“Three times the suspense,” breathed the scary voice in the trailers. “Three times the action! Three times the thrills!” Uh, no. None of these things are true. “Three times the sadness!” would have been a more accurate description, but that wouldn’t really have packed them in at the local multiplex.
Not that it mattered. Alien 3 – released in the summer of 1992 – was an absolute clusterfuck from beginning to end, a critical and commercial disaster. …But it’s one of my favorite movies.
The third (duh) film in the Alien series, Alien 3 was expected to be the third (duh) in a series of summer blockbusters. Then the producers went and hired David Fincher. Ahem.
Though David Fincher is now famous for such movies as Seven and Fight Club, Alien 3 was his first outing as a director. The lack of a catchy title for the movie was only the beginning of his problems. (Couldn’t they have gone with, say, Alienses? Or how about: Oh No! Even More Aliens!).
…But whatever. The movie had five competing scripts, ten different screenwriters, and had gone through two different directors before Mr. Fincher arrived on the scene. The script was still being rewritten as the movie was shot, and Sigourney Weaver demanded that the ending be changed at the last minute. Meanwhile, studio executives were checking out Fincher’s daily footage (involving dying oxen, Christian fundamentalism, and morphine addiction, for instance), and were having daily heart attacks. The studio made Fincher reshoot half the movie, then took the product away from him and edited it into incomprehensible mush.
Still, it’s a great movie.
I say this having seen the newly released “Assembly Cut”; the stand-in for a “Director’s Cut,” since David Fincher is still pissed about this movie twenty years later, and refuses to do a director’s cut. Watch the Assembly Cut if you want to see a good movie…If you want to witness the incompetence of studio executives in action, while muttering things like “What is the point of this scene, exactly?” then watch the regular DVD.
The executives did have a point, though, in a way. As a summer blockbuster or as a horror movie, Alien 3 is an absolute abject failure. Instead, it vies for a different title: Saddest Science-Fiction Movie Ever Made. Or, possibly: The Only Existential Action Movie Ever Made.
Whatever the studio thought that they were getting from an Alien sequel, they certainly didn’t expect to receive an existential drama about the significance of religious faith. But hey, that’s what they got. After escaping from the aliens in, um, Aliens, Lt. Ellen Ripley crash-lands on Fiorina “Fury” 161, a small planet that’s been remade into a prison colony for “thieves, rapists, murderers, forgers, child molesters…” Good times!
The movie is overwhelmed with a primal sense of dread from, oh, let’s say, second one. Even the jaunty “20th Century Fox” opening song is stretched and distorted by Fincher, exaggerated into a sort of primal scream. As Ripley’s ship crash-lands on Fury 161, we’re given the briefest of glimpses at the planet’s surface: two suns barely shining through the storm clouds, pieces of garbage whipping through the air, two mangled pieces of junk fashioned into a primitive cross. That’s as long as we get to stay outside. The rest of the movie takes place underground, “in the basement,” as Ripley likes to call it.
ANDREWS: Let me see if I have this correct, Lieutenant. It’s an eight-foot insect of some kind with acid for blood and it arrived on your spaceship. It kills on sight and is generally unpleasant. And, of course, you expect me to accept all this on your words.
RIPLEY: No. I don’t expect anything.
ANDREWS: Quite a story. Yes, Mr. Aaron?
AARON: Right, sir. That’s a beauty. Never heard anything like it, sir.
ANDREWS: I expect not…Tell me, Lieutenant, what would you suggest we do?
RIPLEY: What kind of weapons have you got?
ANDREWS: This is a prison. It is not a good idea to allow prisoners access to firearms.
RIPLEY: What keeps them from killing you?
ANDREWS: Fear. No way to escape. The company would kill them when the supply ship comes around.
RIPLEY: This is a maximum…security…prison. And we have no weapons…of any kind?
ANDREWS: Some carving knives in the Abattoir, a few more in the mess hall. Some fire axes scattered about – nothing terribly formidable.
RIPLEY: Then we’re fucked.
ANDREWS: No. You’re fucked
Actually, everyone’s fucked. If you watch the trailer above, you’ll see that the characters in this movie spend half of their time running, hiding, and crying. Ripley is the ultimate existential heroine; fighting against a monster while her own company does their best to kill her. She’s also totally screwed. Her boyfriend and her adopted daughter are killed within the first thirty seconds of the movie, and her only friend is a shredded robot that begs her to turn him off for good. Alien 3 is a movie that is actively trying to break your heart. Fincher wrings pathos from the oddest of images: a shot of a dog’s eyes; the image of water running over a knife.
DILLON: Do you have any faith, sister?
RIPLEY: Not much…Not much.
DILLON: Well, we’ve got plenty of faith here…Enough even for you.
RIPLEY: I thought women weren’t allowed.
DILLON: We never had any before. But we tolerate anybody…Even the intolerable.
DILLON: That’s just a statement of principle. Nothing personal. But we’ve got a good place to wait here…And until now, no temptation.
