David Fincher | 110 mins | DVD | 18 / R
We’re used to seeing big studio’s logos transformed at the start of films — Universal perhaps do it most often, having a handy globe, though others are far from immune — but I think Alien³ is the first instance I’ve seen where the logo is left untouched but the music is altered. Right from the disconcerting modification of the famous Fox fanfare you can tell this is going to be something a bit different and a bit edgy. Unfortunately, it’s also a bit rubbish.
At the very least the Alien franchise has to be applauded for giving each film a very different feel and tone. Even if in some ways 3 combines the first two — single Alien, claustrophobia, unarmed heroes; but there are lots of them, most with experience of killing — it adds enough variety, especially stylistically, to mark it out. This can probably be attributed to first-time feature director David Fincher, who, despite severe studio interference, still manages to quickly make the film his own. Though the story picks up directly from the previous film (as Aliens did from Alien), it soon turns dark, dirty and decrepit, abandoning both the military sheen of Aliens and the old tanker grime of Alien.
The sets and costumes have a Gothic feel, devoid of most of the franchise’s sci-fi trappings, and though the cinematography is glossier than either preceding entry (Aliens looks distinctly ’80s, whilst this has a distinctly ’90s look — I’m not well enough versed in technical details to know why this is) it manages to feel grungier. From style to story, the whole film is bleak and uncompromising, particularly with its brutal plot — from the start, only Ripley survives the crash, and soon after there’s a horrid autopsy performed on Aliens‘ lovable little Newt, who Ripley previously fought so hard to save.
Alien³ is very dark and very nasty — and these are by far the best things about it.
Put simply, the story — or the way the story is handled — lets everything down. It all goes well for the first 40 minutes or so, but then it begins to get scrappy, and gets steadily worse as the running time rolls on. Leaps in story and logic abound, either creating plot holes or doing nothing to hide them. Much of the middle is the worst, where the convicts’ plans are muddled and quickly discarded. That said, this is also true of the climax — something to do with running around corridors and a giant piston and… I have no idea. It’s a shame because someone clearly had plenty of fantastic ideas, plot twists and action sequences, but they’re all squandered either by weak editing or, even worse, simply by being in this film.
As for the Alien, it sadly has no real menace — it just turns up as and when it (or, rather, the plot) fancies, and goes away for the rest of the time. In the first film it could be anywhere, in the second they were constantly advancing, but this time it’s just around, somewhere, sometimes. It’s not helped by poor realisation, spending too much time either in the light or in clear shots, both of which show the shortcomings of the special effects in a way the previous two films fought to hide.
The total lack of weapons or monster-fighting skill on the part of the supporting cast exacerbate these problems, meaning that, even when the Alien does turn up, the result is always a foregone conclusion. Even worse, any characters we really care about — or can even identify, to be honest — are killed early on, leaving a bunch of faceless potential victims who weren’t invested with any character and so who we’re not invested in. This is worsened by using a fantastic, recognisable British cast, none of whom are given anything much to do. For all these reasons, almost the entire film is devoid of any genuine tension.
Alien³ isn’t irredeemable — it’s packed with good ideas and good direction — but that’s also why it hurts. Lumbered with a hatchet job on the plot, characters and editing, it feels like some very talented people made a good film before someone else hacked it up a bit. The result is quite bad but, even worse, it’s disappointing.
My review of the Alien³ Special Edition can now be read here.