Thursday, September 1, 2011

Alien 3 (1992)

It happens to everyone. You dislike a film, then rewatch it years later and discover it wasn’t as bad as you thought. Perhaps you initial response was marred by the events in your life. Or maybe a few years more of life experiences allowed you to see something in the film you missed in your previous viewing.

In the spirit of such misguided opinions, I’m starting a new feature entitled Is It Really That Bad? Each month, I’ll pick a film I disliked/hated/had issues with when I first watched it and see if time has changed my opinion. For my first film, I decided to watch both the theatrical and director’s version of Alien 3, to see if the original wasn’t as bad as I thought, or if the studio mandated re-edits and re-shoots ruined the director’s version.

In truth, neither film is horrid, but both are misguided and show that Hollywood just didn’t know how to handle a strong female lead back in the early 1990s (not that the studios have a clue even now).

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!!! Proceed with caution or, better yet, watch the movie first!

The film opens with the survivors of Aliens in suspended animation aboard the Sulaco. The ship’s hull is breached after a facehugger is injured trying to get into one of the pods and the survivors are ejected into an escape pod. The vessel crashes into an ocean on Fiornia ‘Fury’ 161, close to a penal colony/work camp for “double Y chromosome offenders.”
Right away, the two versions significantly differ. In the Theatrical Release, the inmates explore the craft and find Ripley to be the only survivor. Hicks was reduced to hamburger by a falling support beam, Newt appears to have drowned and Bishop suffers more damage in the crash and is tossed into the trash heap. In the Director’s Version, Ripley washes ashore at the feet of Clemans (Charles Dance), the colony medical officer. The escape pod is pulled ashore by a team of ox and the others suffer the same fate as in the Theatrical Cut. This version of the story makes more sense, at least concerning Ripley’s survival. The cover of both Ripley and Newt’s pods were damaged (presumably by the facehugger). And as both pods were submerged after the crash, Ripley would have drowned alongside Newt. But I doubt sensibility was a concern during the reshoot. Instead, it feels like an attempt to link the opening of Alien 3 to the beginning moments of Aliens, only without the use of a robotic arm.

A lot of criticism was leveled at the script for killing off most of the survivors from Cameron’s sequel while they slept. 20th Century Fox’s response was that too many years had passed and actor Carrie Henn could no longer portray a young Newt. But, in truth, by starting the movie up just moments after the ending of it’s predecessor, the script avoids the problems of re-introducing the xenomorphs and figuring out a way to get the characters involved several years after the events on LV-426. And while the studios were right about Henn’s age being a problem with her continuing in the roll in this instance, I suspect fans would not have minded another age appropriate actress taking up the role, or a replacement actor taking up the role of Hick, had Michael Biehn not wanted to continue in the series. While it’s possible that the studio execs were not willing to be edgy enough to maroon a young girl in a colony of sex offenders, such a move would have re-enforced the family dynamic introduced in the second film.

Though both versions allow the fans to say goodbye to both Hicks and Newt during a rather elaborate cremation, it’s obvious the script was intent on isolating Ripley once again. But one wonders why the script placed her in a male penal colony. It can be argued that she is truly isolated, and the environment adds an element of danger other than the xenomorph. Others might argue the script is punishing Ripley for being a strong women and too much of a hero in the other films (the script does punish Ripley, but we’ll talk about that later). But I think that’s a rather shallow reading of a film so ripe with religious symbolism.

The remaining inmates have created a religious sect and, isolated from the temptations of society (possessions and, most important, women), these men decided to stay on and are celibate followers of Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), who acts as leader and priest. It’s a shame the script doesn’t use this set up to explore the idea of hiding from one’s temptation as a path to salvation. Instead, the script devolves into the expected stereotypical pattern. Of course, a small group attempt to rape Ripley and Dillon intervenes, but the script could have gone deeper. Dillon is adamant that Ripley be taken off the planet, as she’s a threat to his flock’s spiritual wellbeing. So it’s quite possible that he wasn’t saving Ripley, but, rather, his followers. And, though he admits to being a murderer and rapist, Dillon never exhibits signs of inner temptation himself. And it’s never addressed why he doesn’t consider killing Ripley, thus removing the threat to his flock.

