Trilogy of Terror: Alien 3 (1992)

Alien 3 is a deeply terrible movie.

I could honestly end this piece right there and move on with my life without regret, but…what the hell, it’s Halloween.

Alien was a masterpiece. Certainly one of the best horror films and one of the best science fiction films ever made. It’s somewhere on my list of all-time favorite films period, though obviously it has a lot more competition there. It was moody, atmospheric, and tense. Watching it is an experience, and one that feels important. It’s a work of art. You can see immediately how influential and significant this movie would be for years to come.

Aliens scraps the template, which is a pretty bold thing to do when the original worked so perfectly and was so well received. But the gamble paid off. James Cameron didn’t just have a different story to tell from Ridley Scott’s original; he had a different kind of story, which necessitated a different approach. It’s a step down in my opinion, as the film doesn’t feel as brainy or artful, but that’s due more to my personal preferences than it is to any serious failings in the film. Aliens did everything a great sequel should do, and did it largely very well. It also cemented the fairly daring idea that sequels in this franchise wouldn’t have to look, sound, or feel very much like any of the previous entries, and its success opened the door for experimentation to come.

Alien 3 sees Ripley crashing on some kind of prison colony, populated by comic book thugs, and also the alien is part dog now.

Alien 3, 1992

It was terrible.

I will say here that the title is usually stylized Alien3, but “Alien Cubed” is meaningless. I’m not even sure why they wanted it stylized that way. I guess mathematics are pretty important to space travel, but beyond that it doesn’t factor into the content of the film at all, unlike the graceful pluralization used for the second film.

So, yes, Alien 3. It’s awful.

The film, from what little I understand, was plagued with problems. Also, from what I understand, those problems spanned every stage of production, from finalizing the screenplay all the way through editing the thing.

I’ll admit right now that I haven’t read or seen much material describing these problems, because I simply don’t care. Alien 3 isn’t a fascinating failure; it’s just a failure. I might be more interested in knowing the specifics if Alien 3 were close to being a good film, but as it stands I just see a bad movie. And I know how those are made, because they’re made hundreds of times a year.

Alien 3, 1992

Alien 3 doesn’t stand out, I think. If it weren’t for its lineage, it would be indistinguishable from any number of ill-conceived, bungled, half-assed, forgettable quasi-action films from the 1990s, and its two predecessors are the only reasons that it’s remembered and discussed at all.

I will also say that there are a few different cuts of the film, some of which are apparently better than others. I don’t doubt this, but I also don’t hate myself enough to endure multiple versions of Alien 3. One was plenty, and if some other version is a marginal improvement to the product, then that’s great, and I wish it much luck.

When I started this particular Trilogy of Terror, I strongly considered writing about Alien: Resurrection instead of this one. Not because I’d necessarily have more to say about that film, but because I really didn’t feel like watching Alien 3 again at all. Alien: Resurrection is by no means great, but it’s much better, more interesting, and infinitely more fun. That, I think, is an example of a fascinating failure. Alien 3, by contrast, is just a disappointment.

Alien 3, 1992

You know what, though? As much of a terrible film as it is, I’ll admit that it’s a terrible film wedged between two pretty great sequences.

The best part of the movie is probably its opening. It’s certainly the bravest part.

At the end of Aliens, Ripley refuses a chance to make it off the planet before the reactor explodes, choosing instead to go after Newt. The young orphan girl disappeared during the escape attempt, and Ripley jeopardizes her own survival — along with the survival of Hicks and Bishop — by running off to get her back.

And she does get her back, after a long stretch of searching, fighting, fleeing, and playing Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots with the alien queen.

In the original film, Ripley was the last survivor of the Nostromo. But in Aliens, her success was larger. She saved Newt. Hicks and Bishop — the latter a bit worse for the wear — made it out as well. And seeing them escape together felt great. It was a fantastic ending to a very good film in what was becoming a great series.

Alien 3 opens by saying that Newt, Hicks, and Bishop all died when we weren’t looking.

Alien 3, 1992

And, man. What a gut punch.

But it’s an effective one, and it’s one of the few times the film has any effect on us at all. I’m not sure if I actually like the fact that Alien 3 killed off those characters so callously, so cruelly, with such a fuck-you to the audience and to Ripley…but at the same time, I admire the audacity of that fuck-you. It’s meaningful. It robs both us and Ripley of even the ghost of the happy ending that Aliens let us believe in, and it says a lot about the universe in which these films take place. Any peace is temporary. Any success is fleeting. And you’d better rest up, because tomorrow’s another fight for your life.

I think I’d like the opening a lot more, however, if it were followed by a better film. If it were, I’d be able to believe that it’s the unflinching vision of a director with something powerful to say. As it stands, it feels like an accidental good decision at best.

