This feature originally ran in May 2017 and is being re-published again for Alien Day.
Very few people rally around Alien 3, and for good reason. When the highly anticipated sequel crashed into theaters on May 22, 1992, it didn’t take long for word to get out about how the film was so bleak and miserable. After waiting six long years for a follow-up to James Cameron’s epic 1986 sequel, Aliens, fans were immediately dropped into a cruel and terrifying world, one filled with prisoners, rapists, and indistinguishable British actors. Even worse, by the time the credits rolled, every one of their favorite characters was either dead or deactivated — and there was zero chance of them returning.
Game over, man. Game over.
Needless to say, fans despised the film and critics were mostly mixed (mostly), and its legacy hasn’t exactly improved. Director David Fincher, who made his proper debut with the film, has since disowned it altogether, citing studio interference and manic deadlines. Michael Biehn, who played Corporal Dwayne Hicks in the previous film, was so upset he was killed off-screen that he demanded the studio pay what he earned for his work in Aliens just for using his likeness here. And then there’s Cameron, the loudest of them all, who has gone on record saying the decision to kill Newt, Hicks, and Bishop was “dumb” and felt like a “slap in the face to the fans.” In some respects, he’s not wrong.
True story: On the weekend of the film’s release, my father took me to see it early Saturday morning, only we were running very late. Now, today, this kind of behavior would be uncalled for and there’s no way in hell I’d ever go into a movie 15 minutes late, but hey, I was seven years old at the time — what was I supposed to do? Nevertheless, when we finally found our seats, I vividly recall looking up, watching a very distraught Sigourney Weaver padding the chest of a small body, and thinking: That can’t be Newt, right? What’s wrong with Ripley’s eye? Where the hell are they? Where’s Hicks!?
Then this happened…
And seven year-old Michael Roffman looked like this…
Yes, the whole massacre felt like a slap in the face, but it was hardly a dumb choice as Cameron has since argued. It was risky, sure, but not dumb. Because let’s be fair, Alien 3 isn’t a dumb movie. It’s inordinately smart for a second sequel and quite an anomaly by today’s standards. After all, when was the last time a major Hollywood studio green lit a franchise film that was as hopeless and definitive as Alien 3? The closest that comes to mind is this year’s Logan, coincidentally also distributed by 20th Century Fox, but even that’s a far cry from the dour stakes of Alien 3. No, at the time of its release, this felt like the final chapter — long before the series was jerry-rigged toward a ludicrous sequel (see: Alien Resurrection), two fan-fiction spin-offs (see: Alien vs. Predator, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem), and a questionable line of prequels (see: Prometheus, Alien: Covenant) — and it’s refreshing to remember that perspective 25 years later.
What’s also intriguing about watching Alien 3 today is not so much that it’s a haunting affair, but how it’s so singular and savagely subversive. There’s very little that’s familiar or predictable about Fincher’s film, and that’s likely why it was so derided by fans upon its release. Cameron’s action-friendly sequel was such a juggernaut smash, making it easy for moviegoers to forget that the franchise originally had its roots in unnerving, gruesome horror. But it’s not a secret that the first film is a haunted house movie set in space, and Alien 3 returned to that aesthetic, only the haunted house was dropped down to a gritty hell, where not even the commissaries, medical wards, or cryo tanks were safe spaces for those running away from Xenomorphs.
Bottom line: Everyone is fair game in Alien 3, and that’s partly what makes it so disturbing. What also helps in that department is how the entire film’s awash with this lingering sense of purgatorial dread that’s fueled by a variety of elements. There’s the dreary setting of Fiorina “Fury” 161, a foundry facility that production designer Norman Reynolds (who was originally hired by previously attached director Vincent Ward) turned into a damp nightmare of concrete, garbage, and pipes; the shaved, ghostly inhabitants who have a genetic predisposition for physical violence; and Fincher and cinematographer Alex Thomson’s smoggy, dystopian sheen that removes any and all personality. Essentially, it’s the direct antidote to everything that Cameron’s flag-waving sequel stood for, and it’s not the least bit of fun — rather, it’s very, very uncomfortable.
Though, much of that discomfort likely stemmed from the chaos stewing behind the scenes. Simply put, Alien 3 wasn’t an easy film to make, and the history of its pre-production reads like a collection of expanded universe novels. Producers David Giler, Walter Hill, and Gordon Carroll weren’t interested in another retread of the first two films, but their noble creative decision unfortunately led to a hellish development process. For nearly half a decade, the three burned through a who’s who of creatives to carve out a new path for the franchise, specifically cyberpunk maestro William Gibson, hyper-action filmmaker Renny Harlin, Near Dark screenwriter Eric Red, then-budding scribe David Twohy, New Zealand visionary Vincent Ward, and Another 48 Hours screenwriter John Fasano. Each attempt was radically different from the other — some involving space malls and bio-spheres, others utilizing wooden planets and garish returns to Earth — with the end result being an amalgamation of past ideas rolled into one makeshift screenplay pieced together by Hill, Giler, and late hire Fincher.
