The first 30 to 45 minutes of David Fincher’s Alien 3 is filled with powerful, audacious filmmaking. Picking up directly after the rousing conclusion of Aliens, the third entry in the now long-running franchise is almost unbearably grim, taking the pseudo family-unit of Ripley, Newt, Bishop and Hicks that was established in Cameron’s lighthearted romp and tearing it literally to shreds.
All this occurs within the first 15 minutes of the film, which depicts Sigourney Weaver’s unflappable Ellen Ripley crashing down on Fiorina “Fury” 161, a penal colony planet populated entirely by brutish male convicts. Upon her rescue, Ripley learns two horrifying truths. Not only is her surrogate family gone, but the malevolent, cosmic terror of the xenomorphs is not.
This shattering change is both good and bad for the installment and the series as a whole. In one sense, Fincher and writers David Giler, Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson use the opening scene to obliterate the emotional thrust that so potently drove the action in Cameron’s classic 1986 sequel. This returns the series to something akin to what Ridley Scott imagined in the original Alien (1979), the brooding, hopeless milieu where “no one can hear you scream.”
This creates a sense of power and consequence that is undeniable – certainly different from Cameron’s opus but no less involving. Early scenes featuring Weaver’s Ripley acclimating to the colony, mourning the loss of her loved ones and worrying about bodily infection from the aliens (both of herself and of the deceased child Newt) are devastating in their bleakness. They grimly albeit beautifully trace the dual horror so effectively established in Scott’s original vision: the black, unknown and Lovecraftian horror of the cosmos, and the disturbing, repulsive horror that exists within our own bodies.
But while the tonal shift initiated by Fincher’s entry is appreciated (at least for this particular viewer), it is not without its downsides. The new batch of characters introduced by Alien 3 don’t register in the way that Cameron’s cast did – not even close. If figures like Michael Biehn’s Hicks and Lance Henriksen’s Bishop were elegantly drawn, then the prisoners embodied by overqualified actors like Charles S. Dutton, Pete Postlethwaite and Charles Dance are the equivalent of what’s produced by giving a monkey a paintbrush. These amorphous blotches serve as disposable enough fodder once the iconic xenomorph reappears about halfway through the film, but they are definitely inefficient in regards to triggering viewer investment.
Not even the layering of religious themes is successful in bringing the characters further into view. The denizens of Fiorina “Fury” 161 are a loony bunch of criminals, who attempt to find solace from their depressing surroundings in a higher power. This is an idea that carries real potential, as the juxtaposition of strident religion with the film’s technologically-advanced setting is fascinating. Yet it is ultimately half-baked by the script, accomplishing little aside from reinforcing the film’s unremitting nihilism. It never deepens the prisoners or helps one understand them as people. It never helps us, as viewers, extend them empathy or compassion. They are simply snack food for the space bugs.
This is just one of many problems that contribute to the film’s strangely listless second-half, which switches to a more action-oriented style once the xenomorph emerges and begins wrecking havoc. The others are largely aesthetic. The frenzied editing; dim, dusty subterranean locations; and the incredibly dubious alien effects (created, apparently, by a rod puppet) create action scenes that are a far, FAR cry from the expertly-staged bloodbaths in Cameron’s previous effort. Instead, they are simply disorienting, sort of like being beaned upside your own head – and not in a good way. One, of course, could argue that disorientation is an appropriate effect for an alien onslaught, and I don’t completely disagree. That said, one still needs to care about the fate of the characters, which in this case is almost impossible. I personally cared about them as much as I cared about the fate of the metal pipes and hulking machinery that litters the film’s sets.
It also doesn’t help that, in this particular entry, Ripley is semi-protected from a direct attack by the xenomorph. I won’t reveal the reasons why, but needless to say, it further deflates the tension of the film’s pitched battles, leaving one’s eyes heavy and patience stretched. There is some modest intensity reintroduced in the story’s later stages – particularly when the nefarious Weyland-Yutani Corporation begins to reveal its intentions for the xenomorph and Ripley – but its not enough to right something that has already, at this stage, become firmly capsized.
Alien 3 is a bizarre film, one that takes almost everything from Cameron’s vision and blasts it out an airlock. It doesn’t match the heights its predecessors reached in terms of action scenes or character development; hell, it barely gets off the ground in either sense. Yet I can’t fully condemn the film, as it carries with it a sense of gravitas and cosmic pessimism that is daring and bold and meaningful in its own way.
Although many of its ideas and themes don’t really receive the development that they deserve or require, Alien 3 at least has the will to robustly embrace what is, in my opinion, the true point of the series. It helps elucidate the meaning of the film’s original tagline: “In space, nobody can hear you scream.” While obviously referring to the soundless vacuum of the universe, Alien 3 suggests that “nobody can hear you scream” because there is simply no one there. God, religion, morality, love, family: these are largely human concepts that the universe is indifferent to. The film is explicit about this and provides little catharsis. It does ask pointed questions about the concept, like when the convict Dillon exclaims during the funeral for Newt and Hicks, “Why? Why are the innocent punished? Why the sacrifice? Why the pain?”, but it is clearly not interested in supplying answers.
The ice-cold approach to these themes was and still is divisive. But Alien 3 is not entirely devoid of thematic resolution. In the end, the film postulates that the only victory that can be won over an indifferent and hostile universe is a personal and internal one. Weaver’s strong-willed performance powers Ripley in this way, showcasing, again and again, an indomitable will, a ferocious self-reliance and the unique ability to find acceptance amidst chaos. Her work, and the film as a whole, grapple with these multifaceted ideas head on, creating a complex experience, albeit not an entirely successful one.