by Jake Hirschfeld
In 1992 it must have seemed like a great coup for a first time director to be handed the keys to the Alien franchise. This was a time when there had never been a bad Alien movie, when the only two films in the series had been wildly popular with audiences and critics alike. There was genuine prestige attached to this property. It’s hard to imagine how big of a letdown it was when the whole thing went bad. David Fincher has said on many occasions that after the terrible experience he had making Alien3 he believed he would never make another feature film again. The production was beset by a myriad of problems and Fincher felt stifled by studio interference from the outset. He has since disowned the film entirely, having walked off the production when the studio ordered reshoots and took no part in the editing process. This may explain the uneven quality of the final product, but in watching it now I couldn’t help but feel Fincher succeeded in the sense that he brought the series back to it’s roots and, faint as this praise may be, gave us the third best xenomorph movie.
The trouble starts right at the beginning. The way that Hicks and Newt are killed at the outset, as if the movie needs to clear its throat, puts us in a hole that we never fully climb out of. People loved Aliens. They still do. Fans of the series feel connected to the characters who made it off LV426. Hicks took an acid shot to the chest. Bishop got torn in half. Ripley went to war to save a little girl’s life. To find out that was all for nothing after we had been so invested in that journey feels like a betrayal. It starts us off in a place of wanting to deny what we see on the screen, to say “this doesn’t count” and disconnect from the story. The result is that the film has no chance to draw us in and make us feel. A sense of numbness permeates the entire movie.
Ripley, the sole survivor of the Sulaco, crash lands on penal colony Fiorina 161. The facility is home to a small, all male group of prisoners and guards who chose to remain on the planet after the prison was shut down some years ago. Though we spend virtually the entire run of the movie stuck with these “murderers and rapists of women,” most of them seem interchangeable from one another. Only Charles S. Dutton’s Dillon and Charles Dance’s Clemens appear to have any characteristics beyond their shaved heads and wardrobe, which makes the choice to kill off Clemens less than an hour in all the more perplexing.
The result is that in the bloodiest Alien movie to date, we come away with the least dread and suspense. Characters are dispatched with such frequency that we quickly become inured to their plight, which is made all the easier by the fact that we never get to know them that well in the first place. It all starts to feel kind of obligatory, a sort of xenomorph paint by numbers that all comes to a head in a sequence featuring a POV alien chasing inmates through an endless series of identical corridors. The sequence lasts ten minutes and feels like thirty as we find ourselves at various points disoriented, confused, and finally just exasperated by the repetitive monotony.
The shame here is that you can see the seeds of the good movie this could have been. There are moments and scenes that work quite well, and most of the performances are good. The biggest thing the film has going for it is that Ripley is still Ripley. Sigourney Weaver knows this character front and back and gives us exactly the portrayal that we want. Ripley is decisive, intelligent, resourceful, unsentimental, and inherently decent. Every time Ripley addresses the prisoners, comes up with a plan, sneers at an idiot, shows poise in the face of adversity, we feel right at home. But Ripley can only do so much in a movie where she is the only thing that doesn’t blend into the background.
Considering his own disownment of it, it may not be worthwhile to view this movie in relation to the rest of David Fincher’s work. It is probably fair to say that this film bears little if any resemblance to his more lauded future efforts. Still, I think it stands as an interesting case study and a lesson that not all great careers have auspicious beginnings. Sometimes even the best of us need a practice run before we get it right.