02 May 2011

ALIEN! ALIEN! ALIEN!

Benjamin Verschoor made his Carry On Campaign contribution a really gosh-darn long time ago; but since it involved comparing two cuts of one movie, I wanted to postpone it until I could watch both versions right in a row which, easier said than done. At long last, however, it is ready, and my thanks to him for his patience.

1979's Alien is a film that everybody loves because it's got atmosphere and style all over the place, and it's scary as hell. It's 1986 sequel Aliens is a film that everybody loves because of its epic scale action and unparalleled momentum. The third film in the franchise, 1992's Alien³, is not loved by everybody. It has its partisans, to be sure, but the great majority of fans of the Alien franchise - and of cinema generally - have mostly coalesced towards the opinion that it is, charitably, a weak successor to two very great movies, a handsome movie with a story cobbled together from fever dreams and desperation. Even as the first theatrical feature of a music video director named David Fincher, who has become a fanboy favorite almost as beloved as the Alien series itself, seven films later, Alien³ is customarily written off as the one where he got in over his head, a portrait of the artist as just one more victim of a process that ricocheted from one malformed identity to another during one of the most grueling trips through Development Hell ever recorded.

And for many years, that was all she wrote; until in 2003, when 20th Century Fox released a big, fancy-ass DVD set called the Alien Quadrilogy.* As part of the push to make this massive block of cinema as appealing as possible, the studio approached the directors of each of the four movies to prepare an alternate cut. Only David Fincher, still reeling from the ghastly experience of making the film over a decade later, refused; but there already existed an assembly edit of the film prepared before Fincher fled, and this formed the basis for the 2003 DVD edition; no more a "director's cut" than the 1998 restoration of Touch of Evil, but at the same time, so much clearer in its intentions and thoughts that it's effectively a different movie. Still not a great movie - the basic core of Alien³ is so essentially confused that it was never going to result in a great movie - but a much, much better movie than the one released to theaters, one that feels much fleeter and more driven even though it's a solid 30 minutes longer.

First, though, what is this Alien³ thing in the first place? Taking off shortly after Aliens ended, we find the much-beleaguered Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) resting peacefully in her cryotube aboard the Sulaco, alongside the two other survivors of the disastrous trip to planet LV-426, where the last of the murderous xenomorphic aliens of the name had been apparently destroyed. "Apparently", for we wouldn't have much of a sequel without them slimy buggers, and thus during the opening montage, we find an egg stuck underneath a table on board the ship carrying the three survivors, and thus begin the howls of the distressed fans; for unless the end of Aliens is flat-out lying to us, there is no way for an egg to have ended up aboard the Sulaco, nor any real reason for it to have.

So, the egg hatches, the facehugger inside (I am assuming you know what words like "xenomorph" and "facehugger" mean, because Alien³ certainly does the same - it's one of those sequels that wastes no time explaining Where We Are for people who drift in blissfully unaware of the two blockbusters preceding it, and thank God for that) oozes its toxic blood over the cryotube containing the little girl Newt, and the resultant smoke triggers a fire alarm. And that fire alarm in turns sends the Sulaco passengers out into space on an escape pod, where they end up crashing on the surface of Fiorina 161, affectionately called "Fury" by its inhabitants. Since Fury 161 is a largely-abandoned prison planet, those inhabitants consist of a warden, Andrews (Brian Glover), his dimwitted second-in-command, Aaron (Ralph Brown), medical officer Clemens (Charles Dance), and a couple of dozen convicts who have adopted an apocalyptic neo-Christian religion under the leadership of the charismatic Dillon (Charles S. Dutton). These prisoners are specifically described as having double-Y chromosomes, which the writers apparently mean to imply that they're hyper-aggressive, though that's scientific hogwash; also, when we learn the backstory of one character, it doesn't seem remotely plausible that he suffers from hyper-aggression or double-masculinity or anything that remotely explains why he ended up on this massively double-plus maximum security prison planet; but little annoying quibbles like that do keep popping up, and it's better not to chase them all down.

In short, the facehugger journeys on the escape pod with Ripley, who is resuscitated by Clemens and quickly becomes a destablising element in this already on-edge society; the facehugger impregnates a dog, who in due order hatches an alien, and soon the immensely disagreeable Andrews has bigger problems than dealing with this headstrong woman causing problems with his erratic prison population, namely, how do fewer than 30 people armed with weapons no more sophisticated than kitchen knives and fire axes fight a creature honed by millennia to be the perfect killer? Actually, Andrews doesn't have to face this problem for very long, since he's one of the mature xenomorph's first victims, but the point remains.

Alien³ gets a lot of grief for having essentially the same plot as the first Alien, which is not, I think, fair; other than the fact they both feature only a single alien, in contrast to the army of Aliens, the films share very little either in narrative details or in tone. Alien is a haunted house movie crossbred with a Ten Little Indians/slasher style narrative, incidentally set in outer space; Alien³ is a thriller more than a horror picture, in which the tension is only briefly generated by waiting as the alien skulks around picking of victims on at a time, but mostly from watching a large band of generally unified people plotting to beat an unbeatable enemy. It is, in fact, the Alien movie that best fits the mold of a Godzilla-style monster movie, right down to the hugely ambitious plan involving the choreographed efforts of several different teams of people that serves as the climax.

