Friday, May 06, 2011

An Underrated Lance Henriksen Performance: Alien 3 (1992)

Not only is Lance Henriksen's terrific performance in the finale of Alien 3 woefully under-appreciated, but the David Fincher sequel is pretty damn underrated as well. 

It's easy to determine why the latter is so, at least at this relatively late date.  Living up to his stated aesthetic that "movies should scar," director David Fincher directed a downbeat (if artistic) follow-up film that killed off all the survivors of James Cameron's gung-ho, send-in-the-marines Aliens (1985). 

Alien 3 saw the demise of Hicks, Newt, Bishop, and finally, even Sigourney Weaver's Ripley.   Fincher did not simply kill these beloved franchise characters, he made certain that he rubbed our noses in their deaths, especially Newt's.   We watched -- in extreme close-up -- her bloody autopsy, for goodness sake.  Again, this was not random or accidental on Fincher's part. 

Movies. Should. Scar.

But beyond that decision, Fincher executed two other controversial decisions that the devout Alien fan base had a tough time forgiving in the summer of 1992. 

First, he deeply undercut audience expectations for a sequel by failing to escalate or multiply his sequel's action quotient.  Aliens was a spectacular and geometric progression beyond the threat introduced in Ridley Scott's Alien.  At some point, Fincher probably realized there was no way, at least on a realistic budget, he could surpass what Cameron had achieved in terms of adrenaline and carnage candy.  So he went the opposite way, deliberately.  Only one alien.  No weapons of any kind.   And no soldiers.

Of course, this also meant no pulse rifles, either.  And man, that gun still has a lot of fans, twenty-five years later. (One even made a cameo in a recent episode of the animated children's adventure series, Ben 10: Alien Force.)

Secondly, Fincher definitively and irrevocably closed the door on further Alien sequels.  In the film's unforgettable conclusion, Ripley saved the world from further alien menace by throwing herself (and the queen growing inside of her belly) into a purifying fire.  The last alien died with her.

After this sacrifice, the Fincher film cut to no-less than three separate shots of doors/hatches being closed and locked. 

Literally, visually and metaphorically, the director had closed the door on the popular movie series, at least until someone clever (or not so clever...) came up with the idea of Alien: Resurrection (1997).  This decision was, in a way, Fincher's trump card.  His film offered engaged film-goers something no other Alien movie had: closure.

Beloved characters murdered. No high-tech weapons?  One alien?  And no possibility of another sequel?  What on Earth could this guy Fincher have been thinking? 

Simply put, David Fincher's Alien 3 was about deeper things than fannish considerations or audience expectations.  His film was about putting up a fight when you have no friends or like-minded people at your side to help you out.  Call it the anti-social network.

Alien 3 also involved completing a task that was right (and in the "ass end of space," no less) for the world at large, but not for onesself. It was about winning a war even if it meant dying; even if it meant the ultimate personal sacrifice. 

And again, let's remember some context here.  The third Alien film came out in the year 1992, when Ross Perot was arguing on TV, with lots of pie charts, that it was time for Americans to "sacrifice," lest the deficit overwhelm us. 

I remember, Entertainment Weekly once described the Alien films as being almost trademarks products of their specific times.  Alien was a malaise days, deeply ambiguous Carter era production; Aliens was gung-ho Reaganism on a cosmic scale; and Alien 3 was feeling "bushed," because of the Bush Recession of 1991.  That argument still holds a lot of water, even today. 

But for me, Alien 3 has always been another, more impressive thing as well.  Call it "The Last Temptation of Ripley."  Critic Anne Billson similarly termed Weaver's character "SF's Joan of Arc," noting Ripley's trials in the Fincher film and also her Maria Falconetti-styled buzz-cut. 

Whether Christ-like or Joan-like, Ripley dies for our sins in Alien 3.  Rather than permit avaricious corporate men such as Burke to gain control of the indestructible alien, Ripley chooses death.  Falling -- in an unmistakable  crucifixion pose -- into the fire, she dies so that we may all yet live.

And this spiritual, climactic scene  is the one where Henriksen  arrives, and proves so vital and necessary a presence. 

At the one hour and forty three minute point, Henriksen is revealed as Bishop II, a man who may be an android or who may be a human.  He's there, over the smoldering furnace, to show Ripley "a friendly face," he claims.

But beneath that friendly face (and good God, just look at Henriksen's intense eyes in the photo above...) perhaps he's the Devil himself, offering Ripley that final, irresistible temptation.

 "I'm very human," he assures Ripley first, cementing their bond as fellow human beings.  Then he claims he shares her particular agenda regarding the alien.  "I want to kill it and take you home."

When Ripley questions Bishop further, he states that the alien "can't be allowed to live.  Everything we know would be in jeopardy."   On the surface he's saying absolutely everything Ellen needs to hear; agreeing with her point of view fully.  He also seems to be parroting dialogue Ripley spoke herself in a corporate board room, in Aliens.

