I’ve been wanting to see the Alien 3 Assembly Cut ever since I heard about the bastard, and after watching Jim Sterling’s Alien 3 review finally decided to get my hands on it, regardless of costs. And I did. And it’s going to take a while to explain why it’s as bloody awesome as it is.
Now, this contains some elements of sarcasm, so if you are going to take it as a serious elitist hate speech and get your little pink knickers in a twist, congratulations on being a twatty-cake.
The Alien trilogy was very fortunate in having some of the best directors and moviemakers working on them before becoming household names; Riddley Scott in Alien, James Cameron in Aliens and David Fincher in Alien 3. The franchise, that in less capable hands might never have arisen beyond a B-movie, is now a modern classic in both horror and science fiction, and is still one of the best series of films in the world. And no, fuck you, it’s not a quadrilogy. Resurrection and the horrible mash-ups with Crabby-face can be considered fan-fiction, having pretty much nothing connecting them to the three originals.
Now, none of these are by any means perfect movies, each being a product that’s come from different circumstances and individual emphasises, while they are all pretty awesome movies.
Alien suffered from serious limitations where effects were concerned, where the alien looks like something you could get away from by shuffling really fast, while also having some problem with characterization. None of the characters are particularly developed, and Ripley emerges as the lone heroine at the last possible moment, and as a complete surprise to everyone, since she is by all means one of the least likable characters. She is a strong character, certainly, just not a particularly interesting or pleasant one. Before the last minutes of the film, the mantle of leading character is mainly carried by Dallas and Ash, later also with Yaphet Kotto’s Parker, before they all die one by one. From a feminist point of view of course it is interesting how she becomes the strongest survivor, eventually showing the alien the door, as well as why she doesn’t emerge as the heroine before all the strong, capable lads have ventilation holes in their heads. By all means, Alien was the most innovative as the fore-runner in the series, and still has strongest sense of mystery about it, coming into contact with the alien for the first time.
Aliens is the big hit most people tend to consider the best in the series. This was the sequel, that took a survival horror/science fiction story, and threw in space marines and a boss-fight, making it more of an action/drama. James Cameron gave the story a militaristic and sentimental twist, that especially Americans seem to fall for, pulling a lost-child-twist right out of his arse, and turned Ripley into a Supermom kicking alien arse. Now, this is still one of my favourite movies, and while it may or may not be the first to introduce a ‘bad-ass soldiers investigating a place where shit got fucked’ setting, it certainly is the one that did it best. The marines are very cool, and Hadley’s Hope is one of the most atmospheric settings in science fiction, and it is very cool that we as the audience don’t actually see what happened in HH, but only get to see hints at what happened through broken barricades, corroded floors and explosion damage. The place is torn to shit, while all the people are simply gone, their half-finished donuts still left at their desks.
Soon, of course, the aliens butcher through the marine ranks, and the survivors have to try to barricade themselves in, while trying to get a shuttle to take them the fuck away from those Freudian, penis-headed mass-murderers. Further, the idea of adding a Queen as the ultimate adversary works perfectly, both dramatically, and adding depth that completes Ridley’s established Alien lore in a logical way.
The character of Newt is somewhat problematic. Ripley becomes a surrogate mother to her, giving her character a personal motivation in the battle against penisheads, as well as makes her a warmer, more feminine character, while at the same time being an action hero. This does push her character into territory that can only be filed under heroics, going after her into the most infested levels of the colony, facing off the Queen and rescuing the girl without a second thought. And of course escaping just in time from a nuclear blast, that’s important too. And then there’s the whole “Get away from her you bitch”, which is kind of awesome as well.
The problem comes in the bits where this dynamic kind of works against the movie, bringing in a lot of sentimentalism and reducing character motivations towards the lowest common denominator (seriously, how many movies are there where the sole motivation of the protagonist is rescuing your kid from terrorists/aliens/serial killers/killer vegetables/drugs/David Bowie, etc?). In some ways it’s good, making the film more appealing to the wider audience, but in others it really fucks up the tone and pacing. I would personally have preferred a more horror-inspired story, with less sentimentalism and more atmosphere, but that is just the way I see the alien franchise, and this was the way James Cameron saw it, and it’s a perfectly good vision. Further, how many people really hate the bits where Ripley and Newt are bonding? I know you do. “They mostly come out at night. Mostly.”
