Sunday, January 11, 2009

On Earth Everyone Wants You To Fail

Ok, you’re about to hear one of my favorite stories. After Aliens cemented the Giger designed outerspaceling into the collective unconscious of the entire movie-going populace, a third film may not have made sense in the context of the story (neither did Aliens, really), but it sure as hell made a lot of financial sense. Or so it seemed. So with this task ahead of them producers David Giler and Walter Hill went searching for a fresh face not unlike James Cameron’s or Ridley Scott’s. Before directors could be contracted, they needed a screenplay. William Gibson was brought on for a draft; his centered on Bishop and Hicks dealing with the aliens in a futuristic mall in outerspace – Gibson admitted to having been influenced by Alien and was happy to write a film for Giler and Hill. The problem was he wrote a film and not a treatment that could be played around with and he was already drafting other projects when they called him for a rewrite. With Gibson out of the picture, they started from scratch. Renny Harlin was hired to direct and he suggested Hill and Giler get Eric Red to write a screenplay. His, predictably enough, took place in a biodome made to resemble a Texas border town. Renny Harlin hated it (cause he’s an idiot, is my guess) and moved on to ruin other franchises. Giler and Hill fired Red and brought in David Twohy. Twohy’s idea was about a prison ship that faked executions so they could use prisoners to run experiments with new kinds of alien; they were essentially being used as bait for Weyland-Yutani’s special alien breeding grounds. This too was scrapped. Vincent Ward had been brought in to direct by this time and had an idea of his own. His was really the best of them; evidently Giler and Hill thought so because they poached most of his ideas for their 'final draft'. Ward's idea centered on a planetoid made of wood, inhabited by an order of luddite monks who despise technology. It featured Ripley coming down and bringing an alien with her and inciting argument about whether or not she was the devil. It featured beautifully conceptualized set designs and if it had been completed it would have been brilliant. Halfway through constructing the mammoth set, Giler decided he didn’t like the script and Ward was cut loose. Finally, with more than half of the budget blown on sets which were now unusable, Giler and Hill rewrote the screenplay combining elements from Twohy’s draft and Ward’s shooting script and brought on first-time director David Fincher, veteran of music videos and commercials who had a real sense of the visual. The result is a big, old mess that I love dearly.

by David Fincher
Well, Ripley does crash land, but not on a planet run by monks. The universe’s least lucky lady finds herself in Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161, a lead foundry that used to be a work-based prison. When she awakens to the hardened, bristly face of Clemens, the foundry’s only medical officer, she looks as though she knows that bad news is about to follow. Newt and Hicks are both dead and Bishop was damaged beyond repair. She demands to be shown the remains of the ship and upon spying a nasty looking acid burn on the side of Newt’s hyper sleep tube she makes Clemens take her to the bodies. Ripley makes Clemens perform an autopsy on the young girl despite his certainty that she drowned. We know very well she’s not looking for evidence of drowning or cholera as she explains. When Andrews, the superintendant of the prison shows up with his parroting assistant Aaron, and demands to know why an autopsy was conducted without his permission, Clemens covers for Ripley, hoping that she’ll level with him if he has her trust. She further requests for the bodies of her companions to be cremated.

In a lovely piece of parallel editing Ripley, Clemens, Aaron, Andrews and the 25 inmates left on Fury 161 attend the cremation of Hicks and Newt (which consists of Dillon, the leader of the prisoners, reciting an inspiring prayer about the creation of life) while an alien bursts out of the chest of…well, that depends, really. In the theatrical version one of the first things we see is a prisoner named Murphy looking in on the wreckage of the escape pod with his dog Spike. Spike would then fall victim to a stowaway face-hugger and give birth during the cremation. In the assembly cut, which was the version created using thrown-away footage that fans longed to see ever since Alien³ made it to theatres and rumours began circulating about what went wrong, an ox gives birth to our antagonistic beast. Either way, it’s a whole new beast. It walks on four legs most of the time, except in close-up when it’s played by Tom Woodruff Jr. in the still-impressive suit. Whenever movement on all four limbs is required our alien will be played by a rather sorry looking color-changing puppet processed into the shot.
After a really awkward luncheon where it’s established that everyone of the 25 prisoners are hostile, religious and crazy, Ripley asks Clemens for some information. He explains that when Fury 161 was still a prison, Dillon converted a few of them to his own brand of religion. The prison was shut down not too long after and the converts opted to stay and look after the lead works as the site may one day be used for its massive nuclear waste holding tank in the basement. Hence why everyone dresses in thick monk-like robes. Ripley deflects Clemens’ question about the autopsy by sleeping with him and before he can explain why he has a barcode on the back of his head like all the other prisoners, he’s called away to deal with some mischief that smells of a certain quadruped.

