In honor of the upcoming Gone Girl, I’m reviewing each film in David Fincher’s staggering career.
How do you follow two game changing science fiction masterpieces that changed cinema forever? Well, as history tells it, with crushing disappointment. Alien 3 stands as one of the biggest let downs in film history. Modern audiences can sympathize with the feeling. Four years after The Matrix, the world led out a whimpering sigh leaving theaters after seeing both of the sequels. And, although Alien 3 wasn’t nearly on that level (what is?), Star Wars: Episode I inevitably comes to mind. Even director David Fincher was appalled at the final product, famously confessing “No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.” His first film was drowning in production problems, where there wasn’t a final script when shooting started, and he was fired multiple times. It’s a classic example of studio meddling, and it’s hard to think Alien 3 even qualifies as the real start of Fincher’s imposing career.
Six years after Aliens, Alien 3 stormed into theaters with a weird plot involving a sci fi prison, inmates with bar codes on the back of their heads, and most important of all, religion. That is to say, even if it was good, Alien 3 marks a major change in the franchise destined to ruffle people’s feathers. We meet Ripley seemingly moments after the ending of Aliens, crash landing on an escape pod on prison and refinery planet. She survives, but barely. In a dose of Shakespearian irony, we know the crash was caused by a facehugger monster, but she doesn’t. In an infuriating creative decision, the entire remaining cast of Aliens, many of whom were fan favorites and had formed an emotional bond with audiences, were killed off in the crash. Ripley is rescued and taken to the prison, told to avoid inmates and await rescue. All the while, tensions between the inmates rise while we wait for an alien Xenomorph to appear. When it does, hell is broken loose.
Fincher has disowned the film, but his horrible experience behind the camera aside, he shouldn’t have. Alien 3 actually is actually semi decent movie, or rather, is the shadow of a great one. It’s as though a compelling, unique, and visually arresting work was summarized in a drunken haze, and that became the template for Alien 3. Nevertheless, every frame is lush with powerful visual ideas, and now act as an amusing prophecy of a cinematic genius yet to find his way. You can already feel his incredible specificity with the image, and the effect can be tantalizing. From the very start his singular voice as an artist is clear. He starts the film with a terrifying credits sequence that induces more genuine fear and shock than the rest of the entire movie. The eerie Alien theme plays over a stereotypical sci-fi starfield, with the credits in massive letters hovering center frame. In an audacious move, instead of making the escape pod crash the opening scene, it’s been interwoven into the opening credits in the form of quick-cut jolts. We see clues of the crash, like the facehugger unfurling its boney fingers over the camera lens. Because no single shot of the crash lasts too long, it imposes upon the audience the need to use their imagination. It’s a masterwork of visual storytelling that alone justifies watching.
Alien 3 resembles Alien more than Aliens, with the camera always panning through long, dark, dank metallic corridors. Alien had blue collar workers, but here, the cast are prisoners. The dynamic is similar—banter about everyday things anyone can relate to—just pushed to a bothersome extreme. We are never given a reason to care, and how could we? By the nature of who they are, they are innately unlikable. We are told repeatedly these are men with a history of extreme physical and sexual violence. This is meant to relate to the psychosexual themes of the first two films, namely in how the inmates threaten Ripley with rape. In one scene impossible to imagine in a big budget 2014 film, there is an attempted gang rape set to heavy metal music. Had it been in a movie released this year, the writers over at Salon.com would experience a brain aneurism. Already we see a trend forming in why this film doesn’t work: take what made the first films work, make it obvious, make it stupid, and make it extreme. How we were ever meant to fear for the lives of the same inmates who tried to sexually brutalize our idolized heroine defeats all reason and logic in the universe.
There are two characters meant to be sympathetic. The first is a “good” ex-inmate named Clemens, played with knowingness and sarcasm by Charles Dance. Next to Weaver and the visuals, he’s the best part of the movie. Next, is the prison’s spiritual leader. He is neither interesting or sympathetic, and his trivial spiritual insight makes him best suited to preach on a Subway platform. That said, Alien 3 is laced with religious overtones, and in concept but not execution, it’s a compelling place to take the Alien franchise. By replacing the psychosexual imagery and themes of the first two films with the incendiary iconography and values of apocalyptic Christianity, Alien 3 could have felt fresh, bold, and even daring. As is, it’s a derivative and brainless exercise in trying to seem “edgy” in a frustrating way that, if it actually bothered developing its ideas, it actually could have been.
The Alien franchise is famous for many things, but its amazing feminism is the most culturally important. Ripley is the first major female action hero to grace American movies. She’s fierce, independent, and more often than not less sexualized than her male counterparts. She was not defined by her sexuality. Most revolutionary of all, her most powerful trait wasn’t how well she could wield a flame thrower, but with two traits that movies long portrayed as distinctly masculine. She, not a man, was the continuing voice of reason and rationality. She didn’t give into her emotions with the ease and recklessness of her mostly male crews. Alien 3 destroys that. It’s minutes into the film before she’s incredibly sexualized, where we not only seeing her rub her body naked in the shower, but she (consensually) sleeps with an inmate. She’s also an idiot. She’s seriously warned to stay in the med bay to avoid the prisoners. She ignores this advice. We’re supposed to think it’s strength and bravery, but walking unprotected into a room of rapists and murderers can only be stupidity. Alien 3 reduced one of the most powerful female icons in film history to a moody, reckless, and stupid woman. Ripley’s ineptness is redeemed as the film continues, but only barely.
I have yet to identify the biggest issue with the film. It’s just isn’t scary. It’s too clumsy to be. Even if they weren’t impossible to care for in the first place, the characters are too stupid to note important clues that would save their lives, so when they get systematically killed off it feels closer to divine retribution than to a gruesome killing. In Alien, we’re prisoners of the darkness; danger lurks everywhere. Tension was sustained, palpable, and intense. Aliens combined mood and action to create a hyper intensity not often experienced in a movie theater. Ebert called Aliens so intense he didn’t know if he should recommend it. Alien 3 tries to do both but ends up doing neither. In the same way you can feel embarrassed for someone who had just tripped in front of a big group or a public speaker awkwardly stumbling through a speech, I’m embarrassed for Alien 3. When we first see the facehugger, it’s casually picked up by someone like he found an odd lobster. It’s like a haunted house with the lights turned on but the workers keep acting like werewolves and zombies. Even the film's big twist, which smart viewers will have figured out, is revealed with all the shock of a grocery list. As another bad horror movie Alien 3 is tedious but periodically enjoyable; as a followup to two masterpieces, it’s an outrage.