March 2024

Alien 3 (1992)

DIRECTOR: David Fincher


Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dance, Charles S. Dutton, Brian Glover, Ralph Brown, Pete Postlethwaite, Lance Henriksen


The phrase ‘third time’s the charm’ doesn’t ring true for the Alien series. Alien was a solid start, and Aliens represented the series at its peak; everything else was downhill from there.  Given the notoriously tumultuous production, with the storyline going through various and wildly contrasting versions, ever changing directors, a multitude of screenwriters, clashes between directors and producers and lead actress Sigourney Weaver, and the production running significantly over budget, with millions of dollars wasted on elaborate set pieces that never ended up being used due to the script in continuous rewrites throughout filming, it’s a small wonder the movie ever ended up getting finished in halfway watchable form at all, but in retrospect I’m not sure if it was worth the effort. Alien 3 is a dark, dreary, and depressing experience. Which is not to say that Alien or Aliens were uplifting movies, but the third entry smacks of a lot of pointless nastiness without redeeming qualities.

One of the strengths of Aliens was the emotional connection the audience developed with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Newt, and to a lesser extent, Hicks, which Alien 3 peremptorily obliterates in about the first five minutes, as their escape pod crash lands on the penal colony world Fury 161, leaving Ripley as the only survivor. The inmates, unofficially led by Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), mostly violent sex offenders who have found religion and claimed celibacy, fear the arrival of an outsider, especially a woman, can upset the fragile order of their world, but Ripley finds a sympathetic ear in Dr. Clemens (Charles Dance), although she refuses to confide in him her worst fears, triggered by acid burns in the escape pod wreckage. But it’s not long before Ripley realizes she isn’t the only being to have emerged from the escape pod onto Fury 161.

Alien 3 was disliked by the majority of critics and reviewers, especially in comparison to Aliens, while a select few praised its ‘bleak and uncompromising vision’. I won’t dispute that Alien 3 is a bleak and uncompromising movie, but unless it serves the film in some greater way beyond bleakness for the sake of bleakness, I don’t know that that’s necessarily an asset. One could argue it was a gutsy move to kill off characters, particularly Newt, the entirety of Aliens had built up an emotional attachment to, but it also feels like an arbitrary one that completely destroys the emotional strength the series had generated and leaves Alien 3 a hollow film without human interest, leaving only the alien’s increasingly bloody attacks and not having that much more to offer than a well-made slasher movie.  After all the behind-the-scenes chaos and upheaval, the man who ended up with the dubious honor of directing this bloody mess was David Fincher, who was a respected music video director but had no feature film experience.  Fortunately for him, Fincher has since gone on to bigger and better things and has also attempted to distance himself from Alien 3 as much as possible, claiming his vision was hopelessly compromised by studio interference.  It’s hard to say how much control Fincher really had over the end product, but while technically competent and atmospheric, it has little of his distinctive fingerprints of visual flair.  Sure, there’s suspense about when and where the alien will strike next, but nothing holds a candle to the nerve-wracking intensity of the climaxes of Alien and Aliens, and a significant reason is simply that, aside from Ripley, we don’t care about any of these characters. Not only does setting Alien 3 in a penal colony populated by rapists contribute significantly to the bleak and depressing atmosphere, it also leaves us with no interest in anyone besides Ripley. The only halfway likable supporting character is Charles Dance’s Clemens, and he doesn’t last long. The prisoners, presided over by their warden, Andrews, played by the Joss Ackland-esque Brian Glover, are a loathsome motley crew who, with the exception of Charles S. Dutton’s Dillon and arguably Ralph Brown’s dimwitted assistant warden Aaron (if you are a devout Star Wars nerd, you may notice Brown plays Queen Amidala’s cruiser pilot in The Phantom Menace) are nothing more fleshed-out than alien fodder (and unsympathetic alien fodder, to boot).

The constant is Sigourney Weaver. Despite the dreariness of the material she’s surrounded by, Weaver, spending most of the movie with a shaved head, has grown confidently into Ripley’s skin over three installments and gives her most consistently solid performance out of the first three episodes (she doesn’t look half bad bald, either). Weaver is Ripley by this point, and to the extent that we’re involved, it’s almost solely due to her. The only returning cast member is Lance Henriksen, who has a cameo, and then later ‘another’ surprise cameo. Charles Dance brings a nice intellectual sadness to Dr. Clemens, the only other person besides Ripley who’s halfway interesting, but his screen time is limited to early scenes. Charles S. Dutton is in fine hardass mode as Dillon, the de facto leader of the prisoners, with a couple scenes that we could easily imagine being performed by Samuel L. Jackson. The rest of the prisoners, even those played by recognizable character actors like Pete Postlethwaite, are interchangeable and make no individual impressions; they exist as monster fodder.

Alien 3 leaves a few plot holes and seems to be inconsistent with earlier bits of established Alien lore. If the Queen detached herself from her egg tube to pursue Ripley in Aliens, where did the egg onboard the escape pod come from? Also, Alien established that the face huggers die after impregnating their victims, yet the stowaway face hugger here lives to impregnate not only SPOILER WARNING the initially oblivious Ripley, but later an unfortunate Rottweiler. The explanation for this might be that Ripley’s ‘baby’ is said to be a Queen, which might require a ‘different’ face hugger than a typical alien. What doesn’t have an explanation is why the aliens in both Alien and Aliens, for the most part, captured and cocooned their victims rather than outright killing them on the spot, while this one consistently slaughters its victims in as gruesome a manner as possible in what feels like an excuse for a higher blood and guts quotient. Some have offered the explanation that, since the alien obviously senses Ripley’s impregnation, it does whatever it deems necessary to protect the Queen inside her at all costs, including killing every other human around her, but this doesn’t explain why, when it clearly has the opportunity on at least two occasions, it doesn’t simply abduct Ripley and cocoon her in some secluded location until the birth.

Technically, Alien 3 looks like a member of the series, although this was around the time when filmmakers started playing with CGI but hadn’t quite polished it yet, and a few shots of the alien running around or scurrying across the ceiling are, at least by today’s standards, very obviously animated and not nearly as effective as the live alien figure. The omnipresent, sinister Company again rears its head. One wonders how shocking the ending, with SPOILER WARNING Ripley’s self-sacrifice was at the time, but given the lack of interest in what came before, it doesn’t generate as much of a response as it should have, and only serves as the culmination of a depressing, emotionally empty, and unsatisfactory movie experience.