The alien first makes a nuisance of himself by spitting acid into Murphy’s eye as he cleans a duct nearby a giant fan; doesn’t take a genius to know that whenever an expendable character stands next to a big fan, he’s going in. The only piece of Murphy left to identify is a boot. While this goes on, Ripley begins getting ideas about the nature of her ship’s crash. She seeks out the black box from the ship and the only computer capable of reading its contents: Bishop. In an attempt to familiarize us with some of the other inmates, two things happen. First, Ripley is found out in the open by four prisoners who try to rape her (only three of the four, Junior, Gregor, and William will get names). She is saved when Dillon intervenes with a lead pipe and doles out some vengeance. Next, three prisoners, Boggs, Rains, and Golic are sent into a portion of the basement to do a job (because Giler and Hill are not actually screenwriters, that job will never be shared with us). Boggs and Rains are killed and Eric, the prisoner who must be the chef, is unsurprisingly startled when Golic shows up in the dining room coated in Boggs’ blood. Just after telling Ripley that there was an alien on board their ship, Ripley disconnects Bishop in time to see Aaron, Clemens, Andrews, and Dillon arrive with Golic in a straightjacket. Only Ripley believes Golic’s story about a dragon making off with his friends. When Ripley shares the contents of the last few years of her life with Andrews, he thinks she’s as mad as Golic and sends her away. Everyone’s tune changes when the alien kills Clemens in the infirmary and then runs down the hall to kill Andrews while he’s in the midst of a speech about remaining calm. Now that everyone believes her, just what in hell is she going to do with no weapons and a company drop-ship en route?
I think the biggest problem with this film is that it has no idea what kind of movie it wants to be. It works as science-fiction, but Alien³ is so uneventful that it’s easy to forget you’re watching the sequel to a movie as good as Alien. The scare scenes are decidedly not scary and the atmospherics serve only to make Ripley’s situation seem hopeless, not horrifying. Ripley spends most of the second and third acts exhausted and disappointed. When you remember that she ended the last film in a big yellow robot battling a gigantic alien that looked like the goddess Kali, watching Sigourney Weaver sigh endlessly and explain her problems to three different characters, all of whom don’t listen to her, is really uncinematic. There’s little else but characters talking to each other for a good deal of the movie and it just doesn’t work. It especially doesn’t work because the few times that the alien actually shows up are handled all wrong. Giler and Hill didn’t bring the scare in their script and Fincher couldn’t do anything but what was asked of him. And so the film just mires in its own depressed cycle until the ending, which is a predictable let-down. By the time the curtain has to fall, there are 11 characters left, only four of whom have been given exposition and they disappear so quickly that it seems completely arbitrary. The film's climactic race between the prisoners and the alien in the lead works is confusing and really gets to the root of the script problems. The end shows Ripley and Dillon coaching the last prisoners, Troy, Gregor, Jude, William, Kevin, Morse, David, Eric and Vincent (who is never shown and is killed instantly) through the tunnels in the leadworks so they can trap the alien. The cast is whittled down quick (Eric is never killed on screen, he simply disappears; William's body is shown for literally a second of screentime and his death is never depicted.) and then, as if by accident, Morse is the only survivor. What sort of film were Giler and Hill trying to produce? Characters are killed at random and the last character alive is someone we barely know.

