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|This time It Hides in the Most Frightening Place of All...|
The Alien film series has earned a reputation as the best designed, best performed and most intellectually stimulating of the science fiction/horror film franchises playing in theaters today Talk to any of the 'alien' knowledgeable and he or she will enthuse at length about Ridley Scott's brilliant entry, Alien (1979), which some film historians suggest opened the cyberpunk era on screen. Give them a chance and they will rave about Jame's Cameron's bang-up sequel, Aliens (1986), which is still the standard-bearer for all genre action spectaculars. What most questioners will not find in the hallowed circles of alien appreciation, however, is a confident voice lauding the third film of the four-strong epic. Perhaps this is not surprising since even before the release in the summer of 1992. Alien 3 was heralded far and wide as a still-born atrocity by most of the genre press.
"It Came from Development Hell!" was the story du jour by many publications, and
In the story department, Alien 3 was drastically altered many times. Development commenced with William Gibson's concept of a Cold War-style clash in space and ended up, rather unpredictably, with Ripley's adventure on a distant prison planet, surrounded by rapists, child molesters and other thugs that had founded a sort of "fundamentalist millenarian" religious cult there.
At one point, even Ripley's presence in the screenply was an uncertainty until Joe Roth, 20th Century Fox's then president, demanded the inclusion of Sigourney Weaver's iconic character. So with Ripley back in the screenplay and then multiple drafts written, a troubled shoot began with newbie director David Fincher - fresh from the world of music videos, at the helm. Almost instantly, rumors of problems sprang up. One set at Pinewood Studios, a giant lead foundry, took some twelve weeks to construct and put the production behind schedule. Even with six-day weeks and 14-hour days, there was trouble keeping up.
At one point, Fincher was denied permission by the film's producers to shoot a critical scene in the prison understructure that had Ripley going face-to-face with the alien and expressing her anger at the long-time nemesis. What did Fincher do? Against orders, he grabbed Sigourney Weaver, a camera and shot the scene anyway. It ended up in the final print, one of the most poignant and oft-complimented moments in Alien 3.
"You've been in my life so long, I can't remember anything else," a frustrated Ellen Ripley argued with the creature in this remarkably intimate scene, a far cry from the guns and explosions approach of Aliens. But it was seven years before many critics could see what Fincher had accomplished. Writing about Alien 3 in 1999, The New York Times commented that "many of the most interesting script ideas, especially Ripley's kinship with the monster, emerge in that film." Better late than never, one supposes. Still, until Fincher's later films, and his particular "movies should scar" ethos came to the forefront, many people didn't know how to parse his freshman effort.
But even if Fincher has had belated victories, he faced severe criticism following the film's release in May of 1992. Roger Ebert called Alien 3 "one of the best-looking bad movies" he'd ever seen and devout fans of the franchise were outraged by the film's decision to kill off three popular characters from Aliens: Hicks, Newt and Bishop. Suddenly, Fincher was the Salman Rushdie of sci-fi fans, and aficionados claimed that the 24-year old wunderkind had single-handedly destroyed the franchise with a by-the-number horror sequel lacking all the good qualities that had made previous entries such blockbusters.
With all respect to those concerned fans, that assertion is untrue. Fincher directed a visually dazzling film as determinedly different from Aliens as Cameron's vision was from the Scott original. Perhaps more significantly, Fincher created a film with a message more powerful and relevant than either predecessor. What the Alien faithful actually objected to in Alien 3 was not directorial approach, plot, or even theme, but Fincher's purposeful overturning of every expectation they had carried into the theater with them.
The roots of Alien 3's public relations nightmare can be pinpointed in the very nature of film sequels. The trick in producing a successful follow-up is giving audiences a big dollop of familiar material while also feeding them a diet of something different enough to avoid accusations of "ripping off" or "cashing" in on the source material. Fincher's task was doubly difficult because he not only had to produce a sequel that genuflected to Alien and Aliens, but one that could be heralded as a modern cinematic masterperiece and stand proudly in the franchise valhalla with the highly-regarded earlier movies.
This was no easy task, but Fincher succeeded by adopting an approach he would later repeat in Seven (1995), The Game (1997) and Fight Club (1999), by pointedly toying with audience perceptions and expectations. Although Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the Bishop Android (Henriksen), the titular xenomorph, and even Weyland-Yutani, the villainous corporation, all returned for Alien 3 action, every plot twist in the third film boldly dashed viewer expectations.
