David Fincher has moved into the upper echelon of filmmakers working today. Commercially successful, critically acclaimed, and usually nominated for a boatload of awards, a new Fincher film is greeted with mounds of anticipation. But it wasn’t always this way for the director. Buoyed by his reputation as the director of hit music videos for artists like Madonna and Aerosmith, Fincher was hired to helm Alien 3. A troubled production with script issues and studio interference, Alien 3 was met with derision upon its initial release. Despite its reputation, Alien 3 is actually a good movie. A closer relative to the first film than James Cameron’s action packed sequel, Alien 3 is film of atmospheric horror.
Fincher wasn’t the first choice for the film. Renny Harlin was attached and left the project to helm Die Hard 2: Die Harder. Then Vincent Ward was on the project, but his vision was deemed unfilmable by the producers. Ward would receive story credit on the film. Sets were constructed for Ward’s vision by the time Fincher was brought on board. The script wasn’t finished by the time filming began. Though he was a young director, Fincher was self-assured and never backed down to studio interference. He left the project in post-production and has since disowned the film. In 2003, 20th Century Fox released Fincher’s assembly cut. Slightly longer and with a slower pace, The Assembly Cut of Alien 3 is one of the few extended or director’s cuts that I prefer to the theatrical.
One reason that Alien 3 can be seen as a disappointment is the manner with which it kills off characters from Aliens. Characters with whom audiences got attached to are unceremoniously killed. Hicks, Newt, and Bishop are killed before the film even starts. Most divisive of all, Ripley kills herself at the end of the film. Another reason audiences were probably taken aback by Alien 3 is the fact that there were teasers that proclaimed, “On Earth, everyone can hear you scream.” Not a frame of the film takes place on Earth.
For what the film actually is it’s a slow burn horror film. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) crash lands upon Fury 161, a former mining colony that has been all but abandoned and used as a prison. The all-male prisoners have found religion and a vow of celibacy. A facehugger that was hidden on Ripley’s ship attaches itself to an Ox – in the theatrical cut it’s a dog – which unleashes a Xenomorph on the prisoners. With no weapons to battle the beast, Ripley and the prisoners must find a way to kill the alien. As always, the Company, Weiland-Yutani, wants the alien to study it and develop it for weapons.
It’s easy to see the style of Fincher in its infancy in Alien 3. Like most of his films, Alien 3 features a striking color palate that accentuates the overwhelming sense of dread. There are almost no handheld shots, the camera swoops on tracks or a stedicam, and the long swooping crane shots. Then there’s the excellent point-of-view shots from the perspective of the Xenomorph. Done using a stedicam on swivel – the camera twists and turns with exaggerated wide angle lenses. It’s jarring and weird, inventive and unlike anything in the other Alien film.
One change in the Assembly Cut that is undoubtedly an improvement is having the alien gestate in an Ox as opposed to a dog. People have a kinship with dogs and violence against them in films is always unsettling, whereas an Ox doesn’t come with that same connection. There were a number of gory moments that were cut or toned down following a disastrous test screening – an autopsy of Newt was especially jarring, people fleeing the screening after the sequence.
Alien 3 isn’t perfect film, but it is a fitting entry in the Alien series – I don’t count the Alien vs. Predator movies. I like each of the films in the series, yes, even Alien: Resurrection. Like each of the Alien films, it’s helmed a young, up-and-coming director who infuses their unique styling in part of a larger series. The idea that film is a disappointment is entirely related to what people wanted the film to be. Though Fincher has disowned the film and refused to participate in creating the Assembly Cut, Fincher has continued working with the studio on films like Fight Club and his upcoming Gone Girl. Even with its rocky production, Alien 3 overcame its obstacles and earned its place in the Alien Saga.