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Ridley Scott‘s 1979 landmark horror/sci-fi Alien is considered one of the greatest achievements in the genre, a film crafted from frame one to give the audience far more than a typical theater experience, built on inducing stress with light, noise, imagery and tension. Not to mention an alien monster of such horrific and sexually-antagonistic designs it has become the benchmark for which all malicious alien monsters are measured and weighed.
It was followed by visionary director James Cameron‘s Aliens, a film that took the theme and shifted it tonally, stripping away the intense psychological horror aspect and layered in a relentless stream of high-tension action that proved the franchise could dominate in two genres. Both films were critically acclaimed and financial box office hits.
And so it was the studio felt the characters and story still had legs for more and pushed for another entry and the now legendary troubles with this production began, with numerous writers and directors attached and detached to the project. After several scripts were considered, beginning with an abandoned idea about franchise central protagonist Ellen Ripley (Sigouney Weaver) reduced to a cameo and the previous movie’s male lead Corporal Dwayne Hicks (Michael Biehn) taking center stage. In time, 20th Century Fox eventually green-lit a treatment and filming began.
THE STORY: Directed by David Fincher, in his debut, and who would, after complaints about studio interference and deadlines, came to disown the film, the production was plagued by issues, including an unfinished script. The story centered on events directly following Aliens, with the survivors of the film adrift in space in hyper-sleep, heading back to Earth. Unknown to them, a Xenomorph alien is aboard and causes the ship to jettison the crew in lifepods, sending them crash-landing on a nearby planet.
Ripley is the only one to survive, and finds herself the only female on a planet that has one hub of civilization, a compound inhabited by malicious male criminals who suffer from double-Y chromosome syndrome, giving them extreme anti-social behaviors, including rape and murder. They are guarded by a militant police force. They all live and work at a place called Fiorina “Fury” 161, a gigantic foundry where they cast and mold parts. And find religion. They better start praying.
Meanwhile, a facehugger alien, the second stage in the Xenomorph life cycle–which attaches to its victims, well … face and injects a proboscis into their throat in order to plant an embryo within that with serves as a womb for the gestating third stage–attacks the compound’s dog (in the 2003 ‘Assembly Cut’, it is a bull rather than mutt). Inside the animal, it quickly evolves and bursting from the canine is a four-legged creature that takes on properties of its host while maintaining the savage, aggressive attributes of the central species. It’s a new alien, and it’s hungry. And it’s got a taste for blood. Now the inmates need to work together, and Ripley is the only one who knows what they are up against. Time for a fight.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Straight away, the film is far better than most give credit for, and while it admittedly made a mistake at the start by killing off those from the last film we had built such a relationship with, once past that, Alien³ is a solid thriller that delivers great visuals and another sensational performance from Weaver. Honestly, she is so good in this role.
Fincher, who cut his teeth creating music videos and television commercials, layers the film in rich visuals and sounds, establishing a claustrophobic atmosphere that serves almost as a third character. Hinting at the coming flares that would make the director one of the most acclaimed in modern cinema, he slices bits of gore and humor with hyper-reality. And like any good director, it is the implied, unseen violence that shocks the most.
It is in fact, Fincher’s approach that absolutely makes Alien³ so effective, his visual storytelling making this a film constantly in motion, the breath of the tale in the details. Keep your eyes on the how the camera moves, what it reveals in its calculated and dynamic flow. There is as much in what is seen as what is spoken.
Add to this Elliot Goldenthal‘s brilliant score, one that is almost operatic as it raises several moments to heights of great emotion and Alien³ becomes a surprisingly visceral experience, one that may not surpass it predecessors, but does parallel them.
A GREAT MOMENT: As the facility comes to grip with a woman in the compound, there are larger issues that need attending, especially as the bodies begin to pile up. Or rather strewn about in little bits. Clearly, there is something hunting the inmates, and while believing Ripley’s tales of an acid-blood creature with two mouths doesn’t go over quite so well at first, it’s not long before the whole place is on the run.
Meanwhile, Ripley is showing some odd signs about her, coughing and such that as her and the good doctor Jonathan Clemens (Charles Dance), a man with with own secrets, is also aware isn’t right. The two have the most grounded relationship in the story, and their confessions give Alien³ most of its humanity.
It’s at this moment when the Xenomorph bursts into the infirmary and does what a Xenomorph does best, but when it gets to Ripley, who, on the floor, braces for her end, stops. It leans in close and seems to sense she is different from the others, but maybe it’s something more. It hisses, bares its second maw and then retreats. But why? The answer may seem obvious, but the resolution is not.
THE TALLY: Alien³ may not have the staying power of the first two in the series, but being third, it also suffers from a bit of fatigue and familiarity. Featuring a sensational cast, including Charles S. Dutton, Danny Webb, Brian Glover, and of course Pete Postlethwaite, there is a great sci-fi thriller beneath the heavy mantle of the franchise name. It’s what to watch.