‘Alien 3′ Revisited: The Films of David Fincher

[With Mindhunter set to premiere next week, we’re reposting our deep dives into the work of director David Fincher. These articles contain spoilers.]

“It was a baptism by fire.” David Fincher doesn’t have particularly fond memories of his directorial debut, Alien 3.  It was a troubled production before he even came on board, and despite his wealth of experience having worked on music videos and commercials, he was thrown into a situation that would easily scare away experienced feature film directors.  Call it hubris on Fincher’s part, but the hellish production on Alien 3 was a key part of his development.  And yet despite all of the problems on set, Alien 3 is not without its redeeming aspects.

Following Alien, a sci-fi horror classic, was a daunting task.  Following Alien and Aliens, an action horror classic, was madness.  A third film was inevitable, and 20th Century Fox set a release date before they even had a finished script.  That finished script would never come.

20th Century Fox had signed off an idea by Vincent Ward, who was originally set to direct.  The basic plot of Ward’s story is that the movie would take place on a wooden planet occupied by Luddite monks.  When the Sulaco crashes on the planet and the xenomorph arrives, they think it’s a demon.  Because they’ve rejected technology (other than the artificial atmosphere and other devices that can keep a wooden planet in space), they have no weapons, and so fighting the creature becomes far more difficult even though the people on the Nostromo didn’t have proper weapons either.

Image via 20th Century Fox

Before filming was set to begin, an executive had the “bright” idea to reset the movie on a prison planet, which seems like a superficial change until you realize that prisoners are somewhat different than monks, so you have to change the characters as well as the sets, and now you’re playing catch up.  Vincent Ward walked, and Fincher was hired into a disaster that wasn’t his fault.

The movie opens with spooky, effective opening credits that completely rip apart everything you loved about Aliens.  If Alien is mysterious, and Aliens is hectic, Alien 3 promises at the opening to be depressing as hell, which happens when you kill an innocent little girl in the opening five minutes.  Combined with the death of Hicks, Alien 3 destroys the surrogate family unit from Aliens, and now Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is the sole survivor of a tragic crash and the only woman on a desolate planet populated by murderers and rapists.

Image via 20th Century Fox

Except the prisoners have found religion, and this is where you can see Alien 3‘s split personality emerge.  The religious angle from Ward’s script has been retained, but now it’s been shoehorned into a story where a skeleton crew of prisoners (the film has a weak explanation of why a huge facility would be kept running by and for about twenty people) now have Christianity for some reason.  The script then tries to dance with this aspect, but it only remains an interesting idea even though there was the possibility that this idea could have been developed on its own merits despite being outside of Ward’s original intent.

These men have been able to turn their lives over to God, but they’ve also been devoid of temptation.  There’s not much on the planet Fiorina “Fury” 161 worth wanting, and then Ripley comes into their lives, which begs the question of the value of faith without temptation.  But then the movie’s ugliness reemerges when some of the prisoners try to rape Ripley.  Then Charles S. Dutton rescues Ripley, beats the crap out of her attackers, and the attempted rape is never referenced again.

Image via 20th Century Fox

The religious subtext is scattered about the picture with the alien representing a “demon”, which would have mattered more in an entirely deleted subplot involving one of the prisoners believing that the xenomorph has been sent by a divine power to wipe out everyone except he and Ripley, who will become a new Adam and Eve.  Yes, that’s as dumb as it sounds, but it’s hard to know how well it would have functioned because Alien 3 was working without a script and executives kept coming in and trying to take the production away from Fincher’s control.

All the prisoners have shaved heads, and we’re told it’s because they’re worried about lice. Is this a way to retain the monastic aspect from Ward’s script? Or was this an independent decision? Either way, it’s a terrible because it’s almost impossible to tell any of the prisoners apart. I can discern about five different characters in the movie (six if you count Bishop’s head), and that’s a problem when you have the xenomorph picking people off slowly instead of all at once like in Aliens.

