Ripley’s in the Water: A Look Back at “Alien 3”

May 22, 1992.

I am 11 years old. My family is preparing to relocate from our home on the East Coast to somewhere in the Midwest, a place I’ve never been before in my life. I don’t have many friends, but regardless I’ll still be leaving behind almost everyone I know. That morning, we officially move out of our house. This is also my last day at school, and I spend it saying goodbye to the kids I grew up with, even if many of them don’t particularly like me.

I’m also not especially concerned with any of this, because Alien 3 opens today. I am willing to go through saying au revoir to my friends and my school and my childhood home, all in order to get to later that evening, when I will finally be sitting in a theater watching the third Alien film. The anticipation is excruciating. My grandmother, the unfortunate soul tasked with taking me to the movie theater, has to put up with me being an overexcited, impatient little shit, and at one point she’s definitely ready to kill me but thankfully refrains.

It’s all been building up to this. For months, I’ve been reading extensive coverage of the movie’s production in everything I can get my hands on, largely genre magazines like Fangoria and Starlog and Cinefantastique. I rent the VHS of Hot Shots! specifically for the Alien 3 trailer at the beginning, and watch it over and over. I have never been and never again will be as excited about the opening of a movie as I am for Alien 3, and that’s saying something. I cannot wait.

Can. Not. Wait.

Then the movie came out. To quote the film’s rather severe Superintendent Andrews, there were ripples in the water.

Alien 3 would go on to have a ruinous reputation, both in terms of pop culture and in my personal life: several years later when I’m a teenager, I will have a disastrous experience with a girl in my high school, when an attempted kiss goes wrong while watching Alien 3. It was my first date, and also my last one for quite a while. I’ll spare the gory details, save to say that it’s become known in my life as “The Alien 3 Incident,” and is something I may very well never live down.

Anyway, the third film in the Alien series soon turns 25. To honor the day it came slopping out of the belly of the beast, let’s take a look back and sift through the wreckage.

Alien 3 begins where Aliens left off, with Ripley, Hicks, Newt and Bishop in cryosleep aboard the Sulaco, heading back to Earth. A facehugger emerges from a stowaway alien egg, tries to enter Newt’s cryotube and cuts itself in the process, its acid blood starting an electrical fire. The sleepers are ejected from the Sulaco in an Emergency Escape Vehicle (EEV), which soon plummets into the windswept ocean of Fiorina “Fury” 161, an outer space penal colony which houses Double-Y Chromos, men prone to particularly brutal acts of rape and murder and who’ve now formed an evangelical Christian cult to atone for their sins. All but Ripley are killed in the crash, with Hicks impaled by a metal beam, Newt drowned after her cryotube fills with water, and the already damaged Bishop inoperable. The only woman on a planet full of sex-starved and violent men, Ripley quickly finds herself at odds with both the prison population and the station’s controlling warden. To make matters worse, another xenomorph has come with her — this time birthed from an animal, and particularly aggressive — and it begins to kill inmates left and right.

As the number of prisoners (and the chance for survival) dwindles, Ripley learns the truth: she was impregnated with an alien Queen while in cryosleep, and the xenomorph loose in the prison is trying to protect her in order to ensure the Queen’s gestation. The ubiquitous and evil Weyland-Yutani Corporation, aware of the situation and wanting to get their hands on the creature for their weapons division, has already dispatched a rescue team. After finally destroying the alien in the prison’s leadworks, Ripley is accosted by the company’s team of scientists, led by another version of Bishop, who attempts to convince Ripley they mean to kill the monstrous embryo growing inside of her. Not falling for the ruse, Ripley throws herself into the pit of molten lead, saving the human race in the process.

