Alien3 is probably best known for its troubled production: (1) a gazillion different scripts, and (2) first-time director David Fincher disowning the film and walking out before the editing stage, blaming constant studio interference. It's probably the worst of the four Alien movies to date, but it's interesting and it feels like an Aliens movie, which is more than I can say for Resurrection.
It has a few moments of dreadful direction, but on the other hand I was astonished that it made me forgive it for killing off Newt. I'd expected to hate Alien3 just for that. Newt and Hicks dying in a crash sounded like the script was pissing all over the drama of Aliens. Thankfully it's not. 'Tain't a throwaway convenience (as with Dana Barrett's contrived split from Peter Venkman for Ghostbusters 2 so that sequel could rehash the original beat by beat) but instead an important plot element that receives its due weight. The autopsy is pretty hard to watch, for a start. Alien3 contains several underrated moments, most of them after the big revelation. There the film really kicked into gear. Some great consequences flow from this idea, particularly the terrifying scene where Ripley GOES LOOKING FOR THE ALIEN. Man, I nearly died. You gotta be kidding me!
For a while Ripley seems a little out-of-character when she doesn't tell anyone about the Aliens instead of running to the nearest authority figure and telling all immediately. We're talking here about By-The-Book Woman. In Alien, she wanted to keep the landing party in quarantine for 24 hours, no matter that John Hurt might have been at death's door. In Aliens she took issue with Gorman making premature assessments. But eventually we learn that she has concerns about the Company and perhaps rightly thinks they're almost as great a threat as the Alien itself.
A deleted scene in Alien could be argued to show a casual attitude from Ripley towards sex and this attitude can be traced through the later films. She sleeps with Charles Dance ("you're very direct," he observes) and will be disconcertingly in-yer-face about such things in Alien Resurrection. There's more shading to Ellen Ripley's characterisation than you might realise initially. Sigourney Weaver is why I return to the Aliens movies; she's as hard-edged as the Aliens themselves - angular, driven and utterly implacable. Shaving her head was so right. Ripley became more extreme in every film, going from being just another crewmember in Alien to arse-kicking icon in Aliens and eventually the androgynous messiah figure of Alien3. I'll return to that point later. And of course we all know what happened in Alien Resurrection.
Incidentally Sigourney gives us ever more nudity as the series goes on. She's naked more than once here, but it's not until the next film that we actually see a nipple.
The ongoing themes of the Aliens series return, but in a modified form. Instead of merely showing capitalism (i.e. the Company) to be evil, as in the first two movies, here we have post-industrialisation. Fury 161 is an industrial zone in a state of decay, with all of its associated problems. Sexuality is again addressed, but this time it's Ripley herself who's the disruptive element. One could even stretch a point to regard Alien3 as an allegory for AIDS, with all those shaved heads (as with chemotherapy subjects) and dialogue references to drugs and homosexuality. Presumably the Alien would represent the AIDS virus.
However the biggest theme is religion. Such overtones tend to feel tacked-on, but here I thought they were rather well done. Most obviously, Fury 161's inmates are monks! They're an isolated community of religious men with shaved heads and robes. I'm sure I saw someone wearing a monk's habit in an early scene. They adhere to the traditional monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, with the first of those being particularly inescapable on this low-tech rock. And then there's Ripley. When the funeral scene is intercut with the Alien's birth, she bleeds. She baptises herself in the showers before being reborn as a shaven-headed monk like the others and immediately has a messianic confrontation with the local priest. "You don't want to know me, lady. I'm a murderer and rapist of women." "Well, I guess I must make you nervous," Ripley replies, then sits at his table to eat. She challenges the existing order. She goes to her death by seeking out the Alien, but is "resurrected" when it doesn't kill her. And most obviously there's her self-sacrifice (in a crucifix position with outstretched arms!) in which she saves the world. I suppose taking this metaphor to its logical extreme would make Lance Henricksen the great tempter, Satan.
The casting's great, to the point where I was starting to gripe that all these classy British actors were being underused. Charles Dance is the perfect foil for Ripley; no actor was better chosen for an Aliens movie. Brian Glover is always good value (though here perhaps a little below par) and Paul McGann gives an eye-catching performance. Call me crazy, but I think there's a Doctorish quality in this deranged simpleton murderer-rapist that McGann didn't capture so well in the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie. Unfortunately much of his part ended up on the cutting-room floor. There's even Pete Postlethwaite!
The visuals look great, though it can be hard to differentiate all these shaven-headed Englishmen. Black priest dude with an American accent = good thing! Unfortunately the Alien looks dreadful in any shot where it's clinging to the ceiling. It turns green!
I'd also love to see a director's cut, but somehow I don't think that's likely to happen. Footnote: I spoke too soon. Welcome to the DVD age. Furthermore, according to what I've heard, this isn't like most Special Editions which simply throw in a few snippets of rightly deleted footage. Instead the workprint version on the Aliens Quadrilogy boxed set shows you what this film was meant to be like. The theatrical version of Alien3 is unfinished, cut together from a much longer script which was itself speed-written to include people who had already been cast because of yet another script. Like the 1998 Avengers film, it was more or less abandoned and dumped into theatres, let go rather than put out. I still like it, though.
Alien3 isn't bad, but neither is it a classic like Alien or Aliens. However as the final part of a trilogy I thought it really worked. The first half drifts a bit, but I forgave everything for that ending - a perfect emotional capstone to the story of Ellen Ripley. Forget Resurrection, which doesn't star Ripley but another character of the same name who happens also to be played by Sigourney Weaver. Alien3 is a grimy, gloomy mood piece with lots of great H.R. Giger design and a top-quality cast. You couldn't exactly call it fun, but I see a lot to like here.