Alien Quadrilogy: Alien 3 Review
One of the things that makes the Alien series so interesting is the way different directors have approached the material. Ridley Scott made a good old fashioned monster movie with new-fangled visual SF trappings; James Cameron made a "guys on a mission" movie with the difference that one of the guys was a woman; Jean-Pierre Jeunet made a hugely idiosyncratic black comedy; and David Fincher, in his feature debut, made Alien 3, a Science Fiction movie in which the concepts are stronger than the execution.
It's not surprising that Alien 3 received such a slating from fans and critics, since it is so different in tone and content to the two films that preceded it that it might as well be no relation to them. Rarely has the term "interesting failure" been so appropriate - this film is borderline terrible in places, but it's also totally fascinating.
THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR ALIEN 3
During the opening credits, we see the Sulaco crash land on the planet Fiorina "Fury" 161. Ellen Ripley (Weaver) survives, but both Hicks and Newt have been killed. We have seen the presence of a face-hugger on the vessel, and there are signs of alien life amongst the wreckage. Immediately, this beginning alienates all those in the audience who liked the touchy-feely aspects of Aliens, as it denies the happy family ending of the second film. If Ripley found another daughter in Cameron's film, she loses her at the start of this one. The mood is downbeat from the first scenes, and becomes increasingly grim as the narrative unwinds. However, am I the only viewer who was delighted to see the back of the irritatingly bland Hicks and the sickmakingly cute Newt ? Even better, the horribly sentimental mother/daughter relationship is shattered right at the start. That put me in a good mood with the film right from the word go.
Fiorina 161 is a prison planet, in which criminals were sent to work in the huge mineral ore refinery. It is, in fact, owned by Weyland-Yutani, the universal conglomerate which sent the Nostromo up into space in the first place. Times being hard, the planet now has only 25 inhabitants, including prisoners and a skeleton staff. The inmates were offered the chance to move elsewhere, but a small number decided to remain on "Fury" in a sort of monastic isolation, which has been an escape from their pasts as violent rapists and murderers.
All of this is quite fascinating - a great SF setting which is convincing and unusual. Ripley is the only woman in the place, and naturally causes something of a stir amongst the inmates, none of whom have seen a woman for a long time. In order to stave off a lice infestation, and to make her less feminine, she shaves her head. What she lacks, along with the superintendent Andrews (Glover) and his hopeless deputy (Ralph Brown), is a barcode identifying her status. This is the only idea left from the treatment written by noted postmodernist author William Gibson. Most of the cast are recognisable Brit actors - Paul McGann, Pete Postlethwaite, Danny Webb - none of whom make much of an impact. Charles Dance is, however, exceptionally good as the prison doctor, Clemens, who becomes very friendly indeed with Ripley. Brian Glover is, however, typically enjoyable as the appallingly pompous warden who meets a most gratifying end.
There are some potent scenes in the first half of the film. Ripley weeping over Newt's death and saying "Forgive me" to her corpse; the autopsy in which Newt's lungs oddly resemble a gestating alien; the awesomely impressive cremation in the huge furnace. This last scene is intercut with the emergence of the alien, which has infected a cow. Rather than the overgrown cuttlefish of the first film, this alien is oddly vulnerable - shivering, bewildered and almost pitiable - and it seems right that we get, for the first time in the series, an alien POV shot straight afterwards.
Come to think of it, there are more scenes from the alien's point of view in this film than in the other three films in the series, suggesting an entirely different approach to the alien than the monstrous killing machine of the other films. This approach is, sadly, like so much of the film, not really explored as well as it should have been.
Indeed, the film remains strong for about an hour and ten minutes. Ripley and Clemens form a touching relationship, based on mutual need, and Dance's confession of his past misdeeds is a very touching moment. Ripley also finds some support from Dillon (Dutton) - an intimidating black prisoner who seems to be the leader of the trappist cult. Dillon is a great character; tough, prickly and unsentimental, and Charles S. Dutton makes the part work by refusing to go for easy sympathy. It's interesting to see a Hollywood film in which all but four main characters are social outcasts who only begin to respond to Ripley when she becomes an outcast herself.
The problem in the first two thirds of the film is that the character and mood scenes are much better than the rather half-hearted alien attacks. The first death scene - a man stumbles into a fan after being attacked - is gory but perfunctory stuff, and the second big set-piece, an attack in the abandoned mining tunnels, is tense but paced too slowly to be exciting. There's only one scene in which an alien attack has any emotional resonance, and that is the highpoint of the film. After Clemens confesses his morphine addiction which led to his exile to Fury, the alien kills him in a nicely edited moment signalled by the hysteria of Golic, a mentally unbalanced inmate, played by Paul McGann. Then, the alien moves close to a terrified Ripley, moves its head close to her face and stays there for a few seconds, as if trying to communicate something. It's a nightmarish scene, executed with real brilliance by Fincher, and nothing else in the film begins to match it for effectiveness.
