Tuesday, January 4, 2011

"Alien 3" (1992/2003) - Alien Anthology, Disc 3

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton and Charles Dance
Written by David Giler, Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson
Directed by David Fincher

Sometimes a film comes along and you wonder how it got made.  And I don't mean in the "How did they do that?" sense, like with that spinning corridor fight in "Inception."  I mean a production so troubled that the director himself decided to wash his hands of it, and somehow it got released anyway.  "Alien 3" is one such film, ultimately a film which seems more interesting behind the scenes than on screen.

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), at the end of James Cameron's excellent "Aliens," had found herself a surrogate family and confronted the horrific alien queen.  In the happily ever after world of fairy tale, that would be it.  But this is Hollywood, and Ripley's life is about to take another turn for the worse.  An alien stowaway aboard the starship Sulaco causes irreparable damage, forcing the ship's automated systems to jettison an escape pod with Ripley, Newt and Hicks to the surface of Fiorina 161, a harsh world home to a refinery populated by the worst killers and rapists in the galaxy.  Hicks and Newt are killed in the crash, leaving Ripley the only survivor.

She's rescued by Clemens (Charles Dance), the prison's doctor.  She learns that there is only a small contingent of some 25 prisoners and 3 company officers manning the facility.  While waiting for a rescue team to arrive from Weyland-Yutani, several mysterious deaths occur.  Ripley is immediately suspicious that an alien has found its way to the surface along with her.  One of the inmates survives an encounter with the creature, and is brought to the infirmary raving about a "dragon," but the warden and other inmates dismiss Ripley's claims about an alien creature out to kill them.  But soon enough, the creature kills again and soon Ripley finds herself leading the prisoners' attempts to capture or kill the creature before the team from the company arrives to collect their prize.

"Alien 3" is a pretty fascinating train wreck of a film.  The first thing it does is take a crap on the ending of the previous film, killing off two characters that had formed the core of the emotional arc for Ripley.  It further sets itself apart from the previous entries by looking nothing like either film, stylistically, and introducing religious elements that had not been present previously.  The cast is loaded with British accents, and Elliott Goldenthal's overwrought score means the film doesn't even sound like its predecessors, either.

Script problems from the start, a main cast member that wasn't terrifically interested in returning, and a talented but unproven director all mount up to bring "Alien 3" to its knees.  For all its behind-the-scenes troubles, "Alien 3" might still have succeeded if only it had managed to be entertaining, but it really isn't.  An attempt to return to the frightening style of horror of the original film is made, with the Alien kept mostly off-screen, and by keeping a single creature rather than the hordes of them infesting the second film.  The dank, underground tunnels of the prison/refinery make a suitably awful place to encounter such a thing, full of darkness and dangerous places.   But the whole film is dragged down by it's utterly dour tone, muddled religious concepts and uninteresting characters that we try to grasp onto the few suspense or action sequences there are, which ultimately come up short.

The theatrical version of "Alien 3" is a mess.  It feels pointless and nihilistic, bizarrely shot and edited, and lacking any real energy.  While the first film was rather slowly paced, it was still fascinating; this film is simply boring. The alien almost feels like an afterthought, like someone was making some kind of religious drama and then remembered that this is supposed to be a sci-fi/horror franchise partway through.

Director David Fincher, now a critically acclaimed superstar for pictures like "Se7en," "Fight Club" and "The Social Network," famously walked off the film during post-production.  It seems he was constantly fighting against studio interference, and finally simply quit in frustration.  As "Alien 3" was his first big film, it's amazing he decided to come back and try again after such an awful experience, but I'm certainly glad he did.  The rest of Fincher's filmography is plain wonderful.  It's too bad "Alien 3" wasn't a better jumping off point for his career as a feature film director.

In 2003, Fincher was asked to revisit the film for a director's cut DVD.  He refused, understandably.  So 20th Century Fox, once again, went and did it for him.  This time, they actually tried to recut the film according to Fincher's original desires and the extended special edition version of "Alien 3" is actually quite a bit better.   This is not to say that it somehow "saves" the film, as it's still quite flawed, but it's easier to see where Fincher was going with this strange tale.  First and foremost, the story is a whole lot less messy.  With more scenes given to character work and plot, the whole thing flows better.  A subplot involving an inmate who becomes obsessed with the alien works much, much better here.  Ripley's sacrifice at the end is left slightly more ambiguous, which is beneficial in that it's less obvious and less ridiculous.  The added footage serves to flesh things out, so that the film makes more sense.

What it doesn't do is fix that downer tone.  The added character work makes the film less boring, but it still feels oppressive to watch.  Ripley still wants to die, even begging Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) to kill her, and it's hard to want to watch a movie about a character desperate to kill herself.  Even though it ultimately becomes a sort of Christ allegory (Ripley sacrifices herself for humanity, crucifix-pose as she falls into the refinery furnace), it's still a bit much to take and seems like a huge departure for the character.

Still... "Alien 3" has worth, in this workprint version.  Still not a great film, since several of its major problems are conceptual rather than related to execution, it's a pretty intriguing look into what could have been for Fincher's big-screen debut.

On Blu-Ray, this is likely the best the film has ever looked.  It could probably look better, considering that the High-Definition master was created several years ago rather than the brand-new restorations the first two films in the series received for this box set.  Part of the problem is also the muddy photography; "Alien 3" is a pretty ugly film, in general.  It lacks an attractive cast, the costumes are mostly scrapped together rags and much of the film takes place in the dark under-tunnels of a dirty refinery on a barren world.  Still, detail is good and contrast is solid.  Closeups in particular look great, with lots of skin and clothing texture visible.