Film Club / Desperate to Harness Their Killing Power

AlienAlien³
Directed by David Fincher

 

 

 

 
 

This is Rumour Control. Here are the facts.

All science-fiction movies are a lie. 

But that’s obvious. We all know that Superman can’t really fly. We all know that Replicants don’t exist. We all know that there’s no Monolith buried on the Moon. And etc and so on. Of course you say this about all movies. The people aren’t real people. It’s always just actors – being told where to stand and reading their lines from a script. 

The important difference with science-fiction movies tho is that some of them go further than just making up a few new humans and a few new situations and scenes – some science-fiction movies make up whole new worlds. Places where the social situations are strange and mysterious, where the technology is beyond our current abilities, where there are alien creatures with acid for blood and spaceships flying around to prison planets and all sorts of crazy stuff that could never exist in the world we live in now. 

Of course (obviously) the people who make up these cool new science-fictional worlds don’t make up the whole thing. They don’t actually build spaceships and create new forms of life or whatever. Nah. It’s all just about the important details. A few models here. A matte painting there. Little bit of location work here. Some make-up there – and viola! – because of the limited and finite natures of our brains (not to mention the artistry of the film) instead of seeing a bunch of random disparate stuff: we see a whole new world. Instead of seeing a bunch of actors with shaved heads running around Pinewood Studios we see dangerous convicts being held on Fury 161. etc 

The thing with this tho is that if you can watch a movie and using your imagination and the power of suggestion – see a whole world that doesn’t exist you can take it further and watch a movie and using your imagination and the power of suggestion – see a movie that doesn’t exist

Which of course brings us to Alien3. 

Now – there are some people (hopeless fools) who don’t think Alien3 is a good movie. It’s not as good as Alien and Aliens. They say. It feels unfinished. They say. The whole thing is a bit of a mess. They say. It’s too unfocused. It’s too dark. It’s too bleak. And all the rest of it. 

But these people are fools because they’re only watching the movie that’s there. They don’t see the hidden movie underneath. They haven’t read all the behind the scenes intrige. They haven’t watched Wreckage and Rage: Making Alien3. They don’t know that Alien3 was originally going to be about Space Marxists waging a war in a Shopping Mall. They don’t know about Vincent Ward’s actually genius idea of setting the whole thing on a Wooden Planet full of monks. They don’t know that 20th Century Fox drowned David Fincher in a sea of notes for two years and compromised his creative vision to such an extent that the guy can’t even say the name “Alien3” when he gets asked about it in interviews. 

Yeah sure if you’re so limited in your abilities of comprehension that you can only see the movie that’s playing in front of you then what’s the point? You may as well point out that that’s only an actor playing a part. That that’s not real blood – it’s only make-up. That it’s all just special effects and tricks of the light. 

But if you know how to watch movies properly then you know that it’s all about the suggestion of possibilities. Of seeing more than what you see. 

And that’s why Alien3 is a great movie. 

So. Yes. Hello. My name is Joel. And I’m an Alien3 apologist. (Yes. I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry). 

The thing about talking about movies is that you kinda always have to measure what you’re saying against The Obvious Background Assumption. I remember talking once about Apocalypse Now with a guy at a house party (remember those?). I was making some sort of insightful and brilliant critique about helicopters and stuff and he just said (as if he was stating a basic fact about the nature of the universe) – “Yeah. But it’s just a Great Movie tho isn’t it?” So if I’m saying anything that contradicts that then obviously I’m just being ridiculous right? Because The Obvious Background Assumption tells you which opinions are valid and which ones are crazy. 

It probably won’t shock you to realise that I’m not really a fan of this approach. I’m more interested in whether or not your opinions are interesting. If someone wants to prattle on at length about how the Coen Brother movies are good then it’s very possible that they might be really boring and tedious about it. Vice versa someone might have some very cool insights about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen that will keep me totally enthralled. 

(But that being said – damn it – I still think it’s true that some movies are just better than others. Although the movies that I find valuable don’t always correspond with The Obvious Background Assumption. But I don’t have any real issue with believing that most people are wrong about things LOL).