The last third of the film is mostly cat and mouse between the alien and the inmates. This is sometimes confusing and always derivative. The silly chasing about is rather tiresome, but the climax of the film is redeemed somewhat by Weaver's performance as Ripley. Her own infection by the alien is both poignant and touching, signalled by the nosebleed which begins as the alien is born. The scene where she goes into the neuroscanner and sees the alien foetus in her chest is unforgettable, and when she sees her "baby" the film suddenly opens all sorts of possibilities, none of which are really explored. Perhaps Ripley and the Alien are now two sides of the same coin, each needing the other to define them; at one point, she says "You've been in my life so long I can hardly remember anything else", and her fatalism is what makes the last part of the film work when it should, by rights, be falling apart.
The "big finish" of the film, Ripley character apart, is grossly inadequate, suggesting that Fincher's grasp of structure is not as strong as his grasp of character - Seven had problems when considered as a serial killer move, but it worked because it was basically a philosophical mood piece disguised as a conventional thriller. Locked in a traditional SF narrative, Fincher can't seem to find the enthusiasm to bring life to the clichés. However, what he does achieve is a level of emotional intensity that you don't expect in an "Alien" film, tossing out provocative ideas with abandon. That he doesn't do much with most of these issues is a shame, but at least there's some ambition there in the first place.
The film constantly looks marvellous. Alex Thomson's moody lighting is exactly what is required and the production design by Norman Reynolds is totally convincing. Elliot Goldenthal's music is also a definite strength, adding an epic quality which lifts the film when it threatens to get bogged down in endless dialogue exchanges and confusing chase scenes. As for the special effects, they range from excellent to disappointing. There isn't much pyrotechnic mayhem, unlike the second film, because a major plot point is that there are no heavy weapons on Fiorina 161 (rendering the film a dead duck for Cameron fans eager for more firepower). The physical effects are fine, and the alien looks pretty good when it is done by traditional methods. However, the moment CGI takes over, it looks exactly like a computer generated special effect - the same goes for the attempts to render the windblown, debris-strewn surface of the planet.
It has been said that Alien 3 doesn't belong in the Alien series. This strikes me as a woefully small-minded point of view. I'm happy to admit that the film is deeply flawed but to say it doesn't belong is idiotic. Any series of films has to evolve and the evolution doesn't necessarily have to be in a straight line. Aliens, with its large-scale action scenes and sentimental subplot, has very little in common in style or contact with Ridley Scott's original film but that might be why it's been so successful. Most sequels are content to repeat but none of the Alien films settle for this. Alien 3 is a different film in every respect from its predecessors but it takes the story of Ripley and the Alien in a fascinating new direction which few people could have predicted. In terms of the relationship between woman and monster, it's considerably more thoughtful and intelligent that it's been given credit for being, and I am personally very pleased that this approach was taken rather than a repeat of Cameron's pyrotechnics.
It's probably impossible to rehabilitate Alien 3, and it's hard not to admit that there's more ambition than success. But the characterisation of the film is much stronger than it's been given credit for being, the ideas - especially those involving Ripley's relationship with the Alien - are interesting, and the film is certainly not the disaster we have been led to believe. I suspect I am one of very few people in the world to prefer it to Aliens, but then I find that film loud, silly and overbearing in the extreme. However, having said that, it's certainly not a match for Ridley Scott's extraordinary Alien.
The Special Edition
Those of us who have always carried the torch for Alien 3 had hoped that the restoration of the extensive deleted material might turn it into the classic we suspected it could have been. Sadly, this hope is not entirely fulfilled in this re-edited version of the film. However, the added material strengthens the characterisation, adds much to the emotional impact of the film and makes some of the concepts clearer. Some fine moments are included, notably a lovely moment when Clemens asks Ripley if Newt was her daughter. The end result is that the film becomes stronger in terms of being a ‘hard’ science fiction film but not much better as a scary movie or an action extravaganza.
There is approximately 30 minutes of material added. It has been re-edited by the DVD producers after Fincher refused to have anything to do with it. I actually think that this version makes it all the clearer that this is the work of the same man who made Seven - visually it’s a good match with that movie – and demonstrates that he’s not a director who is willing to endlessly replay the same old genre clichés.