Other problems with Aliens could include the romance sub-plot with Hicks and Ripley, which comes across as pretty flat and uninteresting (interestingly, she’s technically old enough for her daughter to be his grandmother), and some of the goofy and awkward banter with the space marines, particularly thanks to Bill Paxton’s Hudson (who I still miss when he dies).
In an interview from 1986, James Cameron says dreaming is a big undertone in Aliens. The xenomorphs are pretty much the best stuff your nightmares can throw at you, and the film both begins and ends with sleep: Ripley waking from a nigtmare, sorting shit out in between, and finally going to restful sleep after facing the Freudian phallic monsters and triumphing. At this point, the audience can go away content with themselves, now that status quo is restored, and for all intents and purposes the aliens are well and truly gone.
Now, we can start getting to why Alien 3 is such a problem for so many. Aliens gave everyone a good story, with good closure. Hicks, Ripley and Newt, for all intents and purposes, had survived and were off home to be a happy family. But Alien 3 decided “fuck that, let’s do the most grim, unappealing reboot in the series and kill off these characters we spent the last movie saving.” Understandably, for a lot of people this was a real slap in the face. Happy ending was suddenly cancelled, and we were off to see the shittiest bits of the future, with murders, rapists and no USCM space marines and no pulse rifles. This brings us to what I think is the real reason, why this movie got so much shit.
There is one thing in Alien 3, that the prefix “horribly” describes perfectly. It’s not directed, written, acted, or even produced, but marketed. This was the most misrepresented, horribly and shittily marketed movie in history. Look at the trailers for this. Look at it. Right now.
Everything that the trailer claims this movie is, it is not. It is the perfect opposite of what the studio and marketing department promised it to be, leading to a lot of people wanting to see Aliens 2, expecting to see Aliens 2, getting fucked in the theaters. Badly. “In Earth everyone can hear you scream”…It wasn’t happening on earth you asswipe, and the bitch certainly fucking wasn’t back – the bitch was gone, and wasn’t coming back. I can only imagine what kind of a clusterfuck must have been going on during the production of this movie. The phrase “left hand not knowing what the right is doing” doesn’t come anywhere near the kind of mess that is going on here. Unless the other one is a slimy tentacle and the other one has six digits.
Further, this was David Fincher’s first feature film, and he was understandably embittered after making it, since he spent most of his time fighting with the studio, had plenty of trouble with funding, had to stop the production at one point and restart shooting later, while getting lawsuits from Michael Biehn (he actually made more money from Alien 3 than Aliens, just for using his picture in the film) having to keep throwing money at Sigorney Weaver for shaving her head. In the end he packed his shit up and left the film, disowning it and only grudgingly endorsing the Assembly Cut ten years later. So, from looking at the mess that was the production, it was a miracle the film came out at all, nevermind it being actually worth watching. Interestingly, at one point, when certain scenes had to be reshot, the producers refused Sigorney Weaver’s demands for more money to shave her head again, and instead stuck a bald-wig on her. Now that’s professional, from everyone’s part.
At this point it might be mentioned, that the Assembly Cut is published with the Alien Quadrilogy Blu-Ray box, and contains 28 minutes of additional film, with some scenes dramatically different from the theatrical cut.
The film begins with Sulaco, Ripley, Newt and Hicks in hypersleep, as a solitary empty egg is seen on board (where the fuck that came from, is something people are only too happy to start arguing on forums. Did the Queen carry it on board, while the camera was pointed at Ripley and Bishop? Did she still have one left, and the huge translucent sack for storing the bastards? Who bloody knows. It just is there now, right?) The facehugger implants one of the passengers with an embryo and causes an electrical fire in the pod, leading to it being ejected from Sulaco and crashing on Fury 161, killing Hicks and Newt, and tearing Bishop beyond repair, all while ominous choirs are contributing to the eerie scene.
