Let’s just get this out of the way now: Alien 3 is a great film… in its extended edition. Like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner before it, defenders of the film would discuss its technical and artistic merits as the work of flawed genius courtesy of haphazard producers or studio interference. It was the first time in the director’s chair for wunderkind David Fincher, one which left him so badly burned by 20th Century Fox that he remained the only director unavailable to oversee his extended edition of the film on the Alien Quadrilogy box set back in 2003. Even without Fincher’s participation, the final product in its mostly realized form proves its worth not just as an intellectual oddity, but perhaps as a defining sequel that stands alongside Alien and Aliens in equal measure.
Found in the Special Extended Edition of Alien 3 (now more commonly known as The Assembly Cut) is a restored 37 minutes and 7 seconds of footage that bridges narrative gaps, character logic, and the apocalyptic mood that David Fincher would come to be known for later in his own works. Both versions open with a planet eclipsing the sun. The story takes place almost entirely in damp, grungy hallways. Beloved characters are killed off in brutal fashion. All the more impressive? The film was only re-assembled through Fincher’s notes by producer Charles de Lauzirika. Further testament to Alien 3’s accomplishment as a final film was how, relatively, every direction pointed to something with dramatic weight more than horrific terror. Whether producers and their creative team would agree on what form the film’s story should take was another problem entirely. All the studio could agree on was its approved release date of 1992.
To call Alien 3 a controversial entry in the series is an understatement. Following Ridley Scott’s seminal classic Alien was one thing, but to follow up James Cameron’s action-horror blockbuster, Aliens, was another entirely. Both films would go on to define the science-fiction and horror genres for decades, all the while redefining the female action hero for American audiences. There were early whispers to bring back either Scott or Cameron for a third film, nonetheless, both had other commitments that halted any serious discussions at the time. After both films were successful critically and commercially, it was a business no-brainer to continue on without them. It was also a feat almost no director would agree to participate in. The producers barely even got writers to stick with it, as seemingly dozens of ideas were floating around for Alien 3 at the screenwriting stage.
Almost immediately after the success of Aliens, cyberpunk aficionado William Gibson was tapped to write a script for the third film in 1987. This version was based on ideas by franchise producers Walter Hill and David Giler about a “Marxist empire” in space that sought to use the Xenomorphs for their own gain (For curious minds: this script is now available in comic book, audiobook, and most recently, paperback novel form). Action director Renny Harlin (Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Die Hard 2) was tapped to direct, although he did not want to simply repeat the works of artists that came before him, so he spent months in pre-production before leaving the project citing creative burnout and exhaustion. This script also began the countless compromises that would permeate across the production, as Gibson was instructed to minimize the presence of Sigourney Weaver’s heroine, Ellen Ripley. This version would have focused on a buddy-action pairing of Hicks and Bishop while sending Newt off to safety along with a cryofrozen Ellen Ripley. It was a direct contrast to the female empowerment audiences had seen in the prior entries and was an additional reason why this version never got off the ground.
Following Gibson’s work and foreshadowed leave on the project, Eric Red (Near Dark) was brought on to write a draft, dismissing every surviving character and creating a new ensemble. Red would eventually disown his script as being pulled in various directions by too many producers. Where creative production truly heats up is the hiring of screenwriter David Twohy (Pitch Black) who comes up with the elements for a prison planet, and Vincent Ward, a New Zealand director. Ward is unhappy with Twohy’s take on the material but would transpose the ideas of a prison to a wooden planet run by technophobic monks. This is where the origins of religious symbolism first begin to rear their head, though Ward would also leave the project due to the now common testament of creative differences with the producers of the film, thus paving the way for David Fincher as the final replacement. In the Wreckage and Rage featurette found on the Alien Quadrilogy Blu-ray, producer Jon Landau (Aliens) criticized Ward’s vision as something more “artsy-fartsy” than the commercially viable sequel they were looking for. Ward’s rough structure of the religious setting would be placed within the confines of Twohy’s prison planet, with Sigourney Weaver’s character now the only survivor in a world surrounded by men.
Much has been said about the decision to kill off Newt and Hicks in the film’s opening, as if it somehow rendered the events of Aliens meaningless. I disagree wholeheartedly. The death of those characters could have been a cheap and easy way to establish stakes or plot, however, Alien 3 uses these deaths as a continued thesis of the saga. The universe is a cold, dark place that has no regard for anyone’s agency. “Crew expendable” MUTHUR reads in Alien. Everything that is corporate will destroy any semblance of humanity if it means filling the pockets of those in charge. But those lives still matter. There was value in every character connection Ripley made in the series. They gave her reason to live again as more than just a survivor. In fact, if I were to stretch the film’s political reading, perhaps the reading of Ripley as revolutionary is just as fitting.
