Alien Week: Alien 3 (1992)
Alien 3 opened the weekend of May 22nd, 1992, one week after Lethal Weapon 3 and one week before Sister Act. American audiences were certainly not ready for a summer blockbuster that served as a meditation on death; even in its original theatrical version, director David Fincher’s nihilistic vision trickled through. U.S. critics and audiences were not pleased, after the last two Alien movies, they were expecting something more easily digestible. It wasn’t until it hit the overseas markets that appreciation for it began to rise, and 25 years later, it’s become a cult hit. But, frankly, I don’t blame anyone for initially turning their nose up at Alien 3. After Alien and Aliens, it’s a massive change of tone in the franchise, one that upped the ante in terms of violence while also focusing on finality and, more specifically, death.
The film begins on the Sulaco, the ship that Ripley, Hicks, and Newt escaped on at the end of Aliens. There’s a xenomorph egg aboard, which unleashes a facehugger that cracks Newt’s cryo-tube. The three humans are asleep during all this, as the alien’s blood causes a fire and emergency measures send them out of the ship via an escape pod. This all happens during the expertly cut opening credits, bursts of action and sound are shown in between shots of silent, dark space. We are seeing the deaths of two beloved characters, Hicks and Newt. Pre-production decisions were the cause for their ousting, but Fincher and the screenwriters used their removal as the foundation for the dark road Ripley travels in Alien 3.
Whether you watch the theatrical version or the ‘Assembly Cut’, the film ends the same way — Ripley makes the ultimate sacrifice after she finds out she has a queen xenomorph inside her. In the finale moments, in order for the nefarious Weyland–Yutani company not to get a hold of the creature, she jumps into a raging furnace. Alien 3 was supposed to be the end of Ripley’s journey. Sigourney Weaver had been wanting to kill Ripley for some time, even approaching James Cameron on Aliens, wanting her to die there. Luckily, Cameron talked her out of that, and we have Aliens, a shoot ‘em up, sci-fi action masterpiece. Cameron needed a positive ending for his Alien sequel, which served as a response to the defeat America was dealt in the Vietnam War. By the time Alien 3 came around, Weaver was lucky to have David Fincher take over the franchise’s reins. Fincher is the perfect person to deal with the death of Ripley — this is an idea that works better on paper, in retrospect, 25 years later.
From Se7en to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, after his debut with Alien 3, Fincher dealt expertly with the morbid and misanthropic state of man. Even with his ‘softest’ film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fincher is trying to process the death of his father by boiling down human existence to a ticking clock. In Alien 3, Ripley is tossed onto the planet Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161, where a penal colony of men has created their own fundamentalist religion. She is told Hicks and Newt are dead, but she has little time to grieve, as she fights to survive. What was promised to her, a new family unit, is quickly taken away. Her dream is gone and she awakens in a nightmare; Fiorina is an unclean, unfriendly place, and as the xenomorph shows itself and starts killing the prisoners, the planet becomes a living Hell. Through the course of the film, the leader of the colony’s religion, Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) proselytizes and prays for the dead, but when God doesn’t come to save them, it’s up to Ridley and the men to take action and deal evil a final blow.
Even in Dillon’s prayers, there’s a sense of hopelessness mixed in with hope:
“Why? Why are the innocent punished? Why the sacrifice? Why the pain? There aren't any promises. Nothing certain. Only that some get called, some get saved. She won't ever know the hardship and grief for those of us left behind. We commit these bodies to the void with a glad heart. For within each seed, there is a promise of a flower, and within each death, no matter how small, there's always a new life. A new beginning. Amen.”
Fincher had just directed some of the most influential music videos of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, but that didn’t help him from being a target for studio heads who weren’t comfortable with the dark tone of their latest Alien sequel. The film was cut to shreds and Fincher has since abandoned it, refusing to acknowledge its existence. Then in 2003, the DVD behind-the-scenes producer extraordinaire Charles de Lauzirika went to Fincher’s original production notes and pieced together an ‘Assembly Cut’ that is as close to the director’s original vision as we’ll probably ever get. The religious undertones are more prevalent in the ‘Assembly Cut’ — Ripley falls Christ-like in her final moments in the new cut, rather than grabbing the alien that has burst through her chest in the original cut — but even in the theatrical version, there’s a sense of closure, a ‘last rites’ in the Alien franchise.
What does the xenomorph want? In the grand scheme of things, the xenomorph, like humans, wants to survive and propagate its species. But, in doing so, it kills. It’s the personification of death as it speeds through the hallways, massacring each prisoner one by one. Ripley has a clear understanding of this. After she finds out a queen xenomorph is inside her, she knows the one thing she must do — die.
Ripley goes searching for the xenomorph and talks to it like its death itself:
“Where are you when I need you?... You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else. Now do something for me. It’s easy, just do what you do.”
Having gone through two face-offs with the xenomorph, all she has seen is death. Even the two people she cared about most have died at the hands of this monster. In Alien 3, the xenomorph becomes something more than just a monster in a sci-fi movie. In the ‘Assembly Cut’, one of the prisoners looks upon it as a divine being, freeing it from its enclosure so it can kill him and his fellow men, not before looking directly at it in awe. This is what Ripley finally figures out by the end of Alien 3, there is no more running away from the monster once it has reached you, there is salvation only in death and darkness. Much like the opening credits, which go back and forth between the fury and the darkness of space, the film ends with the furnaces going out on Fiorina, as we see a computer monitor spout out ‘End of Transmission’ before it cuts to a silent black screen, then credits. The fury and the end — a heavy concept to add in a summer blockbuster. Thankfully, with time comes acceptance, and Alien 3 is more than just a maligned franchise sequel, it’s a blockbuster with teeth that even the studios and its critics couldn’t kill.