Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Zaki's Retro Review: Alien³ (1992)

After the stellar success of the first film and the even-bigger success of the second, Alien had become a Franchise That Matters to Fox, who nursed the next sequel through development hell for six years before it finally hit theaters -- ready or not. If nothing else, Alien³ proves out the adage that in Hollywood nothing fails faster than success. Under the helm of director David Fincher (before he became DAVID FINCHER), it's a fascinating, frustrating mess of a movie where you spend just as much time trying to figure out what's happening on-screen as you do trying to figure out why you're trying to figure it out.

Picking up shortly after the ostensibly happy ending of AliensAlien³ reveals that the Sulaco picked up an unwanted passenger at some point before the queen was dispatched, in the form of an alien egg which releases a facehugger and causes irreparable damage to the ship. Still sleeping, the three passengers (and one android) are ejected in an escape pod, which crashes into the waters of Fury 161, a prison planet/foundry run by Wayland-Yutani. Recovered and revived, Ripley finds, much to her (and our) horror, that Hicks and Newt both perished in the crash, and the Bishop android was damaged beyond repair (though he was already in pretty bad shape last time).

Of course, this being Alien, it isn't long before the titular creature makes its return appearance, exploding from inside a dog or an ox depending on whether you watch the 1992 theatrical release or the 2003 "work print" edition, and soon enough the number of prisoners at the facility begins to rapidly decrease. Further, and even more dire for Ripley, she learns that she was also impregnated by the facehugger while in hyper sleep, and has the new queen gestating inside her. Suddenly, it's a race against time to stop the monster and destroy the queen before Weyland-Yutani's representatives arrive to take them all into custody.

There's really no way to sugarcoat it. Alien³ is ugly, nasty, and mean-spirited. It's appropriate that the very last words spoken onscreen are "F*** you," because that's surely what audiences must have felt like saying after watching it for the first time. It isn't merely that it's dark. This is, after all, a series that built its reputation on the iconic scene of a monster ripping out from inside a man's chest. Rather, it's the fact that it's so unremittingly dark. There's nothing redemptive. No ray of sunlight signalling to the audience that yes, there was a point to this journey we went on. Does that necessarily make it a bad movie? I'm not entirely sure.

As a standalone piece, it can work reasonably well -- it's engaging in the right places and gripping in the right places -- but as a continuation of the story begun in Alien and Aliens, it's nothing less than an absolute betrayal, undoing every single stitch of victory achieved at the end of the last one in the cruelest way possible. Did you like Corporal Hicks? Think he was a bad ass? Well, he was impaled by the EEV as it crashed. Did you like Newt? Think she was a cute little kid? Well, she drowned in her tube before she even realized what was happening. And here's her autopsy too. You're welcome. Oh, and did you like Bishop? Wait'll you see Bishop.

When the third story in the Alien cycle first began development, things were intended to go in a much, much different direction, with a planned two-movie arc that would have seen Michael Biehn as Hicks taking center stage in movie three, with Ripley's presence reduced to a cameo, and a planned conclusion in movie four where she would again return to the center of the action. This story, as developed by producers David Giler and Walter Hill, would then have culminated in hordes of alien creatures, engineered by the corporation as yet another weapon of mass destruction, threatening to overtake the Earth.

The Hicks-centric version of Alien 3, written at various times by William Gibson, Eric Red, and David Twohy, was eventually vetoed by Fox when they balked at Ripley's reduced presence. This, even though her return was assured in the subsequent installment. Nonetheless, the notion of continuing a marquee series without its signature star was simply too much uncertainty for a studio that suddenly had a lot riding on this property, so they instructed the Brandywine braintrust to go back to formula for a more Ripley-focused script. Ironically, if they'd gone the other way, it's possible the series would have ended up lasting longer. In trying to protect the franchise, Fox inadvertently killed it.

