This is the first of a weekly feature on this site where the author will watch and review a film or television programme they have evaded, intentionally or otherwise, for years. It’s a not uncommon occurrence; you’ll get some hardened film nuts who’ve never seen The Godfather or Psycho, not because of a desire to avoid them, but just never getting around to it. Myself, I’ve never seen Apocalypse Now or Blade Runner, or watched The Sopranos apart from the very last episode. You get the idea.
Disclaimer: I have not seen Alien: Resurrection either, for obvious reasons, so cannot write this article with the knowledge of what happens, aside from a general synopsis. And by that I mean, Ripley’s still in it so she’s come back from the dead somehow. Also, spoilers I guess. Perhaps that should’ve been first.
Alien 3 gets a hard time. Its director, then-rookie David Fincher, had a torrid time on set and has completely disowned it. Fans of the first two movies baulked at the deaths of the previous film’s survivors in the opening credits. It is, quite bluntly, not a nice film. But it is not a bad film; certainly I enjoyed it far more than I did the recent Alien prequel Prometheus, which shares themes of religion, life and death, etc etc with Alien 3, but with far less focus in its execution.
Having crash landed near a prison base, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) awakens to find herself yet again the lone survivor. She gets little sympathy from the warden, and is warned of the “disruption” she could cause amongst the prison inmates, a motley crue of murderers and rapists who appear to begrudgingly abide to a somewhat apocalyptical brand of Christianity. Their sermons are held by Charles Dutton’s Dillon, who despite his superior standing initially, is also an inmate. The only friendly face at first is the medical officer Clemens, played by Charles Dance (I’m very glad his surname was mentioned every time somebody spoke to him, because at one point I almost resigned myself to calling him Tywin), exerting patience with Ripley’s suspicions and developing a fondness very much removed from the gross letching of the inmates. As the characters soon discover, a xenomorph has been born in the prison – though from an ox*, not Newt, as Ripley initially suspects – and fully grown, has began killing whoever crosses its path. (*yes, I’m watching the special edition.)
James Cameron’s Aliens is often praised for taking the subject matter of a tense horror and being able to twist it into a convincing action movie. Alien 3 certainly revives the dark horror of the original, with inmates picked off one-by-one in the ventilation, between pipes and dark corners and such, but the film’s environment gives it a considerably different spin. If you could compare it with another film, it would be Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. Both films share a backdrop of vast industrial dystopia, and Alien 3 certainly displays a Gilliamesque strangeness not present in the previous films. Aliens featured the machismo of American marines; Alien 3‘s expendables are grotesque, vile, and predominantly English. It gives twisted humour to certain moments, such as crazed inmate Golic (Paul McGann) cutting another inmates throat and whimpering “Sorry, sorry, sorry!” to him as he dies. There’s an Orwellian vibe to the warden’s “rumour control”, dismissing any potential gossip that might cause disruption or panic – even if, in this case, the gossip is true and the warden simply refuses to believe it. If the film has an ultimate failing, it is that it veers between the more typical Alien tension and this strange setting caught somewhere between Gilliam and 1984. Each work on their own account, but their juxtaposition is somewhat disjointed.
Individually, most of the characters work. Charles Dance is wonderful at being simultaneously stern and warm, and fits more naturally into the Alien canon than the stranger inmates. Charles Dutton’s Dillon, the inmate preacher, at first appears ambiguous but like all great Alien characters, he is revealed to be much more than the first impression, reluctantly taking on at least a spiritual leadership when Clemens and the warden are killed. Other inmates, such as Danny Webb’s Morse, show surprising depth despite their initial vile nature. Golic is the inverse, introduced pathetically to draw some sympathy, but is overcome with awe at the xenomorph and ends up releasing it from the cell the others had just trapped it in. I must admit, I assumed quite early on that Aaron (Ralph Brown) was an android – his only function seemed to be agreeing with the warden, and the first time he perks up is at mention of the xenomorph. His insistence on waiting for the rescue ship seemed to strengthen this, and it was with a dull “oh” that I realised I was wrong, when Weyland’s men shoot him dead, and he is indeed flesh and blood. I think a genuine uncertainty in the characterisation is what makes an Alien film. Most of the characters in Prometheus fill only a shallow purpose, excepting Michael Fassbender’s David and Idris Elba’s Janek. They are either the angry money-minded guy, or the bumbling biologist, or the company bitch. Who cares? They’re all dead, without having made any significant emotional contribution to the narrative. In Alien 3, the entire climax revolves around the fact that they are all going to die, yet you care more deeply for how each of them can contribute towards the success of the plan.
Most fans of the previous films dislike the film, I assume because it’s essentially a fuck you to their hopeful endings. I think it helps that I only saw the first two films recently as well, and possibly that I knew that Ripley was going to die. Frankly, everybody else has died, so there’s no reason why a dramatic conclusion to the series shouldn’t involve her death. Of course, then came Resurrection…
But that can wait for another article.