Personally, I very much liked Alien 3 when I first saw it. I had already been spoiled that everyone from Aliens, including Ripley, would be killed off, and though I had some reservations about that (and still do) I was willing to give the movie a chance. I loved the setting, as much as it could be uncomfortable and off-putting, and Elliot Goldenthal’s musical arrangement was powerful, possibly my favorite score in the series and a worthy successor to the work that Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner did on the previous movies. I found the scene where Ripley sacrifices herself extremely moving and effective, and it definitely tugged my little 11-year old heart. And in addition to getting to see Ripley and Bishop again, I enjoyed new characters like Clemens (the chief medical officer, with whom Ripley has a brief dalliance) and Dillon (the stern religious leader of the inmates, himself a Double-Y prisoner), both welcome additions to the Alien fold.

Yet, I was also confused. I’d read a lot about this movie and watched the trailers millions of times, but curiously, much of what I’d read and seen had somehow failed to make it onto the big screen. For instance, I’d glimpsed pictures of the newly designed Queen Facehugger, which various articles described as impregnating an ox. But in the movie I saw, there was no Queen Facehugger anywhere to be seen, and the alien came out of a dog. The trailers very prominently featured such images as Clemens standing outside in the frigid landscape of Fury 161 and then carrying Ripley to the infirmary, and another shot of Ripley holding a makeshift torch and screaming “come on!” Not in the movie. Widely circulated publicity stills showed the alien surrounded by fire like a demon, and chasing prisoners down burning hallways. Not in the movie.

The Beast, confined to the Hell of Deleted Scenes.

The novelization by Alan Dean Foster, which my grandmother bought for me just an hour or two before we saw the film, later confirmed what I suspected: the version of Alien 3 discussed in those magazines did indeed exist at one point, but 20th Century Fox had ultimately gone in a different direction. Foster’s novel was based on earlier versions of the script, and in some cases I liked his book more than the finished film. Disappointing? Yes. But did I love the movie anyway? Of course.

The same couldn’t be said for critics or for audiences at large. The film received an absolutely vicious drubbing upon its release, and somewhat understandably so. The gratifying family affair that was Aliens is mercilessly annihilated at the start of Alien 3, with that family perishing in terrible ways. Ripley is surrounded by men who want to rape and kill her; at one point she barely escapes sexual assault by a gang of prisoners. The vibrant characters of the second film have been replaced with a group of barely identifiable bald guys running down dimly lit corridors in confusingly edited sequences. At times it almost seems as if Alien 3 is actively trying to get the audience to dislike it, and plenty of people did.

Alien 3 had a notoriously troubled development, even by Hollywood moneygrubbing standards. Some promising early efforts by writer William Gibson — envisioning the aliens as a viral weapon being used in a kind of outer space Cold War — sadly went nowhere. A different draft by Eric Red explored the intriguing concept that the creatures take on certain physical characteristics of their hosts, a recurring idea throughout the various proposed Alien 3's. (Red’s effort was sadly hampered by a rushed and nonsensical approach, mostly due to studio pressure). David Twohy then introduced a prison setting, in a script that vaguely anticipates his later work on Pitch Black.

Nothing truly clicked until writer-director Vincent Ward became involved with the project. Ward envisioned a unique premise: Ripley crashlands on a manmade wooden planet, home to a group of Luddite monks who believe all life on Earth is extinct. With every character from the previous movie now deceased apart from Ripley, her stories of an alien are greeted with suspicion by the group’s abbot, and she finds herself imprisoned. Soon, however, people begin to die mysteriously, and the killings are blamed on what the men believe to be the devil. Ripley’s science-based explanation of the monster clashes with the monks’ religious interpretation, and she’s further perplexed as this is a version of the alien she’s never before encountered. At the climax, she and the surviving monks lure the xenomorph to the planet’s glassworks, where it’s covered in molten glass and then explodes when doused with cold water, a scenario ultimately used in the filmed version of Alien 3 but with hot lead instead of glass. And just as in that version, Ripley is revealed to be impregnated with an alien embryo, as Ward toyed with the idea of having her sacrifice herself to save humanity in the story’s final moments. (This was partially on the urging of Sigourney Weaver, who wanted to leave the series with dignity before anything resembling Alien vs. Predator were to happen).

