Though it is rightly regarded as one of the most intriguing franchises in motion picture history, the Alien saga can also be viewed as a microcosm of changing studio values in the last quarter of the 20th century (and, if you count those Alien vs. Predator films, the beginning of the new millennium). The first film, made for a slightly hefty budget for the time, cast either unknowns or character actors and used the extra money afforded to craft something artistic and visionary out of a potential blockbuster. By the time James Cameron got attached to Aliens, the studios had figured out how to pump out blockbusters to make boatloads of cash. Alien and Star Wars had been creative gambles, but Cameron's film was a tax shelter, organized to be a write-off if it failed. Cameron did not have the opportunity to make something fully into his vision -- even the dynamic theatrical cut slices out much of the humanity to maximize the thrills -- but even the trimmed version displayed a clear directorial stamp, one that became clearer when Cameron cemented himself as the go-to guy for smartly paced (if dumbly written) action.
When 20th Century Fox began pre-production on the third film in the franchise, two things affected how the movie would be made. First, the artistic and commercial success of the previous two films created an intense pressure where there had previously been none, not even for Cameron's feature. Had Aliens failed, the numbers would have been balanced on the Fox budget, and fans of the original would simply go back to that film. When Cameron made a film every bit as good in its own right, now the franchise had the potential to the second-best and most profitable sci-fi franchise at Fox, next to George Lucas' space opera. Second, commercial cinema had entered into an uneasy amalgamation of '80s greed and New Hollywood talent searching. The only catch was that Hollywood never integrated the two, snatching up the Sundance talent and, for the most part, keeping them working with limited budgets that yielded potential for high profit ratios and awards prestige, only to continue to churn out big-budget features that managed to lack both the artistry of early blockbusters and the charming excess of the best of the '80s.
When David Fincher finally came on-board to the project after several directors had dropped out, any hint that he or any other filmmaker would have the last word on Alien3 had been openly eliminated. "We set out to make a release date, not a movie," laughs production executive Jon Landau ruefully in the comprehensive documentary on the making of the film, and Fincher, then known only for some music videos and commercials, had the unenviable task of making his first feature out of a wildly successful franchise and without the luxury of a script. Alien3 was written by committee and handed to the director in piecemeal each day, and the finished product is clearly not a bet on Fincher's talent, as the first two films were the results of gambles on unknowns who became stars. Instead, it takes elements of Scott's vision and Cameron's and filters them through a hired-hand who was too talented to be a conduit for the ideas of others.
Thus, the use of evil megacorporation Weyland-Yutani becomes, for the first time, an open metaphor for the studio system bankrolling the alien that the in-film company desires so deeply. Looking at the comparison retroactively, the first film puts the suggestion of corporate greed into the film, having the studio/company entrust the crew, only to make it known near the end that they are expendable in the name of profit. The second film, reflecting Hollywood's attitude in the '80s, shows Weyland-Yutani covering its bases by infecting many people rather than leave chance to a single creature. Here, they rely on a single egg once more as Fox limits the budget and tries to prevent costs from getting remotely out of control. Fincher would have his revenge in that respect, as the constant rewrites imposed by the studio forced him to go wildly over budget.
He also displays his disdain before the film itself even begins, subverting the 20th Century Fox theme to end on a minor chord before the end, sustaining the sound until it becomes ominous and vile instead of inspiring and exciting. The opening credits then establish a more cynical mood. Using quick cuts instead of the slow pans of the first and second movie, Fincher cruelly gets through the studio's desire to kill Newt and Hicks in their cryogenic pods, ending any hope for a happy life for Ripley. Between the black title cards, we see a hatched egg, a facehugger stretching into life, a medical scan of it attached to one of the passengers before dripping acidic blood onto the floor, leading to malfunctions that force a jettison of the pods in an emergency craft that crash lands on a planet. Without any time to get our bearings, Fincher destroys everything from the previous movie, a nihilistic slam to those who now felt that Ripley's character arc in Cameron's film meant nothing.
Before one assigns the usual "nihilist" label to Fincher, though, it is important to note that even the unfinished script did away with Newt and Hicks before Fincher came aboard. Fincher's credits sequence communicates the mandate that he combine the previous two films, trying for the disturbing mood of the first in the faster, active pacing of the second. It also speaks to the disdain he picked up for the project during shooting, cynically killing off key aspects of a film he clearly loved in a way that immediately throws a wrench into the franchise. He knew Alien3 would be a disaster, and even the elements of the film that remained in his control (which is exceedingly little, even in the superior workprint cut) communicate an exasperation and hopelessness. The only time I would genuinely consider Fincher a nihilist was when he got royally screwed.