But the script really has no interest in developing such ideas. Instead, all the religious trappings are only used to convert Ripley to a Christ-like figure. She falls from the heavens into a den of sinners, only to be beaten, humiliated and berated by both convicts and authority figures. Yet, despite such mistreatment, she is willing to sacrifice herself to save them and the rest of humanity. In case you haven’t got the message, the script has her assume the position of the crucifix twice in the final act.

David Fincher, making his big budget debut, was besieged with problems during production, including the lack of finished script before production started. It should be no surprise that the religious symbology doesn’t gel into a solid part of the narrative. But at the end of the film, as the fiery furnaces of the lead smelting plant are shut down and a brilliant sunrise graces the surface of the planet, it quite obvious that the filmmakers were aiming to make Ripley a martyr, with her sacrifice closing down the film’s version of Hell and offering humanity a new lease on life by eliminating the xenomorph threat.

But the script’s jumbled mess, while not quite fleshing out Ripley’s role as martyr, also destroys her character arc over the past two films. In Alien 3, she is less of a leader, waiting for the inmates to ask for her help before taking charge. Perhaps it’s connected to the film’s religious tones, where the sinners must ask for salvation. Or maybe she knows they won’t listen to her and bides her time until they ask for her help. Whatever the reason, the script never explains why Ripley, who took control of a group of space Marines in the last film, would decide to fall silent now.
Were that the only flaw in the script’s treatment of the character, one could forgive such a minor transgression. But the screenwriters muck things up further. To start, Ripley pressures Clemans to perform an autopsy on Newt (in a very well done scene) to look for signs of an infectious disease. For some reason, she won’t explain to anyone about the xenomorph, not even Clemans, whom she trusts enough to sleep with the night after Newt and Hicks are cremated.

Okay, Ripley might have been looking for solace in someone’s arms. Or, as Clemans suggests, her affections might have been a way to keep him from asking questions about her suspicious behavior concerning the bodies of Newt and Hicks. But the script doesn’t bother to give us any motivation for her actions, making Ripley’s behavior rather sluttish. After all, she’s just lost her surrogate family, so if she’s going to sleep with some stranger in a male prison colony, the script needs to give her some motivation.

Worse still, after spending most of the film complaining about a sore throat, shortness of breath and chest pains, Ripley is surprised to discover she is carrying an Alien inside her chest (I warned you about spoilers). The creature is discovered after Ripley becomes concern that her symptoms might not be the after affects of suspended animation, but the result of an internal hemorrhage suffered during the crash. Yet she forgets the fact that a snarling Alien was ready to put its extendable jaw through her head, only to back away and let her live. It’s implausible that this woman, who was smart enough to defeat the Alien threat twice, could be so stupid. In fact, it’s only possible if the screenwriters wanted to surprise the audience in the third act and didn’t care if they had to drop their main character’s IQ level by a few dozen points to achieve it.

The Alien itself is another problem, as the creature skips the worm-like chest bursting stage, now emerging from its victims in a near adult state. While one convict comes across a shed skin, the creature’s appearance doesn’t change as dramatically as in the previous films. And though Ripley says it doesn’t move like the others she’s encountered, which suggests that Alien physiology is altered by the organism it gestates within, the end result is too feline to have come from an ox or dog.

On the plus side, the acting is solid and the sequences of the convicts hunting down the Alien are suspenseful. But neither compensate for a directionless script that sends Ripley adrift, subject to the whims of the screenwriters. Had the production waited until the script was finished, the film might have been a solid addition to the series. But, as it stands, Alien 3 is a vivid example that even a talented filmmaker can’t seem to capture the essence of the first two installments. The future doesn’t look good for Prometheus.
My opinion stands: I still don’t like it.

Next month, I tackle a movie that had me shouting in a crowded theater when the final twist is reveled. I haven't seen The Lost Boys since 1987, so let's find out if my anger at the big twist ending has cooled since then.