The other great scene is the ending. Ripley sacrificing herself — directly, literally, deliberately — is a great cap to the three films as a whole. Granted, we could have left her drifting in hypersleep after either of the previous two films and felt perfectly fine with that, but since we bothered to revive her one more time, her slow motion fall backward into the molten lead is a much more beautiful ending than this film deserved.

Having the alien burst out of her chest on the way down, though, come on. That was awful.

Alien 3, 1992

Can’t I just enjoy my not-half-bad ending in peace?

And, well, as long as we’re on the subject of the only good things in the movie, here’s the only other good thing in the movie: the scene in which Ripley reboots a busted-up Bishop is the only other good thing in the movie.

Alien 3, 1992

Alien 3 was directed by a young man named David Fincher. It was his first film, and it sunk his career forever. Unless you count his incredible number of critical and commercial favorites to follow, including Seven, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Social Network, and Gone Girl.

So, yes, I know very little about the production of Alien 3, but I think it’s safe to conclude that a lack of talent behind the camera was not to blame. It fell down elsewhere. And the scene with Bishop makes two of the weakest points clear to me: the acting, and the lack of invention.

Lance Henricksen, to be frank, runs circles around any of the Alien 3-specific actors. Ripley plugs him in, we spend a much-too-brief time with him, and then he asks to be disconnected because he doesn’t want to be in this awful movie.

But in that time, coming as it does after we’ve spent enough time with the residents of the prison colony to realize they’re all interchangeable and worthless, we are reminded of how much better the characters in this series used to be.

Alien 3, 1992

Bishop was great. I have no problem with him being switched off for good, except for the fact that there’s really no replacement for him. Who was your favorite character in the prison? That one bald guy who cursed a lot and threatened violence? Or that other bald guy who cursed a lot and threatened violence? Personally, I like the bald guy who cursed a lot and threatened violence, and sometimes stood behind another bald guy who cursed a lot and threatened violence.

None of the characters here feel distinct, and certainly none of them were interesting or worth spending time with. They were also, to a man, horribly acted, as they all seemed to fall back on the same mindless snarling that you might get from prison extras in an especially poor Batman film. The difference here is that they aren’t extras; they’re main characters, and we’re spending nearly all of the film with them.

This is an important problem. In films like this and the original Alien, the characters need to be distinct and identifiable. Ideally we’d care about them, but at the very least we need to be able to identify them.

That’s because they’re going to be picked off, one after another, by some kind of powerful force, and we need to know who is down and who is still standing. We need to know who we can rely on, and who is liable to betray us. We need to know who is brave, and who is breaking under the pressure. We need to know who is worth keeping alive, and who the film can sacrifice for the sake of showing the beast’s abilities.

Alien 3, 1992

We can illustrate this easily, simply by looking back at the previous films.

In Alien, every character was distinct. It was a small crew, so Scott had the room to give everybody a personality and some unique personal characteristics as well. I can talk to you about the flustered and overwhelmed — but certainly well-meaning — Captain Dallas. I can tell you about the panicky, fragile Lambert. I can tell you about Parker, who begins the film frustrated and uncooperative but grows in dedication and focus as the danger becomes more real. I can tell you about the detached, eerily calm Ash, who seems to be the “brilliant asshole” character for a while before he reveals himself to be something else entirely. The list, of course, goes on.

Each character being distinct was less important in Aliens, because there were so many of them, and distinguishing them all would have led to a film that was far too busy. Instead we just need enough of the characters to be distinct, and the film absolutely succeeded there. Burke was a complex villain…one who at times really did seem to care about Ripley and others, but who was ultimately driven by greed to do awful things that he was able to justify in his own mind. Gorman was an unready, untested commanding officer, awarded a station beyond his level of competence, who believably failed to lead his soldiers effectively. Hicks was a soldier who received a battlefield promotion and had to either rise to the challenge or have a lot of blood on his hands for failing. Newt was a normal little girl, broken and traumatized by a life that became, in a heartbeat, one of sheer hell. Once again, the list goes on.

Then there’s Alien 3.

Alien 3, 1992

Tell me about Boggs. Tell me about Eric. Tell me about Morse, or Junior, or David.

I just watched the film, and I don’t even know who those characters are. They all bleed together into some vague idea of a character, without any of them actually being one. This is a failure of the acting, the costume design (they are all bald and dress very much alike), the casting (they look and sound very similar), and the writing (they all say “fuck you” a lot, which is about the only thing they say outside of plot exposition).

There’s also the problem of the prisoners being victims we don’t actually mind getting killed. Alien had an innocent crew fed through its grinder. Aliens had a colony of innocent families, and then a squad of ill-prepared colonial marines, eviscerated by the monsters. But Alien 3 sets the beast loose in a colony of characters we are told are murderers, rapists, and child molesters.