And even more than that, it's a film about the End Times: not for nothing is the bulk of the cast made up a millenarian cultists. Probably the most philosophically burdened entry in the series, Alien³ is a study of exhaustion: Ripley's after having spent far too long fighting these damn things without a break - for recall, from her perspective, her periods of "rest" following each movie are spent in what amounts to a coma, meaning that at every new movie, the memory of the last is only a few minutes old - and of the universe at large. Alien took place in an elegantly-designed "used future" of ratty old cargo ships and dusty planets with wrecks;Alien³ takes place in a world where it looks like God himself has taken to hitting the bottle in the face of how damn worn-out and miserable everything is. Heavy stuff for a popcorn franchise, and the unrelenting grimness of Alien³ explains as well as any other particular detail why it tanked out so fully. It is a hard movie to look at: the sets depict an immaculately-detailed world where everything is broken and functional and old. Fincher the visual stylist has a field day with this mise en scène; it is in many ways not an easy work to read into his later career, but there is a similar visual emphasis to his next film, Se7en, which also presents a grotesquely tired universe using many of the same techniques: a fixation on the details of physical locations, wan, sickly lights and colors.

It's good that Alien³ looks so tremendously evocative, because the visuals of the film have to do all the heavy lifting: the script, credited to David Giler & Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson, from a story by Vincent Ward, is shambling and desperate and has no idea what the hell it wants to say. On one hand, this is not surprising - the surprise instead is that Alien³ ends up having enough of a script that you pretty much know what's going on at the end. In the five years the film spent in development, it went through not fewer than a half-dozen writers, a number of screenplays usually pegged at "around 30", at least three completely different concept for the setting of the film, one of which was only scrapped after millions of dollars had been spent on the sets, and a cast ranging from "Ripley is not even mentioned" to "Ripley is the main character and also Sigourney Weaver is the producer so she gets everything she wants" (it was this latter extreme that actually made it to cinema screens). At one point, the prisoners were monks and the prison planet a faux-medieval monastery; the transition out of this particular story concept is, I think, the roughest single patch of the entire movie, and the parts of the script that make no sense (which Ripley even obligingly points out for us, noting that Fury 161 is a horribly-conceived prison) seem to be those where the prisoner/monk conflict is most inexpertly resolved.

The theatrical edition of the film compounds this in a number of horrible little ways: the exposition is rushed, the characters are hollow, and the middle part of the film makes no sense whatsoever. The assembly cut was greeted with such enthusiasm by so many people because it fixes a lot of the most distracting, niggling problems: not least among these that the whole story, start to finish, makes sense, without characters vanishing in the middle of the movie, without an elaborate plan to trap the alien being abandoned for no spoken reason, with location changes happening for reasons that make sense, instead of characters who were standing here now being in this completely different place. There is a different opening as well, one that's infinitely better: a moody piece of place-setting, in which Clemens finds Ripley, coated in grime, on the beach, and has her carried back to the prison on oxcart, replacing the arbitrary "hey, here's a girl!" opening in the theatrical cut that just seems to exist to get from A to D with the smallest nod to B, and as for C - fuck C right in the face. The extended cut also gives a huge amount of depth to the cultists, especially Dillon - it's striking to see in such explicit detail the cumulative effect of adding 30 seconds to the front or back of this or that scene, giving us an infinitely better idea of who this man is, why he thinks and acts as he does (and in the process, demonstrating that Dutton's performance might be the best in the film - better even than Weaver, who did not bring her A-game).

On the other hand: the assembly edit also has the initial facehugger implant itself into an ox, not the dog, and though parts of the change are effective (it's intimately tied into the much-improved opening), it's fundamentally the case that watching an alien burst out of a dead ox is nowhere near as unnerving as watching it burst from a dog writhing in pain, both because the mere presence of oxen is kind of stupid, and because we humans are far more sympathetic to dogs. It also spoils the discovery made in this film, that the aliens adopt the DNA of their natal host, which in the theatrical cut results in a xenomorph running around like a hideous parody of a dog, and in the assembly cut results in a xenomorph that for some reason doesn't resemble a human and sure as fuck doesn't resemble an ox.

I'm also not terribly fond of the extensions made to the final scene, which add detail without adding meaning; this spoils the effect of what was a rather silly but undeniably propulsive finale by larding it up with too much talking. And the added footage doesn't correct some of the annoying story problems: the way Clemens is taken out of the movie far too early, just for the sake of a shallow shock ("See? We'll kill anyone"); the points where Ripley withholds information solely to extend the plot - though Weaver, even being as she is much less engaged than in Aliens, is just too good not to sell a lot of moments that would have strangled a lesser actor, especially the out-of-nowhere sex scene.

