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Alien 3 (1992,USA)

02/06/2011

Director: David Fincher      Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dance, Charles S. Dutton, Brian Glover, Ralph Brown, Paul McGann

The six year gap between Aliens and Alien 3 felt a lot shorter for me. Not having seen the Colonial Marines do their thing in the cinema meant that it was home video (back in the days when the rental window felt like an eternity) and then the TV version (an even longer window). Nonetheless the time between the very exciting announcement there would be a third installment to the series and the actual release of said installment (not to mention the same rental window issues) seemed interminable. I remember reading about it in the Dark Horse Alien comics with all the attendant speculation and expectation about the return of the much loved franchise to the screen.

Perhaps it was this fervour and expectation that led to the lukewarm reaction to Alien 3 when it was finally released. This much (and wrongly) maligned film was the debut feature of erstwhile music video director David Fincher, a man who these days is widely regarded as an accomplished, some might even say genius, director. What’s odd about Alien 3 is that it bears all the Fincherisms that make his later films (Seven, The Game, Fight Club) so good and yet, for some reason, it’s quite difficult to find people who have good things to say about it. Word of warning, this review contains spoilers (not just for this film but the earlier installments too) so if you for some reason are labouring through life without having seen any of the Alien films, go and get your act together and watch them now. I’d hate to ruin the surprise.

When a fire breaks out on the Sulaco, the cryogenic pods housing the sleeping survivors of LV426 are ejected in the Sulaco’s emergency escape vehicle which lands near an all but abandoned lead works on the prison planet of Fiorino “Fury” 161. Ripley is the only one to survive the crash landing, rescued by the medical officer tasked with taking care of the last remaining custodians of the facility, a motley crue of “double Y chromosome” rapists and murderers. As if the presence of a woman was not distruptive enough, another uninvited guest hatches out and causes more serious problems for the inmates than their reignited libidos and with little or no resources they are forced to work together in a fight for survival against another alien specimen.

Like Aliens before it, Alien 3 manages to add to the established Alien mythology without detracting from what has come before. In this film (depending on the cut) the facehugger nabs an animal (in the theatrical cut a dog, the directors cut an ox) to act as a host for the alien. When it hatches it has taken on some of the characteristics of the host, the end result being a fast moving, quadrapedal killing machine which carries the main characteristics of the original beast – the faceless carapace, the secondary mouth – and yet manages to be something new and more animalistic. It also provides an opportunity for a nifty, fisheye lensed “alien cam” as it chases down its prey in the factory corridors. Presumably as a direct result of this less humanoid creature it is also the first alien in the series to be animated rather than a man in a suit and I have to say the stop motion animation of the alien is excellent, although the integration of the animated footage with the live action scenes is occasionally jarring. Given that this predates the over reliance of Hollywood on CGI though it’s pulled off very effectively and brings something fresh to the party.

Opting to ally Ripley with such a crew of reprehensible scum is an interesting choice when a film like this is dependent on your sympathy being with the prey of the beast rather than the beast itself but Fincher manages to pull it off. Yes, they have all been responsible for horrendous crimes but they have opted through choice to remain on Fury and live out their days as it’s custodians as a sort of penance for their sins. When death comes calling they have little to lose but are determined not to go out without a fight. Can you imagine Parker or Lambert or even the double hard killing machines of the Colonial Marine Corps tackling one of the aliens with little more than a meat cleaver or a pair of scissors? What they lack in conscience and social graces they more than make up for in sheer will to survive and a genuine, if slightly perverse, sense of community.

None of this would be convincing if it wasn’t for the tremendous ensemble cast that make up the inmates and the staff that supervise them. A wonderfuly assembly of (in the main) great British actors they all work wonders to imbue the film with the same feeling of authenticity that made the first two films so successful. Charles Dance is tremendous as the measured and insightful medical officer with a dark secret, Ralph Brown is a million miles away from Withnail & I and Wayne’s World 2 with his imbecilic deputy to Brian Glover’s stern prison warden Andrews. Glover is responsible for one of my favourite moments in the movie when, in an effort to assert himself as top dog he pointedly refers to Ripley as “Leftenant Ripley”. It’s a subtle moment but beautifully pulled off. The actual inmates themselves are also brilliantly portrayed. Charles S. Dutton, one of the few non Brits on show, carries a lot of weight as their spiritual leader Dillon and Paul McGann stands out as the demented Golick. Really though it is the lack of egos and ease of the rapport between them all that, as in the previous movies, allows for the suspension of disbelief and convinces you that these are men who have known each other for a long time and who actually, despite outward appearances, actually care what befalls one another.

This is also the film that benefits most from the “director’s cut” treatment. Restoring the birth of the alien from a dead ox provides for a powerful juxtaposition between the funeral of Hicks and Newt and the birth of the new beast and expands the ending slightly to make for a much more powerful and definitive finale.

It’s possible that you may have seen this film, maybe a long time ago and written it off as a sub standard addition to the franchise. If that is the case I would urge you to watch it again. The director’s cut version especially. Far from being a frivolous addition to rake in the coin, this is a genuinely interesting episode in a genuinely exciting franchise that deserves to be better loved than it is.

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