Prometheus is coming. It sounds so dramatic when I say it like that, a mixture of myth and anticipation that turns what is essentially just another summer movie into something magical. I might as well whisper about unicorns lurking in the woods or monsters under the bed. Sadly, Prometheus is probably not that special, but it is a surprising possible entry into a series that deserves some attention: the Alien movies.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the entire Alien quadrilogy, despite the merits of each individual film (or the films compared against each other). It is a rare franchise that had four entries by young directors, all of whom went on to do frankly amazing later work. All four are visually and tonally distinct, taking the core concept in wild, interesting directions with each new installment. Not only that, they’re all fairly worthy of examination. Love or hate the twists and turns of the series, it would be a very short-sighted person who didn’t recognize that the Alien movies make up a singularly unique franchise: one that until now has never gone back to the well.
With Prometheus just a few months out and my resolution to stay almost entirely ignorant of what it’s about holding up okay, I figured now was a good time to instead take a look at the movies it maybe-sorta-probably is a prequel to, as much for the sake of getting up to speed as I really just want to revisit them and talk about them. Two weeks ago I had some stern words to say about Aliens, which proved to be fairly unpopular. Not particularly surprising, that, but I imagine the unpopular opinions are just going to get worse as we take a look at the most derided of the four films.
The survivors of Aliens are adrift in space, kept in suspended animation. It all seems so peaceful, until the silence is broken by a lone xenomorph, a surviving face-hugger that somehow got aboard the ship and is wrecking havoc. In an attempt to get into the tubes where Ripley and Newt and Hicks are sleeping, it injures itself so badly its acid blood burns into a console, causing a fire that disables the ship. Only an escape pod makes it out, falling through space and crashing on a distant planet named Fury 161. The only survivor is Ripley, the other tubes compromised and the occupants killed during the crash.
Fury 161 is an industrial prison planet, home to inmates who have been marooned on the planet so long they've come to consider it home, forming their own apocalyptic version of Christianity and taking up vows of peace and celibacy. That said, it's a colony of men, and Ripley finds herself immediately seen as a threat to the stability of the colony, who don't want the kinds of disruptions she represents even as a woman. So when there's evidence that a facehugger might have escaped the crash, or implanted a xenomorph into one of the dead crew, Ripley tries to keep the bigger threat under wraps.
Alien 3 is probably the most difficult of the four movies to talk about. Originally part of a much bigger story that was planned around Alien 3 and 4, script and pre-production difficulties led to many of the ideas being truncated and shuffled around to bring the concept into a realistic budget. A young director by the name of David Fincher, known then only for his work on music videos, was brought in to helm a project that already had a lot of studio oversight on top of it, with a star that was growing increasingly disinterested in the franchise she was leading. It was, as one might expect, a recipe for disaster. And while most people would agree, I'm going to once again have to disagree and offer up a different take. You see, while I certainly think Alien 3 is a deeply flawed movie, I think it's also incredibly interesting, and has a ton of parts that really work.
Most important is the setting, a society that is a looming animal threat made real. The prisoners for the most part seem standoffish with Ripley, but there's certainly threats made against her, and for all the lip service paid to make a few of the prisoners likeable it never really goes out of its way to portray them as anything other than murderers or rapists. Maybe reformed, maybe not, but they're dangerous people. What's interesting is that the movie seems to embrace that threat, to make the humans as monstrous and dangerous as the aliens they're fighting, but also to cast Ripley as another person capable of violence in a sea of them. More on this aspect of Ripley below in the Tao of Ripley section.
With that society comes the complex itself, which manages through industry and religion to turn its prison into something looming and monolithic. Every machine is massive and dehumanizing, and the desolate hallways and chambers take on the air of a doomed, ramshackle techno-monastery on the edge of science fiction hell, stuck on a backwards, barely inhabitable planet. There's something very classic about the size of the setting, a turn of the century feeling that evokes the kinds of machine monoliths seen in silent films like Metropolis, an expressionism that is wholly different than the greasy modern sensibilities of the other two Alien movies. It might not be pretty, but it's the first time this universe seems to speak at all to any sense of culture or art.
What's most interesting is how well the xenomorph threat fits into this framework. The xenomorphs have always come from a strong graphic design background, but they represent a sort of liquid sexuality, which runs so contrary to the bloodless machine gods (and similarly repressed form of debased Christianity the prisoners practice) that it ends up making the aliens feel almost blasphemous. Indeed, the opening of the movie is a beautiful collection of shots, almost impressionistic in how sparse they are, that set the facehugger attack against "Agnus Dei", putting the aliens in a sacreligeous context that speaks to the kinds of spiritual horror that is more associated with Hellraiser and its ilk.
That slight twist ends up making the second half of the film, which involves a lot more horror bits in keeping with Alien more than Aliens, closer to gothic horror than it does the sort of slasher/creature gags of the first two movies. It all feels very removed, the kind of detached appreciation for doom that's in keeping with both Ripley's slow nihilistic acceptance that she will continually be thrust into these hopeless situations and the apocalyptic tilt the prisoners take, invoking laments during funerals that they remain to suffer when others escape the pain of life.