Revolution is clearly on the film’s mind, as Ripley explains the trajectory of Weyland-Yutani’s policy regarding the Xenomorph to her unpredictable prison allies. First, it was the blue-collar workers of the Nostromo who were left for dead. Then we saw them treat soldiers as fodder for profitable gains. The franchise matches up various personifications of the working class to battle with the unknowable horrors from outer space and the very knowing horror of capitalist agendas. Now it turns its attention to the prison industrial complex. Charles S. Dutton’s character Dillon assists Ripley in giving a rousing speech heading into the climax of the film, “We’re all gonna die, the only question is when. This is as good a place as any to take your first steps to heaven. The only question is how you check out. Do you wanna go on your feet? Or on your fucking knees, begging?”
So, how does Alien 3 position the supporting cast around one of cinema’s greatest action heroines for its grand finale? With the inmates of Fiorina “Fury” 161, all of whom are among the most repellent ensemble of characters ever assembled for a mainstream studio picture. The characters are seemingly irredeemable by standards of respectability. Murders, rapists, and more undesirables litter the arena that will become the latest Xenomorph’s killing grounds. The inmates have found order by submitting themselves to readings of faith by Dillon’s leadership as a fellow inmate, at the same time still subjugating themselves under the boot of prison superintendent Andrews.
From future leads in Doctor Who and Game of Thrones, a murderer’s row of thespians from around the United Kingdom populated the cast with a uniform talent that still feels like a breath of fresh air today. Character actors like Pete Postlethwaite, Danny Webb, and Leon Herbert occupy the roster of the inmates while heavy-hitters like Brian Glover, Ralph Brown, and Charles Dance impose a sense of authority over the others. The leadership roles above the inmates are all cut short, of course, continuing another key element of the franchise: no one will save you, but you. In both films prior, it was Ripley fighting for her own survival or the survivors of others. Here, Alien 3 forces Ripley to contend with a world filled with characters who are potentially not worth saving. Whereas some inmates have given themselves completely to Dillon’s teachings, many openly lie to themselves about their place in a purgatorial state, with the violence escalating from blatant disrespect to even an assault on Ripley. This is, unfortunately, the worst scene in the film to no debate. It’s cheap and gross even without the character stories not directly benefiting from it. After that unfortunate bump in the road, the themes of survival and autonomy soar.
Keeping with the gender-focused conflicts of the series, Alien 3 highlights Ripley’s final battle with the phallic creature and its continued corporate backing. In tragic fashion, Ripley also discovers she has been impregnated after the events of Aliens, and it is no longer a fight for her individual survival, nor is it simply ensuring the survival of her own world. No, the worlds she knew were stolen from her. Here, the film becomes biblical. It takes the cosmically proportioned stakes of the franchise and distills it into a march towards certain death. The outcome is predetermined but Ripley manages to assemble arguably the worst humanity had to offer and turn them into our species’ last line of defense. The film rummages on the inevitability of death, leading to the most common criticism of its bleak tone, yet it finds a second life in how it builds the communal resistance to its dour proceedings. A handful of people who have been rejected from society stand against ultimate evil and it is glorious to watch unfold. A big part of that is found in Fincher’s visual work.
Sight, Sounds & Other Bugs
Legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth worked only two weeks on the film before stepping away due to health issues (one of the other countless setbacks on the production stage) so Alex Thomson would take over for the remainder of the shoot, and the results were astounding given the situation. The anamorphic scope only catches glimpses of outdoor environments, it primarily captures the narrow passageways and foundries composed of steel or stone. A constant hellish red of the finale’s leadwork reads like the final test of Ripley before she can end her fight once and for all. Her test isn’t one of physical force but of either submission or salvation.
As if he were a devil offering a final temptation, Michael Bishop appears to offer Ripley a friendly face. Internet canon and non-milk white blood stemming from a later head wound confirms this Bishop as a real flesh and blood human, suggesting the company could save Ripley and extract the Xenomorph embryo safely. Still, Ripley knows better now, shutting out the company agent as he begs for Ripley to give him and the company what they desperately desire: her body and choice. With the help of the final inmate, Morse, one she was arguably most at odds with and now her final ally, Ripley commits suicide by falling backward into a molten grave. It’s a silent farewell to one of cinema’s great protagonists and perhaps my favorite acting moment in Sigourney Weaver’s career.
However, even the film’s finale couldn’t escape the initial production meddling. There were various changes between the theatrical and extended cut that left the original version feeling chopped and screwed. In the theatrical cut, the “Bambi Burster” as this Xenomorph was so named, came from the inmates’ dog. The extended cut deletes the dog death (a genuinely unsettling kill that is even a little too far for this film’s tone) and resorts to having the creature burst from one of the last oxes the prisoners have kept for food. The single biggest omission of the film is the extended aftermath of attempting to capture Bambi. The majority of the set piece was kept intact for theaters, a labyrinth turned into a hellish fiery dungeon with the Xenomorph hunting men in the exploding tunnels, but the capture of the creature was exorcized.