Appropriately, the film's dialogue echoed the decision to make a surprising, dangerous sequel. The film's lead convict, Dillon (Charles Dutton), gave voice to Alien 3's overall philosophy during a funeral service for the early casualties of Alien 3. Eulogizing the dead, he declared (for the benefit of Ripley and, no doubt, the audience) that "there aren't any promises. Nothing's certain. Only that some get called, some get saved." It was this application of cruel, random - but realistic, fate, not some kind of "loyalty" to franchise stock characters, that dominated Fincher's challenging sequel.
What the majority of theater patrons probably found most difficult to stomach in Alien 3 was the opening sequence, which dramatized the violent expirations of the little blond child, Newt (Carrie Henn) and the likeable marine corporal, Hicks (Michael Biehn), two beloved characters from Aliens. These losses were so traumatizing because fans and critics had displayed hopes for the characters, fantasizing about a scenario that involved Ripley and Hicks becoming lovers and surrogate parents to Newt, while helpful Bishop hovered in the background as a kind of synthetic, all-knowing uncle.
This misguided assumption, that an ad hoc "nice" nuclear family could dominate an ongoing horror film franchise did not take into account the savage and Darwinian nature of this particular film franchise, which had already witnessed Newt's biological parents and brother being murdered in Aliens, and demise of the macho captain of the Nosromo, an alpha male named Dallas (Tom Skerritt), in Alien. It was this unreasonable expectation of "family" that was first overturned by the mischief-making Fincher.
In a sequence of rapid-fire quick cuts, Alien 3 summarily executes the Aliens leftover. Newt drowns in her crytotube. Corporal Hicks is impaled by a falling support beam in the EEV which transports Ripley to Fury 161. Even more ghastly, an early scene in the film highlights Newt's autopsy in the most unflinching, gore-soaked terms conceivable in a major mainstream release, including the use of bloodied bone saws. There goes the family!
The second expectation dashed by Alien 3 is one that this author terms the "escalation" rule in sequels. Jamie Kennedy's movie-savvy character in Scream 2 (1997) made the same notation. Sequels have to be bigger than the source material and feature what Kennedy called "carnage candy," with "much more elaborate death scenes."
To wit: In Alien, there was one parasite aboard the Nostromo and just a few flame throwers with which to combat it. In Aliens, however, the terror was multiplied. There were hundreds if not thousands of hopping, leaping aliens and a plethora of glistening weaponry with which to beat them back, including smart rifles, pulse guns, grenade launchers and the ubiquitous flame thrower. The second film was not only a multiplication of outer space horror, but a techie's wet dream filled with sentry drones, missile-bearing drop ships and a military RV with a top-mounted cannon. It was this jingoistic future, chock full of testosterone-laden, space-going marines, that actually converted many folks into fans of the Alien franchise in the first place. Odd, however, since LV-426 was very much a Vietnam War metaphor, the colonial marines not unlike the soldiers in Oliver Stone's Platoon. In both films, confident soldiers found themselves battling "so-called" primitives on alien turf, and got their butts kicked for underestimating the enemy.
Anyway, considering the geometric progression of horror from Alien to Aliens, fans expected a third Alien film to offer an even grander spectacle with more of everything: more aliens, more weaponry and more space grunts. Of course, this was an impossible desire. How could any movie not costing 300 milion dollars top Aliens? It just wasn't possible. So instead, Fincher went a different direction, and the fans got an intensely personal story of Ripley trapped on a backwater penal planet, functioning there as a sort of despised outsider or heretic. Instead of copying Aliens (which also would have enraged fans...), Alien 3 actually tried something new and different.
Since Fury 161 housed only dangerous convicts that turned to God in a place that Ripley disparagingly called "the ass end of space," there were no weapons to be found anywhere, except a pair of scissors utilized for comic effect in the film's finale.
Series fans were also confounded because there was only one alien to combat (plus the gestating beastie within Ripley herself). There was no gung-ho American violence or cavalier "Send in the Marines" attitude. The thrill of blasting aliens to hell was replaced by an overwhelming feeling of malaise and a graphic concentration on blood and guts. In other words, more realistic, human-scaled violence supplanted comic-book, Rambo-style violence.
Instead of being just another action-packed "Rambolina" like the popular Aliens, Alien 3 artfully explored the boundaries and breadth of heroism. According to Sigourney Weaver in an interview with Cinefantastique, the movie was really about "fighting a common enemy alongisde people you don't really like, without guns." To her, that battle defined Ripley's greatest challenge.