Here’s the thing, though: The film really works, both aesthetically and narratively. Granted, this might not be where everyone wanted Ellen Ripley to go, but her journey was all the better for it. By tossing our Academy Award-nominated heroine into a sickly male-dominated world, she completes her narrative by winning over an unlikely following and sticking it to The Man as she tosses herself into the fire in what might be the most brazen pro-choice allegory ever put to celluloid. Of course, this wouldn’t have happened if Weaver didn’t insist on killing off Ripley — one of many directives the producers and writers had to tussle with leading up to the production — but it was an empowering and incredibly brave decision on her part, not only for her character but as a woman in both an industry and genre heavily run by males. It allowed the actress to end things on her terms, which is why this film’s gluttonous follow-up is the real “slap in the face.”
Another one of Weaver’s suggestions that became a saving grace to the film was a lack of weaponry. Following the Vietnam-esque firepower of Cameron’s shoot ’em up sequel, the star wasn’t interested in slapping on another pulse rifle. Instead, she requested that there be no guns, which is what, in turn, makes the overall setup for Alien 3 so tense. As Danny Web’s antihero, Morse, brutally explains to Ripley midway through the film: “What 85 is trying to tell you is that we got no entertainment centers, no climate control, no video system, no surveillance, no freezers, no ice cream, no rubbers, no women. All we got here is shit.” Those lack of resources, however, prompt the characters — especially Ripley, who becomes the prisoners’ de facto leader — to rely strictly on their wits, a commendable addition that both hearkens back to the original film and adds a certain gravitas to Ripley’s send-off. It also allows for some minor character development, which is paramount to the story given that so much of the cast looks the same, and gives some precedence to the slower scenes of which there are many.
These quieter moments, however, are among the strongest of Alien 3 and also assist in some subtle world building. You have to remember that the Internet wasn’t around at this time, and much of the mythology to the series was dependent on whatever you saw in the film and whatever comics or novels you could find in stores. Alien 3 expanded the franchise in a way that made it possible to believe there were bigger things out there. Several of the prisoner’s stories — especially Charles Dance’s Hail Mary confession about his morphine addiction and his time as a doctor on Earth — add some scope to the would that goes beyond cargo ships, while the appearance of Weyland-Yutani paraphernalia and company men elicited plenty of playground theories. That’s all without mentioning the stunning evolution of the Xenomorph, whose dog-like form flipped the script. It’s a minor sandbox by today’s measure, but the bits and pieces were exciting to dwell upon.
Not everything works, though. For instance, Stan Winston was unable to return due to commitments, but he recommended two of his past associates, Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gills, who had just established Amalgamated Dynamics. The two did a fine job replicating their mentor’s work, but the insistence on CGI effects, which made sense given the nature of the new Xenomorph, weren’t there yet and there are multiple shots that warrant a few groans. Still, H.R. Giger’s designs remain terrifying and Fincher’s disorienting shifts to first-person, sometimes even upside down, help cultivate the idea that this thing can really attack from anywhere. Another minor gripe are the occasional dips in Elliot Goldenthal’s mostly outstanding score. At times, the composer leans a little too much on the ’90s with some lame industrial guitar work that stands in direct opposition to the orchestral swells that are more in line with the franchise’s traditional sound. The suite that wraps up the film is downright powerful, though, and really embellishes Ripley’s sweeping swan song.
Look, it totally makes sense why fans hate Alien 3. It’s not an easy film to appreciate, and if you watch it directly after Aliens, it’s not just a slap in the face but a knee to the groin and mild case of dysentery. To be quite honest, there should be a sign in the credits that says: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” There’s just very little to cling to in this movie. Hell, even when new characters come into their own, such as Dance’s mild-mannered Jonathan Clemens, they’re quickly ripped apart and tossed aside. But, that’s what makes the film so ballsy, and that’s why you appreciate Ripley’s demise so much in the end. She’s gone back and forth into hell so many times that it only makes sense she would make her final stand in the lowest level. As she says to the nearby alien in the third act, “You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else.” That’s not just a clever line, though. We feel that acceptance and her exhaustion is achingly palpable.
That’s a powerful feeling and not something easily attained. Yet, as we know now, Fincher is an incredible director — arguably, one of the sharpest of his generation — and despite his objections toward the film (and the fact that this was his first foray into a major motion picture), Alien 3 is an assured thriller that earns its tyrannical ambition. Giler, Hill, and Carroll couldn’t have found a more interesting twist on the franchise, and what’s kind of remarkable about this third and ostensibly final chapter is how it essentially rounds out the Alien trilogy into a mythical dark sci-fi parable. It’s basically a total inversion of the Star Wars trilogy: Scott descended into darkness, Cameron turned on the lights, and Fincher set everything on fire. Unfortunately, at least for this franchise, even the most dire flames can be extinguished, which is why there’s a Ripley clone somewhere out there, making shots like Jordan and creeping out androids that look like Winona Ryder.
What a wonderful world.