As revealed in Wreckage and Rage, producers decided to cut the capture as they felt it diminished the film’s threat. It was re-added into the picture along with a subplot about prisoner Golic, played by Paul McGann of Doctor Who fame, who would become obsessed with worshiping the creature. Golic would take the role of supporting antagonist with other franchise fodder, Ash (Ian Holm) and Burke (Paul Reiser), before eventually freeing Bambi and suffering the same fate as everyone else who crossed its path. The later extended edition still contained a rough sound mix and awkwardly timed visuals for the DVD’s additional scenes before being properly color timed and sound mixed for the 2003 Blu-ray release. All the issues were cleaned up, save for the awkwardly rotoscoped Bambi movements. The compositing of the Xenomorph puppetry perhaps came about too early in the era of digital filmmaking and too rushed in the actual production of the process to really work on screen.
Arguably the biggest detriment to the theatrical cut is another issue with rotoscoping and compositing: Ripley’s death. The alien queen bursting out of Ripley’s chest with poorly matched backgrounds was an attempt by the producers to differentiate the film from Terminator 2: Judgement Day which also contains an iconic finale in a refinery (No, really. Not a joke). The extended edition retains the (mostly) intended end to Ripley. She falls back in a Christ-like pose, embracing death and the eternal rest that comes with it. The audio and visuals crescendo here into an elegance that is beyond operatic. The sun returns from the opposite end of the planet. The refinery’s shut down. The dutch and low-angled camera placements come to an end. All images are bolstered by Elliot Goldenthal’s criminally underappreciated score.
Created and scored during the L.A. city riots, Goldenthal would attribute the overbearing events as a catalyst for his work here. The operatic bravado of Goldenthal’s score mixed with the somber dramatic tones be revisited in his other iconic 90s work with Michael Mann’s Heat and both of Joel Schumacher’s Batman sequels. Regardless of opinions on the films, his work stands apart as something borderline spiritual.
The prison is emptied as Morse is shuffled off in handcuffs by Weyland-Yutani henchmen. He takes one last look at the world that offered him redemption, even if he didn’t deserve it, before being shoved toward an uncertain future. “Fuck you.” are the last spoken words by a living person in this film. The actual final words? A re-playing of Ellen Ripley’s message from the Nostromo, signing off. The transmission ends. I wouldn’t necessarily call the Alien series a complex emotional saga, though I would be dishonest if I didn’t mention how these final moments continue to leave me deeply moved by subsequent viewings.
30 Years Later…
For all the love Alien 3 has cultivated from fans in its Assembly Cut form, there is a great irony to this movie. It was heavily meddled with at every stage of production, a release date superseded an unfinished screenplay, and the director who did end up making it disowned it. By all accounts, it should be my least favorite type of film: one made without a soul. And yet, it feels like a genuinely bold and creative take on material that could have easily settled for another rousing crowd-pleaser. In an era where more and more franchises settle for divesting story interest for the sake of fan appeal, Alien 3 feels like a lightning strike of creativity.
A trilogy closer following two genuine game-changing films still swung for the fences with one of the most aggressively nihilistic stories ever produced by a major studio. Disbelief in talent, misguided agendas, and heartbreaking creative absences couldn’t stop this film from carving out its own identity, one that could also serve as a tableau for David Fincher’s own creative ethos. Even Christopher Nolan agrees as he proclaimed his fandom for the film, going on to say he believed his first viewing of Alien 3 revealed the next generation’s Ridley Scott. Actor Charles Dance would go on to declare he thought Alien 3 was better than Aliens. And you wouldn’t disagree with Tywin Lannister, would you?
Born out of the same business mentality that plagues the Hollywood industry now, Alien 3 stands the test of time as a film made by some of the most talented artists to ever grace the entertainment industry. 30 years on, perhaps the most amazing thing about this film and the original four Alien entries is their ability to adapt to the individual artists directing them. While many would still be displeased with praise of Alien 3, few would deny its DNA belonged to anyone but David Fincher. And maybe that’s the real beauty of a film as flawed as this one. Like the character of Ellen Ripley, corporate interests demanded life’s blood, sweat, and tears for profit margins. The very possibility of choice was something that must have seemed like a daydream. Despite the producers seemingly defeating Fincher on the grounds of the film’s production, the driving force of the story and all those who worked on it created something we’re still arguing the merits of today. Love it or hate it, Ripley and Alien 3 walked backwards into hell, declaring themselves as something worth remembering.