For many, this is already a big issue. I really liked this twist in the story, taking Ripley from her place of safety and promise of a happy ending, and throwing her into an even worse shit than Nostromo or LV-426. But for many, the story was already over, and they had quite happily settled into a happy ending where Ripley and Hicks go off and be an item, adopting Newt and living a happy life away on Earth with birds tweeting in the sky, where the worst threat is a pigeon taking a crap on your car window. For these fans this movie starts with an absolute ‘fuck you’, and quickly notice that the safety blanket they were hugging at the end of Aliens suddenly smells of wee, and is covered in stains that disturbingly look like old spunk. Further, I do have to say the way the characters are disposed is a bit chilling, impaling Hicks into a bloody mess and subjecting Newt’s remains to a graphic autopsy, that to some viewers feels a bit unfair.
As the pod crashes, we see a view of the sun (or at least, a sun) disappearing behind the planet, which won’t rise again until at the very end of the film. Quickly, we see that Fury 161 sucks big time, and the landscape is nothing but abandoned, rusting industrial facilities and spartan structures, and the planet houses only remnants of an old maximum security prison. We begin to meet the characters Ripley finds herself surrounded by: a cynical warden, doctor with a past, dense, if at heart good, guard and the rest a fanatically religious bunch of rapists, murderers and lunatics, all with jolly working-class British accents.
The characters of Fury 161 are another point, that is difficult for some viewers. Some are very unhappy about the assembly of prisoner-characters, like a collection of rejected Charles Dickens villains, claiming they have a hard time relating to anyone in the movie, and that every single character is entirely unsympathetic and totally unlikable. I would totally disagree, that while the characters are an ugly and somewhat unpleasant bunch, the characters are very well developed and colorful, each with more or less understandable and reasonable motives for their actions. Of course reasonable, in some cases like Golic, doesn’t mean everyday “I see your point” kind of way, but in the ‘credible within the context of the film’ kind of way. Even though most have horrible pasts, and are clearly established as murderers and rapists, their backgrounds compliment the complexity of the film and its themes, such as regret and search of absolution, trying to find direction and comfort in a world that is full of suffering and cruelty, as Dillon and the other’s pray as part of their religious conviction: “Give us strength, Oh Lord, to endure. We recognize that we are poor sinners in the hands of an angry God. Let the circle be unbroken –Until the day. Amen.” The prisoners are waiting for the end of the world and God’s final judgement, and until then the cycle of violence has to continue uninterrupted: they have to suffer as they have made other’s suffer, and they made others suffer as they had suffered themselves. For them, Fury 161 is like Purgatory, the only thing to do is wait and endure.
Out of all the characters Clemens, the medical officer, quickly is established as the second hero of the story. He believes Ripley faster than any of the others, takes risks for her, and is generally the most likable character, as both humane and intelligent. Often, he acts as the conduit and barrier between Ripley (and the audience,) and between the harsh nature of Fury 161 and its occupants, providing explanation and expositioning its history and characters. Clemens is himself killed right after revealing his sordid history, accidentally being responsible for the deaths of 11 people through his mistake, which is another brave move from Fincher, emphasizing that the Alien doesn’t care about character likability, and that no-one is really safe within the story. The Alien simply does what it does, which is butcher yummy humans, as Ash says in Alien, “Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. […] A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”
For many, again, killing Clemens is a really arsehole thing to do, but it is perfect in establishing Alien 3’s separation from ‘typical’ movie-logic: you can’t make any assumptions about what is going to happen, because the film does not follow the unwritten Hollywood rules. The Alien doesn’t care about whether a buch of teenagers camped at Camp Crystal spend their time smoking weed and fucking in tents, it’s going to kill them anyway. “You’re the established good-guy and your odds of survival look about 1100% compared to everyone else? Well fuck you, you’re going to be killed off anyway, cos I’m the bloody alien, and I have melodramatic monologues made about me.”
Part of this is related to what Jim Sterling says in his review: this film epitomes the overarching theme of the entire trilogy, which is that the Alien will always win, and the Homo Sapiens will always lose. One of the prevalent entities in every one of the films is the illusive Weyland Yutani, which will always try to exploit the Alien, and always ultimately fail catastrophically. The Alien is unexploitable. Alien is the better survivor, and will always have the edge over the soft, pudgy humans. It is the perfect Darwinian creature, that can survive anything you throw at it, whether it is marines, space captains or prison inmates. Individual Aliens are destructible, always requiring either pulse-rifles or fast thinking to be taken down, but the species always lingers, and the only way to defeat it is for Ripley to sacrifice herself to take it down with her: blowing up her ship and escaping in a life-pod, even when it follows her, facing it with an awesome power-loading robot, dragging it into an airlock, or jumping into a furnace with the creature incubating in her chest. Ripley has to sacrifice something of herself every time to hold the alien back, and this time finally giving her life to take it with her.
