Sunday, October 12, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 11 - Alien 3

#8 (Tie) - 6 Votes

Earlier this year, I saw Aliens on the big screen for the first time. Even having seen it countless times, it was a completely different experience on the big screen; by the end, I was exhausted and relieved when the movie faded to black on Ripley and Newt safe and asleep. So while I've always understood the reasons why audiences loathed Alien 3 when it was released, for the first time I fully appreciated why fans who'd seen Aliens on the big screen in 1986 were so offended by the offscreen deaths of Newt and Hicks between movies. It's a slap in the face to audience members who were emotionally invested in the characters, especially the surrogate mother/daughter relationship at the core of Alien 3; at the same time, it gives the movie a bleak sort of integrity. Depositing series heroine Ripley at "the ass end of space," having literally lost everything, and ending with her ultimate act of self-sacrifice, David Fincher's first film took audiences to dark places they'd rather not have gone (graphically killing a dog in the first reel was probably a bad idea), but at the same time, it's more of a piece, aesthetically and thematically, with Ridley Scott's original than James Cameron's crowd-pleasing sequel was.

The prison planet Ripley crash-lands on, with its population of murderers and rapists, makes a literal, human parallel to the alien's metaphorical threat of rape. Weaver's performance here is her best in the series - she remarks of the alien at one point, "You've been in my life so long, I can't remember anything else," and she plays Ripley as haunted, with Fincher's close-ups of her bald visage recalling Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (the resemblance occured to me before I saw Scout Tafoya's excellent video essay on the film, but I highly recommend it). Alien 3 has frequently been described as nihilistic, but there's a pronounced (if atheistic) spiritual aspect to the film, with Ripley helping the same inmates who pose a very real threat to her early in the movie to ultimately redeem themselves. Ripley's final scene, too, can be interpreted as an act of martyrdom; I'm glad the movie was released in the pre-internet era, as the ending was a complete surprise to me even seeing it months after the movie's released. The ending shocked me, but in retrospect, it feels like the only correct one.

Alien 3's development and production were famously chaotic, with Fincher and his actors forced to improvise scenes as they went along. The movie sometimes suffers as a result, with repetitive action in the second half and some gaping plot holes, some of which, like the Ripley's impossibly intact sleep chamber, are fixed with the longer cut originally included in the Quadrilogy box set. Also, some of the visual effects don't work, which usually isn't a big issue, but is more noticeable in a movie that follows two movies with impeccable effects work. Fincher has disowned the movie, and it's easy to see why; in his recent Playboy interview, he said, "It was an absurd and obscene daily battle to do anything interesting with what we were allowed to do." Still, the movie is visually stunning and more thematically interesting than a second sequel to Alien needed to be, and it contains scenes, like Andrews (Brian Glover) being pulled into the cafeteria ceiling, or the famous two-shot of Ripley and the xenomorph, that are as frightening as almost anything in the first two movies. It's not Aliens, but it's also far more interesting than an attempt to duplicate Aliens would have been, and though James Cameron hates it, he also prefers Alien vs. Predator, so who cares.

U.S. Release Date: May 22, 1992 (Also released that day: Far and Away, Encino Man, Zentropa)

What critics said at the time:

"Just at the point when Alien 3 should kick into high terror gear, it becomes clear that this hushed, somber sequel doesn't know how to deliver the goods. Fincher has style to spare -- and the sets, cinematography and special effects are all first rate -- but the nuts and bolts of storytelling elude him." - David Ansen, Newsweek

"For once, an MTV veteran knows what he's doing with actors. Fincher gets thoughtful performances from Charles Dance as a fallen physician who cleaves, all too briefly, to Ripley, and from Charles S. Dutton as a horn-rimmed rapist who is humanized by his eloquent pragmatism. The scenes with the other prisoners have a bombed-out comic nihilism reminiscent of the Mad Max pictures. As for the alien itself, it is seen mostly in feral glimpses (sometimes you wish the shots were held longer), and it has been subtly reimagined as a skittery, helmeted spider sucking the life out of its victims." - Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

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