Image via 20th Century Fox

To the film’s credit, Alien 3 consciously doesn’t want to be a retread of the first two movies. The xenomorph doesn’t even carry human DNA, and instead comes from a dog, which turns it into a quadruped, even though that ultimately doesn’t make much of a difference. To quote Warden Andrews (Brian Glover), who has my favorite description of the xenomorph ever: “It kills on sight, and is generally unpleasant.” It’s also kind of background in a movie that can’t really be anything because it was torn apart at its fundamental level. They had sets with no story, characters without purpose, and discarded plotlines galore right down to seemingly insignificant scenes like the xenomorph coming out of an ox rather than a dog. The whole thing is a mess, and it’s an infuriating mess not only because it’s stifling Fincher’s talent, but because Alien 3 is littered with potential. It’s an atmospheric film, but it’s not worth breathing the air. Even Ripley is less interesting this time around even though there are plenty of places they could have gone with her character.

Image via 20th Century Fox

The touchstone of this movie is that Ripley is literally filled with the thing she hates. Unable to kill her from the outside, the alien is now going to kill her from the inside, and it’s not a bad metaphor for how her life has gone since the first movie. “You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else,” she says. There’s an element of pathos to this relationship, but we’re wrapped up in a bunch of strangers getting picked off one-by-one. So it’s no wonder that when it came time for Ripley to die, there was a grand debate about whether or not the Alien should come out. In an interview with mossfilm, Fincher explains that before she jumps into the molten fire, he wanted the human Bishop (Lance Henriksen) to offer her a real temptation when it comes to perhaps trusting Weyland-Yutani, and being able to live without the creature even if it means the creature lives. “Originally that scene played out much longer,” says Fincher, “and there was a 40-second pause from the time he said ‘Please trust us’ and then she finally looked up at him and said ‘No’.” Forty seconds is an eternity on film, and it would have been impressive if Fincher, who walked out during post-production, had been able to get that kind of pause into the movie. He also believes that it makes the moment a conscious decision by Ripley rather than her being forced into that position.

Image via 20th Century Fox

When it came time for Ripley to jump, Fincher wanted to stick by the religious angle that had been so thoroughly reduced throughout the picture:

“I said ‘whatever happens she has to be in peace at the end.’ It has to be a sigh rather than gritting teeth and sweat. So we talked about it and went over and shot this blue-screen element. We were shooting that shot four days before the film opened, a completely ridiculous mess. I don’t know if it works.”

And it ends with gritted teeth and sweat. I have mixed feelings about the ending. Had Fincher been able to get his vision through, then perhaps that ending would work, but as it stands in the theatrical cut, the moment fits in with the ugliness that permeates the rest of this movie. A peaceful sigh doesn’t fit with a grey-brown palette, attempted rape, and a dead little girl getting her ribcage cracked open. Ripley and the alien had become one, and it cursed her until her final moment.

Image via 20th Century Fox

It’s worth noting, however, that Fincher wanted a grace note for his heroine, and the fact that he wanted it says something that comes up time and time again throughout his filmography. As cynical and dark as Fincher can be, there’s a hint of a romantic lurking around. He finds a glimmer of light in the darkest places. Unfortunately, Alien 3 is a total blackout, and to an extent, that mirrors his experience. After watching the documentary Wreckage and Rage (which is contained in the Alien Anthology Blu-ray box set), you could put together a supercut of images and footage of Fincher looking like he craves the sweet release of death. His cynicism becomes so extreme that he even says at one point, “I love people. They stack so well.” It’s not the last time we would hear this line as it relates to Fincher’s work. In any David Fincher Retrospective, Alien 3 represents a unique problem because it’s not really his movie, but some of the choices are still his. While these kind of creative compromises aren’t unique to movies, and especially blockbusters, Fincher is known for his precise and unwavering commitment to getting exactly what he wants. That attitude was absolutely formed on Alien 3 as Fincher told The Guardian in 2009:

So I learned on this movie that nobody really knows, so therefore no one has to care, so it’s always going to be your fault. I’d always thought, “Well, surely you don’t want to have the Twentieth Century Fox logo over a shitty movie.” And they were like, “Well, as long as it opens.” So I learned then just to be a belligerent asshole, which was really: “You have to get what you need to get out of it.” You have to fight for things you believe in, and you have to be smart about how you position it so that you don’t just become white noise. On that movie, I was the guy who was constantly the voice of “We need to do this better, we need to do this, this doesn’t make sense”. And pretty soon, it was like in Peanuts: WOP WOP WOP WOP WOP! They’d go, “He’s doing that again, he’s frothing at the mouth, he seems so passionate.” They didn’t care.

It’s a mistake that Fincher wouldn’t make again when it came to working with studios and fighting to get his dark vision made.

Next: Se7en

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