Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Don’t Be Afraid, I’m Part of the Family: How Alien3 Earns its Place in the Alien Canon
It is an indisputable fact that fan service and good drama don’t always go hand-in-hand in the cinema.
In fact, sometimes these factors diverge sharply.
David Fincher’s Alien3 (1992) may just be Exhibit A illustrating this fact.
The film -- the third in the Alien series -- is lousy fan service, and yet, simultaneously, an absolutely gorgeous, challenging, and worthwhile work of art.
Of all the Alien films, the third is the first entry, for example, that legitimately earns the descriptor “spiritual” and which allows Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to escape the same repetitive narrative formula or routine:
Wake-up, fight aliens, return to sleep.
Rinse and repeat.
Instead, the film attempts to grant the revered movie franchise that rare gift known as closure, and it devises a legitimately spiritual and dramatic end for Ripley, the aliens, and the universe they inhabit.
Alien3 is also truthful from an emotional and human standpoint, even if fans may not appreciate the dark, contemplative story it dramatizes.
In short, the movie obsesses on the idea that sometimes surviving is not enough. There are some values higher than self-preservation, and death, finally, is Ripley’s gift to the world, the human race, and the universe itself.
In Alien3 this message is expressed through brilliant compositions -- the building blocks of film grammar -- and through contextual clues about mortality.
In other words, the film’s form reflects its thematic content, and for a visual art form, that is the highest ground a work of art can occupy.
I won’t beat around the bush, here. Popular or unpopular, Alien3 is every bit as strong and powerful a film as its two predecessor were.
Its existential problem, simply, is that it didn’t please its intended audience.
I gotta re-educate some of the brothers: Why the fans are so wrong-headed about Alien3
Make no mistake, Alien 3 remains maligned to this day primarily because it fails to please faithful fans of the series.
And yet, objectively-speaking, fans aren’t always the best arbiters of quality or artistic merit because their interest -- plain and simple -- isn’t experiencing the best, most dramatic story possible, but rather the continuation of the saga and the beloved characters, no matter what. Ad infinitum.
So the first factor to understand about Alien 3 is that fans by-and-large carried a certain set of expectations into their viewing of the film. In fact, they carried an unrealistic expectation about what the sequel could be, given the reality of what the film already was: the third film in a horror movie franchise.
What the majority of fans no doubt found most difficult to stomach in Alien3 is the shocking opening sequence, which dramatizes in blunt fashion the violent deaths of young Newt (Carrie Henn) and likable marine corporal, Dwayne Hicks (Michael Biehn), two beloved characters from Aliens.
These losses feel so traumatizing because many fans and critics displayed high hopes for the characters and their future, fantasizing about a scenario that involved Ripley and Hicks becoming lovers and surrogate parents to Newt, while the helpful android, Bishop (Lance Henriksen) hovered in the background as a kind of synthetic, all-knowing uncle. Time Magazine explicitly speculated about this possibility in a cover story about Cameron’s 1986 film.
The misguided assumption here is that such an ad hoc nuclear family could dominate an ongoing horror film franchise.
This “wish” simply did not take into account the savage and Darwinian nature of these movies. How realistic -- or how believable -- would it be to have this family go up against acid-spewing chest-bursting aliens, again and again, always coming out victorious, always emerging whole?
Does that sound like any Alien film you would recognize, or enjoy watching? The sense of danger and surprise the franchise is famous for would dissipate…and fast, if it were to focus on this new family.
Remember, if you can, the original context for Ridley Scott’s Alien.
There were very few films like it at the time of its relase because the alien was always changing form, always evolving. Ripley, Dallas and the others were always fighting the last enemy, not the newest, unpredictable form of the xenomorph. The changing nature of the alien -- a life-form always “becoming” something else -- granted the film a tremendous, terrifying sense of uncertainty.
Now imagine, going in, that you have a Mom, Dad, daughter and uncle fighting those monsters, film entry after film entry. Over and over. This isn’t the template for a good horror film, or a good horror series, because horror thrives on uncertainty and unpredictability.