Alien 3, 1992

And…y’know…isn’t that okay? I’m not trying to make some statement here about capital punishment, or the wisdom of defining a man by his crimes, or anything like that. I’m just speaking as a member of the viewing audience, who knows nothing about these characters other than what we’re told.

A colony of criminals that we’re told time and again have committed heinous acts — and about whom we learn little or nothing else — is not equivalent to an innocent crew or a group of soldiers in terms of tension generated by possible loss of life. We want the crew of the Nostromo to survive. We want somebody to come out of the warzone alive. I don’t think there’s as much incentive to root for the survival and safe return of a serial rapist.

But then again, are these prisoners the hardened, irredeemable thugs the film keeps telling us they are? Sure, there’s a scene in which they grab Ripley and try to rape her, and, yes, of course, that’s terrible. But it’s also done in such a boneheaded, overwrought manner that it’s difficult to feel any menace in them.

They’re comic book henchmen, at best, and their attempted physical violation of our main character doesn’t seem to happen because that’s who they are and what they do, but because a screenwriter told them they’d need to do it.

So they glower from the shadows. They make faces somebody must have once told them look scary by B-movie standards. One of them even pauses to put his trademark goggles on, for crying out loud.

Alien 3, 1992

This isn’t a rape, it’s a scene in a movie that feels calculated and fabricated in every aspect, and it exists only so that Charles S. Dutton can smack one of them around with a pipe and prove that he’s not all bad.

Outside of that, how bad are any of them? They just sit around sneering and making angry faces. They curse at each other. They’re filthy and scarred, but they don’t do anything. And while that could be a comment on the way society has treated them — they’re not actually that bad, but are funneled here due to a flawed prison / criminal justice system — I think the idea is that they’re supposed to be to be as bad and dangerous as the film tells us, and it just does a predictably awful job of demonstrating that.

Watching it again for this review, the thought struck me that the setting was maybe, at some point in the creative process, intended to be a mining colony and not a penal colony. That would explain the significant amount of accessible underground areas and the molten metal systems (why would a prison need or want those, exactly?), and would also explain why the “prisoners” really just seem a bit under-educated and uncouth as opposed to psychopathic and dangerous.

Alien 3, 1992

The idea of a prison setting is a good one — it places Ripley in clear peril and does a great job of cementing her, yet again, as a disrespected outsider — but the execution just seems off, and the conflict feels artificial.

Another way in which the film falls down is the alien itself. While it looks a bit silly by today’s standards, the alien in the first film at least feels like it’s there, and a very real danger to the crew. And while I can pick apart Aliens maybe more than most people are keen to do, I absolutely cannot fault the film on its effects work, as the aliens themselves in that movie were incredibly lifelike. What’s more, the facehugger across both films was an absolute triumph of horror movie making.

But Alien 3 leans on CGI, and not very convincingly. The characters here feel like they’re being hunted by an ugly cartoon. It doesn’t feel like it’s there, because it’s not there.

It was a huge step back in a series that was actually quite effective in its creature effects up until this point, where it just looks idiotic.

Alien 3, 1992

That’s at least partially why Alien 3 isn’t scary. It wants to tap into the claustrophobic horror of Scott’s original, but it doesn’t work. The alien doesn’t feel like a threat, and the prisoners aren’t victims I especially care about. Hell, I don’t even know who they are, so why would I care if one lives and another dies? I couldn’t tell them apart to begin with.

Even Aliens, which was more of an action film than it was horror, was legitimately scary, and the scene with Ripley and Newt trapped in a room with the two facehuggers is still one of the most effectively frightening things I’ve ever seen in a movie. It was an incredible setpiece that featured excellent acting, great effects, flawless editing, and masterful tension. What’s more, it built naturally from the various relationships and situations that had been set up by the film up to that point.

Alien 3 doesn’t have anywhere near that kind of tension. The first film used a tracking device and desperate radio chatter to build a sense of encroaching terror, and when the alien appeared — especially when it got the drop on Dallas in the vents — it wasn’t a surprise so much as it was a horrific inevitability. That was scary.

Alien 3, 1992

Here, characters just turn a corner and the alien kills them. No buildup, no tension, and no reason to feel particularly invested in their deaths. They’re alive in one frame, dead in the next. A puff of red food coloring gets sprayed into frame, and we move on.

It’s tremendously disappointing, as Alien 3 wishes to return to the slasher roots of the first film but never bothered to figure out how or why it worked there to begin with.

Sigourney Weaver deserves none of the blame for whatever flaws the film may have. If she’s any less good than she was before it’s because the material fails her. And it often does, as Alien 3 requires her to shift from mourning her dead love interest and surrogate daughter to flirting and sleeping with some weird, creepy doctor she just met in what seems to be a matter of hours.

