Each month, we at FilmHounds take a look at a director’s back catalogue and pick their lowest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes and ask ourselves – why? Why is it their least loved among critics? Regardless, we attempt to see the good in it.
This Month: David Fincher’s ALIEN 3 (1992)
David Fincher is a director known for his attention to detail; his infamous desire to shoot an insane number of takes for his films means his shooting schedules are long and it has also brought the ire of certain actors. Famously, Robert Downey Jr. found the experience of working on 2007’s true-crime drama Zodiac to be a very unpleasant experience, stating that he was prepared for it because he’s been in a gulag before.
But before Fincher became known for his dark, methodical crime dramas, he was known for his shocking American Cancer Society commercial that depicted a foetus smoking a cigarette. Afterwards he would go on to direct music videos, includingVogue for Madonna, as well as George Michael’s Freedom! ’90. Around the same time production on a third Alien film was underway at 20th Century Fox. Sigourney Weaver was dissatisfied with how Fox had removed many scenes in Aliens that contained backstory for Ripley, which would have deepened her connection to Newt, and so sought greater creative control. Several drafts of the screenplay were written, some with little to no Ripley while some played on Cold War paranoia.
The version that got the most interest was Vincent Ward’s Wooden Planet idea, a space station filled with monks who believe Ripley to be a test from God for their sins. Not only did Weaver demand a big payday for her participation but only agreed to do the film if Ripley died at the end. Eventually the studio fired Ward when he refused to compromise on his vision, and instead series producers Walter Hill and David Giler changed the script from a Wooden Monastery into the Ore Refinery of the final film, and the monks into prisoners. The Wooden Planet became Fiorina “Fury” 161, home to prisoners that suffer from a genetic defect that makes them hyper-antisocial.
Even so, the shooting script which was rushed into production kept a lot of the ideas of Ward’s screenplay, but controversially killed off Aliens surviving characters Hicks, Newt and android Bishop. What, from the outset appears to be a director-for-hire and a trial by fire by Fincher’s own admission, is actually a film that sits comfortably in his oeuvre. While The Assembly Cut, made without Fincher’s involvement, is more warmly received than the theatrical version, both show the ideas that Fincher would return to time and time again.
While already a staple of science fiction cinema and a feminist icon by the third film, Ripley appears to be the first in a long line of women that Fincher imbues with strength and passion. To blend in with the all-male prisoners Ripley shaves her head (Weaver herself did this out of a desire to experience it), this blurring of gender lines recurs in works by Fincher like Marla Singer in Fight Club and Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This also plays into another ongoing tension with Fincher’s work; the abuse men visit upon women and how women have to adapt to their environment. Fincher returns to this idea that women are the victims of abuse by men for a variety of reasons and a variety of ways. Ripley is almost raped by four inmates soon after arriving, a motif that Fincher returns to in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; the sexual abuse of Lisbeth is shown often in brutal ways without ever becoming salacious. In Se7en, the lust victim is a sex worker, who is killed with a sharpened dildo attached to a man who is forced to penetrate her until she dies. Later in the film we see the killer John Doe refer to her as a “whore”.
Similarly, the threat of violence towards women is present in Panic Room wherein three would-be burglars terrorise mother and daughter, as well as the victims of the Zodiac killer in Zodiac being women, while the men often survive the attacks. Even more than this, Fincher looks to what it means to be a woman in a man’s world. Ripley has encountered the Xenomorphs twice now, and experienced the corruption of the sinister Weyland-Yutani company, and yet when she brings this to the attention of the prison warden Andrews, he rebuffs her, frequently gaslighting her and ignoring her warnings. Her knowledge is downplayed due to her gender, and Andrews’ fear that the prisoners will not be able to control themselves around her. It’s telling that the film’s most famous shot is Ripley cowering in fear as the phallic-headed Xenomorph leers at her, inches from her face, dripping with fluid. Alien 3 continues the ongoing fascination with ideas of rape and uncertainty around gender in the Alien franchise. This time it’s the fear that women hold amongst groups of men, that no matter what they do to blend in they will always be a target.
In that regard, the change from male sexual assault fears in Alien, and the military rape fears of Aliens – exemplified not by Ripley, but by masculine soldier Vasquez – serves to show Fincher changing the formula to explore new avenues for the series and it’s themes. This would continue into Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection, which goes on to look at fears people have about gender identity, and scientific augmentation.
