Alien³: Special Edition (1992/2003)

aka Alien³: Assembly Cut

2011 #14
David Fincher | 145 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R

Alien3 Special EditionIt’s getting on for two years since I last (and first) watched most of the Alien Quadrilogy series, provoking some relatively lengthy (for this blog, anyway) debate on my reviews of the three sequels. I refer you to those at the outset for a couple of reasons. One, because a lot of my review of Alien³’s theatrical cut still holds true for this half-hour-longer version; two, because other points in that review may make an interesting counterpoint to the more positive thoughts I now have (“may”); and three, because some of the comments on the reviews also discuss this extended cut, which may also interest you.

They’re also relevant to highlight this point: it’s been two years since I watched Alien³ and I’ve only seen it once. Despite this extended version being 26% longer, that means I still found it hard to spot much of the additional material. I’m sure fans who’d seen the original multiple times in the decade between its theatrical release and this cut appearing in 2003 were able to spot changes much more readily. Nonetheless, a few obvious additions and modifications stand out: an extended opening when Clemens discovers Ripley on the beach; the Alien birthing from an ox (rather than a dog); the lack of a Queen chestburster at the very end. I could’ve turned on the Blu-ray’s “deleted scenes” marker of course, and I did consider that, but I thought it might just get distracting on a first viewing. And speaking technically, I don’t know what the new scenes looked like on the Quadrilogy DVDThe Alien (as I haven’t watched that copy, obviously), but on Blu-ray the added footage, 2003-era new effects and 2010 re-recorded audio are indistinguishable from the rest of the film.

Readers interested in the history and reasoning of this new, significantly longer cut may appreciate the introduction it had in the Quadrilogy set’s booklet (sadly nowhere to be found on the Anthology Blu-ray). I’ve reproduced the majority of it below:

Following its troubled production and controversial release, Alien 3 slowly became something of a curiosity among serious enthusiasts of the Alien series. Not only would its first-time director, David Fincher, go on to become of Hollywood’s most sought-after filmmakers but the film itself would generate quite a mystique thanks to heated rumours of creative interference, lost scenes and even a completely different cut of the film that supposedly restored Fincher’s original vision of what many believed to be a seriously compromised work.

Rumour control, here are the facts. There is no wondrous lost “director’s cut” of Alien 3. It doesn’t exist. Indeed, for such a dream to be realised, Fincher would have to be allowed to remake the film from scratch with complete creative control. What does exist is something perhaps equally fascinating.

For the first time, fans can now experience a restored and re-mastered presentation of the 1991 assembly cut of Alien 3. With a running time increased by more than 30 minutes, this Special Edition contains several never-before-seen sequences that offer a fascinating insight into the film’s difficult editing process. This cut also reveals a combination of vintage, previously unreleased optical effects shot and several newly-composited digital effects necessary to seamlessly integrate new footage into the body of the film…

The Alien 3 Special Edition offers fans a unique chance to witness the lost work of a remarkable director.

So there you go. As I mentioned, this version updates the 2003 one with some re-recorded dialogue.

On my original review, Matthew McKinnon commented that as he watched this new cut he realised “it wasn’t shaping up into a more coherent or purposeful movie… just a longer version with more of the same.” I agree that, to an extent, it’s “a longer version with more of the same”, but I found it more coherent too. While the major plot beats still occur at the same time and in fundamentally the same way, perhaps the myriad tweaks have made it clearer just what’s going on? Or perhaps I was just more familiar, having seen it once already? Either way, sequences and events that left me a bit lost last time seem to make perfect sense on this outing.

Paul McGann as GolicOne of the biggest things I remember being told about Alien³, before the Special Edition, was that most of Paul McGann’s performance had been cut; that originally he had a sizeable role that justified his fourth billing, rather than his cameo-sized part in the theatrical cut. It doesn’t feel like there’s an awful lot more of him in this version, though scanning through Movie-Censorship.com’s thorough list of changes one can see a lot of brief shots as well as one or two significant scenes featuring him. Again, despite the sense that little has changed, his character does feel more comprehensible, so maybe these barely-noticeable additions do make all the difference?

