After two artistically and financially successful films, where next for 20th Century Fox’s sci-fi horror franchise? Why, another sequel of course – but could they make it three out of three? Defying the usual pattern of cranking out sequels as soon as possible to milk the cash cow, there was a six year gap between Aliens and its successor, though this was not really intentional. In the meantime, the studio’s Predator franchise was born in 1987 to try and tide the same audience over, itself spawning a sequel as well as a future crossover franchise (triggered by the infamous shot of the skull trophy case in 1990’s Predator 2).
As has been well documented, this was no normal period of development hell – Alien 3 became a real problem child for the studio and producers David Giler and Walter Hill. They were determined to keep to the successful established pattern of picking an up-and-coming hot talent to take the reins, but finding the right direction to take the story for the next episode proved a real sticking point. Directors and scripts came and went with alarming speed. Writers such as William Gibson, David Twohy and Vincent Ward took a stab, only to have their efforts tossed in to the bin. Renny Harlin was first offered the director’s chair (what were they thinking?), followed by Ward, but both were shown the door when a satisfactory script failed to surface. Giler and Hill eventually took charge and wrote a script themselves, using various elements from earlier drafts; but this was also rejected by Fox. Finally first-time director David Fincher was signed up, and Giler and Hill continued to revise their script, even as the film was forcibly pushed into production. Star Sigourney Weaver herself got involved to try and get the development mess in to some sort of shape.
It has been said before, but it’s worth saying again: Alien 3 should have been an utter disaster, and indeed initially it was reviled by most fans of the previous entries. This is quite understandable. Once again the tone of the film changed tack; instead of taking the easy road and simply serving up more of the same, Alien 3 bravely tried to go in its own direction. Gone are the colonial marines and their firepower (most of the survivors from Aliens are disposed of in the opening minutes with shocking speed); gone too is the haunted house in space from the first film. In their place are some 25 fairly nasty convicts, mostly converted to a “Christian fundamentalist” religion, populating a lice-ridden, broken-down prison complex (bereft of any sort of weapons) on an obscure, desolate world: inhumane people on an inhumane planet. Bleak is just the beginning. The story, unfashionably downbeat with religious overtones, was almost certainly not what the studio or fans were hoping for. No wonder audiences left crushed and disappointed.
I have to admit, I was one of them when I first saw it. The loss of Hicks, Newt and Bishop was especially traumatic. The marvelously gripping ending of Aliens was suddenly negated, its meaning cut out and lost. There were odd and frustrating story inconsistencies (where DID the egg on the Sulaco come from?). And the lack of any characters to warm to in the new film – no Parker or Brett, no Hudson or Hicks here – made it difficult to empathise with the plight of the prisoners when hell expectedly breaks loose. Even Ripley herself seemed strangely alien, with her shaven head and having become so fatalistic about her nemesis that she welcomes her own death at the end.
But time has been rather kind to Alien 3. Once over the initial shock and disappointment, and accepting the fact that it was admirably and determinedly going to be its own beast, the true qualities of Alien 3 have slowly emerged. Director David Fincher by all accounts had a nightmare experience trying to make the film, with constant interference from the studio, but credit for the final product almost certainly should be laid at his feet. His subsequent films have proven him to be a greatly talented director, but Alien 3 showed this talent first emerging. The bleak atmosphere, eschewing the adrenaline rush of Aliens, is one to savour. It’s certainly memorable, more so than the characters; and even if the final script was a mishmash of ideas from earlier drafts, the story and setting proved to be intriguing science-fiction. Fincher’s direction turns the script in to an intense sci-fi horror thriller that refuses to go for a happy ending. If Aliens was a ‘beer-and-snack’ movie, this is a whisky flick: no fizz, just savour the strength and mood. Even the photography makes it look like it was shot through a glass of Scotland’s finest: all yellows and browns, deceptively warm-looking, but actually anything but. In this regard it is certainly the equal of its predecessors, providing a location and atmosphere as godforsaken as its Alien visitor.
And although the characters are no match for its predecessors, it does have one or two highlights. In a cast full of British character actors, Charles Dance as Clemens comes across as pretty much the one likeable guy in the whole place, exuding charisma in a charisma-free zone. The legendary Brian Glover is also good value as the warden Andrews (“This is rumour control. Here are the facts!”), as is Ralph Brown as his assistant Aaron, blessed with an IQ of 85. Of the prisoners, Charles S. Dutton as Dillon is the most likeable, emerging as a reluctant leader to his wayward flock. Paul McGann and Pete Postlethwaite are also in there, and of course good old Lance Henriksen turns up in a baffling cameo at the end as ‘Bishop II’, causing much debate about whether he was just another android or in fact the real Bishop that designed the android, as he claimed he was.
Mention should also be made of Elliot Goldenthal’s melancholy score, memorable throughout for its sombre, medieval mood. The early CGI looks a little primitive these days, but on the whole the effects are fine; the occasional cuts to space as the Company’s ship races to ‘rescue’ Ripley is a welcome nod to Scott’s original, as is the ghostly radio message heard at the very end. And while one certainly laments the fact that the film as a whole failed to be as satisfying as the earlier two entries, it does at least take itself seriously: there are some great set-pieces, particularly the climax, and it provides satisfying closure to Ripley’s story. On its own terms, Alien 3 is undoubtedly good, grown-up science-fiction horror.