Nor does it correct some of the other signs of rot scattered throughout the movie: a criminal overreliance on slow-motion, the gaudy use of superimposition during a funeral scene (which also has slo-mo, FYI), not one but two ham-fisted moments where Ripley, preparing for her own death, strikes a cruciform pose (the first directed by Fincher, the second from the closing scene, shot after he'd stormed off the set), the hectic montage during the opening credits, a damnable contrast to the slow, creeping terror of the first film's credit sequence. H.R. Giger's redesign of the alien isn't tremendously worthwhile, and the effects work used to superimpose that alien (done using rod puppetry) has aged horribly, looking infinitely faker than its 13-year-old big brother, and making it generally impossible to accept the alien as a weighty, dangerous threat when stacked against the hulking, shadowy thing at the heart of Alien or the organic nightmare of the queen in Aliens.

And the essential question that, for me, keeps Alien³ from every completely living up to either of its predecessors: how does this world function? For world-building is one of the chief strengths of the first two films, and though the prison looks wonderful and has an omnipresent gloom that gives the film a personality all its own, it never ends up creating a coherent world. It's never completely clear how this prison-monastery functions, and the brilliantly-paced final action sequence, in which the alien chases prisoners through a series of hatches on its way to the trap they've set for it (one of the only sequences that is virtually identical between the two cuts, perhaps because it is the most effective thing in either of them), has the unfortunate side-effect of calling our attention to the physical layout of the building, and frankly, it makes absolutely no sense why it has that layout. Even allowing for the basic rule that anything which is awesome thereby justifies itself, I have no idea why those corridors all lead into the big lead-press; or why there is a big lead-press.

In short, Alien³ doesn't take place in a universe, it takes place in a series of locations prescribed by the script, and this is the film's ultimate problem: it never really amounts to more than a basic series of functional narrative moments (which is no small thing: arguably, the next sequel, Alien: Resurrection, couldn't even rise to the level of a functional narrative). Unlike the first two, there's no real sense of "stakes", even though this film arguably has the greatest stakes in the series, by deepening Ripley's own arc in such dark, rich (and sorta predictable) ways. That it exists in any tolerable form is actually quite an achievement, given all the strikes against it, but Alien³, whatever the cut one views it in, is too conceptually disjointed to live in the imagination after it's over, like its predecessors; and it lacks the funhouse derangement that makes its successor so memorable, even in a negative way. Though it's not remotely as bad as its fiercest detractors would argue - for it looks gorgeous, and has mood and atmosphere to spare, and Fincher frames the sets in some undeniably striking ways, and Weaver's Ripley is far more of a sturdy presence here than in the next film - the film is chasing down too many ideas to do any of them justice, and handsome surfaces are all it has to show for years of sweat and strain from dozens of creative minds.

8 comments:

franklinshepard said...

I love most of this review-essay, and I think you do an excellent job of pinpointing Alien3's strengths and flaws, but I do take issue with one sentence - where you say it fails to live in the imagination like its predecessors do.

For me, the fact that this film is so fascinating and yet so flawed makes it even more haunting for me. I vividly remember a number of images, if not whole scenes, that have stayed with me over the years in a way Cameron's sequel hasn't. I like Aliens, and of course it has some moments that are embedded in the cultural milieu ("Get away from her, you bitch!"), but its thrills and pleasures don't linger with me the way parts of Fincher's half-finished film do.

Daniel Silberberg said...

Hmm... being an absolute whore for Fincher, Weaver, and Mise en scene, I almost want to watch this movie, despite it's complete fucking up of the end of Aliens.


...Almost.

Shubhajit said...

Amazing piece!!!

I completely agree with you that, Alien 3 was not in the same league as its predecessors (though, in my opinion, the same could be said about Aliens too vis-a-vis Alien, as the Cameron version, though grand & entertaining, never managed to equal the brilliance of the earlier Ridley Scott film).

However, it sure isn't as bad as some of the film's detractors would have one believe. Though it was a far more depressing film as compared to the earlier 2 films courtesy the gloomy & utterly dreary atmosphere, they certainly worked in giving the film a character of its own.

Daniel Silberberg said...

Dude, have you seen this shiz?

Every frame of a movie compressed into a horizontal bar: http://moviebarcode.tumblr.com/

Absolutely astounding. I'd love to hear your observations!

dfa said...

Relly good review! I'd also like to point out the SNES game was memorable and very moody (great 16-bit soundtrack).

jjjonatron said...

Oh, you must review Alien: Resurrection! I'd love to see your thoughts on that.

dfa said...

Pondering a few other things while watching; for instance, the makers of the game Riddick:EFBB must have payed a fair share of attention to the prison design displayed. Thanks for always making me rewatch classics!

ali said...

The first 3 alien films were completly different to each other. I respect and love them all though.

Resurrection, and the AVP films do not interest me in the slightest.
http://www.my-best-entertainment.blogspot.com/