Wednesday 13 July 2011

Alien³ (1992)


There is, in music, the notion of the difficult third album, which largely hinges on the response to the previous two. The first album shows people what you can do. If that’s a success, the second one shows whether or not it was a fluke. If that’s a success, the third should solidify the classic status of the band. Here, the band isn’t a band; it’s a Xenomorph. Following two very different, but very successful Alien movies, as is the way, the third film in the series had so much more riding on it… but where do you go with it? The Alien franchise seemed to be the one where people could take risks, could make something bold and new, could explore avenues unavailable elsewhere. In 1992, under the direction of then newcomer David Fincher, the new instalment of the incredibly successful series landed as Alien³.

After escaping from the alien planet, the ship carrying Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the others crashes into a prison-turned-ore refinery. While recovering and awaiting an air transport home, Ripley discovers her ship had an alien stowaway. As the creature grows and starts to kill the inhabitants, she has to fight the menace once again.

It’s actually a little difficult to conceive of the production nightmare that was Alien³. Between all of abandoned scripts, botched rewrites, directors coming and going, conflicting opinions and the lack of a good single central concept, it’s a wonder the film got made at all. The major driving force behind getting this film made were producers David Giler and Walter Hill. It was these two who wanted to ensure the third film was as conceptually strong as its predecessors. They threw around ideas, hired writers to work things over (including sf novelist William Gibson), looking to see where the spark would come from. Ideas ranged from giant mall space stations with a consumerist angle to a corporate spin involving a rival company to the series’ established Weyland-Yutani with a political edge, from genetically-enhanced Xenomorph species set in dusty little township in Downtown Outer Space to a sect of Luddite monks living on a small wooden planetoid with a heavy religious subtext. There was even one about a prison break on a prison station that didn’t feature Ripley at all. Ideas were not exactly in short supply, but none seemed to have the simplicity that marked the first two. Problem, though, was that they had already announced an official release date and production had already begun on the film, even though a script had not been written or even a direction agreed upon. Hell, just look at the tagline up there. That was produced before the film was completed and there was still some confusion as to whether or not the film was actually set on Earth. That's the extent of how troubled production was.

Frankly, one of Alien³’s major sufferings is that there are so many ideas and notions lying underneath the film, but none of them are adequately developed enough to make any sense. The whole script is a hash of all the ideas considered during the pre-production process. As such, the prison station is kept, with the prisoners merged with the Luddite monk idea and given a Third World labourers feel. The genetic enhancement stuff is dropped, but the idea of a new breed of alien is kept, having it burst forth from a dog, creating a more dog-like creature. There is also the feeling that we’re going over ground that we’ve already covered before. Ripley effectively returns to where she was at the beginning of Aliens, trying to be the one who warns people of the danger, only to be ignored or regarded as crazy. Weirdly, she spends some of the film, skirting the issue, not mentioning the potential alien threat, rather than the potential for a disease outbreak.

David Fincher, here taking his first crack at feature film after much success in commercials and pop promo videos, has pretty much disowned the film. In fact, he left the project so fast, the editing process had not yet even begun. There is a very real attempt from him to engage with the material in a visual way separate from the previous two films. It’s all low angles and slow zooms, covered with a brown grimy hue, and it's decent for the most part. There are other moments that are of lesser quality, specifically the Xenomorph’s perspective chase sequences, using a fish-eye lens and smudgey filter. This had been done to death already by numerous low-end Jaws rip-offs, so it does little in the way of being the fresh new way they were looking for. Fincher shouldn’t really be blamed, though, and he actually did a pretty good job of holding things together. He’s a great director with a superb sense of story and visuals, but he was fighting a losing battle from the get-go on this one.

A short note on the editing, because this is where the holes in the story have to be covered up. It’s here that you can most easily see the evidence of a lack of an overall vision for the film. The opening sequence has no real established pace or mood, the chasm between the events of the last film and this one awkwardly covered with some cheap computer readout nonsense. Those characters deserved a little better than this, but such is the awkward gear change between the last film and this one. Also, it fails to cover up all of the holes. For example, for all intents and purposes, Paul McGann’s character is still lying in a bed in a straightjacket. We don’t know if he was killed or not. There’s no mention of him after that moment. Not even a clumsy throwaway line. Nothing.

Acting overall is actually pretty decent, though you see the occasional mild strain of confusion in Weaver. In the same way that Fincher had to contend with constant last-minute changes, Weaver had to do all this on camera, where everyone could see. There are still moments where we can see the old Ripley in there, though. Tough, intelligent, a telling crack in the voice in a plea for help shows that this is the one who already knows what kind of cost fighting these things comes at. Also, credit to her for doing the Tough Chick Goes Bald here, five years before Demi Moore got so much press for doing the same in G.I. Jane. Other members of the cast get an easier time of it, since they don’t have to deal with anything outside of this instalment. Charles S. Dutton is really good as Dillon, the spiritual leader to the prisoners and apparently one of its most dangerous inmates. Charles Dance is also pretty good, recalling a sense of the understatement of the original film. Most everyone else is interchangeable, with some trying to overact their way out of the pack.

On its own merits, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot going on underneath the whole, as a result of the underdevelopment of so many ideas, with the possible exception of some very late-in-the-game ‘Ripley as Christ’ metaphor of self-sacrifice. However, given our history with the series, on a subtextual level, things seem to rather clumsily return to the notion of rape and matricide, with the added element of abortion. With Ripley having been impregnated with a mother spawn (and having a gestation period way longer than any person before), she knows that she cannot survive the ordeal of birth, and so decides to kill it and herself. Such notions would make a bit more sense in light of the religious aspect of the film as carried by the prisoner populace. However, these ideas are simply not taken advantage of, instead leaving them as largely incomplete thoughts. James Cameron actually had a good seed of an idea that fits nicely into the evolution of the series, following the notion through an exploration of a new family dynamic as set by Ripley, Hicks and Newt. Constant rewrites from multiple writers eventually saw this eliminated. Shame.

Alien³ is, put simply, kind of a mess. There is an attempt made for a particular visual style, which makes things kind of suitably grimy. However, the story is confused, unsure as to what to do with itself and ends up largely treading on ground already covered by the series. Characters are fairly interchangeable, though they do give it a good crack. Whilst not as catastrophic as some may remember it, it is a major step down after the first two.

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