Before The Social Network, before Fight Club, before Se7en, David Fincher was a brilliant music video wunderkind trying to make the jump to a feature film career. So he set himself the impossible task of directing Alien 3 (usually stylized as Alien3, the derivative of which is 3Alien2). With little film experience, Ridley Scott and James Cameron’s big shoes to fill, and an intrusive studio that thought it could push him around, it’s no surprise that Fincher’s contribution was worse than what came before in the franchise – and what came after in his career. The result is like getting face-hugged for nearly two hours, and not in a good way.
Keith Staskiewicz: Alien 3: Great opening 30 seconds, not so great closing 113 and a half minutes.
Darren Franich: I wanted to like the movie because it so gleefully kills off everything and everyone people like about Aliens, but it doesn’t really give us anything in return. Besides lots of bald people with interchangeable space-British accents.
KS: The movie defines itself in the negative right from the start. At the end of Aliens, Ripley succeeded at kick-starting her maternal instincts by saving Newt, her surrogate daughter, and Michael Biehn, the makeshift husband. Before the opening credits of Alien 3 are even out, Newt and Biehn are both dead. Are we done with them? Nope, not by a long shot! First, we have to palpate their dead bodies to make sure they don’t have aliens in them. Then, cut them wide open, just to make really sure. And then, just to be really really sure, toss their bodies in a huge burning furnace. It’s like trying to get rid of space bedbugs.
DF: And then, just when you think Alien 3 is done tearing Aliens apart, it revives Bishop as a limbless, faceless, dripping-android-blood muppet.
Who begs Ripley to turn him off. Not even kill him, mind you. I think he says, “I prefer nothingness.” I actually enjoy the first 20 minutes of the movie. Ripley has this crazy blown-up red eye and is such a weird, tormented character. She pretty much asks the Doctor for sex out of boredom. But when Alien 3 then becomes a movie about, you know, an Alien, it just gets awful.
KS: When it finally attacks, the Alien kills the two new characters we’ve gotten to know the best – the Doctor and the Superintendent. It’s almost like they’re taunting us. “Oh, you want characters that can potentially survive the movie? We’ll give you them, and then rip them away 40 minutes in.”
DF: I think this movie gets a nice backward glow from Fincher’s ’90s movies, since they all have a kind of similar tone. But it’s kind of incredible how not visually stimulating this is. The whole movie is basically bald people whispering at each other, with the occasional shot of an awful-looking alien grabbing someone from the ceiling. There are just those few exterior shots that make the prison look gigantic. But all we ever see are sewers. It’s also a factory. One where they apparently only produce pipes and steam.
KS: You’d think after the “Express Yourself” music video, Fincher would know how to make an industrial space with constant steam and dripping water look cool. Nope. The 20 minutes leading up to the climax is so repetitive: a bunch of dumbbell prisoners running through corridors as the Alien pops out of random doors. At one point two prisoners run headfirst into each other and fall down rubbing their heads. It’s a scene from Scooby-Doo.
DF: The budget for Aliens was $18.5 million, the budget for Alien 3 was $50 million. I was joking about them building one sewer hallway and then just filming from different angles, but maybe they actually built miles of sewers that all look the same?
KS: Maybe their sewer budget dwarfed the rest of the film? They probably built all of them and then realized they only had $300 for the alien. Aliens had an entire community of xenomorphs, an enormous alien queen, many more “outside” shots involving models of spaceships, huge mini-guns, a chase in that big tank-like thing, an enormous alien queen, a badass fight between said alien queen and Ripley in an exoskeleton. And what do they say in Alien 3? ”Oh, we don’t have guns here. But we have molten lead. And a sprinkler system.” A-ha! What a slam-bang spectacle of a climax!
DF: Without the visual spectacle, all you really have is the weird sexual/gender stuff. It’s like Aliens in reverse. In Aliens, she slowly built a family around herself. In Alien 3, she kills her symbolic husband (the alien) and then kills her child and herself.
KS: I almost love the ending. It’s just perfectly over-the-top. Bald Ripley throws herself into the fire, falling in slow-motion, doing Jesus-arms. Right before she hits, the alien pops out of her chest, and she hugs it in a love-death embrace as they both fall into oblivion.
DF: My sense is that this was basically Fincher’s version of Tim Burton’s Batman. An out-of-control production without a script, with too much money, and a young director just trying to do something a little bit interesting. And of course, hanging over his head, the fact that the first two movies were so good.
KS: Except Burton had a handle on what he wanted to bring to the movie, like the set design and the wacky/creepy tone. That’s all his. Other than steam and grime, it’s hard to see what Fincher brought to this movie. Although that may just be the studio’s fault. In a way, it’s probably best for Fincher that he got screwed on this movie. He got to do his first movie and work out his own kinks, but its badness doesn’t tarnish him because of all the backstage shenanigans.
DF: And he spent the ’90s doing similar movies tonally – Se7en, The Game, and Fight Club all have similar levels of dystopian alienation set in grimy fog factories. And then, like few directors actually do, he matured.
KS: Fight Club was clearly made by a music video director. Zodiac was not. And neither was Social Network.
DF: While Fincher went on to better things, the Alien franchise slowly spun into oblivion. Alien: Resurrection would make all the subtle psychosexual undertones into blaring vuvuzela overtones. Ripley has sex with an alien. Spoiler alert?
KS: Alien 3 really is scorched-earth: Let’s just kill every character, along with audience interest, so that nothing good can ever grow here again. But they didn’t expect the tenacity of studio executives. The final shot of the movie says everything about the franchise:
Next week: Ed Norton tries to get parole in Stone, and Morgan Freeman makes you want him to narrate your life in the similarly prison-set The Shawshank Redemption. Now that TNT has stopped showing the film on loop for 22 hours a day, we feel like it’s time to take another look.