If I had to pick someone to blame, I’d pick David Giler. Giler was the most outspoken critic of the best sounding of the proposed drafts of the script and it is pretty exclusively his fault that all the money was blown on sets that never got used (as he was the one who took issue with the logic in Ward's script). Fincher had no money left to spend when he arrived to make a film out of the pile of elements they laid at his feet. Giler and Walter Hill’s script is a mess that has no focus; characters disappear for little to no reason and importance is given to characters who die quite unceremoniously. Hill and Giler made no secret of the fact that they were just trying to finish the film so it could go out and make them some money before people lost interest. David Fincher reportedly received new script pages via fax and was expected to shoot them the day of their arrival. The theatrical version is practically unwatchable, what with its jittery editing, its disdain for explaining what the hell we’re seeing and its melodramatic finish. The few successes that Alien³ enjoys are due to David Fincher, cinematographer Alex Thomson, and as usual, a boatload of character actors.
I like films with big casts of little known actors. The assembly cut of Alien³ is something I’ve studied extensively for this reason. Before I knew about the assembly cut, my only experience with Alien³ was when I caught a few minutes of it years ago on TV and noticed how dreary it looked and how unlike Aliens it was in its presentation – unromantic, unexciting, unengaging. Here was Ripley conqueror of worlds bantering with Charles Dutton and sleeping with Charles Dance. Where was that soldier she bagged last time around? Where’s the action? I tried the theatrical film a little later and was pretty miffed save for one scene, and it is by all accounts the worst executed scene of the movie, but it’s the one I like best. It’s that scene near the end when they’re in the lead works. I like the assembly cut because it allows me to try and figure out exactly what’s going on and when the prisoners are killed. I find the scene so compelling because it actually uses the relative anonymity of the prisoners to its advantage. Here these poor bastards finally mean something. They're the last hope for civilization, whether they know it or not. That's a fascinating idea and they wring a fair amount of conflict, pathos and empathy, because they're largely phenomenal actors/presences, even if they're only on screen long enough to die. In a remaster I can also appreciate the costume design, which is excellent, and Elliot Goldenthal's score, which fits the film like a glove, and I can really appreciate the look of the film. Finally getting my hands on the assembly cut, however, did little to improve the plot, the wild inconsistencies, the hacksaw editing and the depression that seeps from Alien³’s pores.

The assembly cut makes a little more sense by the time the film ends and it packs more of an emotional punch. It’s also full of proto-Fincher moments like Junior’s death after the first failed attempt to kill the alien. The explosion that Ripley engineers to draw the alien out of the duct work and into an old fallout shelter is a pretty lame device and is comprised mostly of repeated shots of prisoners falling from vent shafts while on fire. The idea that an explosion would just eat up half of your cast is phenomenally lazy writing. During the explosion, Gregor catches fire and Junior and Ripley have to beat the flames out, their only interaction since the two men tried to rape her. They put it out and Junior runs ahead. Everyone watches in horror as the alien climbs down the wall and cuts Junior off from the rest of the prisoners. Junior, perhaps to redeem himself for trying to rape Ripley, screams at the alien to draw its attention and runs inside the large holding compartment. The alien follows and Ripley closes the door behind them. Fight Club, Seven, Panic Room, The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo all have moments like this; loss and sacrifice complicated by motivation and the past. Without this scene, not only does the film lose one of its only genuinely exciting moments, it loses fairly important characters (Junior in this moment becomes more interesting than almost anyone else left standing) without so much as a verbal acknowledgement. Why spend so much time getting to the alien attacks if you’re not going anywhere special with the plot?
The film is full of sloppy compositional and editorial errors like this. It has more ADR than I can recall ever having seen in a big budget film like this; many of the film’s lines are shown coming from characters whose mouths are clearly not open. Many of the scenes cut out for theatrical release seem to have been dropped as part of a conscious effort to make the movie less interesting. Take the opening shots of Charles Dance’s Clemens walking alone on the beach in his enormous coat. It’s a masterfully composed sequence and adds so much to his character without even a word of dialogue and the producers tossed it in favor of a quicker, cheaper opening. Then there’s the dog alien vs. the ox alien. The dog makes more sense anatomically and behaviorally, but the feasibility of an ox on the planet is greater. And why does no one but Dillon seem to exhibit any sort of religious fervor? What happens to Eric during the climax? Why not make more of the prisoner’s belief that the alien has brought the apocalypse? That could have been so much more compelling than watching everyone bicker for acts 2 and 3. It also would have given the religious aspects of the movie some reason for existing, cause as it stands it accomplishes next to nothing. Why bother giving Clemens as much exposition as he gets if he’s going to be killed for no real reason? Why spend so much time with Aaron and Ripley as they go round and round and round? The film was filled with so many aborted ideas and so many half-cooked ones that it feels like you’ve eaten an entire meal of bread and water because your dinner never arrived.

