I’m writing this ostensibly because every time the Alien series of movies is brought up online, there is this crazy stinkface thrown at the mere mention of Alien 3–as if it is this great shame of a movie. An embarrassment both to the Alien franchise, and film in general. I believe both of those points are completely off base, and actually view Alien 3 as the closest movie in the series to the brilliance of the first film.
Alien 3 tells the story of Ripley crash landing on a techno-ludite prison-monestary of men; bringing with her a xenomorph which she and the inmates band together to try and survive.
In terms of sheer aesthetic, Alien 3 is this wasteland bridge between the rigid dark metallics of 80s sci-fi, and the dirty fire kissed worlds of 90s Sci-fi. It contains in it those rich deep blacks that we had back in Alien, but it’s updated through Fincher’s palettes of sweaty green, and blue walls. The opening scene where Charles Dance’s Clemons walks through the galactic twilight of the industrial waste shores of Fury 161 may in fact be the last great image of American science fiction films in the 20th century. It is the climax of the images conjured up from Rutger Hauer’s tears in the rain speech in Blade Runner. Dance’s flapping trench cloak turtled up on him conjures simultaneously the inquisitors from Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, and Decker’s trench from Blade Runner.
We see Sigourney Weaver’s maggot infested oil covered corpse wash up on the shore. Her skin mirroring the xenomorph she has become linked with. Abjectly covered in fluids, viscous, and death–she is horrifying, replicating the horror she represents for this colony of male convict monks who haven’t seen a woman for decades. In this way, she mirrors the way that Joan of Arc’s gender challenged the monks in Dreyer’s film. And in fact she ends up shaving her head to drive home that fact.
This is a movie of sweat and tetanus. It presages similar themes that would arise in Fincher’s work with Fight Club and Se7en, but with the complication of having to reconcile that it’s point of view at the end of the day is it’s heroine.
The acting in Alien 3 is really incredible, from the simmering menace of Charles Dance’s creepy intense Doctor Clemons, to Charles Dutton’s strong willed Dillon, to Weaver’s own performance as Ripley. Even minor characters like Brian Glover’s Prison Warden find a way to give dimenson to characters that could have easily been cardboard stereotypes. I think Glover’s performance is interesting because that character could have easily just been a straight forward Boss Hogg kind of character–but he complicates it with unstable concern for the threat that Ripley represents to his prison, and to him personally–I think he’s inaccurately labeled as purely career motivated midway through the film, when Ripley and Clemons get him to agree to the autopsy of Newt by asking him how an outbreak of cholera would look on his resume. And while it’s true given what we know, that he’s seen as the obstruction to Ripley doing what needs to be done–what he really is, is a simple man, trying his best to keep the piece of shit that he’s been thrust into together. He needs to be authoritative. In some ways, Andrews is positioned as the mother of the prison, to Dillon’s father figure. And in some ways, the tension between him and Weaver could be read as a battle between their twin motherhoods–and Andrews jealousy at being replaced as the center of this world’s affection.
This begins to get into the areas where Alien 3 gets a lot of its criticism. Because since the aesthetic of the film, and the performances of the film are unassailable–a lot of problems people have with the film is how it fits within the first two Alien films. Particularly, the decision to begin the film with the off screen deaths of Newt, and Hicks. I think if you watch the film without worrying about it’s connection to the previous films, none of this is hugely important. The movie starts with a woman who has crash landed–her friends, including a young child are dead, she suspects this alien creature is the cause–and the movie goes.
But from my many discussions advocating for this film, one of the threads that usually people lead off with is that this film undoes the happy ending of Aliens–and wrecks what they see as the natural arc for Ellen Ripley–which is the restoration of her role as a mother–with Newt replacing Ripley’s Daughter Amanda, and bringing closure to the trauma caused to her in the first film.
But this is a fantasy. The story of Ellen Ripley isn’t a mother who loses her child, and then has the child restored to her. Ellen Ripley is the story of the cycles of death and creation. By the very nature of herself and the xenomorph doppelganger that forever lives in her shadow–she is doomed to constantly repeat these cycles of life, death, rebirth.