In addition to an unconventional setting, the film would have presented new variations of the creature, introducing a chestburster born from a sheep, a headburster which kills the villainous abbot, and the newly revealed ability of the alien to camouflage. Ward’s medieval aesthetic, while out of left field, touches upon visionary painters like Bosch, dovetailing nicely with the fact that the first Alien drew its visual inspiration from HR Giger, an equally visionary religious painter (albeit of a more occult variety).(1)

Production on Ward’s movie was ready to go until the studio balked and asked him to significantly change his concept. Ward walked off, leaving half-built sets and an impending release date. David Fincher, then primarily known for music videos and commercials, was hired at the last minute to direct. A new script was cobbled together by a revolving door of writers, keeping the basic ideas from Ward’s version and melding them with Twohy’s notion of a prison in space. The final script is credited to Larry Ferguson and producers David Giler & Walter Hill, with Ward getting a story credit. Giler and Hill were reluctant to write the shooting script, wanting instead to focus on producer duties, and the absence of enthusiasm only contributed to the lack of creative focus.

Filming began with a screenplay that was never finished, and Fincher found himself in complete chaos, with studio interference, lawsuits, endless rewrites and reshoots, clashes with his producers, and his own hot-tempered and demanding personality creating a hellacious production. By the time Alien 3 was released in May of 1992, Fincher had watched a large portion of the film gutted by the studio, who wanted a shorter running time and a heavier focus on monster movie elements, and he subsequently disowned the whole thing.

Despite its compromised development, there’s quite a bit to recommend the theatrical version of Alien 3. Even then, Fincher’s style stood out against the rest; Alien 3 was without a doubt one of the most beautiful-looking films to hit theaters that year. Though set in an ugly world, Fincher captures specific images almost like a painter, turning the harsh environment of steam and corroded metal and labyrinthine corridors into a weirdly gorgeous universe. There is no shortage of memorable visuals, be it a shot of the alien as it drools blood and looks directly into the camera, or a distorted close-up of a syringe. Even something simple like a prisoner emerging from a trap door and climbing onto a wet platform is immaculately photographed and framed, clearly informed by Fincher’s music video background. He also offers one of the most iconic images of the series, if not movie history: Ripley leaning against a wall, paralyzed by fear, as the creature nudges up right next to her, slowly opening its mouth.

The Alien 3 Incident. Not a simulation.

But perhaps the strongest element is the film’s cast, which is preposterously stellar. Charles S. Dutton delivers a performance that is quite possibly the highlight of his career, turning Dillon — a former serial rapist and murderer, and now intensely devout preacher — into a sympathetic figure, without ever entirely losing the character’s inherent potential for danger. Likewise, Charles Dance is equally strong as Clemens, the prison’s terminally melancholy doctor who is hiding his own criminal past from Ripley. Brian Glover’s turn as the prickly Superintendent Andrews stands as another highlight, and various actors (Pete Postlethwaite, Ralph Brown, Paul McGann, Danny Webb) memorably fill out the supporting roles. Lance Henriksen returns from Aliens and this time gets to play two variations of Bishop: one as the mostly destroyed android from the previous film, and the other as Bishop’s creator, sent by the company to trick Ripley.

And Weaver herself brings perhaps her strongest turn as Lt. Ripley, playing her as a woman grieving for the loss of her loved ones but forced to take charge in yet another dire survival situation while somehow also confronting her own mortality. She imbues Ripley with a sadness and a longing without ever making her self-pitying, and a toughness without making her coarse or cocky or antagonistic. But this Ellen Ripley is also cynical and tired and, by the end, ready to die. It’s a multi-faceted performance, and Weaver really gives her all. She was serious about this film and it comes across in every frame, even the ones she’s not in.

It’s impossible not to mention the film’s unrelenting bleakness, bordering on nihilism. The movie begins with the deaths of several fan favorites and ends with Ripley’s sacrifice, and in between is an onslaught of despair. Moments such as the irreparably damaged Bishop begging Ripley to unplug him for good — “I’ll never be top of the line again. I’d rather be nothing” — highlight the fact that we’re looking directly into the void here, an uncaring universe which eats the strong and the weak alike. The human beings on display don’t exactly shine, either, as Ripley is surrounded by killers and sex predators on one hand, and on the other we have the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, the very definition of corruption and abuse of power. Alien 3 takes place in a garbage heap of a universe (it is disturbingly fitting that Ripley’s attempted rape occurs in an actual junk pile), and it’s a world that often feels beyond salvation.

