Friday, October 12, 2007

I've been out here a long time.

Sigourney Weaver reminds of Maria Falconetti in Alien 3, and not just because of the shorn palate that was the focus of the film's pre-release buzz. David Fincher's second sequel could practically be called The Passion of Ripley, so thoroughly does it subject its already-beleagured protagonist to a barrage of physical and spiritual torments. More impressive than the alien this time around is Weaver, giving her best performance as Ripley here - beaten, hopeless, her inner anguish palpable in every one of Fincher's clinical, Dreyer-esque close-ups. Taking the series to its nihilistic end point, Alien 3 deposits its heroine at "the ass end of space," strips her of her she-Rambo accoutrements and once again reinvents her, this time as a pre-Raphaelite martyr saint. A film about chaos that was famously made in a state of chaos, Alien 3 is alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) incoherent and splendidly dissonant. While it cannot match its predecessor in sheer filmmaking craft, it's a more direct thematic sequal to Ridley Scott's original.

Easily the most inhospitable setting in the series is remote penal colony Fiorina "Fury" 161, a haven for rapists and murderers devoted to a monastic way of life in anticipation of the apocalypse (they haven't given up profanity, however - the screenplay is gloriously vulgar). It is here that the spaceship Sulaco crashes, carrying Ripley, a broken Bishop and the corpses of Hicks and Newt (a much-derided, impressively merciless choice). At a ceremony for the dead, Dillion (Charles S. Dutton) declares that "within each death, there is also the promise of a new life," a scene Fincher intercuts with the grisly rebirth of the alien from the insides of a very cute pooch. It's a moment that contains insight into the bodily horror that makes the alien concept so frightening, as well as the fact of a second sequel (the answer to Dillon's question "Why the pain?" being that Aliens grossed $130 million worldwide). As the plot develops, the alien is more clearly defined as the fear of something that exists within, in both a literal sense and in the early, provocative suggestion that, for these pious, sex-starved inmates, the alien is a manifestation of something long repressed.

Unfortunately, this suggestion is only addressed in a routine, too-reassuring attempted rape scene before being summarily dropped in favor of a bleaker take on Rio Bravo. While both elements work fine, each to some extent dilutes the other; if there's a problem with Alien 3, it's the overabundance of ideas that are never satisfactorily dealt with. Of course, Fincher and his cast and crew had to work under impossible circumstances - commencing production without a finished script, making up the plot as they went along - so it's honestly a miracle that the film succeeds as well as it does. Fincher manages to arrive at a final scene, depicting self-destruction as heroic, that borders on incendiary for a summer tentpole while commenting on his own treatment by the Hollywood machine (fuck Weyland-Yutani). None of this changes the film's myriad problems, the interchangability of some supporting characters and some shoddy-even-for-1992 CG chief among them. But it's a testament to Fincher's talent (not to mention Alex Thomson's glorious cinematography and Eliot Goldenthal's chilling score) that even in the film's most muddled moments, one can catch glimpses of the unsparing vision that would flourish in Seven, Fight Club and Zodiac.

There's a moment in Alien 3 that is perhaps the defining image of the series - Ripley and the alien, face to face, Ripley trembling in anticipation of her death before the alien suddenly retreats. It's an image worthy of Fuseli, capturing the balance between light and dark, creation and destruction (as Ripley herself tells the creature "I can't remember a time when you weren't a part of me"). It's also a self-reflexive moment, depicting the symbiotic, elemental relationship between actress and monster that enables the enduring appeal of a series that, here, reaches its logical conclusion. At least, that is, until Joss Whedon and Dolly the sheep had something to say on the matter...

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