On the Road to Prometheus is a series of retrospectives on the Alien franchise, in anticipation for Prometheus, which arrives in theaters on June 8th.
For a series initially in danger of being relegated to B movie status, the Alien franchise certainly has a high pedigree. Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet have all helmed the respective Alien films (not to mention involvement by prominent individuals like Joss Whedon, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, and others); to varying results, one might argue, but nevertheless it’s interesting that such notable talents have churned out films of such wildly different quality. Most of these directors were young blood in Hollywood during their tenure, and after the success of Aliens in 1986, 20th Century Fox had no intention of taking any risks with their new cash cow, especially not with a newcomer.
While those most cynical among us might point at that second film as the shark jumping moment (Bill Paxton’s declaration “Game over, man, game over!” certainly is a good contender), most probably agree that Alien 3 is where the series really fell off the wagon. And understanding exactly what went wrong isn’t easy, as so many fails happened so quickly that one can’t help but think “kill it with fire” while watching the film’s final self-sacrifice.
More spoilers than usual after the jump…
When we last saw the crew, the only survivors from Aliens‘ xenomorph-on-human bloodbath were bad-ass heroine Ripley, scrappy 12 year old colonist Newt, nondescript space marine Hicks, and faithful android Bishop. Due to an accidental electrical fire (or was it?), their space pod jettisons to Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161, a former penal colony turned ore refinery inhabited by male convicts who seem to have found religion. The only survivor of the crash landing is Ripley, with Newt and Hicks dead and Bishop decapitated. Not long after the crash, an alien who had smuggled its way on the space pod starts terrorizing the planet, Ripley finds out she’s pregnant with an alien queen, and The Corporation begins heading to the planet to make a science experiment out of Ripley and her new baby. Cue scenes of Ripley adjusting to life as the only woman on a planet of murderers and serial rapists, chases through run-down tunnel shafts, and an absolutely bewildering finale where Ripley jumps to her death into a giant furnace, alien queen bursting out of her chest as she falls.
The entire premise of the film is basically a slap in the face. James Cameron, who notably told the actors during the filming of Aliens that he envisioned these characters surviving and living as a family when they returned to earth, has publicly denounced their unceremonious demise (Alan Dean Foster, who wrote the first 3 book adaptations, also spoke out against it). The fans clearly weren’t pleased, either, and this subject still provokes nerdrage to this day.
But could the story work with the right team and script? There seems to be some attempt here at trying to capture the spirit of the first film, with it’s a slow-burn plot, creeping horror film tone, and a similar premise of a virtually unarmed group of humans facing off against just one alien. Like the first film, scenes of the creature are very sparse and leave much to our imaginations, especially since the actual figure of the creature has changed; it’s birthed from a dog this time instead of a human, giving it more agile and animal-like qualities, and for much of the film we’re never 100% sure what it looks like or is capable of. Gone are the big guns, frenetic energy, and exploding alien parts, and we’re left with a much simpler film that tries to creep up on us with its scares rather than flash them at us like a strobe light.
That all sounds well and good…or would, except none of it really comes together. The slow pacing doesn’t increase tension so much as it makes the film feel lethargic and sterile. The foreboding setting of Alien was draped in dark, shadowy, and steam-filled corridors, which served to both maintain a disconcerting tone as well as hide the alien creature from clear view. But the producers wanted a different visual style for Alien 3, and while they did succeed at giving it a somewhat distinctive look, the brightly lit and oversaturated color-palette doesn’t do the horror story any favors. Since there’s nowhere for the alien to really hide, we’re left with a film that requires manipulative cinematography to obscure the creature, with overuse of close-ups, bizarrely constructed shots, and alien POV chase sequences that look decidedly TV movie.
In fact, nearly the entire film looks a TV movie. The special effects look awful now, having dated far worse than the first two films. The writing and dialogue are weak, which is not surprising given the endless rewrites that this script had (it was being rewritten on a day-to-day basis during shooting). And director David Fincher, who has since disowned the film entirely, had virtually no say in its production, which may explain why the pacing is so uneven. Even Elliot Goldenthal’s score seems uninspired, more likely to induce yawns than scares.
And yet, I can’t hate Alien 3. Perhaps it’s nostalgia speaking, but certain scenes feel just as alive and essential to Alien canon as anything before it. The face-to-face encounter between Ripley and the xenomorph, who breaths down her neck and decides to let her live, is chilling and iconic. Ripley’s badassery is taken up just a notch and feels perfect, never going too over-the-top (the shaved head in particular was a nice touch). And the final scene of Ripley jumping to her death, as cornball and half-hearted as it is, is totally consistent with her rigid moral code and feels like the inevitable conclusion to her character’s arc. Alien 3‘s best moments – as few and far between as they are – still feel right, and in turn, so does this disappointing and mostly forgettable little film. Alien 3, you finally brought us to B movie land.
Score: 5.0 out of 10