And what a cast to waste! Paul McGann is given almost nothing to do as Golic, but his physicality is remarkable. Peter Guinness and Holt McCallany as Ripley’s wanna-be rapists Gregor and Junior do more with facial expressions and the way they lean than many can with pages of dialogue. Holt McCallany and Christopher John Fields (Rains) are the only actors in the cast that David Fincher has worked with since; no small feet considering the horrible memories Fincher has of the film’s production (Fincher was supposed to have said he would rather have colon cancer than direct another movie. I can't blame him as Giler was supposed to have said "Why are you listening to him? He's a shoe salesmen" numerous times on the set). Actually it’s rumoured that Charles Dutton shows up in Seven, but it must not have been for long. Pete Postlethwaite is pretty much always fun to watch; Charles Dance is sober and reserved, but ultimately it’s his character, not his acting that falls short of the mark. Charles Dutton and Ralph Brown (Aaron) ham it up a bit towards the end, but by then who’s paying attention? Everyone else does a fine job, with the exception of Leon Herbert (Boggs) who lays it on pretty thick. Vincenzo Nicoli (Jude), Paul Brennan (Troy), Philip Davis (Kevin), and Niall Buggy (Eric) have so little to do (Paul Brennan has exactly one line) that you don’t notice how good they are. Alien movies live and die by their character actors.

The creature effects are a pretty good metaphor for the film as a whole. Fincher had some pretty good ideas concerning the alien design – like the idea to make him four-legged, thus solidifying the alien’s feature as something that takes on the form of whatever host it has. Tom Woodruff Jr. and his effects team also had what is most certainly the best rubber suit the franchise ever saw. That’s about where the problems started. The puppet they use for the long shots is wholly unconvincing and comes off looking like the world’s worst CGI monster ever. In point of fact, the film had very few actual CGI shots – the alien’s reaction to the water at the film’s end is a good example. The puppet shots were processed in later and in some scenes it can pass, but barely. For the most part it’s just a big reminder that CGI wasn’t there yet – the purple thing that hangs on ceilings that looks hand-drawn onto the film is really distracting. Film hadn’t yet become as advanced as it is today and so any idea Fincher had regarding the alien design was basically fuel to a fire with no spark to start it. Like much else in the film, the crew had a lot of energy but nothing productive to do.

Watching Alien³ is interesting because it shows how talented David Fincher is without showing you evidence you can trust. If you have any doubt watch Alien³ and realize that every shot, every interaction is more than competently done. The design may be borrowed, but look how splendidly Fincher and Thomson find the angles, look how they frame the characters in relation to the sets. The problems lie in the writing, the editing, and the effects. Fincher had no control over what anyone said, he simply told them how to say it. If you consider this, it becomes clear that our director made a bad film great so that the producers could make it bad again. If a benefactor asks an artist to paint something vulgar, he can make it the most beautiful depiction of that vulgar thing, but it will always be vulgar. Alex Thomson’s cinematography is amazing - even critics saw that at the time. The scenes in the lead foundry are terrific; that otherworldly orange glow is a big part of the film’s aesthetic. Fincher always pushes his cinematographers to achieve palpable moods with their cameras, and it all started here. If anyone at Fox had the slightest idea how brilliant David Fincher really was Alien³ would have been great, but now Fincher won’t even go near it. As it stands, it’s simply an odyssey.

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