Even the amazing set-design of Alien 3 flouted viewer expectations and sequel conventions. In Aliens, viewers were treated to lingering, lavish special effects opticals of Gateway Space Station, a terraforming installation on LV-426, the interior of a marine space vessel and other high-tech wonders. By contrast, Alien 3 unfolds in a disintegrating prison facility that is more 1940s sanitarium than 22nd century glitz.
The prison is a purposefully low-tech environs lacking video cameras, computers, flashlights, and even condoms, as one helpful prisoner points out. The convicts light a sewer-like corridor with rows of candles in one stylish scene and the capacity to make fire is in grave doubt, much to Ripley's chagrin. The world portrayed in Fincher's film is a daring departure from the mechanized, futuristic universe of the film's predecessor.
The next reversal Fincher deals his audience arrives in Alien 3's stunning climax. After learning that she is infected with an alien parasite capable of generating thousands more of the monstrosities, Ripley resists the Company's offer to be saved, and dives into a furnace where she and her alien progeny are promptly incinerated. Ripley, who is so often called "the ultimate survivor" chooses NOT to survive in Alien 3 so that she can save the universe from the alien queen hiding in her guts.
There is no last minute cop-out, no surgeons racing to rescue Ripley from the terror inside just in the nick of time, only the grim reality and finality of death and the knowledge that sacrifice has a purpose. Thus Alien 3's theme, which elevates it above less-profound predecessors, is indeed one of self-sacrifice. Director Fincher felt this was an important message to impart to audiences in yuppie America, suffering under the burden of a huge national deficit. Like all good art, Alien 3 speaks to its historical context. It relates ideally to the early 1990s, the time when presidential candidate Ross Perot called - also unsuccessfully - for sacrfiice so as the preserve the future for further generations. As deeply as Aliens mirrored the militancy and reckless optimism in technology of the Reagan era, so did Alien 3 reflect the hangover of the Bush recession.
Perhaps the most devastating crime Fincher could commit after killing Ellen Ripley was to summarily end Alien 3 without the traditional sequel "hook," the tantalizing possibility of yet another Alien film yet to come. Instead, Fincher's film ends rather decisively (and redundantly...) with three separate compositions focusing on heavy metal doors slamming shut with a clang, thus asserting quite literally that there is no door left open for a future sequel. This is it. The trilogy has ended. Aliens have left the building.
Although Fincher's greatest accomplishment with Alien 3 is granting the series a noble, honorable and believable ending, this idea was undercut by the release of Alien Resurrection in 1997. Still, Alien 3's denouement must be judged on its own terms. It was meant to be "the end" and it is a notable example of Fincher's brass. He added something no predecessor had offered the Alien franchise: dramatic closure.
Watching the film a decade later, it is amazing to see just how well Alien 3 defies viewer expectations. Humorously, the film opens with the cheerful 20th Century Fox fanfare that most Generation X viewers associate with the swashbuckling Star Wars adventure. It is usually the cue for a grand, uplifting adventure to come. What becomes of this upbeat overture in Alien 3? Instead of running its course, the fanfare stops and puases on its penultimate note, frozen for a good few seconds, and then it falls, turning completely and totally sour, even malevolent. Quicker perhaps than any other overt cinematic technique, this shift in music indicates to audiences that nothing, not even a fanfare accompanying a comforting logo, will remain untouched in the hardcore world of Alien 3.
Beyond his steadfast determination to direct an unpredictable and surprising entry in the Alien series, Fincher deserves hosannas for crafting a film of uncommon technical virtue. Much of the film is shot from an extreme low angle, not to suggest the size and power of the protagonists, but to constantly make viewers aware of their vulnerability. The ceiling of the prison, visible in literally hundreds of deep-focus shots, not only reminds audiences that Ripley and the other convicts are trapped inside a decaying institution, but that the alien attacks from above. The xenomorph clings to the ceiling above the action and the continual focus on "what lurks above" Ripley and the others often has viewers scanning the background anxiously, waiting for the next strike.
Regarding the look of Alien 3, critic John Anderson noted in Newsday that "Fincher attains a claustrophobic feel in his shots, which emphasize the vastness around the characters and the feeling that somewhere, just out of sight, something horrible is lurking. And there's nothing you can do about it." (John Anderson, Newsday, May 22, 1992, page 62). The New York Post's Jami Bernard agreed with him, writing "It's smart in how it plays on the audience's fears and failings..." (Jami Bernard, The New York Post, 5/22/92, page 27).
But probably nothing is more visually impressive in the film than David Fincher's elaborately-staged climax, a chase set in a massive subterranean complex. The labyrinth is so confusing an arena that the characters themselves, one of whom we are explicitly reminded has an IQ of 85, are unable to navigate it successfully. Naturally, the alien picks them off, one by one.