And then, deviously, Bishop slips in the temptation.  "You still can have a life...children," he assures her.

This comment also relates back to Aliens (1986), and Ripley's desperate longing to be a mother.  She was away for the duration of her biological child's life -- in stasis in space -- and her "adopted" daughter, Newt, died on Fury 161.  Motherhood is the one thing Ripley wants and desires.  It's the very thing she covets: that second chance at the maternal-child connection.  And Henriksen's Bishop makes it sound all so close; so possible.

"Let me help you," Bishop urges, "you have to trust me."

In this moment, Ripley makes the decision.  She could just trust Bishop and hope for the best; hope that the alien embryo she carries in her chest will be killed, and she'll survive the operation.  But something inside keeps Ripley from acquiescing; from trusting.  She chooses to die and take the alien with her.  It's the "only way to to be sure," in this case, perhaps.

And soon enough, the devil before Ripley shows his true colors.  "It's the chance of a lifetime," declares Bishop.  "It's a magnificent specimen!" he enthuses.

When Ripley chooses to die, Henriksen's Bishop cannot even conceive of her act; of her decision to act not in her own self-interest, but in all of mankind's. 

"What are you doing?" he asks, truly unable to comprehend her decision.  He is baffled that someone has put the common good above personal gain, and again, we must go back to the idea that many films (especially the horror films circa 1990 - 1992) were consciously rejecting the previously dominant Yuppie philosophy in efforts such as Flatliners (1990), Soultaker (1990),  Ghost (1990) and Jacob's Ladder (1990).

And so Ripley dies, grasping the only child she will ever again hold in her own two hands: the alien queen.

There are many reasons this scene works so well, but the performances of Weaver and Henriksen really sell it.  And without Henriksen, this moment could not have come off as powerfully as it does.  He represents a friendly face we remember from Aliens (1986), and Henriksen doesn't reveal his cards until after Ripley has made her decision. 

Indeed, this is what a tempter does.  Pushing, prodding, but not going too far, lest he overplay his hand.  The Devil does not appear as himself when he tempts the virtuous.  Instead, he comes as a friend, a lover, an advocate.  That's how he raises doubt, and engenders trust, perhaps.  The face of Bishop is that of an ally; and everything Bishop says seems so reasonable. I must say as well, Henriksen's deep, gravel voice is perfectly utilized in this sequence.  Henriksen speaks with such authority and power. and as viewers, we hang on his every word.

By holding back, by not going overtly "evil," Henriksen plays the role perfectly; allowing the audience to feel Ripley's interior uncertainty and conflict.  Because we are invested in Ripley as the franchise heroine, we also want to believe the friendly face Bishop provides. We want her to live; and are invested in her decision. We want to believe in Bishop's lies as much as Ripley does.  But in the end, we can't.

Lance Henriksen plays Bishop in Alien 3 for a grand total of five minutes, but his performance is unforgettable, and gives the drama a final, spiritual heft. Nobody else could have provided Weaver's Ripley such a powerful, magnetic foil, least of all in such limited screen time.   In short, we must believe here both that Ripley would choose to kill herself, and that she doesn't want to kill herself.  Henriksen arrives and diagrams Ripley's final spiritual dilemma for us: both her wishes for a future and her knowledge that she can never have that future.

I can argue the artistic merits of Alien 3 all day, but in a sense, everything comes down to that catwalk over the furnace, where Ripley and Bishop meet and a decision must be forged.  With his heavy voice, his steady glare, and his dominating presence, Lance Henriksen hypnotically shows a tortured heroine a glimpse of the road she cannot take; a life that is simply not to be.

And that makes Ripley's sacrifice all the more resonant...and beautiful.


  1. A superb article on a movie that I have always loved, and often found myself defending.

    Watching Lance as Bishop in both Aliens and Alien 3 I sometimes wonder how he wasn't propelled into super-stardom as a headline movie star in the wake of these performances, whilst as-is his prowess sometimes still feels like one of the best known secrets in the industry.

    Indeed, though, in such little screen time Lance really casts a long shadow over Alien 3 and is absolutely pivotal. Great stuff... now I need to get the boxset out again!

  2. Hi Adam,

    Thank you for the kind words. I have always felt that Alien 3 fell (unfairly) under the shadow of Alien and Aliens. In my opinion they ar all great films, and some of that greatness comes from the fact that each one is so different from the others.

    Lance really pulls everything together in Alien 3. His presence comes at just the right time, and does just the things it needs to do. He's like Alien 3's pinch hitter!

    Thank you for the great comment.


    1. Anonymous6:29 AM

      Lance Henrikson plays the android Bishop in Aliens; goes on to play Bishop II in Alien 3 (supposedly the human creator of the Bishop is it then that he is cast as Charles Bishop weyland in the Alien v's predator movie; bit of a flaw in the scripts??