To put it another way, the Alien movies are not family movies. Families don’t survive in these films, as Newt’s parents and brother would attest. As Ripley’s daughter might remind us.
And that’s sort of the point the whole cycle.
The aliens are so dangerous, so “perfect” in their unremitting hostility that if they make it to Earth, or any other colonized location…it’s game over, man.
No more families. No more…anything.
Having the Ripley/Hicks family front another Alien film, and emerge unscathed (again) cuts right through the heart of that thematic through-line. It undercuts it.
Would the approach have been good fan service? '
Yes, undoubtedly. But again, it wouldn’t have made a particularly good or dramatic horror film.
Furthermore, let’s contend in reality for a moment. The whole family idea wasn’t exactly practical in terms of casting, either. Alien3 was made seven years five to six years after the production of Aliens, so Newt (Carrie Henn) would have had to be re-cast no matter what. The family couldn’t have been reunited in its original form, even if that was the plan. It was just not to be.
What was the other fan service disappointment of Alien3?
Again to put the matter bluntly: there is absolutely nothing in this sequel for the aroused ammo-sexual.
Aliens is a great film, a classic, and one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. So to reduce it to the simple “hardware” angle is probably a disservice. But in reality, there are a number of fans of the film who fell in love with pulse rifles, smart guns, flame-throwers, grenades, drop-ships and other high-tech weaponry.
The whole “Colonial Marine” milieu became beloved after the film’s release.
Pursuing its own course, Alien3 drops that angle completely.
Just as Aliens dropped the “space trucker” mode of Aliens for a new setting and milieu, so does Alien3 choose the path of innovation instead of repetition. If Aliens is about soldiers finding their courage in a war they can’t win, developing camaraderie as a unit along the way, Alien3 upsets that apple cart completely.
Instead, it concerns a grieving, nay bereft, Ripley alone on a prison planet, working not only with people she doesn’t know, but with both the scum of the Earth (rapists and murderers), and those who don’t accept her because she doesn’t share their religious views.
Yet they are human, and Ripley must stand up for them and lead them. And she must do so without the big guns, without weapons of any kind.
Alien3 is thus about a very different brand of courage and heroism.
But let’s face it, absolutely lot of fans got into the Alien franchise because of the guns and marines of Aliens, and therefore Alien3’s scaled-back, low-tech, human-centered approach was a no-sale from the start.
Throw in the fact that Aliens featured dozens (if not hundreds) of leaping, drooling aliens, and that this sequel contains just one, and you can see why some fans choose to gaze at the film with disappointment and not attempt to engage with the material, or even meet it half way.
Again, it’s rewarding to look at reality, and pragmatism in terms of fan desires.
Considering the geometric progression of horror from Alien to Aliens, fans expected a third Alien film to offer an even grander spectacle with more of everything: more aliens, more weaponry and more space grunts.
This was plainly an impossible desire too.
How could any movie not costing 300 million dollars top Aliens?
It just wasn't possible.
In 1997, Alien Resurrection cost 75 million, approximately, and still didn’t come close to featuring the carnage and action of Aliens. So the possibility, the opportunity with Alien 3, instead, was to forge a new, innovative story-line that completed Ripley’s journey and brought the trilogy to a close in a meaningful, even tragic fashion.
And, I would argue, that’s exactly what Alien3 achieves.
It’s a long, sad story: Why Alien3 is every bit the equal of Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986)
On the artistic merits, Alien3, in some ways, is the purist of all the Alien films.
No other entry speaks so meaningfully about Ripley’s character, and her spirituality, and no other film so clearly aims for closure. The high-tech background has been subordinated, and the film stresses close-ups of human faces over long pans across space age hardware.
In other words, the film takes us to the ass end of space, and then makes us countenance, directly, the people who inhabit it. Their faces -- some ugly and unfamiliar; some surprisingly compassionate -- literally fill the screen.
These human faces don't always belong to nice people, it's true but they’re all human.
