Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the underwhelming third film in the ALIEN franchise, ALIEN 3 (1992):
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
I’ve always wanted to like ALIEN 3 (1992).
In fact, every few years, I say to myself, “It’s time to give ALIEN 3 another chance. It really can’t be that bad. Heck, it’s directed by David Fincher! Sigourney Weaver is back, and it takes place inside a creepy prison, what’s not to like? It’s gotta be better than you remember, right?”
I keep thinking that perhaps it’s gotten better with time.
And then I watch it, and I’m reminded of all the reasons why this just isn’t true. It hasn’t improved with time. It may never.
It’s difficult to believe that a movie with as much talent behind it as ALIEN 3 is as flawed as it is, but it’s true. Which is sad because, I mean, you have ALIEN (1979), one of the best science fiction horror movies ever, and then ALIENS (1986), a non-stop thrilling sequel directed by James Cameron, two of the top films of their kind in horror film history. ALIEN3 has just got to keep things rolling, right? Wrong.
ALIEN 3 gets off to a bad start right from the get-go. When the escape pod carrying Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) crash lands on the prison planet Fiorina Fury 161, we find out immediately that her fellow passengers and characters from the previous movie ALIENS, Hicks and the young girl Newt, have died. Likewise, the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) has been damaged beyond repair. These were three central characters from ALIENS and to kill them off without any fanfare— especially the child Newt, who Ripley was extremely close to and went to great lengths to keep alive— – simply leaves a foul taste in one’s mouth. Not good storytelling at all.
That being said, it’s certainly not a deal-breaker. While I’ve never liked this plot point, it certainly doesn’t ruin the movie for me. It’s simply the first strike.
Ripley regains consciousness and learns from the prison doctor, Dr. Clemens (Charles Dance), that she is now on a prison planet and that Hicks and Newt have died. The prison contains only the most hardened and dangerous criminals, murderers and rapists. These early scenes where Ripley becomes acclimated to her new environment are some of the better scenes in the movie, as the prison setting is both cool and creepy, the perfect setting for another Alien thriller.
And it is another Alien thriller because there was an Alien on board Ripley’s ship and it’s now in the prison. Which means that before you can shout “Great Ridley Scott!” the creature is slinking around the prison killing every inmate in its path.
Which brings me to the number one reason I never seem to be able to enjoy this movie: the Alien scenes. Go figure! Somehow, almost unbelievably so, the Alien scenes are lousy. They’re not stylish, they’re not memorable, and they’re not scary. Director David Fincher would go on to make some excellent movies, but you wouldn’t know it from watching this one.
True, the bigger story here is behind-the-scenes there were supposedly all kinds of problems on the set, things like producers meddling, multiple re-writes, and it sounds like it was a huge mess. The final product certainly plays like one.
Every time I watch ALEIN 3 I’m amazed at how ineffective the Alien scenes are in this movie. I’m not sure what Fincher was thinking when he shot these scenes, but scaring people didn’t seem to be on his mind.
Also, the Alien simply doesn’t look as good in this third film in the series. While the special effects team does not employ the inferior CGI effects used in the next film in the series, ALIEN RESURRECTION 1997), the Aien in ALIEN 3 nonetheless looks more puppet-like and nowhere near as menacing as the creature in the first two films.
As much as I enjoy Sigourney Weaver, her performance in this third movie seems a bit tired. She doesn’t seem to have the same intensity she had in the first two movies.
I like Charles Dance a lot as Dr. Clemens. He’s one of my favorite characters in this one. Unfortunately, he gets killed off early on. At times, it seems as if director Fincher and the screenwriters were trying too hard to make this film stand out from the first two movies, and many of the choices made here in the interest of shaking things up just don’t really work, like killing off Clemens.
Charles S. Dutton is also very good as head prisoner Dillon. He’s the moral leader of the prisoners and eventually teams with Ripley to lead the charge against the Alien. Brian Glover also makes his mark as the head of the prison, Andrews. I always remember Glover from his role as the outspoken chess player in the tavern in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981).
That being said, none of these guys really make for memorable characters. You’d think that a prison full of hardened criminals would be ripe with cinematic characters, but that’s simply not the case.
The screenplay by David Giler, Walter Hill, and Larry Ferguson is muddled and flawed. It gives us an atmospheric setting, the prison planet, but never manages to take full advantage of it. It also never fleshes out the characters to any degree of satisfaction.
ALIEN 3 was a major step backward for the ALIEN franchise, a slide that continued with the next film in the series ALIEN RESURRECTION (1997), and didn’t improve all that much with the two ALIEN VS. PREDATOR movies. And while Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel PROMETHEUS (2012) had its flaws, it’s still the best “Alien” film since the second one, ALIENS (1986).
ALIEN 3 has potential written all over it, but no matter how many times I view it, it remains an underwhelming chapter in the ALIEN franchise, a blip on the Nostromo radar screen, a footnote in the Alien canon, fodder for Alien face huggers, and a sad photo-op for Sigourney Weaver in a crew cut.
I wish I could say I like ALIEN 3, that it’s three times the fun. But it’s not. If anything, it’s three times less fun.
Maybe it should have been called ALIEN 1/3.