I should admit that I’m not precisely sure what The Obvious Background Assumption for Alien3 is tho… Like obviously Alien and Aliens are both stone-cold cinema classics until the end of time and Alien Resurrection is an ill-begotten monster that should have been drowned at birth. But Alien3 kinda lurks in the no man’s space between… 
Judging from the things I’ve read it about the problem that most people have with Alien3 is the fact that Hicks and Newt get brutally dispatched with before the movie even starts (not forgetting Bishop who – well – will never be top of line again). I think there’s a James Cameron line that says “it was a slap in the face” or something? But what the hell man? Do people really want an Alien movie that has everyone playing nice and being happy? SCENE 3. RIPLEY: “Would you like another glass of lemonade dear? HICKS: “Yeah baby – that would be swell.” I mean – I always thought that one of the underlying themes of the movies was that the universe is a brutal inhospitable landscape that is full of evil monsters beyond our comprehension that will kill everyone you’ve ever known. Fucking up both Ripley and the audience right from the start seems like the obvious move to me? I’m not watching this stuff because I want to see people go on picnics you know? 

(That being said – Alien: Picnic would definitely be an interesting new direction for the franchise to go).  

Also Alien3 is a bit more – indeterminate in where it places itself. Alien is famously a Haunted House Horror movie set in space. Aliens is the Action Movie To End All Actions Movies. And Alien3 is… what? A Prison Drama? Something to do with Religion maybe? A Downbeat Art House Movie with Extra Monsters? I’ve watched it enough times to know but I’m still not quite sure… It’s kinda singular in how it approaches things. But I guess that’s why I like it. It has its own atmosphere. Hell – it even has its own colour scheme

(Mostly browns it must be said). 

I’ll also admit upfront that it does have a teenage kinda mentality that seemed really cool and grown-up when I was a teenager and now just feels a little bit – wincy. This is mostly fucking obvious in just how fucking much everyone fucking swears all of the fucking time. Plus (and I realise that this may be unfair) but Ripley’s third act suicidal death wish just feels a little forced watching it now in a way that it didn’t when I first saw it back when I was a youngster. 

But whoops – look how far I’ve managed to get without even saying “David Fincher” and getting into the torrid backstory about how this movie was made. Although I’m guessing at this point everyone is pretty aware of all of the behind-the-scenes drama right? First Time Director being Pushed Around by The Studio. Starting Shooting Without a Script. Two Years of Hell. David Fincher Hates The Movies So Much He Won’t Even Say It’s Name. I mean – my favourite detail about all of this stuff is that David Fincher remains so bitter about the whole process that when he’s given the chance to come back and make a Director’s Cut for the Alien Anthology Boxset he says “No. Fuck You.” Leading to the birth of something called “The Assembly Cut” which is the Director’s Cut that they kinda guessed that he would have made if he actually wanted to (biggest notable change for those who haven’t seen it – the alien doesn’t burst out of Ripley’s chest when she (finally) kills herself at the end of the movie – which ha – does make sense seeing how it’s the most schmaltzy part of the whole thing). 

But hey shit – you know what? – even with all of the studio interference – it still looks and acts and breathes like a David Fincher movie. Which obviously means that it’s glorious and distinctive and textured in a way that most other movies can’t get close to (and god damn it – if I had one movie wish it would be that David Fincher would make another sci-fi movie. Enough with the serial killers already. I want to see Rendezvous With Rama!). 

Also – it must be said – in light of all the backstage machinations and the way that 20th Century Fox (to use a line that Fincher used) ritually sodomised him for two years the whole thing with everyone getting increasingly scared and freaked out that “The Company” are coming does add a delightfully meta-textual twist. Especially especially when the Company turns out to look like this guy:

It’s beautiful. He’s basically the personification of the franchise. And then at the end he’s standing there screaming as Ripley throws herself into the fire. The only way it could be more obvious is if he was screaming “But think of the merchandising!” 

And oh if you think that the interference by the studio narrative thing is a little overdone then I’d like to draw your attention to Wreckage and Rage: Making Alien3 which was the documentary included on the DVD with the Assembly Cut. I only found out last week that apparently – 20th Century Fox censored and recut the Making of Documentary (!!!) demanding the removal of certain footage in which cast and crew members criticised the studio’s interference in Alien3’s production. And you know – this is something that was made over 10 years after the movie came out. 
Best piece of trivia? 

“As a result of the studio-mandated alterations, the director Charles de Lauzirika had his name removed from the credits in the original release; instead, the director and producer is listed as “Frederick Garvin”, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the character Fred Garvin: Male Prostitute (played by Dan Akroyd) that appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1979.” 

LOL actually fuck it – maybe the best metaphor for 20th Century Fox is the alien itself? 