Although some critics commented that the final chase in the film is a mess because the geography of the lead-works is "confusing," they have missed the point. The exact opposite is true. The men of Fury 161 are not aware of spatial orientation or tactical information any more than the audience is. They aren't trained marines, people! They are lost and disoriented, and Fincher's technique, mimicking Stone's non-traditional battle scenes in Platoon, reflect that this is a war without boundaries, that humans are unequipped to fight. There are no mock-heroics in Alien 3, just frightened and confused people trying to survive a crisis, running around lost in the dark.
Finally, Fincher lifts up the Alien series to a new plane with the film's resolution. When the bald Ripley, resembling Maria Falconetti in Carl Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) chooses to sacrifice her life to save humanity, she plunges downward into the industrial-strength furnace in a pose reminiscent to that of Jesus on the cross. Alien 3, according to critic David Ansen, 'is a quasi religious passion play with Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, head-shaved, offering to martyr herself to save the world from the sins of the monster....credit Fincher for taking risks." (David Ansen, Newsweek, June 1, 1992, page 73).
The religious parallel is as clear and powerful as Ansen suggests. Ripley, like Christ, sacrifices her life to preserve humanity's future. "With her shaven head and her director's predilection for unflinching close-ups, Ripley radiates passion like an SF Joan of Arc, searching the furthest reaches of her alien battered soul for any remaining sparks of faith, hope and grace to sustain her through yet another ordeal," wrote Anne Bilson in the New Statesman, (Anne Billson, New Statesman and Society, 8/21/92, page 35) acknowledging that Alien 3 is the first franchise film to operate on a genuinely spiritual level.
It is this final moment of Alien 3 that brings the saga into sharp focus for perhaps the first time. Ripley, the ultimate survivor, overcomes her personal (and some might say selfish...) desire to live, bear children and find happiness, so that all humanity can survive. This moment of truth far surpasses the more popular but ultimately facile "dueling maternal instincts" battle in Aliens and successfully apotheosizes the character. The Christ analogy transforms Ripley's final decision, essentially suicide, into a beautiful act rather than a cowardly one.
At least one critic saw Alien 3 as tackling another major issue, in this case, reproductive freedom. "If nothing else, Alien 3 surely qualifies as one of the ten most bizarre movies ever made about a woman's right to choose," opined J.Hoberman in The Village Voice. Now that's something you don't see debated every day in a horror movie sequel. (J. Hoberman. The Village Voice. June 2, 1992, page 20.)
Because David Fincher so expertly defies sequel expectations, Alien 3 often leaves viewers (and especially Alien fans) feeling lost and rudderless, the perfect frame of mind, have no doubt, to be throttled by a state-of-the-art horror film. It is a daring conceit that establishes mood and leaves one discomforted, but also assures that Alien 3, love it or hate it, is never merely a copy of earlier franchise films.
Alien 3 is directed by newcomer David Fincher, known only for his commercials and music videos. His approach is also confrontational, but the style is deliberately claustrophobic, putting the art of the close-up to effective use...This time, the metaphor is disease, and the monster is likened to a virus...If the series ends, it ends with some dignity." - James M. Welsh, FILMS IN REVIEW, 8/92, page 259.
"It's not just the ultimate duel between Sigourney Weaver's beleaguered Ripley and the kill-crazy-extraterrestrials...its about running into the ultimate cul-de-sac...It has a different mood than either of its predecessors and a different look: stylish but gloomy, portentously grimp...It drives us into the wall, throws Ripley into a blind alley from which, at last, there is no escape hatch." - Michael Wilmington. THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, 5/22/92, page 1.
"Fincher, to his credit, has evidently stuck to his guns. And the film reflects his own strengths and weaknesses. He's good on the look, but he has a doozy central performance from Weaver...with her shaven head and her director's predilection for unflinching close-ups, Ripley radiates passion like an SF Joan of Arc, searching the furthest reaches of her alien-battered soul for any remaining sparks of faith, hope and grace to sustain her through yet another ordeal." - Anne Billson, NEW STATESMAN AND SOCIETY, 8/21/92, page 35.
"This third in the Alien series continues to explore horror from the matriarchy/patriarchy skirmish line, which is why it still works long after the thrill of the slime is gone. This installment has a screenplay that is both smart and heartless. It's smart in how it plays on the audience's fears and failings, but mostly it's heartless." - Jami Bernard, THE NEW YORK POST, May 22, 1992, page 27.