People weren’t ready for Fincher.
Alien 3 is an infamous object. It’s mostly known as the peculiar punchline to the long and notorious joke that was the film’s production. Stuck in proverbial development hell for years, the film underwent multiple drastic rewrites at the hands of a gauntlet of authors: Vincent Ward, William Gibson, David Twohy, Walter Hill and who knows who else all took passes, and the glut of voices and views turned the arbitrarily designated release date of May 22nd, 1992, into a race against the clock. When Alien 3 finally hit theaters, the negative reaction was almost as universal as the positive reaction was to Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens. Critics found it disastrous, audiences found it confusing and hardcore fans of the franchise, nurtured by the generic legibility of the first two installments, found it outright loathsome. Lost in all the hoopla, however, was the emergence of a new directorial voice: David Fincher.
The typical complaint against Alien 3 is that it doesn’t really feel like the other films in the series. View the Alien films in sequence, however, and the argument doesn’t hold water. Alien 3 is dissimilar to Aliens in the same way that film (an epic deep-space war actioner) is dissimilar to its predecessor (a claustrophobic science-fiction chamber horror). In other words, reinvention was the name of the game. So why the backlash? It probably had something to do with the way three characters from the previous film—the child Newt, the heroic Hicks and the damaged android Bishop—were unceremoniously killed off after gaining major affinity from the aforementioned hardcore fans, or maybe it was the subtle altering of the series’ central figure, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). Both are signs of a distinct authorial voice intruding on the established mode of a popular film franchise; people weren’t ready for Fincher.
It’s helpful to think of Alien 3 as an erasure. In addition to removing key figures from the series’ overarching plot, it places the action in a hitherto unexplored milieu. In the film’s opening moments, one of those pesky alien facehuggers emerges from an egg surreptitiously stowed on the ship where Ripley and her cohorts are in cryogenic sleep. The facehugger impregnates Ripley while causing an electrical fire that forces her sleep tube into an escape pod and out into space, where she crashes on Fiorina 161, a prison planet inhabited by violent and sadistic men. To make matters worse, the facehugger—apparently still in the mood for some action—also impregnates an ox, which unleashes a new kind of alien onto the unsuspecting prisoners. So while Ripley gets to know the inhabitants of the prison, including the kindly doctor Clemens (Charles Dance), the unhinged Golic (Paul McGann) (who feels a kinship with the alien), and the rapist turned spiritualist Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), the new alien wreaks havoc, leaving the prisoners and their guards helpless to stop it.
Unlike the previous Alien films, in which Ripley’s behaviors have to do with either stopping or evading attack from the alien, her behavior and movements here have more to do with the interworking prison world and the personalities therein. Building off of the helpless if gradually resourceful woman we meet in Alien and the protective mother figure we see in Aliens, Fincher, alongside Hill, Larry Ferguson and David Giler—the screenwriters credited with the final script—point Ripley toward a sort of existential realization. Feeling the fatalistic punishment from her first two run-ins with the alien, she fully embraces nihilism, much in the way protagonists in future Fincher films would. And that’s before she becomes fully aware of the chest-busting alien that grows inside her, which only compounds the cosmic cruelty that has robbed her of the biological and adoptive families from previous installments. Once that becomes apparent, she becomes a Christ-like figure, shaving her head like a monk and offering absolution to her fellow cursed on Fiorina 161, vowing to rid them of the alien even at the expense of her own life.
Previously, no Alien film had been so concerned with philosophy and character psychology, or so unconcerned with action set pieces and creepy imagery. If, functionally, Alien 3 is an erasure, then spiritually, it is a transformation, a notion you can find throughout the film. Aside from the alien’s transformation from its popular form into a weird, four-legged beast, not to mention Ripley’s transformation into some sort of nihilistic priesthood, the character Clemens is revealed to be not just the prison doctor but a former inmate himself, convicted of medical malpractice and killing some of his patients. He explains his situation to Ripley while preparing a dosage of medication for her, turning the scene—one of the film’s best—into both a test of faith and comment on the nature of transformation. Namely, is transformation possible? We see the scenario again in Dillon, a murdering rapist who turns to God post-imprisonment and quells his urge to attack Ripley until she helps save the prisoners from the alien. Again, Fincher seems to question the nature of transformation, making Alien 3 a sort of treatise on mankind’s capacity to change.
Thematically, Alien 3 has much in common with Fincher’s follow up, Seven. Like Morgan Freeman’s character there, Ripley is resigned to living in an imperfect world without ever considering herself heroic for doing so. (She also seems anticipate the director’s take on Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, whose sense of morality is governed less by the world’s perception of her actions and more by an innate sense of self.) Ultimately, the dilemma at the center of Alien 3 isn’t death by xenomorph, but the dilemma of death itself. Like the director’s best work, the film takes a fatalistic approach to faith. Fincher never suggests that faith can lead to an afterlife, but he illustrates the way faith provides comfort for the living, allowing them to face tragic death with a kind of hardened serenity. Fincher leverages these themes with his trademark rusty color palate and some confident stylization during the requisite horror sequences. The film’s most famous and lasting image, of a terrified yet resilient Ripley poised fact-to-face with the scaly, drooling embodiment of her life’s unrest, is an early example of Fincher’s visual mastery.
In looking at Alien 3’s plot, the errors that plagued pre-production undoubtedly found their way into the final product, not unlike the alien egg that conveniently found its way into Ripley’s ship at the start of the film. There are a lot of weird and annoying inconsistences surrounding the alien’s biological functions; the acting and dialogue is often cringe-worthy; and you can feel Fincher gritting his teeth during the more conventional moments forced upon him by the studio. (Unsurprisingly, he disowned the film upon release.) From here on out, Fincher would have an increasingly more autonomous hand in the crafting of his own work, and if the film frustrates it all, it’s in seeing where certain elements of the story, like the notion of mass incarceration and the gender interplay between Ripley and her prisoner cohorts, were brushed aside in favor of something more suitable for a blockbuster release. But in keeping with the tradition of the Alien series—in radically altering the forms and functions of the previous installment—he created a personal and noteworthy debut that hinted at, and often realized, future greatness.