Before director David Fincher became a household name with Se7en, Zodiac and The Social Network, his questionable directorial debut with Alien 3 has been dismissed by critics and audiences alike, but more greatly misunderstood as the third installment of the Alien franchise.
As a fan of this franchise, I too can attest that Alien 3 is an absolute mess of a film. From it’s famously documented turbulent shooting with an unfinished script to an even more complicated post-production process, Alien 3 was fighting a losing battle in one of the greatest franchises of it’s era.
Blockbuster vs. Masterpiece
On the cusp of his newest release Gone Girl, David Fincher has been in the industry long enough to warrant all the creative licensing he needs for each film he makes now. But back in 1991, his reputation and resume resided on producing a few music videos for Madonna. And that was it.
After the success of Aliens, 20th Century Fox planned to move forward with a third installment to the franchise, but the film was plagued from day one. From Sigourney Weaver’s reluctance to return, to constant interference from Fox even down to a teaser trailer alluding to the plot falsely being set on Earth. The film had absolutely no direction from those in charge, and no direction on what it wanted to be as a movie. Initial director Vincent Ward abruptly left the project after creative differences with 20th Century Fox who wanted to make Alien 3 a cash cow blockbuster rather than a science fiction thriller. Ward’s plot entailed Ripley landing on a wooden spaceship inhabited by monks who viewed her arrival as a test by their God; the arrival of the alien would subsequently be their version of the devil. But Ward’s plot was met with a darker threat–budgeting. While Ward wanted bigger and better for the the set of his plot, the studio grimly denied his plans. Due to creative differences, Ward left the project. Enter newcomer David Fincher.
“They look at these movies like a franchise. There are people, who shall remain nameless, that I was bumping into as I was trying to put this thing together who were putting the experience into a really interesting kind of perspective. They were saying ‘Look, you could have somebody piss against the wall for two hours and call it Alien 3 and it’s going to do $30 million worth of business, you can’t keep people away. They’re going to go the first night to see what it is.’” David Fincher via MossFilm
Fox Studios had already re-written the Ward’s “wooden planet” to be a prison planet inhabited by prisoners instead of monks. Fincher then began to tackle production shooting on a set with an incomplete script. Actors became frustrated as their lines would change while filming. Despite his passion for the project and apparent talent, Fincher wouldn’t gain the respect from the studio suits overseeing production and would play more as their puppet as opposed to their director.
The rookie director was met hesitantly by Alien veteran Sigourney Weaver.
“Well, I was a bit apprehensive about having a guy who directed Madonna videos direct this movie. So I asked him, at one of our production meetings at 20th Century Fox, in Los Angeles: ‘How do you see the character of Ripley?’ He said, ‘I see her bald…’ I immediately liked the idea. I guess I was relieved that he had any image of her at all. That told me more about how he saw this film than anything else. He saw Ripley as very vulnerable — her against everything and everyone. And I liked that. All I said was, ‘Well, if I shave my head, then my price goes up.’ Everyone laughed nervously. I didn’t get another dime!” Sigourney Weaver via Empire Online
The Weak Script
The conclusion of 1986’s Aliens left Ripley, Corporal Hicks and Newt on a shuttle in hypersleep after nuking the alien planet from orbit. Alien 3 continues the story with their shuttle crash landing onto an all-male prison planet inhabited by the worst criminals. Fury-161 is dark, eerie and Ripley is the lone survivor from the shuttle. This is where the script tanks. Killing off Hicks not only disappointed Michael Biehn who later sued for his likeness attempting to be used in the film (and winning as much as he earned from Aliens), but it felt like a slap in the face to James Cameron. Ripley is alone again, but this time it’s more personal than a fight for survival. “You’ve been in my life for so long, I can’t remember anything else.”
Unsurprisingly, an alien was on board the shuttle. The chestburster impregnates a dog, which is the first time we learn of the changing anatomy that can take place with the alien. It’s now faster and physically more structured like a dog. The alien ensues the usual agenda of wreaking havoc onto Fury-161 and annihilating everyone who crosses it’s path. The scale of the film is promising, but the second half of the film remains flimsy and uncalculated. Even the conclusion feels sloppily thrown together at the last minute…because it was. After filming in England wrapped, David Fincher kissed the project goodbye for re-shoots in Los Angeles and film editing. 20th Century Fox had pushed Fincher to a breaking point of literally no return.
Fincher brought a damn good cast of supporting actors and probably the best acting from Sigourney Weaver from the three films. Medical officer Clemens (Charles Dance) and Paul McGann’s small performance as Golic both serve as performances worthy of attention. But it’s Charles S. Dutton who delivers some of the most poignant lines of the film without hesitation.
“You’re all gonna die. The only question is how you check out. Do you want it on your feet? Or do you want it on your knees? Begging? I ain’t much for begging! Nobody ever gave me nothing! So I say fuck that thing! Let’s fight it!” Charles S. Dutton as Dillon.
The set is also abnormally creepy as it steps away from the traditional space craft with the safety shuttle on the side. On this planet there’s no escape, and that gives it a dreary edge of doom that the outlook of survival on this weaponless planet is grim.
Fincher also brings back the ‘less is more’ terror tactic that Ridley Scott used in the original Alien. By showing less throughout the majority of the film, it created a greater sense of urgency and unease of what’s around the next corner. Fincher’s famously lauded low shot angles created to generate movement as the alien also brought a new visual experience to the film that the previous films had never explored.
According to Fincher…
After the film’s negative backlash post-release, Fincher gave a candid phone interview in 1993 with journalist Mark Burman, originally meant for the BBC, which was then published in the premier issue of Imagi-Movies Magazine in the Fall of that year.
“I think audiences find it pretentious and ponderous and resent the fact it’s not a scary-scare movie. It’s a queasy-scare movie. The first thing that we decided was that the alien wasn’t going to be the main focus. It’s like the bridge on the river Kwai. The bridge is one of the things you have to deal with, that’s not what the movie is about. The idea was not to make a whiz bang, shoot ‘em up. But to deal with this character. Let’s put a 40-year-old woman in outer space, not an underwear-clad victim like in the first Alien.” David Fincher via Empire Online
The 1992 theatrical cut of Alien 3 had a running time of 114 minutes, which was far shorter than Fincher’s original assembly cut of 144 minutes.
“Oh God, if you could only read the original story. It just makes me weep. It was difficult for me to meet Paul McGann because I was such a big fan. What happened was a test screening audience of 18-year-old kids in Long Beach, California decided that they weren’t interested in what happened to Golic. They weren’t interested in what he gave the movie. People also wanted the movie to be shorter because you can play it more times a day. So a whole subplot was lost that to this day I feel is very important and certainly answers a lot of the critics questions about my inability to tell a story.” David Fincher via Empire Online
After what critics deemed a failure, Fincher returned to making music videos for Michael Jackson, Aerosmith and Sting for the next few years. It wasn’t until 1995 where he directed his next feature film, Se7en.
As for Sigourney Weaver and the future of Ripley, she claimed, “This is the last one for me. I have never been more sure about anything. If there’s another Alien, then they will have to do it without Ripley.”