Firstly : this is not a defence of Alien 3.
I’m not going to discuss the commendations and criticisms of David Fincher’s often maligned third instalment of the Alien franchise. I could easily write about the amazing opening, compared to the extraordinarily awful ending. There are debates to be had over the different versions of the film and the varying differences between the two, for good or for bad. You can talk about the early (and now fan favourite) script of the film written by Vincent Ward, or a basic discussion as whether it was fair for Fincher to actually disown and discredit his involvement in the film entirely. The question has been asked for a while now; is Alien 3 actually any good?
I’m not going to answer that question.
The major, underlying interest I have with Alien 3 is that it has absolutely no respect or reverence for the films that have preceded it. David Fincher, even with studio interference, managed to create a film that now stands out entirely as a singular point of intrigue, which is extremely impressive for a film that was the third of an already successful franchise. Fans like to discuss (and bemoan) the narrative decision to kill off Ripley’s fellow survivors from Aliens, including the ten-year old girl Newt, who was at the emotional centre of the second film in the franchise. This is often seen as a misjudged narrative decision and many find it disrespectful towards Cameron’s film, but it highlights a crucial point, which is that Alien 3 is not concerned with being part of the franchise and is instead desperate to establish itself as its own beast. It doesn’t want be shackled down with the characters of a previous movie, so what does it do? It kills them immediately. Harsh, but understandable. However, after ditching Vincent Ward’s ambitious script, Alien 3 had a troubled writing process and actually ended up proving to be slightly generic in its narrative; Ripley crash lands on a ship populated by prison-inmates, the Alien kills people, Ripley has to save the day on her own. This follows the same narrative beats as pretty much every other Alien film, and will probably be copied for the inevitable modern sequel too. To leave his own mark on the film, Fincher clearly decided to create a completely new visual aesthetic for Alien 3, and it is in this creative decision where this third instalment truly stands itself out from the rest of the franchise.
To cut a long story short, Alien 3 looks absolutely amazing. Fincher, in his rejection to conform to a simple sequel, completely changed the aesthetic, the setting and the colour palette of the Alien franchise, to the point where you can scarcely believe its an Alien film. Both Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens are beautiful films, with their dark colours being illuminated by bright, but often brief, moments of light. The visual sense of Alien is often darkness, where the cinematography showcases the flashing interior lights and mechanics of the future world that the viewer is spectating. These films are clearly science-fiction; the audience is aware of the concepts of a spaceship and an alien in their most basic forms, but these films created a new aesthetic, a completely new version of the future. The interiors and designs of these environments in Alien and Aliens are completely new and completely unique.
What is important though, is that these two movies aren’t unique when compared to each other. Aliens is a completely different type of movie to Scott’s original; Alien is a slow, meticulous slasher film, whereas Cameron’s sequel increases the stakes and the enemies and turns into a military action-shooter. Cameron twisted the genre to his own vision, but he kept the same visual style, lifting Scott’s original vision right off the screen and placing it into his own reel. The shot below, from Aliens, features a new character, but the visual aesthetic is identical to Scott’s original. Cameron didn’t create a new vision with Aliens, he just refined (and some would say perfected) Ridley Scott’s original work.
Alien 3 refuses to even seriously acknowledge Scott and Cameron’s films. The dark hallways of Alien, with their shafts of light cutting through the air, are completely gone. Fincher re-imagined the aesthetic of the Alien franchise to be one that invoked ideas of Hell, of blood and suffering, and most important of all, fire; a place where Ripley was truly alone, and a place where those who died were cast straight down into hell. Fincher takes the concept of the station full of male prisoners, many of who are self-confessed murderers and rapists, as a literal metaphor for hell, and he showcases this through consistent and stunning visual lighting that evoke the punishment of the underworld. The darkness of the previous movies occasionally remains, but Alien 3 is a much brighter film, with an often orange/fiery tinge, that often shows you everything in plain sight. The film often has a sinister menace to its interiors; although there is nothing to leap out of the looming dark, there is nowhere to hide either. Ripley’s vulnerability is often shown by her being bathed in the bright light of fire; she not only has no dark corners to hide away in but also nobody to protect her either; she is alone in hell with the devil.
Whether you take issue with the narrative and pacing of Alien 3, which often lends itself to criticism in both versions of the film, it is hard to exaggerate how totally admirable Fincher’s visual stance is when tackling this series. Looking at other franchises, like The Terminator, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, each individual film in each series is recognisably part of its shared universe. Each sequel builds on the previous instalment, both in story and in visual flair, with the vast majority of sequels sharing the previous films ideas and examples of visual style, in order to create a consistent universe. Even Alien: Resurrection, the film after Fincher’s Alien 3, decides to go back to basics and once again copy the same aesthetic that Ridley Scott introduced; the dark corridors of spaceships is reproduced to the point where it loses all sense of true identity, of true worth. I won’t make any true judgements as to the true, cinematic quality of Alien 3 (it’s a very long discussion to have), but I will say that it is a far more interesting and engaging film when compared to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Resurrection. The fourth in the series combines dull visuals and a conventionally silly narrative, which is baffling considering that Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s masterpiece, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (or simply Amélie), excels in both of those aspects. You may think that neither are particularly good movies, but at least Alien 3 really tried to do something different, to add something into the franchise’s universe. In doing that, it has now taken on a life of its own, away from the franchise.
There is always something to be said for a film that strives to be totally different from those around it, especially when already part of a successful franchise. Alien 3 deserves to be remembered as its own, bizarre project, which suffered at the hands of the studio who made it and from the criticisms of fans, who (understandably) couldn’t accept it as a sequel to its two beloved predecessors. However, I can’t help but truly admire the film for its boldness and brashness; its unwillingness to conform to the films that preceded it and a determination to stand out from the crowd. It may not be the best Alien film, but I definitely think it’s the most interesting; while the other films have a cold reality to their style, Alien 3 plays out like a fiery, beautiful nightmare.