The prison colony is made up of an all-male group of religious fanatics, “…some sort of millenarian apocalyptic Christian fundamentalist brew…” who are waiting for the Judgment Day. The message of the movie seems to be that faith, on a certain level, involves believing in randomness and believing in nothing: “…Why,” says Dillon at one point, “why are the innocent punished? Why the sacrifice? Why the pain?…There aren’t any promises. Nothing’s certain. Only that some get called. Some get saved.” As he speaks, the inmates are casting the dead bodies of a young man and a young girl into a gigantic furnace. “We commit their bodies to the void,” he says, “with a glad heart…”
In the novel The Name of the Rose, the philosopher Umberto Eco makes the point that absolute religious faith, at a certain point, bottoms out into a belief in absolute nothingness. If God made a certain set of rules that we are supposed to believe in, then, well, God is God, and God is beyond time, and beyond human understanding.
And so, God can change his rules at any time. (Eco points out that Jewish people – like me! – were pretty much told that there was one set of rules for about four thousand years, until God suddenly told them that there was a new set of rules, and a new covenant. Eco’s point is this… God can do this whenever the fuck he wants. There’s no reason that this can’t happen again; say, in the next fifteen minutes or so. For example). The earliest Christians expected the world to end before they died; they expected the end of the world on a daily basis. That’s a pretty impressive kind of faith – and it’s a faith that borders on a type of anarchy. Jesus tells his followers to give away everything they own, to leave their families, and to come follow him. That’s totally insane, in a good way, kind of.
As crazy as this sounds – considering that it’s only a halfway decent sci-fi movie with some gaping plot holes — Alien 3 takes a great stab at making a very important point: belief in a higher power verges on a type of insanity. That’s sort of a very beautiful thing…At a certain point, you’re believing because you believe because you believe. God presents you with a set of rules that are entirely in conflict with the world as we know it (give away your money, love your enemies, scorn your family); you can believe these rules or not, but even if you follow them, you’ll get no reward – not in this lifetime, at least. True religious faith promises nothing good in this lifetime; it promises a world of pain and rejection.
And that’s what the characters in Alien 3 get.
There is no reward for good behavior in Alien 3. Good characters and bad characters are killed indiscriminately in the film. Faith doesn’t mean anything in this world… and we don’t know if there is another world. The reward for the characters’ faith in the movie is that they all fucking die. They sacrifice themselves to kill a monster that no one else has ever heard of, and all they get is rejection and pain. They’re the ultimate outsiders.
And Lt. Ripley is the outsider of the outsiders: a woman who crash-lands from nowhere onto an entirely male planet, and who proceeds to kick that entire planet’s ass. Ripley is not only my number one choice for movie girlfriend; she’s my number one choice for person I would want with me if I was stranded on a desert island. She convinces a bunch of convicts to fight against a monster armed with nothing more than flashlights, kitchen knives, and pairs of scissors. After being surrounded by a bunch of murderers who want to rape and kill her, Ripley takes the direct approach: she walks up to the biggest, toughest guy and punches him in the face. Um… holy shit!
This is a woman who spends the entire second half of the movie actively trying to get killed by the Alien, so that she won’t give birth to an Alien baby. She tries to argue another character into cutting off her head with an axe… and he refuses, because he’s too afraid. Again:…Holy shit!…Whoa, lady. That’s one tough broad.
Towards the end of the film, Ripley does indeed learn that there is a second alien on the planet; she has an alien fetus growing inside of her. Once Ripley shaves her head, a third of the way through the movie, she and the adult alien are even shot to look the same…She has become something that is “other” – as if that message wasn’t already clear enough…And what is an outsider? An outsider is an alien. And Lt. Ellen Ripley is the alien. Fucking duh. 2 + 2 = 4.
In the end, Ripley’s absolute refusal to compromise – with anyone, with anything – is an analogue to the prisoners’ religious faith. And it’s also what kills her. The “Company” (which apparently is the equivalent of the government in the future: a massive heartless corporation that controls everything), sends a team to save Ripley… and to save the alien baby inside of her, so that they can study it and use it to make biological weapons. “You’re a beautiful woman,” says the Company representative to Ripley. “We can save you. You can still have a life, a family… children.” The compromise is clear: Ripley can save herself, and screw up the rest of the world by letting the alien live.
Fuck that noise. Ripley’s answer is fairly blunt and to the point: “No,” she says, and tosses herself backwards off a catwalk into a gigantic pit of fire. Absolutely fearless, heroic, totally unwilling to compromise… in the end, Ripley kills herself and the alien inside of her. She dies so that the rest of the world can live. That’s pretty fucking impressive. And pretty fucking scary.
SCARIEST PARTS: The spaceship drop. The funeral scene. “I think you’ve got one of those things inside of you.” “PERMISSION DENIED.” Garbage in the wind. “Little girl, she drowned.” The arrival of the bad guys. “You’re gonna die too.”