 

Audiences have been trained to have certain expectations of franchise movies. Often by the third movie you are perhaps expecting a retread of the first film but with the familiar characters you have grown to love. Whether it’s Last Crusade or Jedi you know you don’t need any tedious scene setting or characterisation so it can be the chance to double drop nostalgia and emotional depth for the characters. Other franchise movies just feel like they are amplifying what you already have and Aliens has to share some of the blame for this trend which meant that Spider-Man 3 had too many baddies, Godfather 3 had too many godfathers and Richard III had waaay too many Richards. 

It’s definitely rare for a third film to both refuse to imitate the previous few films and also refuse to escalate them. Alien 3 if anything is almost ambivalent about the xenomorphs, both enriching the mythology but clearly more interested in [waves hands expansively] the future. While you expect a third entry in a series to entirely to squeeze the last vestiges of goodwill in exchange for a few more dollars and a tie-in Happy Meal, if Alien 3 is damned for anything it is for refusing to do that. You can imagine the internal groans of audiences seeking their James Cameron fix when it’s made abundantly clear that guns aren’t going to be a thing. Apparently this was a demand from Sigourney Weaver effectively forcing the producers to decide between Weaver running from Aliens or A.N Other character chasing them down with an incredible array of Anime-grade weaponry. Which just shows the cowardice of the studio for not canning Weaver and commissioning Alien 3: The all New Adventures of Newt and Alien 4: Giga-Newt’s Revenge. 

Alas they took the high road and this “outcast” of the series actually elevates it to a new level, sothat even as a perceived failure it revealed a richness to the Alien universe. Specifically the decision not to just reiterate the same themes not only makes for a more interesting follow-up but transformed the Alien series in to a sort of anthology series of increasingly terrible places in the universe to live, like a bio-punk Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and moves the concept on from “human versus beast” to “galaxy versus apocalyptic scourge.” Such is the threat posed by the xenomorphs, as coveyed by this instalment, that even though we have only seen the Earth (and affiliated star systems) treat her like garbage, Alien 3 somehow makes it believable that Ripley is still prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to save it. At the same time the knowledge that the Aliens can basically show-up anywhere while humans seem desperate to harness their killing power makes it fairly certain that she definitely has not saved it. 

Whether escalation or duplication the role of the threequel is almost always a sort of pumped up victory lap for the main characters of the series. The emperor is defeated, the ring destroyed, the unrequited love gets requited, man and machines learn to live together, and the hero looks inside himself to unleash his inner strength. Generally they don’t leave you with a hollow sense of futility where everywhere you turn you meet ignorance, greed and weakness, leaving the only choice to dive into the fire while your nemesis eats you from within. You can see why people did not leave the cinema and call everyone they knew while buying the Alien 3 baseball cap. 

Whether it’s the scheming corporate shirts, the jobsworths just following orders, Psychopaths, rapists, the secret robots or their mega-maniacal creators, the Alien movies are working hard to imply that man is the *real* monster, but he’s not is he. The Alien is definitely the monster without a shadow of a doubt, just look at it! However the Aliens don’t hate us or our way of life and not do they don’t have any schemes or plans. They see us the same as they see dogs: as convenient sacks of meat. Similarly the Company doesn’t hate or even fear the Aliens but regard them as an efficient way of removing the enemy while leaving buildings and property relatively unharmed, albeit perhaps a bit slimy.  The only hater is Ripley who sees the Aliens as a sort of plague of lions and her journey is as much about fully realising how much she also hates the company as it is about fighting the actual monsters. 

Ripley’s horror of the company is not that they are arrogant enough to try to harness the Aliens, and not even that they would consider using them in a populated area. The horror is that they would test the Aliens on dozens of people, innocent or otherwise, in order to commodify the aliens and sell that technology to the highest bidder, without even a pause for the concern of the extinction of humanity, let alone the thousands of victims. 

The missing scene from the subsequent Alien movies is not the the terrible consequences of the Company’s actions, because that is exactly what the movies are. The missing shot is the Space Marine equivalent of the Enola Gay as they deliberately drop Facehuggers into an anonymous town and wait for the carnage to unfold and step in only when the townspeople are begging for death. This is the message repeated by the movies over and again that the aliens are monsters but real invincible evil is an immortal, omni-present and utterly ruthless corporation. 

Alien 3 is the chance to see her become fully radicalised in this respect and an attempt by the director to bring us with her as she moves from disgruntled civilian to armed crusader and finally self-sacrificing apostle. 

