By now, there must be an entire generation that thinks ''horror movies'' are those interchangeable gorefests that line the back shelves of video stores. There's more to it than that, though. A true horror film doesn't just indulge our taste for gross-out shocks; it offers a kind of cleansing awe and dread. It's this quality, honed to video-age precision, that gave the original Alien its squeamish power. With its twitchy monster fetus and oozing, organic spaceship, its Orwellian-nightmare imagery of decay and engulfment, the movie ripped directly into your subconscious it was the futuristic horrorshow as bad acid trip. Aliens, James Cameron's rousing paramilitary sequel, certainly didn't lack for thrills, but it played down the first film's atmosphere of psychosexual terror. Now that unsettling mood is back, only in a muted, almost elegant way. Alien3 is a grimly seductive end-of-the-world thriller, with pop-tragic overtones that build in resonance as the movie goes on.
Directed by David Fincher, a 28-year-old graduate of rock videos, the movie resurrects both the fear-sick mood and squishy-obsidian look water dripping down dank walls, mysterious dark coils illuminated by shafts of light that made Alien such a sci-fi mindbender. Alien3, though, is quieter, more languid.
This time, Lieutenant Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) crash-lands on Fiorina 161, a planet inhabited by a crew of brutal criminals who have been sentenced to slave labor at a mineral-ore refinery. For Ripley, this is truly hell's last circle: The pollution flies by in ungainly black chunks, she's surrounded by rapists and killers (to channel their libidos, the prisoners have turned themselves into a millennialist religious cult), and because of a lice problem everyone must shave their heads.
The effect of Weaver's shorn locks is eerily sensual; it forces us to feast on the beauty of her bone structure. The Joan of Arc 'do is the taking-off point for Weaver's supple and anguished performance, easily the most ambitious she has given in this series. In Alien3, Ripley is a battle-scarred warrior-survivor who's been fighting these tentacled, machine-jawed beasties for so long that they've become, in effect, her other half, her cross to bear. Now, the horror arrives from within: As a single alien stalks the prisoners, another one, still unborn, is growing inside Ripley. It's a terrifically queasy conceit, evoking our darkest fears of disease and unwanted pregancy, and lending the film's second half a tensile purity.
For once, an MTV veteran knows what he's doing with actors. Fincher gets thoughtful performances from Charles Dance as a fallen physician who cleaves, all too briefly, to Ripley, and from Charles S. Dutton as a horn-rimmed rapist who is humanized by his eloquent pragmatism. The scenes with the other prisoners have a bombed-out comic nihilism reminiscent of the Mad Max pictures. As for the alien itself, it is seen mostly in feral glimpses (sometimes you wish the shots were held longer), and it has been subtly reimagined as a skittery, helmeted spider sucking the life out of its victims.
And what of the brave, exhausted Ripley? For much of the movie, she appears doomed, yet the visionary climax a true knockout proves that neither she nor the junk-pile world she's inhabited are utterly beyond salvation. I wouldn't call Alien3 a better film than either of its predecessors, but it's one of the rare sequels that truly measures up. It brings this series to a fitting shiver. A-