The key additions to the first half are as follows:
- Dillon begins the meeting with a prayer.
- Clemens asks Ripley if Newt was her daughter.
- Two abattoir workers discuss Ripley and the dead cow – the confusing dog scenes have vanished.
- Ripley replies to Clemens’ assertion that she is very direct with “I’ve been out here for a long time”
- Dillon asks other prisoners to light a candle for Murphy, the first victim.
- A much longer scene between Clemens and Andrews
- A scene explaining how Golic gets to the infirmary
- Golic explains the madness of the world
- Golic expresses approval of the alien’s killing of Clemens as “Magnificent”
However, most of the additional footage comes in the second half, once the plan to trap the alien in the tunnels is underway. It would take too much space – and spoil some of the excellent material – to give this away but it’s enough to make a few general points. Ripley’s relationship with the prisoners is given a lot more depth and the duplicity of Weyland-Yutani is once again made clear. Golic’s role as the alien’s would-be protector is much more obvious and there is some good stuff of him going off the deep-end. There’s some excellent material which makes Ripley’s connection to Dillon more complex and Ralph Brown’s nicely understated portrayal of 85 is made more prominent towards the end. Most of all, Ripley’s increasingly suicidal frame of mind is made very explicit and her interrelationship with the alien is made very clear. The scenes between Ripley and Bishop’s creator are particularly improved. Generally speaking, the finale is paced slightly more slowly and is more emotionally satisfying. The final moments are also significantly different and the chestburster scene has vanished, which I think is a shame.
This extended version is a much more satisfying and complex film, and a significant part of the Alien series. It’s a well acted, fiercely intelligent film which passes the basic SF test in that it creates a convincing world and then plays out a story which thinks big and tries ambitious concepts that don’t always work but always exercise the mind. It also looks sensational. The main problem with the film remains that it doesn’t even begin to work as a horror film and the attempts to scare the audience are woefully obvious and repetitious. But anyone who liked the theatrical cut of the film is bound to like this version even more and those who dismissed it really should give it another look. In fact, the more I watch it, the more I think that – regardless of its debatable merits as an Alien film – this is one of the most interesting Science Fiction films of the past twenty years.
Both versions of the film are presented in anamorphic 2.35:1. The picture quality is generally excellent, rich in subtle colour shadings and beautifully full, deep blacks. Plenty of detail is on display and I didn't notice the softness which some reviewers have complained about on the R1 release. There are some artifacts visible here and there but virtually no grain. The level of detail is high throughout. Particularly impressive is the fact that the restored material in the special edition is just as good as the rest of the film. This is a high compliment to Charles de Lauzirika and his DVD team.
The soundtrack for both the theatrical cut and the special edition is English Dolby Digital 5.1. It's an excellent track, thoroughly involving and packed with good surround moments. The chase through the tunnels is absolutely marvellous. The .1 LFE is used to good effect as well. Dialogue is clear and the interestingly subtle music comes across very strongly. A DTS mix would have been nice but there's nothing wrong with this 5.1 track. The quality of the sound on the newly added scenes is slightly variable and sometimes the dialogue is not as audible as it is during the rest of the film. However, considerng the achievement of DVD production which this extended version represents, this is a very minor criticism.
The main extra on this first disc is a frank and thoughtful audio commentary from a range of participants. The major omission is David Fincher, who decided that he didn't want to relive an experience which is obviously still painful - and it's not hard to see why when you get through the extras on this disc. The participants are Terry Rawlings - the editor of this film and the first one - Alex Thomson, Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Richard Edlund, Paul McGann and Lance Henrikson. This is carefully edited and very interesting, although there's obviously little that isn't dealt with elsewhere on the disc.
THIS COMMENTARY IS ONLY AVAILABLE ON THE THEATRICAL CUT AND NOT ON THE SPECIAL EDITION.
The menus are beautifully designed and easy to navigate. The film and commentary are both subtitled in English. The theatrical cut has 32 chapter stops and the special edition has 44.
As with the other DVDs in the Quadrilogy, the bulk of the extras are contained on the second disc. You are given the usual option to either watch all the featurettes together as one long documentary or to explore the extras in three stages; Pre-Production, Production and Post-Production.
One of the main problems with Alien 3, as I’ve mentioned above, is that there was no agreement upon a final draft screenplay when David Fincher began shooting. This first section of the second disc explores the ideas that were developed before Fincher came along and explains why they were largely discarded.