It is an interesting choice that unlike the in the first movies where those in jeopardy were either Sympathetic and fairly good natures Nostromo crew members, innocent colonists or brave marines, the film goes out of its way to make the inhabitants of Fury 161 unsympathetic. While it is not particularly left wing or original to point out that corporations are evil and will destroy us all for a buck, but it is more bold statement about the value of human life to demand that the audience cares about a bunch of god-bothering criminals to the same degree as soldiers and children.

“When they first heard about this thing, it was “crew expendable”. The next time they sent in marines – they were expendable too. What makes you think they’re gonna care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass-end of space? You really think they’re gonna let you interfere with their plans for this thing? They think we’re – we’re crud. And they don’t give a f*** about one friend of yours that’s – that’s died. Not one.”

After spending so much time convincing the audience that these men (and indeed all men) are either evil or useless its cool that it still tries to get you to root for them to survive against the Alien and justify Ripley’s sacrifice when it would have been just as fair for her to let the Alien Queen tear Weyland-Yutani apart. 

 

 

“Not skinhead number 4!”

So much has been written about the battle between suits and creatives in the history of Alien 3. I think they were both wrong. At a base level, how interesting can it be to watch a bunch of generic bald men get slaughtered? The last 40 minutes of the film are a haze of bald men screaming in yellow tunnels while a block of ill-advised CGI jump cuts them out of the plot. 

The creatives, if I have it right, wanted to set the film on a planet of monks. Which presumably would have seen all of them still bald and wearing tunics. Which would have also made for a boring film to behold. 

Look, imagine for a second you’re going to the cinema to see Alien 3 for the first time. You’ve seen the first two. Both great in their own ways. You’re excited. But by now you’re assuming that Ripley (ironically) is going to survive this. You might be excited enough to ask how is she going to survive – but she’s got plot armour by now.  If there’s tension, if there’s fun to be had in this film – it’s about who isn’t going to be cannon fodder by the end of this.

So the film lives and dies on the people she’s going to bring into trouble. If there’s tension – it’s because we’re interested in seeing what happens to these people. It doesn’t necessarily have to be sympathy. It could be a fervent desire to see a bunch of motley psychopaths get Alien induced karmic justice. It’s an Alien movie and I need to care whether or not the characters live or die. When you talk about Alien 2, you talk about Bishop and Newt. You talk about the Marines. You talk about your connections to the supporting cast. If I don’t care about the supporting cast, how do I distinguish the experience of watching Alien 3 from accidentally running over a bunch of computer characters in Grand Theft Auto? 

And that’s why the first half of the film is pretty intriguing. A mining plant turned prison ship. Mrs Havisham’s mansion reimagined by HR Giger. Alien meets Brazil. Ripley as detective, racing past a snotty English bureaucrat straight out of Terry Gilliam’s imagination – trying to stop a contagion that the beaurocrat is all too willing to ignore. 

Then Charles Dance dies. And so does the bureaucrat. And there aren’t many interesting characters left. Sure Paul McGann’s goofy monster is entertaining and Charles Dutton reigns holy fire. But this is also a film that casts Pete Postlethwaite and decides he can only growl as many syllables as his name contains. Who doesn’t cast Postlethwaite and figure out a way to have him growl some monologue at the creature? UGH.

All that’s left is 40 minutes of generic tunnel screaming. I have no idea who died from this point on. A bald non playable character. He ran through a corridor, but he didn’t run fast enough and the CGI got him. Oh no.

That’s part of why 3 opening with the death of Newt and Bishop was such a bad idea. More than the sheer, redundant frustration of making the previous film borderline inconsequential it teaches the audience a lesson – every supporting character is doomed. So don’t you dare care about these skinheads. I mean, if you were so hellbent on killing them. Be more interesting with it. Have them slowly realise a live Newt is carrying the Alien, redo the stomach scene from the first one – except it’s Ripley realising her foster kid is about to explode into her nemesis. Have Bishop get taken over by the corporation half way through and turn against Ripley and make things even worse.

Also, I’m not really bowled over by any themes of corporate satire in the film. There are intriguing moments – Ripley wanting desperately to take real Bishop at his comfortable word for one. But fundamentally, what is the point of the satire? Corporation evil. Humans not as useful as money. Ripley accepts this. How the fuck had she not accepted this after the first two? Also, this is a 1992 film. It’s the era that Verhoven and Cronenberg were running rampant, gleefully fucking with any orthodoxy they could lay their hands on. Commentary like this is as interesting to behold as Michael Moore is today. What am I missing here?

