The party had to end sometime.
* * *
The survivors of the military expedition to LV-426 are in hypersleep on the Sulaco, en route back home, when a fire breaks out aboard the ship. The sleeping passengers are moved to an escape pod and ejected. The pod crashes on a nearby planet, and Ripley is the only human survivor (Bishop is damaged to the point of near-uselessness). The planet turns out to by Fiorina 161 (aka “Fury”), a men-only hard-labor maximum-security prison planet whose inmates all found religion. But, unbeknownst to Ripley and the prison population, there were several inhuman survivors of the crash. Soon enough, the penal colony finds itself plagued by a particularly feral Alien, and that’s not the only one Ripley has to face…
If there’s one real problem with Aliens it’s this: it’s a great standalone movie, and it’s a great sequel, but it actually isn’t a very good franchise movie. It’s the ultimate expression of what can be done with the Alien format and as such renders the very idea of continuing the series pointless, since there’s effectively nowhere to go (but down). Not that that stopped anyone from trying.
While the end product is a bit more coherent than you might expect considering its protracted development phase (numerous writers and directors attached over five years, including cyberpunk author William Gibson at the keyboard and action director Renny Harlin behind the camera), Alien 3 is still a movie with a lot of ups and downs. The director they eventually went with was David Fincher, who’d go on to make Seven, Fight Club, and The Social Network, but as of 1992 had only made music videos. He shows a lot of promise in his feature début, and he’s quite inventive when it comes to camera angles and his use of first-person point-of-view shots–if the only good thing about Alien 3 were the chase sequences, it would still be worth watching. The production values aren’t as strong in comparison to the first two films, but they’re still perfectly acceptable. The Alien looks less like a guy in a rubber suit than ever before, and this more animalistic interpretation is arguably how it always should have been done to begin with.
Unfortunately the story’s simply not up to the same level as the technical aspects. The Aliens no longer work as science-fictional concepts. In Alien and Aliens, the titular monsters have a reason for killing: biological imperative. They kill to perpetuate their species. It’s part of their life-cycle. (Not that you’d notice in Alien, because Ridley Scott cut the “kill me” scene, which explicitly spells the whole thing out if you’re paying close attention.) As of Alien 3, the only reason they seem to have for killing is because that’s what they do. The Alien is now, for all intents and purposes, a slasher, not really all that different from Jason Voorhees. Actually, scratch that. I’ll bet Jason actually has a stronger motivation for his killing that the Aliens do.
Part of the point of the “Ten Little Indians” structure of Alien is that every time the Alien takes a victim we learn something about it. Here, there’s very little to learn, and most of the victims don’t have much in the way of personality, so they’re pretty much impossible to care about. We remember Dillon, the apparent alpha of the prisoner pack, because he’s black and wears glasses, and Golic because he’s a batshit loon, but that’s pretty much it. The decision to cast a gaggle of skinny, long-faced British actors (Danny Webb, Paul McGann, Pete Postlethwaite) and shave their heads so they all look pretty much the same doesn’t help.
Admittedly, many of the background Marines in Aliens were also very samey, but it works there because it’s a comment on the military mindset. Which brings me to the cannon fodder: in Aliens, it had a point–it was to illustrate that advanced weaponry, hardcore training and a badass attitude weren’t much of a match for the Aliens. Here, the point of the cannon fodder is to just to say “aaagh” and fall over, because the movie needs a body count.
These are only the biggest issues in a narrative full of them. SPOILER ALERT–I actually don’t have much of a problem with the offscreen deaths of Hicks and Newt. Repositioning Ripley as a loner, a stranger in a strange land, with the Alien as the only beacon of familiarity is a solid move and does pay off some dramatic dividends. The out-of-hand disposal of the two characters is perfectly in keeping with the generally nihilistic tone of the film’s predecessors, so I don’t have much of a problem with that.
But as far as other plot elements go…it would have been nice if the inmates’ peculiar brand of millenarian Christianity had been developed at all. It would have been nice if Dillon weren’t prone to awkward angry pronouncements (“You don’t wanna know me, lady. I’m a murderer and a rapist of women”) or polemics about how nobody ever gave him nothin’ and how it’s better to live on your feet than die on your knees. It would have been nice if somebody had been paying attention to the minor details, like clearing up whether the prisoners really are still prisoners (a couple of lines seem to indicate that they remain on Fury by choice), or maybe showing what happened to Golic (about halfway through the film, he just stops appearing in scenes, and we never find out what happened to him).
It’s not the most promising material for an actor to work with, but to their credit, the cast gives it their all. Weaver is obviously a bit weary at having to run Ripley through the same old changes, but she’s committed to finding new ways to play the role, and she makes the most of the deep undercurrent of tragedy at the character’s heart. Charles S. Dutton (as Dillon) is an amazing compelling presence, and he’s able to bring an air of authority to even the corniest speechifying. Charles Dance (as medical officer Clemens) is a strong understated foil to the more strident characters. Brian Glover is a bit miscast as the colony’s administrator, Andrews; more successful (and less histrionic) is Ralph Brown as his none-to-bright assistant Aaron, a company man with a wife and kid who doesn’t want to stick his neck out. Golic is easily the most memorable of the prisoners, thanks to a spirited performance by McGann. It’s always nice to see Lance Henriksen, although “Bishop II” turns out to be a real letdown.
Admittedly, Alien 3 has the cards stacked against it at the outset. Any third entry in a series that includes Alien and Aliens would have a hard time living up to that standard. Alien 3 isn’t bad. It delivers on enough of its promises to keep it from being a complete waste of time and celluloid. In the end, however, it’s little more than a franchise movie: there doesn’t seem to be much of ambition beyond selling movie tickets to people who want to see Sigourney Weaver face off against murderous xenomorphs. If that’s all you want, you won’t walk away disappointed.Have You Read...?