And while I appreciate that change of tone, it's so radically different than the first two movies that I understand why people might not like it. And to be honest, the movie simply isn't very scary or thrilling. I don't think that's a requirement, but some people would undoubtedly disagree. And a lot of it is hampered by the obviously constrained budget, which includes some early forays into CG xenomorphs, with pretty disastrous results. I accused Aliens of robbing the xenomorphs of a lot of their menace, but every time the CG model comes on screen I have to admit that Alien 3 is just as guilty. I just feel its themes offer a decent enough substitution. And I never would claim Alien 3 is a great film. I just feel like it deserves more appraisal than it has gotten in the past.
Theatrical Version vs Assembly Cut
So there are two versions of this movie, too, and here's where things get complicated. The alternate cut, referred to as the assembly cut, is a staggering 30 minutes longer. But, it's also assembled from alternate story ideas and extended takes without any input from Fincher, who by the time they were doing these releases in 2003 was far too big a name to revisit his work-for-hire days. The problem is, it's no secret Fincher wasn't happy with the theatrical cut either, so it begs the question: if neither cut is going to be claimed by the director, which one do we as fans decide to settle on? And the answer, sadly, is probably both.
The assembly cut differs in some key ways. The initial facehugger infestation happens differently, much of the early scenes involving Ripley and finding out about the fates of Newt and Hicks are changed or extended, including Ripley insisting on a fairly gruesome autopsy of Newt's corpse when she suspects that Newt might have been harboring a parasite while in stasis. But most of the scenes are elaborations of the prisoners lives and mental states, expanding on their religion and some of their crimes, and it's all pretty solid character stuff. I feel like it helps the tone of the movie, more philosophical horror than outright thrills or dread sort of stuff. But it also makes an already long film extend outward to the limits of patience, so I'm not sure it'll win over anyone who isn't willing to take the film on its own terms anyway. I will say that the assembly cut doesn't feel that longer, mostly due to the improved pacing.
There is one major problem with the assembly cut, though, and that's that it takes an alternate take of the final scene and effectively ruins the climax of the film. I think one of the only enduring scenes of Alien 3 is Ripley, knowing she has the last alien parasite inside of her, diving into the lava pits of the giant furnace as the chest-burster erupts from her abdomen. Clutching it to her chest, she sacrifices herself to finish off the alien threat. That whole scene is cut way down in the assembly cut, to her simply throwing herself in, the alien not yet ready to emerge, leaving her potential fate if she hadn't done so up in the air. I think it's a poor choice, and so robs the ending of the movie of any impact that while I otherwise prefer the assembly cut, I feel anyone who watches it first is making a big mistake.
The Tao of Ripley
What I find most interesting about this movie, more than any of its setting stuff, is how much it advances Ripley forward as a character. Sigourney Weaver has gone on record as saying that she was getting tired of the idea of a franchise that keeps putting her in the same situations, but I feel like Ripley in Alien 3 is complex on a level we hadn't seen before. She's a survivor, which means more in this movie than it does in the others. Yes, she survived two movies worth of killer aliens, but in Alien 3 she's portrayed as someone who has undergone a whole slew of tragedies and still keeps going. She lost her family, she lost Newt, but she'll buckle down and fight to live again and again if need be.
This is particularly relevant given her situation as the lone woman in a prison full of men, where there is the threat of sexual violence (even one poorly attempted rape that manages to be probably the weakest part of the movie) that she puts up with in her own stoic way, finding solace in the prison doctor, using her closeness with him to both forget her obvious litany of troubles and to distance herself from the general population and the threat they represent.
The thing is, the movie also goes out of its way to present her as a victim, too. She's justifiably haunted by the things she's experienced, and her desire to finally put them behind her is constant and pervasive in the early part of the film before the threat's been recognized. And when she understands that she's dealing with xenomorphs yet again, its with the resignation that she is somehow doomed, a bleak foreboding that her destiny is tied with these creatures no matter how hard she tries to escape from the nightmare she continues to find herself in.
That victimhood extends to the end of the film, too, where she discovers that she was the one who was attacked by the facehugger in stasis and is carrying an alien embryo inside of her. It's a strange juxtaposition against the threat of human sexual violence, to have her already be the surviving victim of the deeper, more invasive xenomorph rape the whole time. I think that the reaction, the resignation and eventual sacrifice she makes, is potentially troubling, but it represents the continued struggle between survival and victimhood that Ripley represents in this movie. She can fight the alien and maybe live, give herself over to Weyland-Yutani so they can extract it and she can survive; or she can stop fighting and give herself over to the inevitability of her death and achieve all the goals she set out to accomplish over the course of three movies.
It's a strange catch-22, and I don't know that it's particularly intentional or well-reasoned in the movies, but I think it's the dichotomy of representation that really drives Ripley in the third film. It's here that she's at her most human, and her most archetypal, a space-faring alien-killing bad ass and a shaven religious icon, throwing herself and her demonic spawn into oblivion to save the universe. It's that schizophrenia that continues to assert itself in these films, and makes them continually worth discussing.