Anyway, what finally caught the studio's interest was writer Vincent Ward's idea of the Sulaco's pod crashlanding on a monastery planet built entirely of wood, where Ripley must again contend with the monster. Ward was enlisted to serve as the project's director, but as the old saw about creative differences -- primarily centered on the feasibility and practicality of the wooden planet he envisioned -- began to sound its sour notes, Ward departed. At that point, with a Christmas '91 release date already penciled in (eventually pushed to Summer '92), Giler and Hill took charge of the story themselves, turning Ward's monastic order into a prison colony, and the wooden planet into a metal foundry.

It was at this stage, with the production start rapidly approaching and a script in constant state of flux that David Fincher, a commercial and music video vet making his feature film debut, was roped in to helm the project under Giler and Hill's aegis. The legendary saga of the troubled production, with Fincher taking fire from all sides as he tried to bring this unwieldy monstrosity to completion has already been documented elsewhere (especially the excellent making-of docos on the Alien blu-ray set), but needless to say, it was an experience that very nearly broke its young director.

Still, there's undeniable artistry in the way Fincher populates the screen and sets the mood, enough to make the experience of watching Alien³ worthwhile. It also benefits from a tremendous cast as the various denizens of Fury. Among them, Charles Dance makes a strong impression early on as tormented medical officer Clemens, and Charles S. Dutton brings passion and intensity to Dillon, the prisoners' religious leader. It's there, in the actorly interactions, that Alien³ most shines. And while Weaver (now co-producer) again does tireless, ego-less work, the amount of suffering heaped on poor, bald Ripley starts making you wonder what this character did to these writers to continually be punished this way.

In the closing moments, Ripley and the audience are given yet one more betrayal when the company arrives on Fury, led by Bishop (Lance Henriksen) the human creator of the android, who shares none of his creation's empathy, and who wishes to retrieve the queen gestating inside Ripley for study and experimentation. Rather than allow that to occur, Ripley chooses to fling herself into the molten metalworks, the queen bursting forth from her chest as she falls, carrying them both to their deaths. Think of it as the Beneath the Planet of the Apes ending.

Needless to say, for as vividly and artistically as it was presented, the dark and darker storyline simply proved too much for most mainstream audiences, and Alien³ (not sure they've ever explained why the title is presented that way) was largely dismissed by both fans and critics upon its initial release in May of '92. Its $55 million domestic take against a $50 mil budget was deemed a disappointment, and it was written off as a mistake by all concerned (especially Fincher himself, who still refuses to discuss the film, even twenty years later).

Although it remains deeply, deeply flawed, Alien³ has benefitted from a more favorable critical opinion in the years since, as the starting point for Fincher's filmography (now punctuated by Se7en, Fight Club, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). At the time, with Ripley (and everyone else) dead and gone, along with the less-than-favorable box office response, that was thought to be the end of the Alien saga. However, box office coffers aren't only filled stateside, and once the international tally was factored in, Alien³ had amassed nearly $160 million worldwide -- the largest total of any flick in the series.

Suddenly, Fox had a dilemma. Alien existed. Ripley was required.

To Be Continued...


RobRoy said...

I agree with what you're saying. Alone, Alien3 exists as a really entertaining monster movie. As part of the Alien series, it's like someone kicking you in the groin with your own shin.

This movie was really bailed out by the talented and engaging cast of prison misfits - - the mostest awsomestest of whom being Charles S Dutton.

First of all, I think he should deliver every inspirational speech ever written. Just make it an album. "Inspire You, Inspire Me" by Charles S Dutton.

Second, he takes on the Alien mano-a-xeno I remember thinking in the theatre opening night "now THAT'S pretty bad ass. . . woulda' been MORE badass if it was Hicks, but whatever."

The best thing Alien 3 has going for it is how utterly ridiculous, disgusting, pointless, and ill conceived Alien Resurrection is.

That, and Fincher's director's cut of the film is a whole letter grade better.

Glenn Greenberg said...

ALIEN 3 was a dream. Ripley dreamed the whole thing while she was in hyper sleep after the events of ALIENS. She, Hicks, and Newt are still in their suspended animation pods, on their way back to the frontier after their escape from LV426.

That's been my take since 1992, and I'm sticking with it.