  3. Um. Brilliant piece. "Movies. SHould. Scar." Yes, and this one did indeed, so much so I have alternated between loving it and hating it over ten times in my life.

    I agree with you completely John, it is underappreciated much like Henriksen's work in it and in other places.

    But you're right, Alien 3 reverts back to the original in feel, but the atmosphere, setting, etc.... everything feels different about the film.

    I loved your observations about the doors closing as symbolic of Fincher's intentions. It certainly was no accident.

    Thankfully the man could make films like Seven otherwise he might have been forever banished as the man who dare destroy Aliens.

    Your analysis of Alien 3 is clever, insightful and a fun read much like the film. I still enjoyed Alien Resurrection by the way. That's the last thing I truly enjoyed.

    On a purely science fiction/ behavioral level I love how Fincher takes this Alien and makes it about pure instinct and survival. It is a nasty, filthy beast that just does what it does, takes over wherever it lands. Love it!

    I must tell you that I ordered the Alien Blu-Ray set and even put a slight rush on it [it was still the best price out there through Amazon] but I couldn't quite put those elements together. So, the Blu-Ray set is on the shelf ready to be viewed and even more inspired to be viewed after this reading.

    I may have to skip the first two and go straight for A3 and AR. There's something about these two films that, while imperfect, still give me new things to explore. Strange. The first two are embedded in my mind.

    Finally, will this Blu-Ray set have this much discussed Fincher Director's Cut? I always hear about it being "all that" but I've never seen it. Have you? And what is the fuss all about?

    And why was Bishop good in Aliens? When here he is not? Is this the creator? Is this a different model? My mind is fuzzy because it's been awhile, but why would Bishop be a force for good?

    Your coverage and close inspection of the Weaver/ Henriksen dynamic was beautiful and summed up poetically. I loved it John. It is a powerful, little film and adored because of its distinction to be so different from the first two.

  4. SFF:

    Thank you for a beautiful comment about my post, my friend. I undersand why Alien 3 isn't popular, but I think it is an incredibly beautiful and artistic film about self-sacrifice, and the good of the many outweighing the good of the one (to crib from another franchise).

    The Alien 3 Fincher version is a workprint, so not as attractive to watch, but it adds a whole middle section to the film (in which the prisoners actually capture the alien...). It's intriguing to watch, and I would like to see it fully restored and and incorporated as the complete version. But, oddly, I don't think the theatrical version is harmed by the omissions.

    I would definitely recommend the blu ray set!

    I still have trouble with Alien Resurreciton. Somehow it feels shallow and cartoony to me, compared to the first three films. High time I re-examined it....


  5. Sadly, I don't think we'll ever get to see Fincher's approved cut of ALIEN 3. The scars run deep, just like Lynch with DUNE and Mann with THE KEEP. The experience of actually making the film and then dealing with loads of studio interference and BS was just too much. I've read that Fox approached Fincher several times to assemble his own cut of the film for various DVD/Blu-ray editions but he's turned them down every time. Too bad, 'cos I'd love to see his version as I'm really not crazy about the ones that exist. That being said, Henriksen turns in some fine work, as always.

  6. Jane Considine3:04 PM

    It's such a dark film. There used to be this radio show on the college station here called "Difficult Listening Hour" some films are what I would call "Difficult Viewing Hours". There are some truly great films that left me feeling scarred indeed. Requiem for a Dream, Angel Heart, for example. I'll defend them like mad, but I don't have them in heavy rotation.

    Also, I think that to keep putting Ripley in peril, and have her endlessly repeating her battles diminishes the character. She's one of my favorites.

  7. You've written one splendid and thought-provoking examination of this film, John. My head is with you entirely for what Fincher, Weaver, and especially Henriksen accomplished in ALIEN³ -- now, my heart is another matter but we'll save that for later time. I'll also admit the third film is more of a throw back to the first film. Like it or not, this one definitely has a Fincher touch to it.

    The first two Alien films succeed wildly even though they are two very different films. The last two (I really don't count the Alien vs. Predator movies) have their problems, though. Technically and intellectually, ALIEN³ succeeds where ALIEN RESURRECTION fails. That's reversed when looked at heart-wise, though (says the RESURRECTION defender ;-). But LH is not one of the issues in ALIEN³. Him reprising Bishop and adding the Bishop II remains a highlight here. A wonderful contribution to the blogathon, John! Thanks for this.

  8. I have a soft spot in my heart for ALIEN 3, which I suppose is a strange thing to say about a movie so morose. Fincher followed up one of the greatest popcorn movies of all time with moody existentialism... It was bound to fail. Still, in a way it works as a natural conclusion to the trilogy: ALIEN/birth, ALIENS/life, ALIEN3/death. I suppose ALIEN RESURRECTION is the rebirth... or maybe stillbirth.

  9. Dear John,

    Many years ago, I sat in a theater feeling overwhelmed by ALIEN 3. Thank you so much for finally saying what needed to be said about this film. I am truly grateful.
    All the best, Paul


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