Alien 3 (David Fincher, 1992)
After having been bowled over by the grand approaches, as different as they were, of the first two entries in the franchise, I went to see Alien 3 in the theater with a lot of excited expectations… only to be left cold by what turned out to be, what I thought of at the time, a mostly uninvolving second sequel. As with Fincher’s Seven and Fight Club when I saw them in their original theatrical run, I came out with the distinct sense that while he’s clearly a filmmaker with a ton of style, cleverness and ability to present viscerally brutal violence (as well as existential unease), he is unable to create any emotional connection to the material. And, by that, I don’t mean sympathy (which is way too over-rated by mainstream-minded film producers anyway) but just simple empathy. Watching his work to me (well, up until Panic Room – after that, I stopped watching) is like witnessing a sociopath, or perhaps a genius savant or something, who has all the know-how to replicate and present beautiful cinematic imagery, but little understanding or connection to human emotion. Without fail, I would initially come out of each of his films feeling empty (and, in fact, a bit beaten on)… and yet… somehow the work would stick with me – a curiosity in my memory banks… I mean, somehow, with all of the genre elements and dark material he played with that’s normally right up my alley, I SHOULD like it… and, yet somehow still wouldn’t. So… it was with a certain amount of intrigue with which I returned to director Fincher’s directorial “Alien” debut after all these years as part of catching up with the entire Alien(s) — and eventually cross-pollinating Predator(s) — series, to see if this one improved with time.
And while it did get better without the baggage of my elevated hopes, there remains a lot that troubles me about the film. First off, the idea that little girl Newt, who is the gathering point of survival which drives the first sequel, is not just dismissively terminated right from the start, but clinically cut open in graphic detail (rib cage cracking, etc.) to uncover if she may be infected by the alien xenomorph (that found it’s way aboard the escape pod from the end of the previous entry) remains as off-putting from the start of the film as it did the first time I saw it. Mind you, I have no problem with my horror movies killing kids (one of my fondest memories of William Girdler’s Grizzly is the unashamed gory delight with which they presented the little boy’s arm-ripping death by the big bear — and there’s also that odd, yet deeply effective moment of the little girl calmly shot to death through her ice cream cone in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13), but, again, it’s Fincher’s cold, distant approach that’s a turn off. Though most of the prison planet milieu takes a lot from the previous films, it is still impressively realized, and I do like his sleeker, wetter looking full grown alien (except when it turns into a CGI cartoon and frustratingly runs WAY too fast to match up with the alien POV shots that inexplicably go so much slower, conveniently allowing our heroes to outrun it), but yet the fact that, other than Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and the great British character actor Charles Dance’s inmate doctor who she gets romantic with, the rest of the film’s characters are these uniformly bald, religiously fanatic prisoners ends up bringing out that emotional coldness even more.
I did appreciate more this time how the film adds intriguing elements to the franchise’s mythology regarding the real villain of the series, the underlying controlling militaristic/corporate forces (finally given a name, the ‘Weiland Corporation’, in this one). It’s nice to see Lance Henriksen (who played the corporation-created synthetic Bishop in Aliens who Ripley initially distrusted — understandably after her unforgettable experiences with the robot Ash in the original — until he reveals himself to be a good guy android) return, quite cleverly, this time as a human. The prison planet and its exiled inhabitants are an interesting idea even if the story and Fincher don’t do enough with it (though, to be fair, the production was infamously deeply troubled, with the director having since disowned the film, so who knows quite where the blame for that lack of development lies). The ending, with its determined effort for once and for all to end Ripley’s relationship with the franchise and the alien xenomorphs (though, of course, they found a way — and I’m sure a boatload of cash — for her to return in the fourth instalment) is gutsy and nicely operatic… if, true to the Fincher way, it entirely fails at the emotional level (trying like hell as it does, with all that music and bombast).