Beyond this, antagonist prisoner Golic (Paul McGann) can be seen as coming into the same line of antagonists as John Doe, Tyler Durden and Martin Vanger, a religious zealot obsessed with what he believes to be a calling from either above or below to punish and purify. His descent into madness after encountering the alien – which he refers to as a dragon – speaks of his belief in something beyond science, much the same as the antagonists from other Fincher films. John Doe particularly follows a faith-based trajectory, using the seven deadly sins to punish those he sees as pure examples of mankind straying from the Lord’s teachings, or even the bible quotes used by Martin Vanger to excuse his rape and murder of women across Sweden.
The film’s reception probably isn’t helped by the killing off of the three characters people loved from the previous film during the film’s opening credits, rendering the end of Aliens somewhat redundant. Clearly, it was an attempt to avoid the need to go bigger than Aliens, and to go back to what the first Alien was about – claustrophobic terror. Fincher has stated that Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of his favourite films and the idea of going back to dark confined spaces is one that the film relishes in. This comes after James Cameron turned a haunted house in space film into an action adventure which might have sat awkwardly with people. While the first film was big on atmosphere and build up, the second film was very much about spectacle. Going from a legion of aliens to just one might seem like an anti-climax to many, though in reality it remains a strong direction to go in.
The production troubles might also seem like a problem; the Xenomorph in the theatrical cut bursts out of a dog, having a more dog-like appearance than the humanoid alien of the first film. In the Assembly Cut, it was mixed with an Ox, which raises the question, why is there an Ox on a prison planet that is mining for ore? Especially since there’s no indication of other live stock and yet the Ox-alien hybrid gives the creature more menace, it’s more robust and aggressive looking and plays into the blunt force that the film deals in.
Similarly, the film’s characters are starkly different to Aliens. Gone are the wise-cracking colonial marines with one-liners like “we are leaving”, “game over, man” or the exchange of “Vasquez, are you ever mistaken for a guy?” / “no, are you?” Instead the wit is a lot more acerbic, with a prison warden called 84 because of his IQ, as well as the interactions between Charles Dance’s Clemens and Ripley providing levity before inevitable tragedy strikes. It’s tragedy over anything else that sets Alien 3 as a Fincher film and might be why people look so negatively on it. It isn’t just that studio interference on someone’s film will always mean a flop – after all Gareth Edwards’ clearly had trouble making Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and yet the final product is considered one of the best films in the series. It’s that Alien 3 opts for a much more downbeat resolution than either film before it.
Famously Fincher fought to keep the head-in-the-box ending of Se7en, and had Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman use their sway to keep that ending and his decision to end Fight Club on buildings blowing up instead of thwarting Tyler Durden’s plans also play into this. In Alien 3, the plan to capture the alien in what has been called the bait-and-chase sequence, kills off every character in the film except four and by the end of the film, zen-like prisoner and de-facto leader Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) sacrifices himself to the alien, 84 is killed by guards and Ripley throws herself into molten lead to kill an alien growing inside her and only secondary character Morse is left alive at the end. In contrast to the triumphant killing of the original beast in the first film, or the showdown with the alien Queen in it’s sequel, Alien 3 opts for more violence and less resolution, Ripley’s dies in the same manner the alien does and with her goes the last of the creature.
Looking back, Fincher has only commented negatively about the film which itself doesn’t help it’s reputation. Fincher stated in 2011 “I had to work on it for two years, got fired off it three times and I had to fight for every single thing. No one hated it more than me, to this day, no one hates it more than me.” Fincher remained the only director of the four Alien films in 2003 not to contribute to the Quadrilogy re-release, or contribute a director’s cut. The Assembly Cut that was released was overseen by DVD / Blu-Ray producer Charles de Lauzirika with the blessing of Fincher, but it is not an official Director’s Cut, and Fincher has stated he hasn’t seen it. Meanwhile Ridley Scott, James Cameron and Jean-Pierre Jeunet all released a version of their film closer to their vision.
Even so, the film’s oppressive darkness, lack of hope and nihilism are perfectly pitched for a prison filled with the worst of society. That Ripley never falls into the male savagery is a testament to her character – she also never wields a gun in the film as Weaver felt Aliens was too trigger happy and sent the wrong message about solving problems with firearms. Fincher might not have had the control over the story the way he does now, but his mastery of shots remains in tact, from his staging of Clemens’ death, to the final shot of Ripley plunging into an inferno, the film has the trademarks of a Fincher film and serves as a dark, hopeless coda to the first film’s abject horror and the second film’s gun-toting machismo.
Fincher might not like the film, but Alien 3 is more than a face hugging parasite, it’s an extension of the mythology, not of the alien, but of the heroine at the film’s heart, and just as she was forged in battle and pain, clearly, so too was Fincher.