At the same time, this is a redemption story, because these inmates — the worst of the worst — have to rise up and give their lives to stop the company from ever acquiring the alien. They could easily sit back and watch humanity burn, since none of them have any hope of rejoining the outside world. But that’s not what they do. In a strange way, they actually live up to the Christian ideals they espouse.

Alien 3 contributes two main ideas to the Alien mythology, both of them significant. The first is that the xenomorph mimics the basic physical characteristics of its host, meaning the alien’s form is somewhat transmutable as opposed to fixed. This has carried over into nearly all subsequent sequels, spinoffs, and ancillary media like toys, comic books, and video games, which continue to offer endless variations of the creature.

The second is the complicity of Weyland-Yutani. While Aliens established that Carter Burke wanted to obtain the alien as a bioweapon, it was never explained how much the company at large may have factored into his decision. Burke seems to have gotten the idea from Ripley’s account of what happened on the Nostromo, so it doesn’t appear that Weyland-Yutani was still actively looking for the creature. (Keep in mind it had been 57 years between the first and second films). Alien 3 makes it abundantly clear that the corporation will stop at nothing in their pursuit, they have eyes and ears everywhere, and they own almost everything. Ripley can’t even crashland on a mostly forgotten rock without the insidious network almost immediately finding her.(2)

But despite these contributions, the reputation of the movie itself remained for years largely in the negative, as unforgiving as the environs of Fury 161, even though the film’s tumultuous background was well-known. At the time, some hardcore fans clamored to see a release of Fincher’s original cut, which was developing its own legendary reputation on the internet.

In 2003, I stumbled upon the wonderful Digital Bits website, devoted to chronicling all the exciting news in the then-emergent world of DVDs (and now Blu-ray). The Bits claimed that the original, longer version of Alien 3 was being restored as part of a special Alien box set. At the time, the missing footage from Alien 3 was part of my holy grail of Deleted Scenes That If Released Might Prove To Me That There Is A God.(3) And indeed, the Bits don’t lie. In December of 2003, the Alien Quadrilogy set was released, and I finally, finally, finally, finally was able to see the very film I’d dreamed of all those years before. Referred to as the Assembly Cut (not a true director’s cut, as Fincher declined to be involved), this special edition was put together by DVD/Blu-ray producer extraordinaire Charles de Lauzirika, who continues the tradition of people named Charles being involved in Alien 3. It makes use of as much of the original footage as possible, while incorporating some of the material from the various reshoots in places where there would otherwise be missing pieces.

The Assembly Cut of Alien 3 offers, in my opinion, an all-around better viewing experience on nearly every level. The theatrical version often feels like a movie actively crippled from being the film it wants to be, and therefore has trouble really selling itself to the audience. The Assembly Cut, while still flawed in some areas, makes many improvements in terms of atmosphere, characterization, and an overall deepening of the world in which the story takes place.

Compare the openings of the two versions and it’s like night and day. The theatrical cut begins with a brief scene of the prisoners arguing while examining the wreckage of the EEV, only to realize that Ripley is still alive. It’s fine on its own, if not necessarily striking. The extended edition, meanwhile, opens with Clemens walking outside by himself, wandering through rusty machinery as he gazes out at a desolate beach. Ripley’s body washes ashore, covered in grime and insects. He resuscitates her and, after she coughs up a handful of filthy black seawater, rushes Ripley to the medical bay. The prisoners inspect the downed escape pod and its grim aftermath — the dramatic score becoming briefly tender and tragic, as we see the loss of life inside. The inmates then use oxen to tow the wreckage back to the prison, while Andrews sends Weyland-Yutani a typed message detailing the fates of the EEV’s passengers, the unfair demises of the survivors from Aliens reduced coldly to the outer space equivalent of a telegram. With almost no dialogue, this sequence establishes so much about where we are and what’s going on, while restoring mood to spare. We see much more clearly what kind of planet this is, and how this facility is largely abandoned from its heyday. We understand that Clemens is somewhat of a brooding outsider. We can tell that this place is forced to rely on primitive technology as much as anything futuristic.

