Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The case for Alien 3


There was no way Alien 3 could win. Not only was it the long-time-coming sequel to one of the most popular and revered movies of its genre, but it fed fans an early peak at a potential dream storyline, only to jerk them the other way with a more familiar, financially prudent one. Despite being an Alien/Aliens fanboy, I resisted seeing 3 for years -- and when I did I kind of enjoyed it. This feeling was enhanced recently when I watched the 2005 re-cut of the film, which puts it closer to director David Fincher's original vision before Fox stepped in. While 3 certainly is not in the same league as its predecessors (and miles away from the coloring book bird shit of Resurrection), it's also a movie that when set on its own and regarded individually is actually very enjoyable. But the movie, even in the new cut, does have some problems -- which I'll get to, but first a look back at the impossible expectations facing 3.

In the years leading up to 3, the Alien fan fervor was continually stoked by the high quality comic book and novel series by Dark Horse that took up the franchise and offered inventive stories and sometimes stunning illustrations. My experience was with Book 2 and Earth War, both of which had their own unique graphic style and followed similar storylines of large scale alien wars on Earth and beyond, with tons of action, lots of blood and new twists to the Alien universe. The overriding theme with all of the Alien comic books and novels was a lot of aliens, and possibly a conflict on Earth.

So you can imagine the response from the original teaser trailer, which was little more than a voice-over of 'They say in space no one can hear you scream -- on Earth, everyone can hear you scream.' Fantastic, Aliens on Earth! This trailer must have been made at the earliest of stages of 3's production, because even before the reported 30 drafts of the script -- the original never included Earth (Wikipedia's Alien 3 entry speaks of an early script where Hicks and Bishop are the main characters, and another where Ripley lands on a wooded planet inhabited by farmers). Further complicating the promised 'on Earth' premise is that the movie's title in that teaser was still 'Alien 3,' not 'Aliens 3' or 'More Aliens' -- indicating a singular nature of the enemy that ended up in the finished product. It seems unlikely that there would have ever been a concept centered around just one alien on Earth -- because the whole point of 'Alien' and 'Alien 3' was the lack of weapons (maybe it would have taken place in a mine? on a boat?).

3's critical and commercial meltdown upon release was exacerbated by a 'what could have been?' sentiment started by that original teaser. Instead of Ripley fighting through hordes of Aliens as she made her way up the Statue of Liberty to be picked up by Bishop at the torch (why not?), we have a movie where the title villain doesn't really make an appearance until it's halfway over. Worse yet, Ripley was dead, realistically ending any hopes for a make-good sequel.

Over the years, the stories from behind the scenes of 3 have made it a sort of modern day Mr. Arcadin or Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in terms of studio interference. After seeing the theatrical cut, Fincher essentially disowned the movie -- a gutsy statement for a first-time director -- and refused to participate in any of the DVD extras for Alien Quadrilogy (though he reportedly did do interviews for the DVD, where he blasted Fox -- and they were subsequently cut out by the studio). Despite Fincher's non-participation, the lavish set does include an extended cut of the film, which makes it more enjoyable but does not erase all of its problems.

Watching the new cut, I couldn't help but imagine how interesting 3 would have been if it wasn't part of the Alien universe. So much of the first half is dependent on the prison colony not knowing who Ripley is or what her secrets are -- if this was a standalone movie and the viewers were getting filled in along with the prisoners, it wouldn't make the first half feel so slow. The slow first half gets the best treatment in the new cut: the alien emerges from a cow instead of a dog (much more realistic -- in the original cut the dog pretty much explodes, leaving an alien in its place), there's a great little shot of a prisoner finding a dead face-hugger (presumably one that impregnates the host with a queen alien) and a few scenes enhance the character development (the best is a frightening attempt at raping Ripley by a group of prisoners, showing that they're just as dangerous as the alien).

Not until the plot development of The Company coming to retrieve the alien and Ripley, and the prisoners banding together to kill the alien do things really start to pick up and develop into a nice thriller. Lacking even the flamethrowers of Alien, the characters have to get creative to survive, and I would put these scenes among the best of the series. Perhaps the greatest (and most overlooked) strength of 3 is the acting by the first-rate cast. Charles Dutton hasn't gotten too many quality roles, and you could argue that this is his best -- possibly channeling his own prison experience. Charles Dance, Paul McGann and the great Pete Postlethwaite are all great character actors who are allowed to work without much of a leash. And of course the photography and production design we've since come to expect from Fincher is always on display in 3, presenting a dark labrynth of despair and disrepair.

The biggest problem with 3 is the alien itself -- both in how it is presented and what its role is. I used to enjoy the creature effects in 3, but that was when I saw it on VHS and it seems like the new DVD transfer really exposes the effects' problems. For the first time we really get a good look at the full alien (this was impossible with the predecessors since puppets were used), but it just never looks real. More troublesome is the creature's role in the film -- it never really gains that aura of menace and evil like the lone beast in Alien. Despite the theat of The Company's arrival, there just never seems to be a serious urgency in killing the alien -- maybe because Ripley is the only character we really care about, and she's going to die anyway from what's inside her.

The 2005 cut enhances 3, which remains an interesting scifi sequel, and an entertaining study in the studio process. I have to also mention perhaps the single-biggest change of the new cut: when Ripley dies, we don't see a fully-mature queen alien bursting out of her chest -- this always struck me as odd, since it went against everything in the previous films and helped end the movie on a frustrating note.

5 comments:

Burbanked said...

Really, really terrific post. Makes me want to go back and watch this again, and I didn't even know that this cut had been released. It goes to show what I tell everyone who knows me: people should really buy me more DVDs.

I think that good movie trilogies fall into two main categories: those that recall the original in a good, fun, but not terribly deep way; and those that truly advance the story and characters.

I've always thought that the first 3 Alien movies functioned EXTREMELY well as a true trilogy; we can really see Ripley change and grow over the course of the three stories, and - despite its shortcomings - Alien3 ENDS the story in a way that is dramatically sound and final.

Or at least it should have been.

Rob said...

I felt the same way after Alien 3 that I do after eating Top Ramen - warm and satisfied from a mediocre product.

I thought they killed off intriguing characters before getting all they could out of them. Granted, in Alienworld everybody has to die but Ripley. But the other prisoners got taken out in a way you'd expect from "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer"

It's good to know that if someone doesn't melt when submerged in molten lead, [SPOILER]you can douse them in water to crack them in half.

Boyang said...

Man, I saw Alien and Aliens when I was about 8 years old and they scared the living crap out of me.

I recently read the first Alien novel called Earth Wars. And it rekindled my interest in the Alien series. I bothered me a long time because I don't know who Corporal Wilks and Billie were in the novel. But they seemed to be so familiar to me. Later I found out that Wilks was Corporal Hicks from the second movie and Billie was Newt. It was very interesting to see what had happened to them after the second movie.

Then I watched the 3rd movie. and the first thing they tell you is that the escape pod crashed and Hicks, Bishop, Newt all freaking died in a single blow. WOW...upon hearing this, my interest in the movie dropped dramatically. It just seemed like all of those who I care about are dead. "so this is how Hollywood does things? By killing off every character to make everything jam-able into 2 hours of film with complete disregard of how the story was continued in the comics and the novels? "

And I agree with the blog in the fact that I was expecting aliens, not alien. I really wanted to see the large scare battles that took place when the aliens took over earth. And while watching aliens3 you know ripley is not going to die and that kind of took the suspense away. another thing about the movie I don't like is that all the prisoners seemed to be so chill about that alien.

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