Alien 3, 1992

It’s a forced development that serves no purpose as far as I can tell, and is not easily compatible with anything I came to know about Ellen Ripley over the course of the previous two films. Two films that, it must be said, explored her actual character, rather than forced her to do things for the sake of doing them.

Here the romance rings false. So false that I can’t believe in it to any degree. It doesn’t feel like Ripley, and it doesn’t feel like a real development. It’s just there because it might as well be there, and it happens far too quickly after she’s reeling from the unexpected deaths of people who were genuinely important to her.

In fact, she doesn’t seem to care much about Newt or Hicks after their brief funeral. I know services like that are supposed to be for the comfort of the living, but, man, that’s some instant closure. Ain’t no funeral like a prison funeral, I guess.

Charles Dance as Dr. Clemens isn’t exactly bad…he just doesn’t seem to fit. He’s some kind of character from some kind of movie, but I don’t believe in him here, with these people, in this context.

He delivers his lines competently but not impressively, and just seems to exist because we needed someone Ripley might conceivably talk to. Once he’s served that purpose the alien pops his head like a pimple and neither we nor Ripley ever think about him again.

Alien 3, 1992

There’s more wrong with the film.

Much more.

There’s the confusion about where exactly the alien is in the big finale — its relation to the prisoners, the doors, the piston, and everything else we’re told is crucial to the success of this plan. There’s the half-dog half-alien thing that I guess is supposed to make up for the lack of facehuggers and alien queens and all of the other inventive, genuinely interesting creations of the previous films. There’s the uninspired, vague industrial backdrop that you saw in the finale of just about every 1990s action movie, and which, again, seems more like something you’d see in a mining facility than a prison. There’s the barely-sketched-in overtures toward some kind of vague, spiritual theme that fails to cohere.

But if I tried to talk about all that, we’d be here until next Halloween.

Alien 3, 1992

It’s enough to say that Alien 3 isn’t a good movie. The fact that it followed up a great movie and then a very good one is disappointing, and while it made its money back (a relatively modest three times its budget), it caused a lot of people to lose faith and interest in the franchise. As such, the Alien films have been in a kind of aimless creative spin ever since, with prequels and offshoots coming every so often, but no proper sequel.

Well, no proper sequel outside of Alien: Resurrection, which I still believe was a step back in the right direction, but it was also too little, too late.

It was over.

Alien 3, 1992

Alien and Aliens taught us that previous successes didn’t have to be repeated beat for beat in order to find success in the future. But Alien 3 is an unwittingly strong argument for repetition. It was an experiment without direction, without ambition, without even clear intention, and for all practical purposes it sunk the series.

It did something different, and scared us right back into believing that to be a bad thing.

One day, I promise, I’ll cover a film series in which the third entry isn’t the runaway worst.

But until then, thanks for reading, and have a great Halloween.

2 thoughts on “Trilogy of Terror: Alien 3 (1992)”

  1. Alien Cubed is an underrated mess.

    I like it as a hybrid of Alien/s, I like the addition of the xenomorph taking the shape of its host and I like (for a certain degree of ‘like’) the general premise of Ripley, on the run from giant penises gets stuck with humanity’s worst for survival. And doesn’t.

    Athough I’ve just seen WhatCulture’s (or IS it?) “10 Reasons Alien 3 Is A Misunderstood Masterpiece” pop up on Google so I might change my mind.

  2. I think having knowledge regarding the production woes lends a kinder eye to viewing Alien3, although I only watch the “not-a-actual director’s cut”, and can only stomach the first two thirds as the finale collapses under the terrible CGI.
    I agree with a lot of your criticisms, particularly regarding the meshing and un-uniqueness of the characters. This is relatively resolved in the special edition, and is completely the fault of the studio cutting the original to shit in the editing room.
    Paul McGann has a wonderful character, a full 25 minutes of such story is returned. Charles Dance has far more to do, and we actually spend some time getting to know the others before the dog-alien turns up.
    What this does it take the “gut-punch” at the beginning of the film, and slowly extend that into the main part of the film, rather than rush in like the theatrical release.

    The original concept was for a monastery in space (on a wooden space ship of all things). This was mainly driven because Weaver refused to return due to the excessive gun-play in Aliens, stating in no uncertain terms that Alien3 must have no firearms involved.

    Sets were built, budget was spent, and then the studio came in with an entirely new script writing team and started handing Finch new scripts on a daily basis.

    Yet on a purely technical level Finch makes Alien3 look incredible. His framing, lighting, shooting from the ground looking up are all marvellous.

    I’d recommend watching some YouTube vids that put a positive spin on the “not-director’s cut” as there is some value here, despite even David Fincher himself disavowing himself from the theatrical version.

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