If Alien and Aliens are so good, then why is it that Alien 3 is the one movie from the franchise that I find the most intriguing, and the one which actually sold me on the prestigious sci-fi series? Sure, Alien is a great horror movie in space, and Aliens is a terrific sequel. But for me, Alien 3 is criminally underrated, and doesn’t deserve to be treated as the black sheep of this sci-fi family.
By no means am I saying that Alien 3 is a better movie than its predecessors; I think that would be a foolish thing to say. However, as someone who didn’t grow up with these alien movies as part of their formative years in film, I do believe my experiences of exploring the franchise were skewed by popular opinion and huge expectations.
Viewing these sci-fi movies retrospectively, there came the baggage of years of enormous hype surrounding both Alien and Aliens. It’s natural that I would go into watching them for the first time, expecting them to be some of the best movies of all time.
Conversely, the connotations attached to Alien 3 tell a story of a chaotic production, laden with studio interference and filmmaking missteps, which resulted in a movie that even the director doesn’t want to put his name to.
It’s safe to say that when I decided to watch David Fincher’s Alien 3, I was not expecting anything special at all. I was curious, more than anything, to see just how messy this disaster of a movie could be, given all that I had heard.
Alien 3 was the feature film debut of David Fincher, who had come off the back of a string of successful and stylish music videos. By the sounds of it, the production of Alien 3 was already a tumultuous ride, and the top dogs at 20th Century Fox probably thought bringing in a young, untested filmmaker would allow them to assert their influence.
But, if there’s one thing we have learned from the movie industry, it’s that studio interference is not conducive to creating a good movie. When Fincher replaced Renny Harlin as director, the movie was already running way behind schedule, and he only had five weeks of prep time before the shoot.
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That wouldn’t be so much of a problem if they actually had a script to shoot. The screenplay went through several rewrites, and multiple different storylines were explored and then canned. In the end, what was on the page for the shoot even differed greatly from what ended up on the screen.
It’s almost a miracle that any movie came out of the other side of this production hell at all. The horror stories of what went on during the whole process would ultimately sour the release of the film, with a poor box-office showing, and even poorer reviews condemning the movie as a failure.
The Alien timeline is a complicated and inconsistent journey of some really great movies, some mediocre movies, and some pretty poor movies. People will tell you that Alien 3 is near the bottom of the pile, but I’m really not sure that’s the case.
It’s definitely not perfect, and you can really feel the creative differences clashing at times, particularly within the Frankenstein’s monster of a narrative. Nevertheless, this is still a fun movie, with some really cool scenes, and most certainly a movie which doesn’t tarnish the reputation of the Alien franchise.
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I believe it’s Spider-Man’s uncle who says, “With low expectations, come great surprises,” or words to that effect. And, that was probably the case for me when it came to Alien 3. The bar was low, critical reception to the movie was wildly exaggerated, and actually, there’s a part of me that maybe even enjoyed Alien 3 more than the titanic trailblazers that came before it.
Let’s not forget this movie had Sigourney Weaver reprising her legendary role as Ripley, Bishop (Lance Henriksen) was back again, as well as British greats Charles Dance and Pete Postlethwaite among its cast. The talent involved is undeniable, and they do the best with what they were given.
The death scene of Charles Dance’s Dr. Clemens is a brilliant horror movie moment, with silhouettes, reflections, and curtains used to great effect, in a similar fashion to the classic shower scene from Psycho. Despite some spotty CGI in places, this scene also gives us the iconic shot of the Xenomorph snarling just an inch away from Ripley, before moving on to other prey.
The subsequent scene, too, where Andrews briefs the inmates of the facility on the situation they find themselves in, is superbly executed. The effectiveness of this scene is of course, we know he is wrong. So, when Ripley bursts in and tries to warn them of the impending danger, only to be dismissed, it’s such a satisfying moment to see the Xenomorph drag Andrews up into the rafters.
What I find really fascinating in Alien 3 though, is the concept of sacrifice. First of all, there is the death of Leonard Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), who is last seen being torn limb from limb by the Xenomorph, before a vat of molten lead is poured on the two of them.
This scene isn’t just a cool way for Dillon to say “Is that all you got, motherfucker?” to an alien. Admittedly, this is pretty badass, but this scene also demonstrates the leadership qualities and strength of faith within Dillon. As the driving force behind the religious sentiments within the facility, his sacrifice is all the more symbolic and meaningful.
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The more significant sacrifice, of course, is that of our protagonist for the last three movies, Ellen Ripley. As we know by this point, Ripley is the unwitting carrier of a Xenomorph spawn. As long as Ripley lives, the alien lives with her. This leads to a really intriguing debate on the morals of scientific discovery and research.
Bishop II is desperate to study the Xenomorph, imploring Ripley to hand the specimen over to him and to “think of all we can learn from it.” Ripley, naturally, knows this is a stupid idea, and understands how dangerous it would be to allow the creature to live. She does the right thing, and dives gracefully into the molten lead, crucifix pose and all.
While the holy sacrifice and messiah references are a little bit on the nose, Alien 3 was most definitely on to something here. You only have to look at the handling of something like the Covid-19 pandemic to know that, if a killer alien was discovered, the first instinct of many of those in powerful positions would not be “How do we stop this threat?”, but rather, “How can we gain from this?”
There’s so many aspects of merit among the mess that is Alien 3, and there is definitely a very good movie in there. We all know how talented David Fincher is, and I’m sure that without the studio interference, Alien 3 would have been a truly great movie.
As it is, Alien 3 is simply a misunderstood, enigmatic thrill ride and a worthy entry in one of the most successful sci-fi sagas in the history of cinema. It’s no Prometheus or Covenant, mind you, but we’ll save that discussion for another day.