“Development: Concluding the Story” deals with the lengthy process of getting to the first day of shooting. Most Hollywood films take a while to go through a proper pre-production process but Alien 3 epitomises a particular kind of suicidal tendency among otherwise intelligent studio executives. Having gone through a variety of writers – including the noted SF author William Gibson – and given the project to Renny Harlin, Fox expected great things to emerge. But they seem to have expected this to happen with no real support for Harlin, who struggled for some time to find a concept that might excite some interest. His real interest lay in going back to the planet where the Alien came from or, alternatively – as the first teaser trailer suggests – bringing the fight back to Earth. However, Harlin was fighting a losing battle with a studio that wanted something big but had didn’t have the vision to accept anything new. He left, dejected and cynical, and was replaced by Vincent Ward, the New Zealander responsible for the arthouse hit The Navigator. Ward’s idea was to set the film on a medieval-style wooden planet, something which the executives didn’t like but were willing to go along with in the absence of anything better. But as Ward got into pre-production and vast amounts of money began to go into building the sets in London, the studio got cold feet and sent Ward a list of major changes that were required. He realised that his own vision was never going to make it onto the screen and left, just as depressed as Harlin. When you hear the whole sorry story it becomes easier to understand why Alien 3 turned out like it did. Basically, you’ve got people at the top spending money on a concept they know they aren’t going to use and then proceeding with the project despite not having a script because they’re committed to a release date. It’s insanity.
“Tales of the Wooden Planet: Vincent Ward’s Vision” is a fascinating insight into how the film might have been had Ward been given the chance to make it. His idea was for a wooden planet upon which refugees from Earth live like monks in a low-technological medieval environment. Their interpretation of the alien as a devil which has been brought by Ripley, who crashlands the Sulaco on the planet, would have led to some extraordinary visuals as they tried to destroy the ‘devil’ with scythes in a corn field. Some of his conceptual art is also included and it is truly extraordinary. It’s entirely possible that this would have been a white elephant of a film, the Exorcist II The Heretic of the “Alien” series but it would certainly have been interesting to watch.
“Pre-Production III” looks at the arrival of David Fincher as the new director. Relatively unknown and experienced only in commercials and rock videos, Fincher managed to charm the Fox suits and the producers into giving him the opportunity. But rarely has a chalice been more poisoned than this one. For a start, there wasn’t a script. Fincher didn’t want to do Ward’s draft but some ideas were kept. Walter Hill and David Giler spent many hours rewriting to produce something resembling a shooting script but throughout the shoot, changes kept being made. One can only imagine that the hope was that it would all get pulled together in the editing process. In short, the project began in chaos; enormous sets being built based on a script that kept changing; an inexperienced director being harassed at every turn by a desperate studio; beautiful storyboards that were impractical to shoot.
These storyboards can be sampled in an archive which is fascinating and rather sad. It’s easy to see that Fincher could have made something truly memorable if he’d had the time and the money. However, they also show a disdain for practical resources which reveal his inexperience in feature film making. There is also some conceptual art of the exterior of the planet and the interior of the mining colony. This is peculiarly unexciting, especially compared to the similar gallery on the Alien disc.
Much more interesting, and genuinely touching, is a feature called “Xeno-Erotic: H.R.Giger’s Re-Design” which deals with Giger’s abortive commission to design an ‘erotic Alien’. As the featurette demonstrates, it was a ludicrous idea but Giger, to his credit, gave it his all and came up with something which is at least as interesting as it is risible. Sadly, much hard work led to nothing as it was decided that his designs would take too much time and cost too much money to implement. The only significant thing of his that remains is the design of the ‘Bambi’ Alien, unsteady on its feet immediately after the birth.
The first featurette in this section is called, appropriately, “Production: Part 1”, and it concerns what appears to be the chaotic beginnings of the shoot. Alec Gillis, one of the effects team, says “It was a tough shoot” which would appear to be an early contender for understatement of the century. Working in the depths of the nightmare British winter of 1990/91, without a proper script or even a finished design for the alien – quite apart from an agreed accent for Paul McGann – Fincher was forced to try and make bricks out of straw. That he came out with anything is something of a miracle and it’s hard not to view the film with a renewed respect when you see the circumstances of its production. I don’t think you can really blame Fincher or even Ezra Swerdlow, the fixer sent in by the studio, for the chaos. It’s down to the money men at Fox who wanted a blockbuster but weren’t prepared to put in the time to make one. If you ever need an example of why accountants shouldn’t be allowed within a thousand miles of a film set, this is it. There is much praise of Fincher’s ideas and his energy although the archive interviews from the set now seem touchingly optimistic. Most moving is the material dealing with Jordan Cronenweth, the original DP who was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and had to withdraw from the film. The genius who deserves much credit for the look of Blade Runner - and consequently the look of much cinema that followed – Cronenweth is clearly very ill in the footage here and it’s heartbreaking to watch. Fincher was lucky to get Alex Thomson, a fine cinematographer, to replace him but it does seem that some of his enthusiasm began to waver after his first choice DP left.
