[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.
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.
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.
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.