Movie Postmortem #5: Alien 3

by John S. 

Movie Postmortem is a monthly series that reviews certain films which showed promise but misfired (critically and/or commercially) upon initial release. Join us in our attempt to find out exactly what the hell happened.

(This review looks at the 114-minute theatrical cut, not the 144-minute original final cut known as the “Assembly Cut”)

The Casualty: Alien 3

The Case History: Summer 1986. James Cameron’s Aliens, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien, becomes a huge hit. Twentieth Century Fox naturally wants a third movie. Producers Walter Hill, Gordon Carroll, and David Giler start feeling around for writers and ideas, and in doing so kick off a pre-production saga that’s even more entertaining than the final movie itself.

The first couple of attempts involve popular sci-fi/cyberpunk writer William Gibson. His script promotes Aliens survivor Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) to lead status, and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is sidelined until a planned return as the star of the fourth film. Gibson’s script is even more complex and action-packed than Aliens and further explores the Company’s evil plans for the Xenomorphs as bio-weapons. However, Fox ultimately passes.

Next up to bat is Eric Red, writer of Near Dark and The Hitcher. By this time, Sigourney Weaver’s interest in the project has waned so this version drops Ripley completely. The action unfolds in a bio-dome that houses a large farming community in space – complete with wheat fields, barns, and pick-up trucks. And aliens that are half-pig, half-chicken, and even one that’s half-mosquito. Not surprisingly, Fox can’t pass fast enough on this one.

Enter David Twohy, writer of Critters 2 and Warlock. With this version, we begin to see some of the elements that would wind up in the finished movie. Twohy’s script sets the story on a prison station orbiting earth, as a fresh group of inmates arrives at the facility. Turns out someone is conducting Xenomorph experiments on the prisoners. Only one thing to do: Prison Break! Fox likes this version but it’s still missing someone crucial: Ellen Ripley.

Fox believes there can be no Alien 3 without Sigourney Weaver and entices her back into the fold. Weaver has conditions of her own: the story must be amazing and different than the first two flicks. Enter Vincent Ward, director of the striking fantasy flick The Navigator: A Medieval Oddysey. Ward pitches an intriguing idea which wins him the directing job: Ripley’s lifepod from Aliens crash lands on a “wooden” satellite housing a medieval-type monastery inhabited by monks who have shunned technology.

Ward eventually leaves the project, citing creative differences. Hill and Giler subsequently merge Twohy and Ward’s scripts together. Meanwhile, a 27-year-old Boy Wonder director who’s directed some striking MTV videos is hired to make his big-screen directorial debut with Alien 3. His name is David Fincher. Production begins in January 1991 with an unfinished script.

Finally, about six years after someone said “hey, let’s make Alien 3!” the movie debuts in North America on May 22, 1992. It nabs $23.1 million (about $50 million today) in its first weekend. Reviews and word-of-mouth are largely disappointing. Alien 3 tops out domestically at $55.1 million (about $120 million today), just over twice its take from the first three days. For any other film, this might be considered a modest success. However, for the long-awaited threequel to two classic films, it is undeniably a disappointment.

So what the hell happened?

The Autopsy Details: Alien 3 is not a bad movie, just a very flawed one. There’s some good, maybe even great, stuff here. The prison planet and its decaying facilities are an interesting contrast to the sleek, high-tech look of the first two movies. David Fincher brings real skill to the table in visually telling the story. The cast members, led by Sigourney Weaver and Charles Dance, are all solid.

Unfortunately, what undermines Alien 3 is a script with a daring set-up that ultimately goes nowhere new. Contrary to popular opinion, most audience members might have gone along with this entry’s bleak tone – if it would have rewarded them with something new in the Alien mythos. Disappointingly, no new ground is broken here and we essentially get a lackluster re-do of the first movie. Having a super-fast Xenomorph that comes out of a dog is a good start but we need to find out more about the creatures and what makes them tick.

Alien introduced us to the facehugger, the chestburster, and eventually the adult drone Xenomorph itself. Aliens expanded our knowledge of the creatures by introducing a hive system with Warriors governed by a Queen. Alien 3 should’ve gone a step further and raised the stakes somehow, instead of relying on just one monster yet again.

Furthermore, beyond Ripley there is no one else to root for after the midway point. The biggest mistake the film makes is killing off the only other truly sympathetic character early on, robbing the movie of an emotional spine that might have given it staying power. Moreover, having so many bald people who look alike doesn’t exactly help. You can barely tell who is who and therefore it’s hard to care who survives.

While it’s admirable the creative team wanted to do something different and not just rehash Aliens, they ironically end up rehashing Alien in the process. They should have just gone with William Gibson’s initial vision which basically takes the franchise to the inevitable next step that everyone feared in the first two films: the Company actively using the Xenomorphs as bio-weapons. Instead, we’re back to square one.

Likely Cause of Death: A script with too few characters to root for and not much new to offer is ultimately what did Alien 3 in. The longer Assembly Cut is a little better than the Theatrical Cut, but still has the same flaws. If you’re going to write out beloved survivors from Aliens, you better have good reasons – and neither version of Alien 3 gives us any.

Next Month’s Casualty: Possession – “The past will connect them. The passion will possess them.”

In honor of Valentine’s Day and the Academy Awards next month, let’s look at a once-promising romance with very classy pedigree (from the bestselling literary novel by A.S. Byatt) and very talented stars (Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jennifer Ehle, Jeremy Northam) which should have been an Oscar contender and a modern classic. Instead, it fizzled with critics and kind of just faded away at the box-office. Get ready for some lessons in that elusive thing called “chemistry.”

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Dario Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Peanut M&Ms with popcorn, Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN, Theo James in anything, HALLOWEEN (movie and holiday), Scarecrow Video, Russell Crowe as a villain, strawberry soda, and Karaoke – not necessarily in that order.

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