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.
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.
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.