After fleeing from the alien planet, the survivors’ escape craft crash lands on a barren planet which is home to an all-male prison full of dangerous convicts, killing everyone apart from Ripley (Weaver) in the process. While waiting to be picked up by a retrieval vessel, she discovers that the crash was caused by a stowaway face-hugger, which then impregnates a dog and results in the birth of a new breed of alien. As the creature begins killing the prisoners, Ripley and the convicts are forced to defend themselves without weapons or resources, hoping to kill the alien before The Company gets their hands on it…
Compromised by studio interference, held back by scripting issues and plagued by a notoriously turbulent production, Alien³ was doomed to failure from the start. After all, whilst the proposition of following up both Ridley Scott’s classic original and James Cameron’s masterful sequel was challenging (read: impossible) enough, the young, then-unknown David Fincher was saddled with little prep time, an ever-changing script and constant creative meddling. Having taken the reins after a revolving door of directors and story ideas (including Vincent Ward’s famous wooden monastery concept) proved unsuccessful, Fincher’s completed version was then dismantled and re-edited by the studio without his consent, leaving us with a noticeably messy and decidedly uneven final product.
While time has enabled audiences to revisit Alien³ in a more forgiving manner (given how well-documented the behind-the-scenes problems are) and find merit in amongst the flaws, it was still a huge disappointment at the time. Considered by many as a gloomy come-down after the giddy, pumped-up thrills of Cameron’s Aliens, some viewed Fincher’s moody third instalment as a backwards step which merely reworked the original’s familiar template (one alien stalking an unprepared crew), but to much lesser effect. Despite flashes of Fincher’s visual flair and a few creepy moments (like the dog barking at a lurking face-hugger), any time a character is alone or delivering a monologue you’re just waiting for them to get chomped by alien from above.
Though the late arrival of The Company and the concept of aliens mutating differently (depending on their host) are both interesting additions to the mythology, the story was pretty much told after Aliens provided such a satisfying conclusion. Killing the other survivors (Newt, Hicks, Bishop) off-screen is an unsatisfying start too, while the patchwork script (which amalgamates ideas from various previous drafts) and studio editing shows in the ‘finished’ theatrical version. Certain characters vanish without explanation (Paul McGann’s subplot was cut), others barely appear at all (what a waste of Pete Postlethwaite!), and some scenes don’t seem to make sense. For example, Charles S. Dutton’s convict argues that Ripley should take charge and formulate a plan, only to then question her taking charge and the plan a scene or so later.
Frustratingly, there’s a complex and interesting movie in here somewhere, but it was spoiled by too many cooks in the kitchen (with McGann famously observing that “there were more producers around than actors”). Though David Fincher has since been vindicated with a successful and reputable career, he has understandably refused to go back and ‘fix’ the film retrospectively, having disowned it to the extent that he refused to take part in 2003′s Assembly Cut.
Aside from existing as a fascinating failure though, Fincher’s feature debut does offer some great imagery, a brave ending (which ironically reminds of Cameron’s T2 climax) and a terrific, memorably mangled 20th Century Fox fanfare. The dirty, grimy prison setting – all dingy ducts, howling winds and shadowy passages – lends an appropriately desperate atmosphere, while the acting is arguably the finest in the series. Sigourney Weaver looks iconic with her shaved bonce, both Charles Dance and the aforementioned Dutton elevate any scene they’re in (although the former is killed way too soon) and Brian Glover (forever remembered as the bullying teacher in Kes) is a welcome presence as the sneering warden.
Compromised by studio interference, held back by scripting issues and plagued by a notoriously turbulent production, Alien³ was always doomed to fail. There’s merit to be found and an interesting film in here somewhere, but Fincher’s vision is one we’ll likely never see.