They say, In Space No One Can Hear You Scream. It can also be said that, After Alien 3, You Can Hear a Pin Drop. This was my experience with David Fincher’s debut film, which I saw in a packed theater on opening night at the Wharf Cinema Center. The 1992 summer movie season was just getting started and it had been six long years since James Cameron’s “Aliens” had rocked the socks off of filmgoers worldwide. The anticipation for the new film in the “Alien” franchise was so enormous, I recall some predicting it would be the top dog of the summer. The trailers were airing around the clock on TV, with the shot of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley getting this-close to the face of an alien becoming iconic well before anyone saw the movie. My Dad and I were practically giddy to take our seats and the theater was buzzing as the lights dimmed. When the end credits rolled and audiences began to spill out, the mood was drastically different. It was like departing from a funeral procession and no one was smiling. It wasn’t even due the downbeat nature of the film- you could hear the disappointment, as post-movie chatter was full of whispered grumbling. It reminded me of the summer before, when my Dad and I left the opening night screening of “Hudson Hawk” and sensed the audience hostility towards the film an hour in.
Aside from reports that “the French loved it and consider it the best one,” few were fond of “Alien 3” the first time they saw it. Expectations had a great deal to do with it, as Fincher’s visual palette, the depressing story and the unceasingly dark tone was a sharp contrast to the mounting excitement in Cameron’s masterpiece. Reports that the film had a “troubled” production didn’t help, though the finished result didn’t seem like a filmmaker/studio compromise. If anything, Fincher’s film is so unbearably grim (though always compelling), you can’t watch it and accuse the filmmakers of going soft, making artistic compromises and trying to appeal to the mainstream. When you vividly stage a dog exploding early on, the goal is clearly establishing a dour mood and not trying to win over the masses.
The opening credits are an assemblage of quick cuts, fusing the narrative of “Aliens” with this one and adding a dire tone from the introductory frames. Weaver’s Ripley, along with Michael Biehn’s Hicks and Carrie Henn’s Newt are still asleep as their ship travels through the cosmos. An alien aboard the ship causes a crash in which only Ripley survives. Or, as the “Friday the 13th” Nintendo game used to end its game sessions, “You and Your Friends Are Dead. Game Over.” While we never see Hicks (other than a screen shot from the previous film) and Henn’s double looks nothing like her, the sense of loss is enormous. If “Aliens” was about Ripley creating a family unit and building on the life she lost by spending so much time in space, then “Alien 3” is about the inevitability of death. The distressing opening quickly establishes that this isn’t going to be any fun.
Ripley is rescued and resuscitated on Fiorina Fury 161, a wasteland planet with a massive prison complex. The inmates are all male and, due to a lice outbreak, have their heads shaved (a great touch, as the Alien’s insect-like appearance is already prevalent in the outbreak of bugs amongst the prisoners). Aside from the compassionate doctor (played by Charles Dance) and the religious leader of the group (played by Charles S. Dutton), the prisoners and the wardens are ratty and dangerous. The sudden presence of a woman in their hive stirs their curiosity and lust. Just when it seems Ripley may become adjusted to living in this Dante-esque hell, the Alien appears and begins ripping everyone to shreds.
While Vincent Ward is credited as the screenwriter, the filmmakers cannibalized his far more inventive story. Gone is the cracked genius of his “wooden planet” and the presence of monks and surreal visions. Instead, the setting is less ambitious (if no less impressive in scale) but the religious imagery and themes remain intact.
Weaver eventually shaves her head (and looks terrific bald, by the way) and strongly resembles Maria Falconetti from Carl Theodore Dryer’s 1928 “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” This was presumably an intellectual choice, given Ripley’s religious posing and existential dilemma.
Weaver is phenomenal and even better here than in her Oscar-nominated turn in “Aliens.” She makes Ripley a striking, haunted figure but she also never fails to hit the emotional demands of the role, which are considerable. Dance and Dutton are outstanding but the rest of the actors (many of whom are distinguished British film and theater veterans) don’t stand out. The other supporting males are assigned characters who, both in appearance and their demeanor, are interchangeable.
There are only two action sequences and they’re more about chaos and scrambling for survival than set pieces meant to generate excitement. The solid visual effects by Richard Edlund and Fincher’s feel for the setting go a long way to keeping this from becoming a grinding bummer.
The film’s aforementioned most famous shot, in which a terrified Ripley goes face to face with the Alien, only inches away from the snarling creature, sums up the film as a whole. The image signifies the intimate connection between the warrior and the monster, how their existence can only mean certain death for one another. Dutton’s key line in the late going: “You’re all gonna die, the only question is how you check out.”
If Ripley’s victory at the end of “Aliens” was to ascend to the heavens with her newfound family, she spends “Alien 3” in hellfire, with damned souls and a devil that won’t stop plaguing her until one of them (or both of them) no longer lives. “Alien 3” is about having a noble, dignified death and choosing to sacrifice yourself in order to save others. Like everything else here, the ending isn’t easy to take but it has an undeniable impact.
Fincher’s film (which he now disowns) is imperfect but exudes his confidence, artistry and gift at world building, even in a production with a journey as tortured as its protagonist. While “Alien 3” is the weak link in the franchise, it’s outlived its status as summer of “92 failure. For Weaver and Fincher, it’s a tremendous testament to their abilities, which is enough reason to give this underappreciated work another chance.