They’re all seeking answers about what it means to live a good life. Dr. Clemens (Charles Dance), dwelling in guilt, lives a life of quiet, isolated exile, punishing himself for his medical error over and over again.
Dillon (Charles Dutton) and his wards are trying to make right with God, waiting on the prison planet for the Lord’s return, trying to resist the urges and impulses that made them outcasts from society in the first place. They have decided to wait and serve in their own way, but Ripley and the alien show them that they don't have that luxury. Man proposes; God disposes.
Alien3 is also the intensely personal story of an isolated, depressed Ripley trapped on a backwater penal planet, functioning there as a sort of despised outsider or heretic, at least at first. So instead of copying Aliens Alien 3 actually attempts something new, different, and ambitious as Hell. According to Sigourney Weaver in an interview with Cinefantastique, the movie concerns the idea of "fighting a common enemy alongside people you don't really like, without guns."
To her, this battle defines Ripley's greatest challenge.
In particular, Ripley -- who is so often termed “the ultimate survivor” -- ends up in a scenario wherein personal survival is less important than sacrifice; less important than saving all of mankind. She comes to learn that she is carrying an alien queen inside of her, and that it boasts the capacity to hatch thousands of offspring.
Worse, the Company wants it for their bio-weapons division.
So Ripley makes a choice.
It is the choice of a brave woman, or even a saint. She chooses to die so that we all might live. This description is not a colorful exaggeration, and it’s crucial here to consider how Alien3 actually plays as a Christ metaphor in a consistent, coherent and therefore artistic fashion.
First, Fincher telegraphs the comparison between Ripley's plight and Christ's. Fury 161 may as well be Golgotha. An early moment reveals a twisted industrial wreckage jutting out of the planetary surface, a rough Christian cross.
Next, we get the details of Ripley’s choice. It mimics Jesus’s choice on the cross. He can either live a self-centered life as a man, or he can die for man’s sins and save us all. Ripley, likewise, must die to redeem all of mankind.
It is not something that she wants to do; it is something that she knows she needs to do.
And again, consider the make-up of those she is saving. Some are dumb Company Men (85), some are rapists and murders (Dillon’s flock) and some are so obsessed with power that they don’t realize how their ambition threatens everything (Bishop II).
Still, Ripley chooses to save them.
In at least two separate compositions in the film -- one in Dillon’s quarters and once in the lead foundry -- Ripley, resembling Maria Falconetti in Carl Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), is seen in the pose of the crucifixion, indicating her status as saint and martyr …and her destination, whether death or spiritual immortality.
Alien 3, according to critic David Ansen is thus “a quasi-religious passion play with Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, head-shaved, offering to martyr herself to save the world from the sins of the monster....[so] credit Fincher for taking risks.”
The religious parallel is as meaningful and as powerful as Ansen suggests. "With her shaven head and her director's predilection for unflinching close-ups, Ripley radiates passion like an SF Joan of Arc, searching the furthest reaches of her alien-battered soul for any remaining sparks of faith, hope and grace to sustain her through yet another ordeal," writes New Statesman and Society’s Anne Billson, acknowledging that Alien 3 is the first franchise film to operate on a genuinely spiritual level.
It is this final act of Alien 3 that brings the saga into crystal clarity for perhaps the first time. Ripley, the ultimate survivor, overcomes her personal (and some might say selfish...) desire to live (Alien), bear children (Aliens) and find happiness so that all humanity can survive.
This existential moment of truth far surpasses the more popular but comparatively facile "dueling maternal instincts" battle in Aliens and successfully apotheosizes the beloved character. The Christ analogy transforms Ripley's final decision -- essentially suicide -- into a beautiful and meaningful act rather than a cowardly or empty one.
But again, let’s continue the Christ metaphor. Ripley, like Christ, must make her sacrifice with full-knowledge of what she is losing, of what her act truly means.
For this to occur, we need a seducer, or a tempter…a devil.
Enter Lance Henriksen as Bishop II. He comes to Ripley at her cross (or on her chain link fence) and whispers about the possibilities to her. He shows her a "friendly face" and attempts to tantalize her with earthly delights.