(The Assembly Cut also corrects a truly unforgivable moment from the theatrical version by removing the shot of Newt dead in her cryotube, her eyes and mouth wide open and hands pressed against the glass, clearly indicating that she was conscious when she drowned. Even at the age of 11, I found this particular image stupid and borderline offensive. Not only does it contradict Clemens’ later assertion that Newt was most likely not awake at the time of her death, but it just feels completely unnecessary, a cruel and callous addition that actively rubs the audience’s faces in shit. If you’re going to show that a defenseless little girl and much-beloved character drowned all alone in a state of absolute panic, put some emotional resonance behind it and give that image the weight it deserves, as opposed to tossing it in almost as a B-movie afterthought. This is the one instance where I agreed the characters from Aliens were not respected, and I still find it to be a misstep. Alien 3 is a movie about brutality and suffering and it often handles that with some gravity, but not in this case. The shot is thankfully gone from the Assembly Cut and missed by me not one iota).(4)

Another restoration includes the subplot revolving around Paul McGann’s character Golic, a Charles Manson-esque sociopath-meets-gibbering idiot who witnesses the alien murdering his friends but is for some reason himself spared. Believing it to be a dragon, Golic starts worshiping the creature as a kind of unholy personal savior. In the original version of the movie, the alien was captured and sealed in a toxic waste chamber after a lengthy action sequence.(5) Golic later murders his fellow inmate who’s guarding the storage room, and proceeds to release the alien, which subsequently kills him. In addition to a fantastic and memorable performance by McGann, this entire subplot underscores the movie’s apocalyptic religious overtones, while also going back to Vincent Ward’s idea of people projecting intention and personality onto what is in fact just a creature driven by instinct.

Golic is very confused about his role being drastically cut.

At the time, the studio defended the removal of these scenes by insisting that the Golic storyline made the alien less threatening, since in this version the monster is successfully trapped. However, it’s painfully clear in retrospect how wrong their decision truly was, as it castrated the film’s attempt to add an almost mystical import to the proceedings. (Likewise with the alien originally coming out of an ox, only to be changed to a dog in the theatrical version. A demonic creature emerging from a cloven-hooved animal in the middle of a bloodstained abattoir perfectly sums up the clash between fundamentalist religious beliefs and a brutal, indifferent universe, and the way those things inform each other).

In fact, the religious life of the prisoners in general is greatly enhanced in the Assembly Cut, as we get much more of a sense of their community, and the way the alien is an existential threat to them bordering on divine punishment. Even in the theatrical cut, the film is loaded with quasi-biblical imagery, particularly inspired by Revelation: a beast, a lake of fire, a savior. And the prisoners’ bar code tattoos (an idea which survived since William Gibson’s various drafts) can in this context be seen as a riff on modern conspiracy theories about the Mark of the Beast. The longer version of the opening sequence adds further New Testament parallels, as Ripley nearly drowning in the ocean of Fury 161 is like some kind of foul baptism, an indoctrination and rebirth into this new world, further signified by her bald head. That she begins the movie by falling into water and ends it by falling into fire is demonstrative of her spiritual journey from outcast to redeemer. Of course, the themes of religion and apocalypse are carryovers from Ward’s vision for the movie, but even in Fincher’s they add meaning and nuance, harkening back to the preternatural feel of the original film, and are given more room to breathe in the Assembly Cut.

There are nevertheless elements which don’t work so well in the special edition, or otherwise represent missed opportunities. Any way you slice it, it’s a brash move to kill off most of the characters from Aliens, and it does feel like a slap in the face, even if thematically justified on many levels. The final third of the Assembly Cut both drags and is confusing, already a problem in the theatrical version and now magnified by the greater length. While things gel much better in the longer edit, this is still a film that was rushed into production and never fully found its footing, and it shows no matter which version you’re watching.