Maybe Fincher and Gibson and whoever else the suits shoved away with their feckless nerves had an incredible movie under their belt. A wooden priest planet sounds like it’d look cool. But it doesn’t answer the question I’ve got. The reason I can’t escape as to why Alien 3 is a boring film. Why would I care about these interchangeable bald people?

If a story can’t answer why it’s audience should care whether it’s characters live or die – it’s usually not a story. It’s just crap with a logline. 

Ok. So what Amir is saying is – it would be a better movie if there was a more diverse range of hairstyles? 

 “Oh no! Not perm guy!”   

I mean: he’s right of course. Especially when you compare things with Alien and Aliens. I mean in Alien Yaphet Kotto only gets a few lines here and there (and everything he says is basically a complaint) but he feels like a complete person and when he dies it hurts. Same with Vasquez in Aliens (and everything she says is basically an insult). She feels like she could star in her own movie and when she dies it’s a goddamn tragedy.  

At one point in Alien3 I think someone even says “no one gives a fuck about us” and you could probably include the audience in that. As Andrews puts it: “We have twenty-five prisoners in this facility.  All double Y chromos, all thieves, rapists, murderers, forgers, child molesters… all scum.” Which kinda makes the question of empathy a bit of an uncomfortable one. Do we want the film to humanise these people? Do you want a soulful monologue of Pete Postlethwaite reminiscing about how he did some awful messed up thing in his past and now he’s found religion or whatever? 

One of my (many) favourite facts about Alien3 is that apparently when they started shooting it they didn’t have a finished script. Lots of very expensive sets. Lots of actors. They even had a release date. But you know – no real idea what they were supposed to be shooting. Now – I don’t really know much about making movies but that kinda seems fucking insane to me LOL. And the fact that they had a movie that’s even halfway watchable by the end of it is nothing short of a miracle to me. 

And with that in mind you can just kinda say that – oh yeah well I guess the reason why the characters might be a little interchangeable / nondescript / bald is due to the fact that the writing side was a little… underdeveloped. But I’m not sure I entirely agree. Like – different movies can do different things (right?) and to be honest – I’m not sure Alien3 is really putting itself in a place where you’re supposed to care who lives or who dies. Because yeah apart from Ripley Tywin Lannister Charles Dance is obviously the most charismatic character around and whoops – well I hope you didn’t get too attached? Andrews is obviously a dick but at least he’s capable and a take charge kinda guy and whoops again – now he’s gone too. And yeah Hicks and Newt and Bishop are all gone too. And then – shit – it turns out Ripley has got an alien inside her so now she’s fucked too. 

And this is what I think is important because it’s how Alien3 sets itself apart from its predecessors. In that I think the best way to understand it is that it’s not really that interested in telling a story – it’s kinda more into creating a mood. And the mood is basically hopelessness and despair. And you know – I think it’s actually pretty effective in doing that. One of the things I noticed rewatching it for this a few weeks ago is how by the end the colour saturation is basically just red and black as if the camera itself is having a panic attack. 

I made a comment before about how it’s kinda hard to place Alien3 compared to Alien1 and Alien2 (“A Prison Drama? Something to do with Religion maybe? A Downbeat Art House Movie with Extra Monsters?”) but actually now I think about it – “Art House Movie” is probably the designation that comes closest to making sense of how it works / what it’s trying to do. 

Like with the “40 minutes of generic tunnel screaming” (touche) I’ve gotta say – I’m not sure things would be improved if I knew the names and vital stats of whoever it was that was getting killed by the yes admittingly incredibly cheap-looking CGI monster. For me it’s the fact that there’s this indiscriminate slaughter happening while our shaven-headed hero waits in the middle of a central narrow corridor for the chance to pour hot molten lead all over herself that makes everything feel so incredibly nightmarish. And you know – sometimes the spectacle is enough. When I watch the Ride of the Valkyries scene in  Apocalypse Now it doesn’t feel lessened because I don’t know the personal details of the people being bombed (“This is boring. I don’t even know who these characters are. Why should I care if they live or die?”). 

Or you know in other words – if it all feels confusing and panicky and every human is depicted as a replaceable sack of meat. Well shit – maybe that’s the point?

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