He tells her all the things that she wants to hear, so she can continue living.
They can take the alien out of her. It’s a simple surgery.
And afterwards, they’ll destroy it.
Then, she can still have a life. A family. Children.
And this, we see, is where the deaths of Hicks and Newt really matter to the overall narrative of the trilogy. Ripley had a family…and lost it. We felt that loss for ourselves.
And having a family is what Ripley has always wanted. It is the gift, the blessing, she must turn away from, but which she finds so difficult to turn away from.
But Ripley chooses not to have that family. Instead, she chooses to save all families, everywhere…and die.
Again, I love and admire Alien and Aliens, but this crisis of spirituality, takes the series to a new, higher emotional and spiritual zenith. We have already seen Ripley survive. We have already seen Ripley rescue a child and become a mother. She has fought to “win” things for her life.
This time is different.
She fights and dies to for the good of all mankind, ending forever the alien scourge, and the avarice it creates in our species. She thus resets the direction of the human race. We have a third chance (assuming, if you are a person of faith, that Jesus gave mankind his second chance...).
There is no last minute cop-out, no surgeons racing to rescue Ripley from the terror inside her stomach just in the nick of time, only the grim reality and finality of death and the knowledge that sacrifice has a purpose.
How does Ripley come to this point? Well, she has examples to follow. Her dear friend, Bishop -- facing a future in which he can’t help others, in which he will never again be “top of the line”-- also chooses death.
Ripley could refuse his request just to keep a familiar, beloved face around, but Bishop is in pain. “My legs hurt,” he says. “It’s dark in here,” he notes. He is in pain, and so Ripley relieves him of his suffering, showing empathy and compassion for him. She sees from him that sometimes survival is not the right path.
Clemens is selfless in his own way too. He is not a believer, or a spiritual man. But he stays on Fury 161 to take care of the believers, putting aside his own material desires because he feels he was “let off lightly” for his crimes, and that he has not fully paid his debt to society, to humanity.
Ripley starts to see, in the film, that survival is not the highest aspiration anymore.
And, I believe, it is subtly encoded in the film that her sacrifice, her gift to mankind, will become known, over time, and cherished in the way that many cherish the sacrifice of Christ.
Morse is the only survivor of Fury 161 at the end of the film. He is depicted throughout the early portions of the movie as a coward and an asshole. By the end of the movie, he is putting aside his own pain (after being shot by the Company), to help Ripley accomplish her mission. He has seen the light, through Ripley’s example. He is her first disciple, in a sense, because he witnessed her sacrifice...and so Ripley’s legacy lives on.
Director Fincher obviously felt that the idea of sacrifice was an important message to impart to audiences in yuppie America, one suffering under the burden of a huge national deficit. Like all good art, Alien 3 speaks relevantly to its historical context, then. It relates ideally to the early 1990s, the time when presidential candidate Ross Perot called -- also unsuccessfully -- for sacrifice so as to preserve the future for further generations.
As deeply as Aliens mirrored the jingoism, gung-ho spirit of the Reagan era, Fincher’s Alien 3 reflects the hangover of the Bush recession. An article in Entertainment Weekly once described the movie’s aura as “bushed.”
Ripley wins the day, but at tremendous cost. She suffers and dies, and we lose her.
What do we learn?
Not all battles are won crisply and cleanly, with everyone coming home and returning to their families. Some battles are wars of attrition, or campaigns that succeed because one brave person puts his or her country ahead of personal survival. Ripley -- the character with whom we are most invested in the Alien saga -- makes that choice here.
Perhaps the most devastating crime Fincher could commit after killing Ellen Ripley is to summarily end Alien 3 without the traditional sequel hook or sting in the tail/tale: the tantalizing possibility of yet another Alien film yet to come. Of course, in keeping with his philosophy that movies "should scar," this is precisely the route he takes.
Fincher's film ends decisively with three separate compositions focusing on heavy metal doors slamming shut with a clang, thus asserting quite literally that there is no door left open for a future sequel. Ripley’s sacrifice is such that it has saved mankind, and ended the alien threat. Forever.
