Tuesday, 21 August 2012

20 Years Later: 'Alien 3'

Technically, this is for the UK anniversary, as its original burstday in late May was just a tad overshadowed by that whole Prometheus thingummy. So if you’ll excuse me...

 Alien3 is the closest thing this franchise has to a “cult film”. Though it certainly made enough money in 1992 to warrant a sequel (eh), it was greeted with an almost universal shrug of adequacy. The original Alien may have seen its fair share of unconvinced critics, but that didn’t stop it going down a storm with audiences the world over. Then Aliens came along and blew an even larger quantity of socks off.

This particular sequel has always jostled with Resurrection for the position of ‘Black Sheep’ in the Alien legacy. But while its successor was less warmly received due to the combination of a confused tone, Dan Hedaya’s shoulder hair and that inescapable sense of sequel fatigue, Alien3 became infamous for much more interesting reasons, with the scripting process being a biggie.

Plenty of films have a tough time getting off the ground... and then there’s Alien3. A number of early drafts were produced, including one from William Gibson that would have featured Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) battling Aliens on the Anchorpoint space station (it sounded so cool), while another written by Vincent Ward saw Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) crash landing on a wooden planetoid populated by monks (space monks!). Somewhere in between, David Twohy produced a draft that introduced the prison planet concept. Ultimately, producers Walter Hill and David Giler took matters into their own hands, and cannibalised elements from previous scripts (particularly those by Twohy and Ward), resulting in the finished product.

Well, not quite finished. Filming began without a complete script and a sizable chunk of the budget already spent. Not what you’d call ideal conditions for then-first time director David Fincher. Though his cinematic style is clearly apparent throughout (check out that camerawork), Alien3 was a studio production; and with a severe lack of creative control within such gruelling shooting conditions, Fincher has since gone out of his way to distance the film from his life, effectively disowning it.           

And that was only the beginning. Straight away, Alien3 incurs the wrath of long-time fans. James Cameron himself described the deaths of Hicks and Newt as a slap in the face, while Michael Biehn demanded a significant amount of dough just for the use of his likeness. This negative reaction to the opening was quite understandable (and don’t ask me how the stowaway egg/Facehugger(s) conundrum works), but I’ve always approved of how it fatally kicks Aliens’ happy ending in the face, Seagal style, and reasserts that grim, hopeless tone which made the later scenes of Alien so affective.

Adding to the atmosphere is some powerhouse acting. Alien worked because it was about seven real people – you could easily relate to its characters. With Aliens, you had gung ho Sphess Mahreens ramping up the entertainment with their enduringly quotable dialogue. Now, with a borderline apocalyptic tone, characters are grander. Weaver is as strong as ever, but it’s those who surround her that steal the show. Charles S. Dutton is particularly memorable, delivering rousing speeches with deadly gusto. Brian Glover gets to be slimy in a convincingly authoritarian manner as Andrews, the prison warden, while Ralph Brown provides some much-needed comic relief as his beleaguered assistant, Aaron. Elsewhere, Paul McGann is delightfully unhinged as the psychopathic Golic, and as you’d expect, Lance Henriksen remains on fine form in his limited role as Bishop, and even gets to bring out that sinister side which would serve him so well in Hard Target.

But it’s Charles Dance who shines the brightest. Clemens provides the prison’s only source of relatable humanity (unless you’re a death row inmate, I guess), and the gentle scenes spent between Ripley and Dance’s tragic doctor act as a sort of calm before the storm. His all-too sudden death marks a turning point in the story, as we’re thrust into the violent nightmare of Alien3’s second half, and Ripley is once again faced with the horror she calls her life.      

Even with such moving performances, there’s no escaping the fact that ninety percent of Alien3’s characters are bald, white males spurting expletives. And this is a big cast. Outside of those few aforementioned cases, character development isn’t exactly a factor. It’s not long before the inmates of Fury 161 all start to blend together in one enormous cockney mass. Off the top of my head, I can remember Morse, Murphy, erm, rape goggles guy... Pete... Postlethwaite...  

So there’s a large amount of almost nameless victims; and it does not end well for most of them. Alien3 is by far the most brutal saga entry. Throats are slashed to ribbons, skulls are split open, and there’s even a full-body explosion courtesy of one giant ventilation fan. As a result, events play out like a slasher movie. At its heart, Alien was always Halloween in space, but now we’re in full on The Burning territory thanks to the level of Alien3’s bloodletting.

Most of this carnage is brought about, of course, by the titular creature. Original Alien designer H.R. Giger was once again brought on board for creative input. Not all his new ideas made it to the end design (he, uh, wanted it to have feminine lips), but the resultant quadruped beast breathed new life into a familiar foe. Less biomechanical than before, and with a streamlined appearance (those dorsal tubes were a notable omission), this Alien attacks the inmates of Fury 161 like a battering ram covered in sharp sticks. Tom Woodruff Jr. performs well in the suit, and barring a few dodgy shots, the animatronic effects are expertly handled. While not as scary as the stealthy monstrosity that stalked the Nostromo’s crew, it’s still great to see the “Xenomorph” back in full head-biting force after being largely relegated to cannon fodder in Aliens.

The film’s whole visual style certainly draws attention as well. The grim setting of Fury 161 is a perpetual blend of dull colours and harsh environments. The worlds of Alien and Aliens weren’t exactly sparkling clean, but they sure look a whole lot nicer next to this collection of dank tunnels and raging furnaces. All the while, Elliot Goldenthal’s beautiful score lends the film a melancholic quality that clashes appropriately with all the unkempt surroundings in a manner previously unheard of in the Alien universe. If nothing else, it’s hard not to view Alien3 as the most aesthetically gripping series instalment.

Above all, I can’t shower the ending with enough praise. Ellen Ripley’s final act in defiance of Weyland-Yutani is a perfect curtain call charged with over a decade of build-up. It’s not just the end of Alien3 – it’s the climax to a whole trilogy! Outside of William Gibson’s awesome pipedream draft, I couldn’t possibly imagine a better way to finish this series... which in retrospect, it really should have been.

Much of what I’ve mentioned is subject to change, however, depending on what cut of the film you watch. Each Alien movie has been revisited at some point for a Special Edition. Normally, this would be an excuse for the studio to re-insert deleted scenes that were likely deleted for a good reason, but as we know, Alien3 is a special case. The “Assembly Cut” was introduced for the Alien Quadrilogy DVD set, and it managed to salvage a significant amount of previously unseen material, and presented something (supposedly) more in line with Fincher’s original vision by filling in certain plot holes and adding a degree of extra character development. Even though there is NO “Director’s Cut”, this is the closest we’re ever likely to get. Changes include the Alien bursting from an ox instead of a dog, proper closure to the character of Golic (who just disappeared from the original cut), along with a more subtle take on Ripley’s final scene.

Those are just a few differences. More await, and they all add up to create quite a different beast from the cut audiences first saw in 1992. If you remain unconvinced by Alien3’s theatrical version, then the Assembly Cut comes highly recommended. It won’t automatically make Alien3 perfect – it’s always been and always will be a flawed work of art – but it should at least shed some light on why many consider this to be such an underrated gem.

It may sit in the shadow of its two more successful prequels, but Alien3 has enough memorable characters, dark storytelling, unique stylistic touches and good old fashioned ultra-violence to firmly hold its own after twenty years... and counting.

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