This month marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Alien 3. Sadly, there will be no fanfare to mark the occasion, no special Blu-ray releases are planned, and any xenomorph mania currently overtaking the nation is focused solely on Alien: Covenant. There might be one or two other opinion pieces like this one, written by lone contrarians trying to defend an unfairly maligned sequel, but for the majority of fans, Alien 3 will always remain the Voldemort of the franchise – the sequel-that-must-not-be-named instead of the darkly beautiful, nihilistic masterpiece that it is.
It’s easy to see why some might not like Alien 3; it’s not as scary as Alien, it’s not action-packed like Aliens, and it doesn’t have the over-the-top grotesqueries and Joss Whedon-penned dialogue that make Alien: Resurrection such a curiosity. Add to that reports of a disastrous production and bittersweet dreams of sequels that could have been (RIP Newt), and you get a movie that most fans treat like the redheaded stepchild of the series. That’s a shame though, because when you really get down to it, Alien 3 is not a bad movie – quite the opposite in fact. Sure, the film has its flaws (it can be a bit slow at times), but it certainly doesn’t deserve all of the hate that it gets. For instance, it currently sits at a whopping 44% on Rotten Tomatoes, the lowest of any movie in the Alien franchise (not counting AVP of course, because why would we?). To put that into perspective, Police Academy 3 has a score of 40%. That means that David Fincher’s directorial debut was only slightly more popular with critics than a movie where Bobcat Goldthwait screams at people for 84 minutes.
I have to admit that I might not be the best person to give an objective opinion of Alien 3. When I was eleven years old, my dad took me to the movies to see it on opening day – it was going to be my first R rated movie-going experience, and truth be told, I was a little bit nervous. It shouldn’t have been that big of a deal (after all, I had been watching R rated movies at home for quite some time), but there was something exciting and almost dangerous about seeing an adult movie on the big screen. When I watched Aliens at home on my blurry thirteen-inch TV, I could always hit pause on the VCR if things got too intense. In the theater, nothing short of jumping up and running to the lobby would give me a reprieve from the larger than life carnage on the screen. In the end, I needn’t have worried; Alien 3 ended up having less blood and guts than either of its predecessors, but gore or not, I absolutely loved it. To this day (including in preparation for this article), I continue to carry the nostalgia-soaked memories of my first visit to Fury 161 with me upon seeing it again.
Personal feelings aside, however, Alien 3 does have a lot of things going for it, and considering the circumstances surrounding the filming, David Fincher should be praised as a miracle worker. To say that he had a hard time making Alien 3 would be an understatement. The tumultuous production has been well documented, but the highlights include the original director leaving, several script rewrites, reshoots stemming from less-than-positive test screenings, and additional rejiggering by the studio. Somehow, despite all that, Fincher was able to deliver a moody art film so depressing that it practically requires a prescription for Zoloft just to finish it. But that’s a good thing!
One of Alien 3’s best qualities is how dark and hopeless it is. Right from the beginning, the film lets us know just what kind of movie we are in for when it kills off two of the surviving characters we had spent the entire previous movie rooting for. The deaths of Newt and Hicks within the first few minutes of the film inspires the most hate from fans, but it’s a bold choice, and one David Fincher should be applauded for making. Newt and Hicks didn’t do anything to earn their deaths, they didn’t make any foolish mistakes, nor were there really any precautions that they could have taken to alter their fate – their deaths serve no purpose, neither setting the plot in motion or providing any sort of motivation for the protagonist. They die because sometimes in life bad things happen to good people for no reason, and Fincher is one of the few directors brave enough to mirror that on film.
From there the movie continues on its bleak course until the very end, when we see Ripley – a character we’ve grown to love over the course of three movies – hurl herself into a giant furnace, taking her own life in order to destroy the alien inside her. It’s an ending that many fans hate almost as much as the beginning of the film, but one befitting the cursed life Ellen Ripley started to lead the minute the Nostromo first set down on LV-426. To have Ripley ride off triumphantly into the sunset would have felt tonally wrong, like making the character a half-alien, half-human clone that plays basketball…oh…wait…never mind. Instead, by ending the trilogy in the saddest way possible, Alien 3 stands as a reminder that movies are allowed to make you feel something other than joy; whether anger, sadness, or disgust, it makes you feel something. If you want a trilogy with a happy ending go watch Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings.
Fincher’s decision to feature only one of H.R. Giger’s creations rather than the hordes of xenomorphs in James Cameron’s Aliens was also a brave move. In stark contrast to Superman 3 (two Supermans!), Jaws 3D (two sharks!), Spider-Man 3 (
two three villains!), and every other “threequel” that tries to ramp up excitement and spectacle in the third act, Alien 3 scales back the action in favor of a more intimate experience than the film before it. Many reviewers complained at the time that the series ended with a whimper instead of a bang, but in reality, things seldom end with the same level of excitement that they begin with.
The story’s setting – a dirty, rundown prison – helps to accentuate Fincher’s desolate vision, but it’s the actual sets themselves that really make the movie feel like a dystopian nightmare. Everything looks like it’s covered in at least three layers of grime and rust, while water drips from every ceiling and pipe. Alien 3 just oozes atmosphere, and granted, it may be a depressing, minimalist atmosphere, but it helps to make Fury 161 feel like a planet you could actually visit…not that you’d want to.
The titular alien is another high point. Fincher has the same reverence for his creature as Ridley Scott did for his; the first and third films both require a group of people just to deal with one alien, and in both cases they barely succeed. James Cameron, on the other hand, allows his space marines to mow down xenomorphs en masse, and at one point even dispatch them with a simple handgun. If Aliens has one weak spot, it’s that reducing the aliens to cannon fodder robs them of much of their menace.
Alien 3 doesn’t have that problem, as its solitary beast – nicknamed “The Dragon,” after a delusional prisoner mistakes it for one – proves to be more than capable of taking on twenty-five hardened criminals without breaking an acid sweat. The Dragon is the first (and so far only) alien to burst out of anything other than a human (again, we don’t count AVP), and in doing so it takes on some of the characteristics of its host – a dog in the theatrical version, an ox in the Assembly Cut – such as running on all fours and a more streamlined body. It’s an interesting concept having the xenomorphs gestating in different animals and gaining their attributes, and one can only wonder if Alien: Resurrection‘s decision to revert back to using the classic Alien design was at all influenced by Alien 3’s poor reception.
There is a “special edition” of Alien 3 known as the Assembly Cut that vastly restructures the movie while adding thirty minutes to its run time. Many fans see it as the definitive version of Alien 3, with some going so far as to say it’s the only version that’s even remotely watchable, but the theatrical version of the film is perfectly fine, and is more than capable of standing on its own two feet.
The bottom line is, Alien 3 is nowhere near as bad as everyone says it is. It’s a visually stunning exercise in melancholia, featuring some of the best performances in the entire series – worth a watch if you’ve never seen it, or even a re-watch if it’s been a while. I can personally guarantee you’ll at least like it better than Alien VS Predator: Requiem.