This whole theme is in a way voiced out by Ripley herself, when she tries to find the Alien, either to kill it or get it to kill her: “You’ve been in my life so long I can’t remember anything else.”
In many ways Alien 3 has the best characters in the trilogy: they are well established and well developed, well scripted, and I find best acted in the series. Alien didn’t really establish their characters very far, their personalities mostly intertwined with their function or sole characteristic. Ripley’s a bit of a bitch, Dallas is the captain, Lambert is a whiny bitch…Ash came across as the most interesting of the characters, and Parker as the most believable and relatable, and it almost feels like he was the original hero before they switched it to Ripley mid-story.
Aliens developed Ripley, as far as giving her a personality, but her motivations are quite soon reduced to overtly simple cliches, Hicks is bland, Burke is a douche, Hudson a loudmouth, Apone is the Sargent (you know, the same one present in every military film, played by the same person with an interchangeable face), Vasques is the token Latino…again the android Bishop seems to be the most interesting one as a character, who can’t be filed into stereotypes and who’s thoughts and motivations are the hardest to read. Most of the characters are memorable at the least, and some of them very likable. You miss Hudson once he is gone, if only for his goofy acting, and for some reason I always remember Drake, though he had quite a short part.
Clemens, Andrews, Aaron, Dillon, Morse and Golic are all brilliant, and especially Charles Dance’s performance as Clemens is brilliant. Everyone has a sufficiently complex character without becoming obtuse, which are all well written and performed, and not one of them conforms to any set Hollywood stereotype. I was really surprised to see how much of Golic’s character is seen in the Assembly Cut, and the movie is all the more brilliant for it. One particular scene was cut out, where the Alien has just killed Boggs and Rains in the tunnels, and Golic, covered in blood, calmly sits eating breakfast cereal in the dark mess hall, when one of the inmates holding plates comes through, Golic turns and smiles with his face covered in blood and bits of skull and brains, and the other inmate drops all the plates with a look of absolute shock on his face. I don’t know what it was about that scene, but it looked absolutely brilliant and creepy, while completely establishing how fucked up Golic is.
Sigorney Weaver, I think, does her best bit of acting in this film as well, as she has to navigate some very difficult terrain. Finding that the plot’s taken a serious turn towards unpleasant while she was in hypersleep, losing everyone she spent all the damn time saving in Aliens, dealing with the uncertainty of whether the Alien is still among them and then the desperation of what to do when shit gets fucked again, and accepting the inevitable grim outcome: either she goes, or the whole universe does. Much of her best acting in the film is done through toned down expression and hushed dialogue, and most of the emotion is merely hinted at, rather than made explicit. Ripley’s real lowest point, finding out she is carrying the Queen inside her, and her inability to face taking her own life is portrayed without any fuss or crude breakdowns. Much of what is related is never actually spoken out loud or brought to the audience’s attention through awkward exposition, which is the approach that many other films pursue, and then stumble and fall on their arse, alá The Dark Knight Rises. Alien 3 is an absolute example of show rather than tell, which makes it much more enjoyable.
One complaint I’ve occasionally heard, is that the film is plain ugly to look at. Now that depends a lot on how you approach aestetics in film. Sure, there’s lost of ugly shit to look at, and the colour scale of the movie spends most of it’s time around “Dirty Metal Grey” and “Dirty Dirt Brown”. Almost all of the film takes place either in the dark, or by dim candle light and unpleasant industrial halogen lights. But then again, Alien films have never been about what’s ‘nice’. Aliens have always represented future dystopia, where everything sucks, is ugly and practical and is filled with H. R. Giger’s suggestive phallic imagery. Everything and everyone is owned by the same omnipotent, omniscient company, willing to sacrifice anyone and anything for a little bit more profit. Sure as pie, where ever the Alien pops up, the company is not far behind, and its corrupting greed is seen everywhere in Alien villains, Ash, Burke, and ultimately Lance Henriksen’s Company Man, who is not named, but it is suggested by the AvP franchise and Rebellion’s AvP videogame (2010), to be Weyland himself.
