Friday, February 18, 2005

Review: "Alien 3" (1992)

Reviewing great films is often more difficult because you find yourself piling on monotonous praise. You fall into such fawning that you keep stealing glances at the keyboard to look for traces of drool. I have no desire to write a review of "Alien" or "Aliens" because they both get Ten out of Tens, hands down (If you'd like a thorough dissection of the first film, then I heartily recommend this review). Much more satisfying, for me anyway, is the chance to defend films that have always been treated like red headed stepchildren. Such is the case for the film that followed those first two titles I mentioned above.

Most people who loved "Aliens" were immediate pissed off by the opening of "Alien 3", which instructs in short order that after Ripley's narrowly escape, her ship crashes into a penal colony planet and her two companions, Newt and Hicks, have died. Like the beginning of the second film, Ripley finds herself all alone in the world. This is exacerbated by a group of people that either don't want her there or want her there only for possible molesting purposes. She soon discovers that an alien rode piggyback on the ship and she has to get the prison population organized in order to fight it off and survive.

I'll mention it once again because it bears repeating: fans were really pissed off that those two characters, who went through so much and had therefore endeared themselves to the audience, were simply bumped off with little fanfare in the first five minutes. I myself was a little ticked off when I saw this in the theater, but I have in years since understood the motivation for this.

The "Alien" franchise is unique in that it has had the benefit of a different visionary director in the pilot's seat each time out. The first, directed by Ridley Scott, was a template for horror films for years to come and has been ripped off more times than anyone can count. The second film, directed by James Cameron, was more of an action film. However, it was an incredibly good action film and fans of the first didn't mind the thematic departure because they were too busy having such a damn good time.

Such a one-two punch of excellent films is extremely rare. It's damn near impossible to create a third film that at the very least earns the respect of fans. Even Coppola himself couldn't do it with "Godfather 3". So you can imagine what it was like to be in David Fincher's shoes when he was given the Directing gig for "Alien 3". Yet I imagine that the script's decision to kill off the two characters may have been a relief to Fincher. The writer had essentially broken off this film from the other two and Fincher could go ahead and say, "I'm not Scott. I'm not Cameron. I'm me, and this is what I am going to do."

The result is a much darker film the the first two (this is the director of "Fight Club", after all) that echoes more of the horror in the first film than the gung-ho action in the second. Like the first film, we're only dealing with one alien and not hordes of them. This is fortunate, because the cast of characters are ill equipped to deal with the threat having no weapons except what they can fashion out of tools. It's interesting to note that the alien gestates inside a dog instead of a human. The result is an alien that looks different from the ones we're used to seeing and serves as a mirror of the film itself: Leaner, shorter, faster and a whole different animal altogether.

Most of the characters, aside from the leads, tend to blend together. We're talking about a bunch of bald British males in the same grubby gray clothing. For all their life expectancy, they might as well be wearing red shirts. Much was made at the time of Weaver's head shave for the film. A similar coif removal was done by Demi Moore for "G.I. Jane" (directed by...Ridley Scott!), and that was also a film in which a woman is forced to spend a lot of time proving herself to a bunch of brutish males. Weaver shines in the role that made her a star, hair or no hair. Charles S. Dutton provides solid support, as always, as the religious convict Dillon. And finally, there is a cameo from one of the cast members in "Aliens". Without giving it away, I will reveal that their appearance makes logical sense and is, therefore, a nice addition.

The ending is a nice capper to the series. Well, it would be, if "Alien: Resurrection" hadn't been made (That film I have no compunction over treating like a red headed stepchild). Anyway, the ending of "Alien 3" brings closure to Ripley's journey. It also echoes, whether intentionally or not, James Cameron's "Terminator 2", released one year before this one. Even after I first saw it in the theater, I realized I had watched a very well made and satisfying science fiction film. If you give the film a chance, then I'm sure you'll come to the same conclusion.

One final note: "Alien 3" contains, in my opinion, the best use of the expletive "F*ck" that I've heard in a film. In an early scene, Warden Andrews (Brian Glover) goes to the mess hall to explain to the inmates their current situation while, Queeg-like, rolling a pair of rubber balls in his hand. Ripley runs panting into the room to tell them that the creature is here and that they are all in danger. When Andrews begins to reprimand her, the alien descends from a hole in the ceiling and draws him up with it. The inmates scramble in a panic over metal chairs and watch this in horror. When they see the balls fall back down, the room goes quiet and inmate Morse, played by Daniel Webb, breaks the silence with an empathic "F*ck!". I know that doesn't sound special, but you have to see it for yourself to see what I mean. That one word simultaneously expresses shock, fear and, "Oh MAN, are we screwed!".

Eight out of Ten

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