So what’s the deal with critics hating on Alien3?
Consider the cannon. First there was Ridley Scott’s Alien in 1979 which is, though still a powerful film and a prime example of how to execute the horror movie paradigms, kind of like the first Saw movie (or any of the Saw movies for that matter): it is only truly shocking and fantastic the first time you see it, and that’s only if someone hasn’t spoiled all of the good moments for you already. Next came James Cameron with Aliens in 1986, by the best film in the trilogy (quadrilogy, pardon me), that took off running with all of the superior elements of the first film and filling in the rest with a far more interesting roster of memorable characters and a more intricate though not too complex set of subplots all the while letting the character of Ripley evolve from the mewling happenstance survivor into the badass, flamethrower-wielding heroine that everyone recognizes her as, and making Sigourney Weaver the first woman to ever get a Leading Actress Oscar nomination for a science fiction movie. (I’m going to omit talking about the well intended but duly maligned Alien: Resurrection – I don’t blame you, Joss Whedon.)
The first two films have a pretty even stance amongst critics, with 97% and 98% fresh ratings respectively on RottenTomatoes.com. And then there’s 1992’s Alien3, the debut feature film of the now critical darling director David Fincher, with a sad 42%. The collective belief amongst critics is that the script is poorly written, that the message is too nihilistic, and that the overall effect is flashiness and not terror. While the movie bears the unmistakable looseness of a rookie filmmaker, calling this film out as flashy and nihilist feels more like the protestation of critics who only tolerate science fiction and horror movies rather than embracing their ability to be wholly unique and all-encompassing and their potential as the ultimate outlet for allegorical storytelling. This is a classic case of a film ahead of its time: had this movie been released, say, fifteen years later in 2007 it would be lauded as cinematic artwork on par with Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky.
One of the main reasons that this movie is so grossly misjudged is because they have been disillusioned by the previous installment into thinking that trajectory of the film should follow the more action based story. Alien3 is a horror movie, and not only that but scripted as the ending of a trilogy and not as a sequel. Although the precedent is scarce, horror trilogies have a very specific format for third installments not unlike the basic rules for any cinematic tri-part story. Major final film elements include grand revelations (evil corporation Weyland-Yutani was only ever interested in procuring a xenomorph specimen and not saving innocent bystanders) and special antagonists (the alien is born of an animal and not a human, giving it special abilities), but most importantly the elimination of star characters. Not only are valiant Hicks and adorable Newt killed off right as the movie begins, but also Bishop is destroyed and (SPOILER) Ripley jumps into a furnace – in fact, only one character from the prison planet survives but with a gun shot wound. Horror movies are inherently nihilistic from the get go, and as such horror movie trilogy endings should have even more nihilistic because the death toll is exponentially multiplied. Complaining that a horror movie is too nihilistic is about as stupid as complaining that romantic comedy is too sweet.
If I had to choose one thing about this movie that I find truly exceptional, it would have to be the cast of characters. Granted the Colonial Marines of Aliens were a great cocktail of personalities, the inhabitants of Alien3 have depth to them even though we know (because this is a horror movie) that they are all potential throw-away characters. One standout is Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance as medical officer Clemens whose screen time, though brief, is just the right amount of sub-plot intrigue that subtly hints at themes of redemption through suffering. Charles S. Dutton is fantastic as the Bible-thumping prison leader Dillon, a pseudo horror-sci-fi parallel to Morgan Freeman’s Sgt. Maj. Rawlins in Glory, leading a band of amazing unsung actors who really sell their psychotic inmate characters with great conviction.
Most important of all though is, of course, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. Through the first two films she grew from frightened woman, to happenstance warrior, to an unforgiving Joan-of-Arc heroine; her transformation, as much as a character as female lead, is really quite fantastic and serves as the true beating heart of this movie. In Alien, her survival is just as much a product of luck as it is anything else; her gender is kept in the background of the viewers perspective and is only truly acknowledged at the end of the film when you get to see her in her underwear. In Aliens, Ripley is showcased in classic style of the headstrong James Cameron lady as independent except for the fact that her womanhood is pigeonholed into wife and mother archetypes from her relationships with Newt and Cpl. Hicks. But in Alien3 she is truly her own person, literally and figuratively leaving her on her own. Her shaved head represents the idea of this neutrality, visually consolidating her with the rest of the inhabitants of Fury-161 and thus allowing her be seen for her merits rather than some through sexualized blinders.
Alien3 does well in keeping with the stark tone of the other films, but unlike the others there is something wonderfully unique and almost beautiful about it. It is a tragic thing when someone is convinced that his work of art is anything less. After the studio took the masterful film and butchered it into something apt for defamation, you can hardly blame the young filmmaker for denouncing it as he did. Although the original intended cut of the movie presumably no longer exists, the assembly cut of the film shows a well-defined and self-aware cinematic identity. It is a movie worth watching again and again and again, worthy of study and, if not love, than at the very least respect.