Yet that alternate cut reveals Fincher's true outlook, one of cynicism but also perseverance. Marooned on a prison colony and suffering the loss of the makeshift family she created to fill the void of losing her real family, Ripley must worry about yet another outbreak with a group of people to whom she has even less connection than previous crews. She lives with prisoners who have converted to an apocalyptic religion as tehy toil in their rotting station, long ago abandoned by the company and kept running only because the prisoners asked to remain. Even with their conversion, however, they remain self-absorbed and violent, and when Ripley finally tells them about the alien and the company's intention to take and weaponize the creature at the expense of hundreds, maybe thousands of lives, no one seems to care. But Ripley continues to fight, just as Detective Somerset, try as he might, cannot bring himself to run from horror, Jack pushes back against the monster he created and Robert Graysmith continues to hunt the Zodiac killer. No one can accuse Fincher of being cheery, but even in the darkest moment of his career, he does not fully give in to hopelessness. What makes Alien3 unique is that someone else came in later and did the job for him.
Still, there are things that the film gets right, especially in the longer, admittedly lethargic version. The planet where Ripley crash-lands is perfect for the religious zealots in the colony. It's grimy, rotting, lit in industrial yellow and always dripping. The heat coming off the dilapidated machinery can almost be felt, and the grime cakes until it's as solid as the metal it rusts. If the planet in Aliens, still in the process of terraforming, resembled an Earth at the start of Genesis, unformed by God, then the fiery, collapsing world of Alien3 resembles one nearing the end of Revelation.
Killing Newt and Hicks may reek of cynicism on Fincher and the studio's part, but the decision allows Fincher to develop the series' narrative to its next logical step, wherein the alien is no longer as key a threat to the humans as the overarching corruption of Weyland-Yutani, which sends a rescue party to get Ripley off-planet not to save her but in the hopes of, once again, collecting a specimen. After proving they held sway over the military in the previous film, they here demonstrate that every level of society must be run by the company, even prison control. Nobody has any sympathy for the company -- the thought of Weyland-Yutani succeeding in getting an alien, only for it to tear through the science division is a darkly appealing idea -- but who can afford to leave its employ?
The deaths of Newt and Hicks also feed into the most ingenious element of the film, the effect of rampant misogyny on cinema's most visible action heroine. Aliens was all about maternity, taking the androgynous character from the first and emphasizing her femininity by contrasting it with the perverse idea of pregnancy and birth offered by the aliens. Ripley found a surrogate child in Newt and a possible romance in Hicks that promised to be mutually supportive, one where Hicks would give Ripley respect instead of shouting her down like the other men. Killing them rips Ripley's second family away from her, leaving her with nothing and symbolizing how cruel the world can be to a woman.
It also plants the idea in her head that maybe she's just bad luck, something the prisoners latch onto immediately. Not only are all the prisoners men, they have double-Y chromosomes. Having sworn themselves to celibacy to prevent the usual prison rapes, this band of rapists, murderers and molesters view the presence of a woman as an evil temptation, and the confluence of reactionary religion and hyper-masculine violent offenders makes Alien3 into a study of the effects of misogyny. After Cameron lightened up on the eroticism to focus on the more nurturing side of the gender issue running through the franchise, Fincher contacted H.R. Giger about reinjecting some blood into the series (or at least a certain body part). Sexual imagery abounds once more, from blood trickling out of Ripley's nose in menstrual fashion as men look on uncomfortably to the sensual design of the quadrupedal alien, even if designers ultimately rejected Giger's more outlandish features.
The longer cut fleshes out the ideas of perverted spirituality in a universe where one has traveled the stars and still hasn't seen God. Who knows how badly polluted and devastated Earth is in this franchise, but these colonies cannot be any sort of improvement, and it's understandable that these prisoners look to a cataclysmic event to deliver them. The spiritual leader, Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), understands that the driving motivation behind the colony's conversion is less hope for salvation than catharsis for their barely contained rage, and even the prison warden (Brian Glover) lets them maintain their reactionary views because the alternative would be riot. When the creature attacks, one prisoner, Golic (Paul McGann), is coated with another's blood, prompting a religious experience in which he views the alien as some sort of angel of death. In the theatrical version, Golic is randomly cut out of the movie: in the workprint, he actually foils Ripley and the others' efforts to trap the alien when he releases it from a hold expecting deliverance. He gets his wish.