So, in a sense Alien 3 is the most aesthetically developed film out of the three, in that is takes the dystopian view of the future further than either of the earlier films. Alien had very gritty, practical space ship environments, as well as the classic Giger’s completely alien and eccentric scenes on the planet LV-426 and the Forerunner ship. Aliens upped the stakes with the awesome and foreboding Hadley’s Hope, complete with big industrial facilities and basement levels, as well as the clinical technological sets on Sulaco. Alien 3 seems like a natural progression towards the shittiest pieces of the future with the Fury 161 maximum containment facilities, where everything is rusted and falling apart. The skyline is littered with the marks of former industry and cranes and large industrial facilities, all abandoned and falling to pieces one flake at a time. The actual prison (which was initially designed by Fincher as a monastery) is really impressive with its gritty look and atmosphere, and I think has been shamelessly copied into countless other films and video games. Besides the set, I think the cinematography and imagery of the film is really awesome, such as the way camera shots are angled, and the idea of giving us the Alien’s first perspective “fish-eye”, as it chases down the individual inmates in the dark tunnels. Besides, Alien 3 is the one that contains, I think the most iconic image of the whole canon, Ripley and the Alien face to face, only inches away from each other.
Now, there are shitty bits of course. The thing that probably bothered me the most, is the way the alien effects have become hopelessly outdated. Taking place just before CG hit, some of the shots with the alien are realized with puppets superimposed on the film, and it looks absolutely crap. The alien sticks out like the biggest, sorest thumb in the history of thumbs, and does break the immersion of the film somewhat. James Cameron managed better effects by having guys in suits, but then again the camera never stuck to a single alien, even for the space of a second. Everything else is realized superbly, and close up shots of the alien look fantastic, but the shots where they wanted to show the lightning fast alien motion with the entire creature, are a bit crap. On the whole a small thing, but there it is.
Another point, is the number of prisoners with individual names, kind of individualized appearances, who easily get mixed together and whose names you’ll never bother to learn. Particularly the big climactic chase through the tunnels can get confusing, and it is also kind of pointless trying to keep track of who’s who, and have they been killed off yet.
The kind of lash out that Alien 3 faced, I think could easily be attributed to unrealistic fan-boy expectations that were set up by the completely disingenuous and failed image given by the marketing department at Fox, and by some of the really brave and unconventional choices made by David Fincher. Now, I can totally understand the feeling of fanboy rage butthurt, and possibly hurt fanboy buttrage. It wasn’t what you expected, and not necessarily what you liked. I wasn’t too happy about Alien Resurrection, and was later really surprised that it was written by Joss “Nerd Messiah” Wheadon. It has its defenders as well. Though I do note, that the human-alien hybrid has never been brought up or mentioned since.
David Fincher did amazingly well with this film, as it is always difficult handling source-material with a devoted fanbase and very conservative set of established norms and conventions, and then walk away without being covered in poo. The serious amount of crap he had to take during the production is a real shame, and I genuinely believe the end result would have been nothing short of amazing, had he been given appropriate space to realize his vision without the studio breathing down his neck and into his esophagus, and the rest of the industry machinery following that vision, and not try to realize some other parallel vision that was in complete conflict every inch of the sodding way.
Again, the poo-flinging that followed the films release and all the amount of fanboy rage butthurt is kind of understandable, put once you scrape off the sediments of dried up poo and production confusion, what you uncover is a seriously good, deep and suspenseful film, that would have made a good, strong ending to the Alien trilogy.
Again, I have to emphasize that all the films in the Alien trilogy are very, very, very, very good, and all have a place in my fanboy collection of best films ever made. It is just that I think this film captured best the whole essence of what the Alien is, and what it represents. It was always about horror rather than action, and id level subconscious fears and symbolism. If Alien and Aliens each were set on a velvety cushion on top of an ebony-ivory pedestal held up by hot, scantily dressed slave girls, then Alien 3 would be held just slightly higher, by taller slave girls, and with a softer cushion.