For some time, Alien 3 was a movie I liked and disliked in a cycle, but now I believe that cycle is broken. Generally speaking, the critical approach is complicated, starting with the recognition that it’s ambitious but flawed, that the production was a nightmare – especially for the young director David Fincher. After its initial mixed reception, with the easy soundbyte of “it’s not as good as the two classics,” the reappraisal came with the release of Alien Resurrection and when Fincher became one of America’s great directors. Alien 3 can even be considered the groundwork for his later hits. The lens is characteristically precise and impersonal, and in every frame there’s this pervasive sense of a deeper preoccupation, in spite of the genre trappings. The imagery is spectacular, the cast is impeccable, and there are plenty of memorable moments. The problem, and it breaks my heart, is the script.
It breaks my heart because it takes the enormity of “The Story of Alien 3” and simplifies it. For all the talk about studio interference and the difficulty of following up Alien and Aliens, instead, it’s the tale as old as time. Despite that a dozen writers came and went, putting their stamp on the script, including William Gibson and David Twohy, the resulting product is insufficient. Its framework does enough to suggest what could have been, and then it falls short.
I appreciate Alien 3 for the initial creative impulse, to literally jettison the story from its predecessor. I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed a continuation of Aliens, but now we have three, and then four, relatively standalone adventures, and that works for me (ironically, it’s also why Alien doesn’t work as a trilogy). More specifically, Alien 3 sets the template for what Alien movies should be: a creature feature in an interesting setting with sociological thematic implications. Of course, this only helps us measure the later installments, specifically Alien Resurrection and Alien: Covenant, which followed this template not at all. Granted, they chose discrete locations, as did Prometheus and AVP: Alien vs. Predator, but especially the Ridley Scott prequels had other, more bizarre preoccupations than paltry human nature.
The first problem with the Alien 3 script is that there’s very little connection between the creature and the interesting setting. As it goes, the Alien starts murdering the prisoners, and the prisoners piece things together enough to come up with a plan to stop it. At that point, why do they need to be prisoners? Or monks or colonial marines or whatever they once were in earlier drafts? How does this not become a study of the human condition, about how much people are willing to do to survive, or how people change in a claustrophobic crisis scenario? There are shades of The Thing here, but none of the paranoia. If anything, the prisoners are a kind of comedic Greek chorus, even in the Assembly Cut. Very few lines of dialogue, and story arcs that amount to a couple of scenes – one for setup, one for payoff – at most. Take Holt McCallany’s character, who early on attempts to rape Ripley, and later sacrifices himself to save the others. The how and why are missing, but we do have the performance by a great actor, directed by a great director.
Across the board, the performances are really good. Unfortunately, the second script problem is that some of their dialogue falls flat. Again, I watched The Assembly Cut, which might explain some of the awkward repeated dialogue, down to the very diction. The highlight is how, in her rousing speech, Ripley says that “the Company thinks we’re crud.” And boy, that whole argument about the Company’s intentions went round and round. But then Weyland-Yutani finally shows up, and the movie turns interesting again. There was mystery. Who are these people, really? And then Bishop goes, “Noooo!” That’s classic.
The mystery extends beyond the scope of the story, with alternate versions and the resultant ambiguous lore. It’s the sort of thing YouTubers can industrialize, and certainly contributes to the legend of Alien 3. Not every movie has a legend, which is usually a good thing, but for less-than-great movies, it’s kind of a crutch. In this case, it distracted me for years. In my mind, Alien 3 was an abyss of lore both in-universe and without, but on closer inspection, it seems things are disappointingly more simple than they first appeared.