The story logic especially is undeniably sloppy. No effort is made whatsoever to explain how an egg came to be aboard the Sulaco, and while the presumption must be that the Queen from Aliens left it somewhere on the drop ship, it still makes very little sense. Ditto the creature of the title. Apart from protecting Ripley because she’s carrying a Queen embryo, the alien’s motivation seems to be straight out of a Friday the 13th film, killing and attacking not for food or defense or some form of reproduction but simply because this particular xenomorph is really, really mean. Though the aliens in the previous movies didn’t exactly operate on rationality, their behavior was either mysterious or self-explanatory. Here, this thing just seems to like smashing heads for no particular reason. (An entire sequence showing a nest being prepared for the arrival of the Queen, and thus explaining the creature’s behavior, was scrapped during production). And the really cool effect of the Queen Facehugger is reinstated but almost completely lost, as it’s only photographed from far away and mostly not discernible.

Speaking of the special effects, while a good portion of them are generally well-executed, the rod puppet alien optically inserted into the finished film is wholly unconvincing, looking like poor CGI and rendering one of cinema’s most unsettling monsters not even remotely menacing. The sound mix also still has problems, as many of the actors speak in varyingly heavy UK accents, or whisper their delivery. Much of the dialogue was never properly rerecorded in the rush to make the release date, resulting in some lines being difficult to hear. Also, the musical score and the sound effects seem to be competing, at times creating a clanging, abrasive cacophony which further obscures things. The DVD version of the Assembly Cut had an additional wrinkle, with the restored scenes mainly relying on audio that was originally recorded during filming in 1991, a lot of it passable but some of it scratchy or muffled or missing entirely. Thankfully, the later Blu-ray version was able to correct this, with Sigourney Weaver and the Two Charleses returning to redub their lines for those scenes. The sound mix is still iffy, however, and the Assembly Cut creates its own anomalies, such as when a character references his dog Spike (who does not exist in the extended version).

All in all, though, Alien 3 has never been better, and the Assembly Cut is the closest it will ever get to what could have been. It’s a much worthier successor to the first two films than the theatrical cut, and also stands on its own stylistically. It’s flawed and broken in places, but not the cinematic disasterpiece its reputation once suggested.

Some will probably consider this heresy, but I actually have always felt that Alien 3 put things somewhat back on track after Aliens. It’s not that I don’t love Aliens. I do. (It was my introduction to this cinematic universe. For that alone it will always occupy a unique place for me). James Cameron did a uniformly amazing job with his movie, and it remains one of the most consistently entertaining and thrilling action films ever made. His sequel has a clear love and admiration for the original, and first and foremost respects what Ridley Scott tried to establish. He’s also responsible for introducing various key elements and phrases into the Alien lexicon: “xenomorph,” LV-426, the existence of a Queen . . . all Cameron.

But Scott’s film was an arty nightmare about isolation and inhumanness, a story about how we’re all alone in a chaotic and threatening universe, and where the things that make us human are not reciprocated by nature. Our very humanity is alien to the cosmos at large. Cameron, on the other hand, has always tended to rely on traditional, tried-and-true audience pleasing affirmations, even after putting us through the wringer. His movie is ultimately about the importance of family, and the way we protect one another when we bond. It’s satisfying, hopeful, a slam dunk . . . and pretty much sucks the horror out of the premise. Despite its rah-rah Jaws ending, watching the original Alien provokes a feeling similar to looking at Giger’s paintings, or reading a Lovecraft story. Aliens doesn’t really operate on that level.(6)

Also, Aliens is somewhat guilty of Rambo-ing the franchise, something which the series has never been able to fully shake. Many people now immediately associate the Alien movies with a tough woman using big guns to kill gross things. Fine, but that’s not really indicative of the cosmic horror from which these films originate. By being the most accessible movie in the series, Aliens has in many ways become its face, and there are drawbacks to that. Alien 3 thankfully drops the heavy firepower (only the Weyland-Yutani thugs are armed) and forces the characters to use their wits. It brings the story back to its initial reliance on atmosphere and body horror.

