmates’ exact religion, but both Ripley and the audience can gather that it’s some form of monotheism and the rest doesn’t really matter. The inmates see Ripley as a physical embodiment of temptation that threatens the routine order they’ve finally found on Fiorina 161. They’ve decided that she’s the Eve in their Garden of Eden, and the monster that came with her is sin, punishment, the Devil itself. But their Garden of Eden never really was a Garden of Evil. Fiorina 161 is a fiery and inescapable place that wicked people are damned to as punishment.
Which brings me to the point that even Alien3’s harshest critics can’t disagree with. This movie has an incredible look and feel to it. The atmosphere is almost medieval with its endless stone corridors and deep shadows, with limited light often coming from tiny light bulbs and more primitive sources like candles and torches. Rusted metal twists and bends like the flesh of the techno-organic looking beast that lurks among it. The actors are almost always covered in layers of sweat, dirt, and dried blood, and you can practically smell their grimy desperation. There’s a grungy orange-ish brown hue to many of the settings, but it’s not from a lazily applied filter but the actual lighting and coloration of the sets. It’s nothing short of haunting. For a film that’s so often overlooked and quickly dismissed as “bad”, there’s an incredible amount of artistry on display in Alien3. Hell, it produced one of the most iconic images in the series: a terrified Ripley backed against a wall, bracing herself for the opened jaws of a xenomorph that are inches from her face.
Also, Elliott Goldenthal’s score for this movie is goddamn amazing. It has this intense, epic scale to it while also being viciously paced like a predator monster. It has this sweeping gothic feel occasionally backed by a chilling chorus, and it’s very clear why Goldenthal later carried over a bit of this sound (with a little upbeat retooling) to his work on Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. The track “Wreckage and Rape” stands out with the primal rage it brings in its use of electric guitars, raw percussion, and warped screams and howls. It’s completely unlike anything else in the score, and I mean that in the best way possible.
As much as I appreciate it, I can’t pretend that Alien3 is perfect, though. Its biggest issue (discounting the deaths of Hicks and Newt) is introducing way too many characters at once, with many of those characters being British men who look surprisingly similar with all of their hair shaved off. On a first viewing, it can be easy to lose track of who’s who. However, this is one of several issues solved by the “Assembly Cut” of Alien3 released in 2003 (don’t call it a “Director’s Cut”, Fincher had already decided that he never wanted to touch the movie again). Normally, I’m only interested in extended cuts as a curiosity. They provide an interesting “what if?”, but usually the scenes in them that were deleted from the Theatrical Cut were deleted for a reason, and the Theatrical Cut provides a smoother viewing experience. But the Assembly Cut is different in that it actively enhances the film by giving us more time with various characters, allowing them to ascend from interchangeable extras to actual characters. Also, it gets rid of the chestburster coming out of Ripley while she’s leaping to her death, which always seemed a bit corny. Anyways, if you have the chance to choose between the Theatrical and Assembly Cuts of Alien3, I’d definitely recommend the Assembly Cut.
In writing this article, I was delighted to stumble across pieces on other websites asking “Was Alien3 that Bad?” and “Does Alien3 Deserve a Second Chance?”. I didn’t find many, but I did find enough to know that I wasn’t alone in thinking that maybe this film had a bit of an Ugly Duckling thing going on, especially compared to the legacy of the preceding Alien films. The conversations aren’t loud, but every so often people actually do talk about Alien3. Not just as a joke or something to bemoan, but as something worthy of revaluation. This movie was dragged through so much studio meddling and creatives fighting tooth and nail to get their vision on the screen that it’s astonishing that something this gorgeous and competently made was the end result. I’m glad that other people are beginning to give it some overdue respect.
Happy 30th Anniversary, Alien3. Here’s to the next 3 decades.