Retro Film Review: Alien 3 (1992)
(SPECIAL NOTE: Capsule version of the review is available here.)
One of the most enduring cultural stereotypes describes Europeans as art-oriented snobs who wouldn't admit liking products of popular culture to save their lives, while Americans often get portrayed as simple-minded consumers of popular junk, unable and unwilling to appreciate anything that would require use of intellect or finer artistic sensibilities. The film that most effectively illustrate this divide is Alien 3, 1992 science fiction horror directed by David Fincher. When it arrived in American cinemas, it was panned by critics and is now almost universally hated by American fans of Alien series; on this side of Big Pond, it was praised by critics as "uncompromising work of art" and there are even many Alien fans who claim to consider it the best film in the series.
Just like in previous two films, this one begins with protagonist -space pilot Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) – returning home in hibernation aboard large spaceship. Ripley has survived encounters with the nasty race of xenomorphic homicidal aliens and her nightmares correspond with reality - one of those creatures was left on the ship and caused massive malfunction of all of ship's systems. Some of the ship's services still work and Ripley, still hibernated, is taken on emergency pod; the vehicle crashes on Fury 161, former mine colony converted into maximum security prison for the world's worst murderers, rapists and psychopaths. Ripley, the sole survivor of the crash, meets the prison's inept administration, led by Andrews (played by Brian Glover), and prisoners, many them of embracing apocalyptic Christian cult led by charismatic prisoner Dillon (played by Charles S. Dutton). The closest thing to apocalypse begins when it becomes apparent that one of the creatures was brought to the planet and is ready to wreak havoc among population. The entire prison lacks guns or any weapons to fight the unstoppable beast, but this is only part of the problem for Ripley who is forced to face something worse than her worst nightmares.
Reasons for Alien 3 being admired are in the fact that the makers of this film tried, and for the most part succeeded, in making the third instalment of the series as different from previous two as possible. The setting of Alien 3 is decaying prison colony, almost completely deprived of the "whiz bang" futuristic technology that was
omnipresent in Alien and Aliens. The characters wear completely different costumes, looking more like the medieval monks than brave engineers of the future. The vast, open spaces within the colony facilities create agoraphobic anxiety in the same way lack of space created tension in previous two films. Alien 3 was first feature film for David Fincher, young director known for his commercials and music videos; in it he displayed his artistic sensibilities creating dark, depressing world which equally repellent and fascinating; the same techniques would serve Fincher very well later in his career. Finally, the basic reason why Alien 3 is admired is in its lack of compromise - darkness and bleakness in this film is brought to its extreme, not only in the film's look or atmosphere, but also in its content. The beginning of the film defies Hollywood rules about bad things happening to certain categories of characters, while the ending is heretical in being complete opposite of "happy".
Being brave and uncompromising doesn't always guarantee a great film. Alien 3 suffers because the bleakness in the film was less the result of the clear artistic vision and more the result of creative crisis that had plagued the production, resulting in endless changes in the script. In such circumstances bleakness of the film became the only thing that was supposed to hold various contradicting elements of Alien 3 together. And that bleakness often looks like the bleakness for the bleakness sake. The plot and characters suffer because of it. Just like most of Hollywood films look false and unconvincing because of the producers' desire to pin happy endings to the stories that would work only as downers, Alien 3 looks false and unconvincing because the story and characters must sacrifice everything, including plausibility and common sense, in order to achieve most unhappy ending possible.
At the very beginning, the script borrows cheap tricks from cliffhanger film serials to give excuse for the most unimaginative sequel possible - something that Aliens, to the James Cameron's great credit, didn't do in regards to Alien. Of all protagonists who could battle the monster in this one, only one survives - the one who just happens to be played by film's co-producer Sigourney Weaver. The character played by Weaver is much different from those in Alien and Aliens - less believable and less interesting. In previous two films Lt. Ripley was intelligent and ingenious professional preoccupied with saving her own and lives of people around her. In Alien 3, from the very beginning she has few reasons to stay alive and even fewer reasons to care about people around her; for most of the film she doesn't do anything and once iconic heroine is reduced to weak, pathetic wreck the audience can't stand on screen. Lack of spirit in Ripley is hardly compensated with her "bold" make-over – in Aliens she was feminist icon, she was supposed to be poster girl for "butch" lesbians - because the reason for that fashion statement - planet being infested with lice - only leads to few dozen of other protagonists - all male - having shaved heads and confusing audience.
The characters - the very thing that made Alien and Aliens great - is probably the biggest weakness of Alien 3. In previous two films the audience had opportunity to know various protagonists well, learn of their virtues and flaws and, finally, care for them. Here the people Ripley should fight for and care for are described as psychopathic murderers, rapists and other sorry excuses for human beings. Despite all of them being played by experienced British actors, the inept script - which gives them few opportunities to show of their characteristics - hardly anyone leaves much of impression (with exception of those played by Charles Dance and Ralph Brown). When alien monster start interfering in their lives, ensuing mayhem quickly becomes predictable, repeatable and uninteresting. Although the film features more gore than in Alien and Aliens combined, many in the audience would starts yawning because of the "deja vu" effect. Even the ending, which features completely unnecessary appearance by Lance Henriksen, looks unoriginal, because of its striking resemblance to the ending of Terminator 2.
Some might argue that Alien 3 is unjustly criticised because most of the grievances come from those enamoured with two previous films in the trilogy. As a standalone film, with viewers unfamiliar with Scott's and Cameron's masterpieces, Alien 3 could be at least appreciated as rare Hollywood example of breaking conventions. Unfortunately, its connection with the series is unavoidable and the author of this review is left with no other alternative but to side with the people with the other side of Big Pond. Alien 3 is an interesting failure, but failure nevertheless. As a fan of Alien series I can only hope that creators of next Alien film would learn from this mistake.
(Note: This review was based on Director's Cut of Alien 3, available on recently released Alien Tetralogy DVD collection. This version - with some extra and some altered scenes - is visibly better than Theatrical Release version and addresses some of the script problems, although not in the manner that would change the general impression of the film.)
RATING: 4/10 (+)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.film.reviews on January 19th 2004)
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