It is no mistake that Fincher’s film is the one that delves most into the heroic cycles and mythologies that these films have necessarily, by their need to be told and retold, engender. Ellen is positioned as Eve arriving in the garden to bring the end of paradise, she is also the holy mother who offers redemption for these men that wait on the edge of space for god to return, and finally she is the woman of revelation on the run in the desert from the antichrist, the woman often confused with the Whore of Babylon, whose avatar is the end of everything, and the ushering in of the new, that is beyond our understanding.
Because of this, it isn’t Aliens which closes the loop of the Alien films, it is Alien 3 which does so, once Ripley accepts her role as the holy space mother of death, offering benediction and forgiveness with one hand, and upheaval and apocalypse with the other–mirroring again, Joan of Arc, and Dreyer’s final scene where Joan accepts the flames, as the world falls into hell around her.
The thematic density of Alien 3 is the only film in the quadrilogy which even attempts to go toe to toe with Alien on that front.
It’s also much farther advanced than Aliens in terms of the politics of its heroes. One of the great things about Alien was that at the end of the day, the heroes were two women and a black man. And Alien 3 repeats that with Dutton surviving to the end, and being instrumental in Ripley’s final salvation. And while there is complications there that in both films the black man is seen as an instrument to the white woman’s ascension it is still much farther along than most blockbuster science fiction has dared.
On the whole, one of the best things about Alien 3 though is its dogged pursuit of the void. It is a bleak bleak movie that starts off killing a child, and throughout refuses to reward sentimentality. As Dillon says in a prayer that both sends Newt and Hicks to the fire, and ushers in the birth of the new Xenomorph: “Why the sacrifice, why the pain? Some get called, some get saved”–there is no heroic morality here, only life and death, and as he says, within death is creation. The best example of this element to the film is the romantic tension between Dance and Ripley. Just as he is opening up to her, in a moment that is structurally set up as the scene where the two of them finally let down their defenses, and maybe find love here at the edge of space–he is brutally killed right in front of Ripley. This is the dark horror of the series returned nihilistic and mean–after the Space Marine, white hats, black hats of Aliens.
If Aliens was a story about a lonely cat lady finding her space family and riding off into the sunset–Alien 3 is the holy death mother space fuck into oblivion.
Alien 3 is not only a thematically worthy entry into the quadrology. It is a superb testament of aesthetics and performance, and despite Fincher’s disavowal of the film, a critical film for understanding his work of this era.
When you look across the landscape of major science-fiction films of the 90s(Matrix, Armageddon, Fifth Element, Jurassic Park, T:2) you would have to say it places very highly within it’s era; and when you think about films that try to depict religious space colony industrial horror–there’s not much else like it out there. Where Aliens has hundreds of films that drove it’s space marine concept into the ground–Alien 3’s Space Prison Horror remains, probably because of it’s osterization, quite out on it’s own. It’s most significant successor is probably the Riddick films I’d guess.
At any rate. This all came about because I read that the director for the newest Alien film that they are making, the director of such powerhouse films as District 9 and Elysium, had the gaul to treat this film as some kind of red headed stepchild that he would avoid, because…obviously. But watching his films, which are largely oriented around different ways to show different kinds of robot guns, he really could have used a few more viewings of Alien 3. The notion that that guy is going to make a film that is superior to young hungry David Fincher is amazing. The off-handed dismissal of Alien 3 just makes him sound stupid. Alien 3 is by no means a perfect film. It’s script while thematically dense, is a little bit of a mess–in that way it is similar to Scott’s Prometheus, which is another film that has been unfairly castigated by fan culture. Alien 3 is an extremely literate film, and in its flaws a lot of the unfettered genius of the people working on the film is actually able to shine through.
It’s this gross aspect of the stupidity of fan culture, which cares more about what happens with it’s name brands(in this case Newt) than actual art. It’s that shit that makes people hate Michael Bay Transformers movies because the robots don’t look like the cartoons–meanwhile they are trying to get Marvel movies without 1/10th of the talent of Bay’s worst films, nominated for awards. And while I think Alien 3 is very much entrenched in the themes that Ripley and the Xenomorph represent–I think it is also marred by that. It obscures the ability of people to see it with fresh eyes.
Well, there’s a 2003 workprint special edition that adds 30 minutes to the film. Maybe as with Blade Runner overtime, it’s time to revisit Alien 3 and re-examine its merit as art.
I’ll tell you this, it will be a miracle if District 9 dude can come even close to Alien 3. Nice drawings though.