Saturday, June 21, 2014

Alien3

Alien, the progenitor of the series, was at its most fundamental level a slasher movie in outer space. Aliens expanded the scope to depict a war between species. Alien3 (1992), the feature film debut of director David Fincher, scales back the action from its immediate predecessor, depicting one alien going around picking off the cast in dark, moody corridors. On one hand, this reduces the film to a rehash of the original, and the script includes a number of questionable story and character decisions (to the point that for a number of years, I pretended the movie didn't exist). But, on the other hand, Alien3 still has a lot else going for it and would have served as a more than worthy conclusion to what was then a trilogy.

Following the incident with the Xenomorph colony on LV-426, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is the only survivor when her ship crashes onto the industrial prison planet Fury 161. The all-male facility only has a custodial presence of a handful of prisoners who have embraced an apocalyptic form of Christianity that views the presence of any woman as an intrusion and a handful of company officers. It isn't long before Ripley realizes an alien was on board her ship when it crashed, and now, it's on the loose, killing the men. However, Ripley soon discovers there's a reason the beast won't attack her: she's carrying a new queen alien.

Let's get the big complaints out of the way. Killing off the other survivors from Aliens (although if you consider the recent Aliens: Colonial Marines video game to be canon, then Hicks is still alive) strikes me as a cheap, arbitrary, and cruel plot device, a tactic employed by the likes of Friday the 13th to get back to the same plot as before instead of progressing the narrative. Getting rid of Newt, Ripley's surrogate daughter, the little girl she charged into the alien nest to rescue, negates everything that was accomplished in Aliens, rendering the whole thing almost pointless in the grand scheme of things. This is where the Alien series began to harden into formula. The film also has way too many characters to keep track of, and not helping matters is that everyone has a shaved head, and most of the prisoners and officials speak with British accents, so a lot of them kind of run together. Plus, this is the first Alien movie to employ computer imagery to realize at least some of the creature, and frankly, the CGI doesn't look good, looking obviously animated in.

If you can get past these hurdles, then Alien3 offers much to admire and appreciate. As directed by Fincher, the movie is the bleakest, darkest, and grimmest of the series. While the first was about fighting to survive and the second had a blast-the-bug adventure, the third film introduces a spiritual meditation to the franchise. Fury 161, with rundown metallic halls, molten furnaces, bug infestations, and dark, twisting corridors resembles an industrial hell; it's grimy, dirty, and toxic. It's filled with the lowest humanity has to offer: murderers, cutthroats, rapists, lunatics, addicts, and fanatics. Ripley literally falls onto this hellhole of a planet where she must once again battle demons from her past.

As in the other entries, Weaver gives Ripley the take-charge attitude that makes her one of the genre's most compelling protagonists, but she also gives Ripley an element of weariness and resignation. Dressed as one of the prisoners, right down to her shaved head, she can't help but compare to Joan of Arc, the woman who will lead this group of men based on the knowledge she has (in this case, her experience with the aliens as opposed to divine visions from God). All her friends and loved ones are dead; she has been stripped of everything that could assist her in her fight, and even before the movie begins proper, she's doomed. Down to only her strength of character, with no weapons and only a bunch of thugs as allies, we see what she's truly made of. Ultimately, she proves to be the savior of the universe, sacrificing herself to save the world from the threat she carries inside her. When she falls back into the furnace, her arms are spread out like Jesus on the cross.

While sacrifice and strength are Ripley's traits, redemption is all the prisoners can hope for. Men long forgotten at the "ass end of the totem pole," condemned for the crimes they've committed, battling the alien and foiling the company's plans are all they can hope for. Like Ripley, they're doomed, easy pickings for the alien or expendable to the company, but as their leader Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) declares, "You're all gonna die. The only question is how you check out. Do you want it on your feet? Or on your fuckin' knees... begging?" 

Alien3 also has one of the more interesting depictions of the gender politics at play in the series. In the first two movies, men and women were relatively equal before the alien threat, and in Aliens in particular, the battle came down to a fight between two mothers, Ripley and the Queen. Here, Ripley is the only woman on a planet of hostile, repressed men who consider her an interloper. Gone are the shabby, blue-collar space truckers of the Nostromo and the gung-ho, heavily-armed brothers- (and sisters)-in-arms of the Suloco. At one point, Ripley even has to fight off a gang rape. Ultimately, she's the one who once again takes charge and leads the fight against the monster.

Even though many of them are interchangeable and hard to keep track of (though this is likely by design to be disorienting), the prisoners make for an interesting lot, and like the other films, they are strongly cast. The standouts are Dutton, their leader who initially resents Ripley's presence but who ends up following her lead and rallying the others to her cause, and Charles Dance as Clemons, the medical officer who Ripley develops a close relationship with; they are probably the most morally conflicted and ambiguous characters in the series.

The computer effects of the creature as I said are weak, but the practical effects have never looked better or more convincingly lifelike, especially in the face-to-face shot between it and Ripley. Fincher stages several gory attack scenes that while not as original as the ones in Alien, they are almost as effective.  The film also has the interesting conceit that there are no firearms or other weapons on Fury 161, so the only way to defeat the alien is to lure it into a trap. With the racing, upside down point-of-view camera to suggest the creature scuttling across the ceiling, the sequence is exciting and intense.

While Alien is creepy fun in the haunted house tradition and Aliens is rousing action-movie entertainment, Alien3 is depressing. Fincher, who would go on to give us the likes of Se7en, includes a number of sad, wounding images and scenes: the autopsy of Newt, complete with a bloody bone saw and sickening sound effects; the friendly android Bishop reduced to the junk heap pile; and the funeral. It's not the kind of movie to inspire you to feel uplifted, but all the same, it's hard to deny the craft and artistry that went into it.

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