Even in the version that displays more of what Fincher had in mind, however, Alien suffers from key flaws. The CGI is as clumsy as you'd expect from an early '90s movie, and even when the production swelled over budget, Fincher's movie never enjoyed the amount Jim Cameron required to make the computer animation in Terminator 2 so convincing. The cast here is as talented as the previous crews, but the shaving of everyone's heads makes it difficult to figure out who's on-screen. The Alien franchise impressively built its stock on not one but two separate casts of mostly unlikable people that do not make us root for clear favorites (the only exceptions being Newt and Ripley herself), but here it's next to impossible to discern which character is on-screen. Even when that's intentional, as in the bewildering climax, a chase through the labyrinthine corridors of the foundry's molding facility (complete with raucously clever use of POV Steadicams to show the alien running along the walls and ceiling), this confusion becomes irritating. Furthermore, the brief romance between Ripley and the colony's medic (Charles Dance) is unconvincing, unexplored and, frankly, too quickly inserted as Ripley contends with the death of her implicit new boyfriend, Hicks.
The biggest issue, however, is in the open struggle between what Fincher wanted to do with the material and the studio's attempt to make the sequel nothing more risky than an amalgam of what people liked about the first two films. Fincher himself seems to want to find a happy medium between atmospheric horror and a faster pace: his decision to shave Ripley's head brought the character back to her androgynous roots, while his experience making commercials and music videos made him a whiz at telling a story quickly (see how the credits sequence is a short narrative unto itself. But Fox's involvement cut out any hope he might have had to explore the area between Cameron and Scott. Renny Harlin, the first director attached to the project, left when the project came to resemble something made by Scott and Cameron and not something he might craft into his own work.
Even in the longer cut, the discrepancy between Fincher and the studio is evident. If anything, it's more obvious, because the theatrical version looks like the work of a decently talented hired hand with a bad script. The long version drags, not because it's 2.5 hours long but because one can see from scene to scene which moments were meticulously planned by Fincher and which were just handed down to him one day and forced to shoot. I was more fascinated by the epic Charles de Lauzirika documentary for this film than any of the others he made for the saga (and, at times, Alien3 itself), precisely because we see the devolution of the studio's idealism. Original planning of the film shows writers and executives hunting for the next big thing as the first two films had done, taking two directors who had just begun to raise a profile and shooting them into the stratosphere. Then, the script issues begin and the studio starts moving to cut possible losses, hobbling their potential wunderkind at every turn. In interviews conducted on-set and retroactively for the 2003 DVD release, the cast sings Fincher's praises to the heavens, all of them marveling that a first-time director could be so intuitive not only with the action and visuals but the characters and the ways that actors discover how the people they play live and function. They would gladly have given them their full confidence but, as ever, those with the least creativity had the last say.
Looking back today, Alien3 can be seen as an intriguing mess, an underrated attempt to get the franchise back to its erotic horror roots that is improved more by its alternate cut than even Aliens (at least that film was good in its theatrical version). One cannot help but wonder what might have happened had Fincher made Se7en first and proved his mettle, whether that would have secured him more freedom from the studio*. Sigourney Weaver purportedly refused to do the movie if executives rewrote a draft that had Ripley die at the end, but by the time we reach the film's conclusion, Ripley's self-sacrifice, a final act of defiance to the company, seems mostly a cathartic release for Fincher, who would eventually prove trusting executives correct when he proved a more visionary stylist than either the inconsistent Scott or the more pedestrian Cameron. I enjoyed the Assembly Cut of the film, having detested the theatrical version, and its post-industrial decay managed to take what would have otherwise been a rehash of the Aliens sets and made something original. No one can deny that the series took a sudden, drastic step downward, but those paying attention will also find it impossible to overlook how much of Fincher's innate ability was on display, even if the powers that be buried it at every juncture.
*I also wonder what might have come from sticking to Vincent Ward's original concept, in which the story took place on an ironically Luddite space station inhabited by a monastic order that would have taken the religious angle of the film to a whole new level. Storyboards depict a fascinating man-made planet segmented by climates and differing sects of monks, and the narrative was to be backed up with Bosch-like visuals in a Gothic throwback in space. At the same time, I sympathize with those who kept asking why the ship interior was to be all wood and the logistics not only of the ship within the film (one cannot create atmosphere without a much more massive size than a man-made orb) but also of designing the thing in a studio lot. Still, watching David Fincher get his start with a Boschian nightmare in space would be something, that's for sure.