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Friday, 12 October 2012

The Friday Tramp Re-View: Alien 3


 
Alien3, directed by David Fincher, starring Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dance, Charles S. Dutton, Brian Glover, Paul McGann.


Ridley Scott’s baffling prequel to the Alien universe, Prometheus, was released to buy on DVD and Blu-ray this week, promising that ‘Questions will be answered’. Precisely which questions will be answered the trailer doesn’t say, but I’m assuming the promised alternate beginning and ending will explain why not a single character acts like a recognisable human being throughout the whole film. Perhaps there’s a deleted scene where they all smoke space crack at the beginning, or something. Anyway. The DVD’s not available to rent until December, and I’ll be damned if I’m shelling out fifteen quid just to find out why the big pale man drank the goop and then fell to bits. When it comes out to rent I’ll do a special post carefully and pedantically detailing just how broken the film is. So you can look forward to that.

In the spirit of unrealistic expectations dashed by disappointment, this week I’ll be reviewing the oft-derided-but-not-without-considerable-merit Alien3. Alien3 was David Fincher’s debut, a director known for visual flair and dark themes, showcased in more recent pictures such as Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac. Of the four main Alien movies (not counting the Alien vs. Predator franchise, which happily seems to have died quietly in the corner), Alien3 is far and away the most controversial, plagued with studio interference, an unfinished script and most famously, an ambitious first-time director whose experience filming was so traumatic that twenty years later he still refuses to discuss the film in any detail. In contrast, Alien3 faced the uphill struggle of following Alien and Aliens, both classics in their own right. In the days before The Phantom Menace, Alien3 was second only to The Godfather Part III as the most disappointing follow-up to a successful and critically acclaimed franchise. 

Ripley contemplates her grim situation.
The thing is, Alien3 isn’t that actually that bad. It’s messy sure; the theatrical cut has some major plot holes, and its bleak setting, nihilistic script, and dearth of likeable characters are hard to swallow. Moreover, Hicks is killed off before the opening credits have rolled, and Newt, the little girl who Ripley fought so hard to save in Aliens, bites it by drowning in her own cryogenic fluid when the ship crashes on to Fiorna 161. Oh, and Ripley finds out that she’s got an alien queen inside her, she’s going to die in the most horrible way possible, and there’s nothing she can do about it. It’s fair to say, then that Alien3 takes everyone and everything you cared about in its predecessors and throws them into a big vat of concentrated acid in front of your eyes. But does this make for a bad horror film? I’m not so sure it does. Moreover, despite its reputation as somewhat of a disaster, I’ve yet to meet anyone in person who doesn’t like it. Perhaps it’s a generational thing – I was only six when the film hit cinemas, and so didn’t see it until much later, and thus without the attendant hype – but many of my peers don’t just like Alien3: it’s their favourite one. I wouldn’t go that far; for me Ridley Scott’s Alien will always be the best, with all its psychosexual horror and slasher-movie sensibilities. The brilliantly paced and remarkably tense Aliens is a close second, but Alien3, I think, easily stands alongside Scott and Cameron’s pieces as a different, yet equally valid interpretation of the series. There are several set pieces to rival Cameron’s, for example, the sequence where they try to flush out the creature with fire is indicative of Fincher’s future visual bravura, and the premise is a return to the claustrophobia that served Alien so well.   


Up close and personal with ol' bitey tongue.
The beginning of Alien3 is possibly the most shocking sequence of the whole film, because it literally throws out almost everyone that we cared about from Aliens. The shock of the opening scenes hangs like a dark cloud over the rest of the running time, and neither Ripley nor the audience ever fully recover. That the film never recovers from the beginning is one of the major problems people have with Alien3, but I think this criticism confuses the audience reaction with the film itself. Jarring as the opening sequence is, it appropriately sets the tone; gloomy, yes, but also introspective and ruthlessly nihilistic; in profound contrast to Aliens’ extrovert, ultra machismo. Alien3 takes that heroic macho-military fetishism and turns it on its head; setting events on an all-male double-Y chromosome prison. In this sense, the film returns to the spirit of Alien; a hostile invader who not only threatens the lives of the characters, but more importantly, attacks their masculinity. In Alien, this is realised with the cross-species rape of John Hurt’s Kane. In an inspired touch, in Alien3 it’s Ripley herself as much as the familiar xenomorph that threatens the stable masculinity of the colony on Fury 161, a theme that survived from the earliest drafts of the script. In that regard, Alien3 beats Aliens hands down: the insurmountable tension and efficient characterisation of Cameron’s entry notwithstanding, there really are no ideas in Aliens that are as risky or challenging as those in Alien3. From the first minute to the last, this feels like that the concluding chapter in the Alien saga (which is partly why Alien Resurrection feels more like a spin-off than a direct sequel), and it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t pull its punches with the relentless darkness it eschews.

Of course, many of the old criticisms still stand: the admirable darkness of the film often slips into gloominess, and despite the lengthy, sometimes interminable conversations between characters, it’s difficult to keep track of who’s who. Furthermore, none of them ever really express either the grubby, blue-collar humanity of Alien, or the efficient, pulpy, rough-and-tumble characterisation of Aliens. For the most part, we care little about the prisoners as the xenomorph offs them one by one. That said, Brian Glover’s performance as superintendent Andrews is a stand-out exercise in being an insufferable prick, and both Charles Dutton and Charles Dance portray their characters with nuance and believability, amidst a background of interchangeable faces that serve merely as alien fodder. Elsewhere, plot holes abound, and characters (I’m looking at you, Golic) seem to disappear with nary a mention as to their whereabouts or well being.

A rare moment of levity on set between star Weaver and Fincher.
Alien3’s strengths lie in its tone and mood, and in this respect, it’s arguably the best of the series. Cinematographer Alex Thomson does an incredible job of creating a look that is both distinctive and yet feels part of the same world as its forbears. Indeed, the technical aspects of the film often work together beautifully: the set design is magnificently baroque, and the score by Elliot Goldenthal is effective and visceral. Moreover, the look of the creature, in a constant state of evolution, is animalistic, deadly and different enough from previous incarnations to remain interesting, even if some of the later composite model shots of the alien shots look oddly computer generated. Parts of the film are strangely funny, but very effectively so; Andrews’ ball bouncing after the alien gets him; the running joke of Aaron ’85’s nickname, even Ripley’s weary line to the creature ‘you’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else’ plays as a caustic, darkly comic, even perversely erotic interpretation of her  inescapable relationship with the xenomorph.

Alien3 is a deeply flawed, but fascinating, entry into the series. Although almost universally hated on release, it’s aged well, especially in comparison to the silly Alien Resurrection and the unspeakably atrocious Alien Vs. Predator franchise. Moreover, compare it to equally hated missteps such as the aforementioned Star Wars and Godfather disasters and it's evident which movie time has been kinder to. Both of those films have had at least a decade to mature, and by and large, they’ve both just turned to so much cheap vinegar, becoming sourer with each passing year. Not so with Alien3: evidence of its troubled production pervades throughout, and it remains one of the most notorious examples of a nightmarish shoot. But despite these problems, Fincher’s entry gives us something fresh, original and different from the previous episodes. Alien3’s unrelenting darkness, beautifully crafted mood and subtle, dark humour fits perfectly with the last true film of the series. 

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