Alien 3 (1992, David Fincher)
Excellence can continue for only so long. A new government is elected into office having made lofty promises during a brilliant campaign, only to lose the very next election. A sports team wins a few consecutive championships before finally meeting its match. A business will show profit during multiple quarters before forces either from within or without and beyond its control negatively affect output and revenue. A movie franchise can certainly deliver a few good entries but at some point, the law of diminishing returns will establish itself. All good things have an expiration date. Having not been a serious movie fan 20 years ago in 1992, it is difficult to fully comprehend how meaningfully that notion resonated in May of that year when Alien 3 (or Alien 'cubed' as some call it) was released to fans worldwide...to incredulous disappointment. Suffice to say, the reception was a cold one. Much time has elapsed since then, and while Fincher's effort has not become a favourite, many take a kinder look to it now then upon its initial theatrical release.
Taking a cue from James Cameron, who began his own instalment with events which immediately followed up the original, Fincher offers critical information about what happened to the vessel carrying Ripley, Newt and Hicks interspersed within the opening credits sequence. A face hugger is revealed, acid spills, the ship's computer systems are fried, subsequently forcing the transport module to crash land on a yet unknown planet. It is a windy, wet, industrial looking and grisly place inhabited by only precious few humans. To top that off, said humans are convicts, individuals found guilty of the most heinous crimes and sent there for intensive labour in order to pay for their sins. It is a prison planet. Ripley's ship is discovered by the local doctor, Clemens (Charles Dance), who retrieves and brings he back to life. For Newt and Hicks...all hope is lost. Ripley would gladly leave this hell hole, especially after learning of the deaths of her former friends, but a familiar foe has somehow found a way to plant the seed of destruction into an ox (or a dog, if one is watching the original theatrical cut). Soon enough, the inmates are being picked off one by one, and Ripley is the only one who can save them, a awkward position if there ever was one, given how nasty some of these folks are, including the self appointed spiritual leader of the group, Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), a convicted rapist and killer of women. The enemy of my enemy is my friend?
Stories of the long, arduous, frustrating, tiresome, convoluted, aimless, uncooperative production period will wait for another day. Today's article shall concern itself solely with the film proper. Alien 3 is not an instalment which gets a tremendous amount of play in the Between the Seats headquarters, yet it can safely be said that the most recent viewing session for the purpose of the current marathon was at least the fourth. In a sense, David Fincher's picture is one filled with interesting ideas, ideas that carry some potential (although how much exactly is another debate), that strives to be provocative, which itself is worthy of attention and offers a few visually arresting moments. The presence of series star Sigourney Weaver provides the film with some backbone, and Charles S. Dutton, regardless how how despicable his character's history may be, is a compelling presence. It really is not all that bad in Alien 3. In fact, this review can go one further can argue that Fincher's film is not bad at all, yet confidently saying it is really good, that is indeed a bit difficult.
For one, the movie is not scary, not the least little bit. At this stage, there is nothing new to learn about the enemy. At first we had no idea what it was, then audiences discovered what it is capable of in groups and where it came from (queen). By this third episode, what else can the filmmakers deliver in terms of groundbreaking content that will rock viewers' worlds? The answer, at least as much as can be assessed from Alien 3, is 'not much.' It is still a fantastic looking beast. Its mere design is enough to inspire some unease, but it has been seen so much at this point that there is little that the script can do to shock and awe. That being said, true to David Fincher's imaginative eye as a director, there are some inventive shots, while others are not as groundbreaking but just as intense. The one in which the alien crawls up to a Ripley who is lying against a wall was the hallmark of all the trailers. Ripley is absolutely petrified, convinced her time is up as the creature opens its first and second mouths, emitting a disrupting hiss. A great moment, to be sure. The other excellent moment arrives when Ripley and the inmates lead the enemy on a chase through the tunnels near the refineries. Fincher cuts to the alien's point of view as it gallops after the terrified inmates on the ground and upside down on the ceilings. Once again, a cleverly devised visual cue in a film very desperate for some inspiration. That entire sequence, the chase in the tunnels, is incredibly well shot and executed, despite that probably most viewers will not give one iota when a few of the characters are caught up and shredded to bits by the monster. The entire location is appropriately damp and eerie, and with Dillon's mighty sermons, one gets the feeling the place is like a twisted cathedral, an idea that was explored much more fully in one of the script's earlier incarnations.
One of the most difficult things to accept about the picture is how bleak it is. More specifically, it treats two of the second film's most cherished characters, Hicks and Newt, like absolute garbage. One problem which is never brought up in arguments for or against the film is how the actress playing Newt, Carries Henn, would have been about 6 years older by the time of filmming, which would not have made any sense at all in the world of the film since the bodies of individuals preserved in space hibernation presumably do not age, meaning that either a very ridiculous explanation or, riskier still, a re-casting of the character would have been in order. Challenges not to be taken lightly, but either proposition could have found a wider audience than the one opted for, that is, actually taking the character of Newt lightly and dispatching her, for one, with total disregard for her fans and, second, during the credit sequence even before the proper story begins! Fincher's career as a filmmaker since Alien 3, which he refuses to talk much about, has been filled with marvellous films concerning dark subject matter not always suited for the faint of heart, with Seven, Zodiac and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being perfect examples. His decisions to embrace tonally gloomy stories has paid handsome dividends seeing as how highly regarded he is in 2012. Nevertheless, till this day fans of the franchise still find the deaths of Hicks and Newt difficult to swallow, as does this reviewer.
Be that as it may, there is close to two hours of film with different characters left after the aforementioned duo perish. So what of them? One would be hard pressed to argue that the actors hired, among them Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance and Paul McGann, are incapable of doing well. Dutton and Dance are wrestling with extremely tricky material. They need to function as supporting characters, ones that can, in their own particular ways, assist Ripley both in terms of survival skills but also emotionally. Ripley cannot go through the entire picture as the soul redeemable character, that would make the story even more depressing than it already is. The presence of the alien brings out decent qualities from them, not too many perhaps, but enough for them to serve as capable allies to the movie's heartfelt protagonist. Tension and unease exist at first, but once a greater, more nefarious common enemy makes its presence known, the time comes to band together as best they can regardless of the significant moral and philosophical differences which set them apart initially. In that respect, Charles S. Dutton and Charles Dance are rather strong. It is amazing therefore that the picture commits practically the same mistake twice when, barely halfway into the plot, the alien coldly dispatches Dance's character. It seems as if the film's raison d'être is to set certain things up, install specific expectations into the viewer's mind, only to squash them without remorse later on.
Alien 3 is a mixed bag, with the good being quite good and the bad being rather infuriating. It functions as an early display for some of Fincher's sensibilities as a filmmaker. Some of them work wonders, other do not.