This is it. The trilogy has ended. Don't let (the doors) hit you on the way out. End transmission.
So Alien3 grants the series a noble, honorable and believable and satisfying ending.
Yes, this idea was undercut by the release of Alien Resurrection in 1997. Yet Alien 3's denouement must be judged on its own artistic terms. It was designed to be "the end" and is, therefore, a notable example of Fincher's brass. He adds something no predecessor had offered the Alien franchise: dramatic closure.
Beyond his steadfast determination to direct an unpredictable and surprising entry in the Alien series, Fincher has crafted a film of uncommon technical virtue and beauty. Much of the film is shot from an extreme low angle, not to suggest the size and power of the protagonists, but to constantly make viewers aware of the protagonists’ vulnerability.
The prison ceiling -- visible in literally hundreds of deep-focus shots -- not only reminds audiences that Ripley and the other convicts are trapped inside a decaying institution (a sardine can, essentially), but that the alien strikes from above. The xenomorph clings to the ceiling over the human hustle and bustle, and the continual focus on "what lurks above" Ripley and the others often has viewers scanning the background anxiously, waiting for the next strike.
Regarding Alien 3’s visuals, critic John Anderson noted in Newsday that "Fincher attains a claustrophobic feel in his shots, which emphasize the vastness around the characters and the feeling that somewhere, just out of sight, something horrible is lurking. And there's nothing you can do about it."
The New York Post's Jami Bernard agreed with him, writing that Alien 3 “is smart in how it plays on the audience's fears and failings..."
But probably no element of the film is more visually impressive than David Fincher's elaborately-staged climax, a chase set in a massive subterranean complex. The labyrinth is so confusing an arena that the characters themselves -- one of whom we are explicitly reminded has an IQ of 85 -- are unable to navigate it successfully. Naturally, the alien picks the confused men off, one by one.
Although some critics commented that the final chase in the film is a mess because the geography of the lead-works is "confusing," they have missed the point of the action.
The exact opposite is true.
The men of Fury 161 are not aware of spatial orientation or tactical information any more than the audience is.
They aren't trained marines.
They aren’t even space truckers.
They’re inmates in a deserted installation, and they are lost and disoriented. Fincher's technique mimics Stone's non-traditional battle scenes in Platoon (1986), reflecting that this is a war without conventional boundaries; one that these humans are unequipped to fight. There are no mock-heroics in Alien 3, just frightened and confused people trying to survive a crisis, running around lost in the dark.
Perhaps, or maybe just part of the overall schema, one that suggests Ripley -- through her actions -- can bring light to darkness.
Why is Alien3 so hated by so many fans, to this day?
Easy answer: it ignores issues of fan service and instead crafts a beautiful, haunting tale about human nature, and about the choices we are called upon to make in the most difficult circumstances imaginable.
Ripley doesn’t survive the film. But the human race does.
She gives up all the things she could have -- the material and emotional happiness she has desired but never found -- and she does it for you and me, not so we can all have a sequel.
And after all this, after such a remarkable spiritual journey, all many fans could do was complain.
Not enough guns.
Not enough aliens.
Downer of an ending.
Thirty years later, there are still those fans who want to ignore the film and pretend it didn’t happen; and make Alien 5 as a direct continuation of Aliens.
And that, my friends, is a deep, deep betrayal of Ripley’s journey; of her ultimate sacrifice.
In the final analysis, Alien 3 is a great film because it rejects convention, safety, and predictability, and leaves one discomforted and bereft.
Furthermore this approach assures that Alien3 -- love it or hate it -- is never merely an uninspired copy of earlier franchise films.
In this way, Alien3 actually gains a foothold on immortality like the other movies.
No one can ever accuse it of being just like the other films in the franchise. This is a case of “stasis interrupted,” of a major film franchise suddenly ascending from the realm of predictable mass entertainment to something else; to illuminating work of art.
The film deserves to be in continuity. I hope it remains there.