Not everyone can break through with a successful introduction, at the same time, a strong first effort can in no way guarantee the quality of future productions (Richard Kelly we’re looking at you). Likewise a troublesome debut in no way seals the fate for the rest of a film-makers career. Especially if said film-maker is as tenacious as David Fincher.
By far the worst title in his filmography, Alien³ was notoriously plagued by production problems, before shooting even began. The usual signs of turmoil were all there: filming started without a completed script, people were replaced, heads clashed over narrative choices and, in the end, Fincher disowned the film, going as far as to distance himself from the editing process. The resultant studio cut is every bit as messy as it sounds, it’s unfocused, inconsistent and a little on the dull side. But that’s not to say that no good came from it. From the hellish experience of Alien³ emerged a new Fincher, a rebellious, driven artist. One who wasn’t going to put up with anymore interference, one who would strive to fulfill his vision. Who would bring us modern masterpieces like Se7en, Fight Club and The Social Network. One who would do anything to redeem his initial stumble. Granted the third film in the Alien saga is not the worst, that title belongs to the at-times-baffling Alien Resurrection, however the film remains problematic, to say the least.
But first; the good. The film does at least have an intriguing premise. Following the events of James Cameron’s stunning sequel Aliens, Lieutenant Ellen Ripley finds herself stranded on Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161, a planet/penal colony populated exclusively by male prisoners, serving time for crimes ranging from theft to rape. Whilst the prisoners treat her with distrust and contempt, it soon becomes clear that they are the least of Ripley’s problems, as she did not arrive on the planet alone. A new breed of Xenomorph begins to stalk the corridors of the prison facility, taking down prisoners one by one. On top of this, Ripley is convinced that the Weyland–Yutani Corporation are seeking to capture the creature, not destroy it, an aim that she knows will only bring more death.
Whilst there were famously many different incarnations of the story before the film got up and running, the final version of the prison setting does provide an interesting new direction for the franchise. There seems to have at least been a deliberate decision not to simply rehash whatever worked in the proceeding films. Furthermore, the all “male populace vs Ripley” dynamic provides some good dramatic material for the cast to work with. In fact, the film actually works best when it functions as a kind of study of how men behave when they are together. Fincher himself is no stranger to this kind of idea, Fight Club, The Social Network and many other of the director’s films are all disturbing portraits of warped masculinity, male chauvinism, depraved bravado and inhumane behavior. Whilst these themes are mined far more effectively in his later works, Fincher does a solid job of exploring the violent impulses of his characters and the human drama between them in Alien³.
Unfortunately, around the halfway mark, this is dropped in favour of fairly generic monster movie tropes and all the interesting characters are converted into mere canon fodder. That wouldn’t be too bad a thing if what transpired was legitimately frightening or exciting, but it isn’t; it is bizarrely mediocre. Whilst the revamped Alien design is intimidating, the execution of the creature in terms of effects is embarrassing. The last 30 minutes of the movie becomes a never-ending chase sequence surprisingly devoid of any real tension. Given the reported behind-the-scenes conflicts it is hard to tell if Fincher had anything more satisfying in mind for the conclusion of the film. However it is clear that what we are left with in the end, is a sloppy compromise of conflicting visions.
Luckily, Fincher still manages to bring his trademark atmospheric style to proceedings. Fury 161 is a fantastically realized claustrophobic nightmare. Lighting and shading are utilized superbly to create a genuine aura of dread and doom. There is a real sense of danger lurking around every corner and that is largely thanks to Fincher’s artistic and technical know-how. Whilst the overall look of the film could be seen as part of the Alien franchise’s aesthetic, there is no denying that Fincher knows how to deliver dark, eerie visuals. One only has to look at that long take travelling around the protagonist’s house in Panic Room (a properly underrated and expertly crafted thriller) to see that Fincher really knows how to put his audience on edge. And how about the opening credits for Se7en or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Actually, all of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for that matter. Fincher is a director with a keen ability to get under the skin and really freak his audience out. Alien³ may not really see him at his A-game but Fincher does produce some moments that leave a lingering impression. The titular creature’s horrific birth inter-cut with an unceremonious funeral for a child is a disturbing juxtaposition between the loss of innocent life and the birth of a monstrosity, an uncomfortable and bleak moment that sits up there with some of Fincher’s greatest scenes. If only there were more instances like it.
In the end, it is hard to justify Alien³ as a good film – it is too frustrating a viewing experience for that. But if you are able to look past the numerous flaws, then there is some good to be found. The promise of a future auteur is there. Fincher might have disowned his feature film debut, but there is some trace of the director to be identified if you look hard enough. Whether he likes it or not.
Alien³ (1992), directed by David Fincher, is released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK by 20th Century Fox, Certificate 18.