And while I love Hicks, Newt, and Bishop — I’d be first in line to see what Neill Blomkamp intends to do with their characters, should his proposed Alien 5 ever see the light — I’m not sure that more guns and more hugs are what an Alien 3 needed at the time. The third movie cleverly refocuses on Ripley and the final stage of her character’s life cycle. If the original Alien is about birth, and Aliens about life, then of course the theme of Alien 3 is death. So it makes sense for Ripley to be alone again, as difficult as it is to see her lose everything she gained. She missed out on the life of her biological daughter, her surrogate daughter is now also deceased, and her third and final daughter — an alien Queen — is what she’s left with. Her friends too are dead . . . Dallas, Brett, Hicks, Bishop, Clemens. Gone. All of them. Now it’s just her and the dragon.

Alien 3 is a story about life not lived, about promises squandered, and about being completely and totally fucked and knowing there’s no way out, but trying to do right with what little time is left. Perhaps it’s appropriate that the movie was so severely damaged while en route to its audience. No, it’s not as crowd-friendly as Cameron’s take on the material, but it feels right when looking back at the original film. Ripley dies alone. But she’s also not alone, because her fate impacts the fate of all other people. She lives on through that choice, and that is a powerful thing.

Go ahead. Tell them their movie sucks. Do they not look sad and pissed off enough already?

And then Alien Resurrection happened, and I think many will agree that we could have stopped at Alien 3 and been none the poorer. Joss Whedon wrote a very good script which honored what came before, but Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s carnivalesque approach — while an interesting riff on the mythology — is too goofy and quirky for a serious Alien film. It’s worth watching, and Weaver has a lot of fun with her half-alien Ripley clone, but it never feels like a vital addition to the series. The same goes for Paul W.S. Anderson’s Alien vs. Predator, again a very fun movie with some cool moments, but at this point we’re on the downgrade. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, meanwhile, while an extremely contentious and divisive film, actually did something new with the franchise while bringing things back to the Lovecraftian horror of the first Alien, this time with a scope to rival 2001: A Space Odyssey.

So ultimately, what is Alien 3’s legacy? It will to some degree always be seen as the beginning of the downfall of the series, especially after the high quality of the first two films. But both time and the existence of the Assembly Cut have restored some of its integrity, as has the fact that David Fincher has gone on to a successful career in his own right, his style and sensibilities adopted into the mainstream. The truth is, Fincher delivered a better picture than the studio deserved, given their treatment of the material, and the fact that he was able to wrest an even halfway decent film out of the uncontrolled bedlam of the production is a testament to his strength as a filmmaker. Many more people now view Alien 3 as a flawed but ahead of its time classic. It was punished during its release for not being Alien or Aliens all over again, but Alien 3 had the right to be as different from its predecessors as they were from each other.

As for me, Alien 3 marked the end of everything Alien, at least for a while. It brought the story of Ellen Ripley to a close, and in doing so the series lost its emotional anchor. Facehuggers, chestbursters, etc. were played out by this point, and their repeated use in later films signified diminishing creative returns, reducing the tropes of the series to a worn cliché. I just couldn’t really get invested in anything beyond Alien 3. As one of the ten people who loved Prometheus, I was excited about it precisely because it made an effort to move away from the standard Alien stuff and broaden the world of these stories (and was released not too long after the 20th birthday of Alien 3; I saved a seat for my departed grandmother in the theater). It was time to reinvent, and while Prometheus isn’t perfect, it breathed some disgusting new life into these ideas again. Instead of giving us hippopotamus variations of the xenomorph while all the characters yell “game over, man!,” Prometheus revisited the otherworldly wrecked spacecraft seen in Scott’s original, offering some hints as to its origin and in the process building a brand new mythology.(7) To me, it felt like the first valid addition to the Alien universe since Alien 3.