As a little aside, I sometimes feel a little sorry for McGann — since his acclaim in The Monocled Mutineer, numerous shots at bigger success seem to have passed him by. He gets a key role in a Hollywood blockbuster, but is then largely cut out; he’s cast as Richard Sharpe in a major ITV series, but is injured and has to pull out (and we can see where that led career-wise for Sean Bean); he’s cast as the Doctor in a big-budget American backdoor pilot for Doctor Who, which flops Stateside and goes nowhere… He’s undoubtedly talented, but these days seemingly forced into lacklustre supporting roles in the likes of Luther. Maybe he doesn’t mind, I don’t know (at least he got “the largest insurance settlement in British television history” for missing out on Sharpe), but it seems like he deserved greater success. Poor guy.

Still, McGann’s performance here is exceptional, even if it’s still brief. He’s just one member of an outstanding British cast though, many of whom are recognisable for the excellent work they’ve done since. Actors with a PUnsurprisingly, therefore, they’re almost all totally underused. Charles Dance gets the biggest slice of the cake and is as good as ever, but doing little more than show their face we have Pete Postlethwaite, Phil Davis, Peter Guinness, Danny Webb (they don’t all begin with P…) Alien³ is 19 years old now, no one could’ve predicted the future; but viewed with hindsight, the volume of under-utilised talent is almost astounding.

Hindsight also affords other interesting perspectives. Dance’s death is still very effective, for instance. It’s not surprising once you’ve seen the film more than once — obviously — but killing off really the only character our hero (and, by extension, the audience) has become sympathetic to at around the halfway mark? Not unheard of, true (see: Psycho), but still rare enough to be a shock, to disconcert and wrong-foot the viewer.

Plus, we can now look at it in the context of Fincher’s following work. Even though he had limited — often, no — control over much of the project, there are still signs that link it with his later films. It’s stylishly shot for one thing, most of the locations either soaked in shadow or cold light, with an often fluid camera. Darkness litters the film thematically too: setting it on a prison colony for murderers and rapists, the violent attempted gang rape of Ripley, the death and autopsy of a 10-year-old girl… Even if we see no real detail on screen (thank goodness this wasn’t made in recent torture porn-obsessed years), the implication and the emotional connection is harrowing enough. Then there’s the Alien itself, from its ugly birth to its violent murders. Fincher may have not turned so explicitly to horror since, but that brand of darkness does flow on into most of his best films: Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac.

Ripley rapeIt’s also, perhaps, interesting to remember this being Fincher’s first film. He might seems like an odd choice, a first-timer paling beside the experienced hands of Scott and Cameron. But that would be to forget that, for both, their Alien films were only their second time helming a feature*; and while Cameron’s previous had been sci-fi (The Terminator), Scott’s was period drama The Duellists. A first-timer — especially one versed in commercials and music videos — isn’t all that different, really, and Fincher has certainly gone on to show his worth. Indeed, his very next film was the incredible Se7en.

Alien³’s Special Edition didn’t strike me as massively different from the theatrical cut, despite some obvious changes, with the exception that I now found it to be more intelligible. Whereas before I thought it started well and became less coherent — and, consequently, less good — as it went on, with this version I felt I was following the story and characters throughout. As a result, I enjoyed it more. Perhaps it also benefitted from my viewing situation: the first time I watched it within days of both Alien and Aliens; this time, I chose to watch it in isolation. Whatever the reasons, this Special Edition earns Alien³ an extra star from me.

4 out of 5

* Cameron’s name is on Piranha II, and it is a fun joke to think such dross was his directorial debut, but his version (at least) of the behind-the-scenes story suggests it should in honesty be ignored. If you prefer, imagine I said Aliens was only his second major feature.

I watched the Alien³: Special Edition as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.

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