Following a great collection of production photos, including extensive shots of Weaver losing her hair, we get a nice little time lapse sequence of the huge furnace being constructed at Shepperton Studios. The purpose of this is obscure but it is presumably intended to remind us of the effort which goes into set construction. The overall effect is reminiscent of that speeded up London to Brighton train journey which used to get shown on TV every so often.
“Adaptive Organism” is a look at the work of Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis on designing the Alien. They used some of Giger’s ideas but then tried to bring their own take on the creature. Some of the ideas which didn’t make it – the super facehugger for example – are especially good and it’s nice to know that more of their work can be seen in the extended version. The ox chestburster really is a great moment that’s been retrieved from the cutting room floor. The bad ideas are also examined, notably the attempt to put an Alien exoskeleton on a dog. Very amusing and has to be seen to be believed. This featurette is followed by a photo archive of the Alien 3 work of Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated, the firm headed by Woodruff and Gillis.
I particularly liked the next feature, a multi-angle presentation of the EEV Bioscan sequence, in which Ripley discovers that she is incubating an Alien. There are six angles on offer; five different parts of the bioscan and the final shot. This is fascinating and showcases some superb effects work. A good commentary from ADI explains the design of the sequence.
Finally, we get “Production” parts 2 and 3. These go into the whole sorry saga of the incredible efforts to get the film finished and the way in which David Fincher was, for want of a better description, fucked over. Apparently, there was a lot more frank discussion of this process in the original documentaries but this was cut out, presumably in a last minute attack of nerves. There’s something about the way Jon Landau, a Fox executive at the time, talks which makes you not believe him – always prone to overstatement, he was the man who once wrote “I have seen the future of rock and roll and it’s name is Bruce Springsteen”, a description which even the Boss thought was a little exaggerated. One story sums up the madness. Sigourney Weaver had a clause in her contract to say that if she had to shave her head again for reshoots that she would get a $40,000 bonus. Instead of doing this, an equal amount of money was spent to create a bald cap which was then fixed every day in an incredibly complex piece of make-up work. All for very little. A year of production and a year of editing – making the film shorter to please theatre owners who wanted to maximise the number of times it could be shown - ended up in a film which didn’t really satisfy anyone. No wonder that Fincher doesn’t like talking about it.
It emerges, amidst a regrettable paucity of gossip about his relationship with Weaver, that he made best friends on the set with, of all people, Brian Glover. Somehow, I find that very touching and oddly reassuring. Eh up lad, tha’ wants to tell them buggers in t’States to leave thee alone !
Only five parts to this one. The first two featurettes are strictly by-the-numbers, and called “Optical Fury – Visual Effects” and, imaginatively, “Music, Editing and Sound”. Nothing of much interest here, although the effects team really shouldn’t be as proud of some of their work as they seem to be. The blue screen work in places is particularly poor. A visual effects gallery doesn’t do much to improve matters. It’s easy to see that the puppet work was incredibly intricate and carefully achieved but I don’t think it always works. A lack of money probably didn’t help. On the other hand, I still prefer the more physical look of the film compared to the extensive CGI work in Alien Resurrection. There is some computer graphics work in Alien 3 but it’s very limited; to create shadows and to model the head of the Alien.
“Post-Mortem”, the last featurette, concerns the negative reaction to the film. All concerned claim it was misunderstood or ahead of its time and I think they are probably right. But it did get some good reviews – I remember that, in the UK, Anne Billson gave it a rave and she’s always good on SF/Horror movies – and I was very impressed with it, even in the broken and messy form in which I first saw it. Finally, we get an archive of very silly promotional photos. There’s a lot of blue, presumably reflecting the mood of the studio when they saw the film.
As with the disc of Alien, the special features are all presented in fullscreen with non-anamorphic 2.35:1 clips from the film. Photographs are generally windowboxed depending on their size. Picture quality is generally very good although the quality of some of the archive video footage is highly variable. The sound throughout is Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and is perfectly acceptable.
All special features have optional English subtitles. The menus are nicely animated and designed to fit in with the overall visual scheme of the Quadrilogy discs.
Overall, this is a great presentation of a flawed but fascinating film. I can't imagine anyone could be disappointed with the effort and love that is evident from every feature on the DVD and it's certainly up to the standard of the other discs in the boxset.