Now we approach the third film’s 25th anniversary, and just a few days prior will see the arrival of Alien: Covenant, the second entry in Ridley Scott’s prequel series. Though myself and those other nine people didn’t mind Prometheus lacking direct appropriations of the hallmarks of the Alien series (apart from the derelict ship), there was a considerable backlash against the movie for not being enough of an Alien film, so we’re back to facehuggers and chestbursters. Oh well. I’m certainly still excited, and despite the potential fan service I hope Ridley Scott is able to continue taking us somewhere new. (It certainly looks stunning on a visual level, and I must admit the new creature designs also seem pretty cool).

Looking at the bigger picture, Alien 3 is in certain ways my favorite Alien film. The first movie still wins out in most categories, but the third is for various reasons the one to which I’m the most emotionally attached. Yes, it was initially released in a heavily diluted version, but even then, it was more than just the sum of its flaws. Over the years, Alien 3 has grown into a better movie, with the emergence of the superior special edition and also the fact that hindsight is 20/20. It will always be a scarred film, but it’s a story about scars and about pain. When I first saw it, my life was in a state of transition, and I can see now that I used my excitement about the movie as a way to help me deal with changes for which I wasn’t remotely prepared. A quarter century later, I’m in another state of transition and facing more uncertainty, this time with a significant amount of loss, and there are scars and pain to match.

But I’m better on dates, at least. Adapt or die.


(1) Not to deify Ward’s script too much. His Alien 3 had a handful of issues, including a poorly written Ripley, revelations about the creature which are inconsistent with the previous films, and a preference for science fantasy over science fiction (not necessarily a negative on that last point, but it would have been a tough sell to sci-fi fans, and indeed was a major cause of concern with the studio).

(2) Also of note: Alien 3 was the first film in the series to explicitly name the company, mostly by default. While the moniker goes back to the original movie (the crew’s beer cans are labeled with the variation Weylan-Yutani), James Cameron’s attempts in Aliens to incorporate the company’s name and introduce their catchphrase (“Building Better Worlds”) largely ran afoul of the cutting room floor, not remedied until his extended version was later released on home video. Alien 3, meanwhile, puts the Weyland-Yutani logo on virtually everything, bringing their corporate fascism to the fore.

(3) The others being the director’s cut of Nightbreed and the missing scenes from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Jury is still out on God but you can imagine I’m definitely weighing things.

(4) While it’s also disturbing to see the mutilated corpse of Hicks — particularly in the Assembly Cut, where his fatal injuries are horrifying — he was a soldier and a grown man. Newt is a little kid who lost her family and was then rescued, only to now be dying anyway, the human equivalent of the doll head seen floating in the second film. The image of her in the theatrical version is a cheap shot, though I’m sure the shot itself was expensive.

(5) The sequence of capturing the alien also provided another significant beat: in the middle of the chaos, Ripley encounters Junior, the character who attempted to ring-lead the gang rape of her earlier in the film. In the melee, her and Junior work together to save another prisoner who’s been set on fire, only for Ripley to realize she’s face to face with her attempted rapist. Junior then baits the alien, allowing it to chase him into the containment room, the inmates closing the door behind him as Junior is torn apart. This redemption for the character is just another example of the way the studio nonchalantly bled the substance and purpose out of Alien 3.

(6) Aliens is of course still set within an indifferent universe, and the human characters must create their own meaning by forming a family. Cameron largely agrees with the premise of the original; his vision is just a bit more sentimental and reassuring. And Vincent Ward actually saw his Alien 3 as also being about the importance of familial connection (in this case highlighted by the loss of it), which bleeds through into Fincher’s film showcasing that Ripley and the inmates have to work together and trust one another. Fincher’s Alien 3 very specifically is concerned with the way people construct their own sense of hope — whether through family, religion, or struggle itself — in the face of unrelenting darkness. Alien, Aliens and Alien 3 might have very different sensibilities, but spiritually they’re a somewhat coherent trilogy.

(7) Well, not the exact same ship from the first Alien. The story of the derelict on LV-426 is apparently waiting to be told in one of Scott’s later prequels.

Jury still out NOW, motherfucker?!

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