We Brought Them a China Cup and They Told Us to Go Back and Make a Beer Mug: Evaluating Alien 3: The Assembly Cut
"We all sat there and decided to make a china cup, a beautiful, delicate china cup. You can't tell me we should have made a beer mug." --David Fincher on making Alien 3
David Fincher's Alien 3 (1992) has become somewhat infamous, thanks mostly to how it illustrates how creative differences behind the camera affect the end product (to say nothing about how the film alienated---pun intended---fans of James Cameron's Aliens by killing off the beloved characters of Hicks and Newt during the opening sequence). Essentially, the film began production on the whim of a release date: May 22nd 1992. Seven million dollars were allegedly spent before filming began, as the unfinished script ran through a gauntlet of writers (including cyberpunk writer William Gibson) and, directorially, the project was handed off from Renny Harlin to first-timer David Fincher (who began his career as a technician for Industrial Light and Magic before cutting his teeth on commercials and music videos; you may now know him as the director who was robbed of an Oscar in 2011 for his film The Social Network). Essentially, Fincher was asked to deliver a film that was already headed over budget with a script that had yet to be completed. Production difficulties were magnified when the two producers of the series, Walter Hill and David Giler, authored the final shooting script and Fincher was forced to butt heads with the duo who were now wearing two studio hats: money men and creative staff.
When the film finally hit theaters, Fincher disowned it. Ten years later, when Fox worked on putting together the supplementary rich Alien Quadrilogy which featured around 12 hours of documentary footage on the making of the films and alternative cuts of each film, Fincher declined to participate. Aside from historical footage of him working on set, Fincher did not participate on a filmmakers' commentary track and would not be interviewed for the retrospective documentary. More interestingly however, Fox completed an "Assembly Cut" of Alien 3 that featured 30 minutes of deleted and extended scenes restored. While it is abundantly clear that this is not a "Director's Cut," as Fincher was not involved in its preparation, the assembly edit, restored with additional dialogue on Blu-Ray (the version which will be reviewed here) provides a more vivid sketch of the world Fincher was struggling to create.
As aforementioned, Alien 3 controversially deviates from the world established in Cameron's Aliens. If Ridley Scott's original (1978) had been a blend of sci-fi and a haunted house story, Cameron's sequel took it upon itself to deviate from that formula. It's an action film, essentially a Vietnam allegory set on a space colony that has been established near the derelict ship from the first film, that changes Ripley's (Sigourney Weaver) role from the scared crew member to a strong, protective, mother. She's given more room for growth in the second film than she is in the first, partially thanks to the extra 40 minutes tacked on to its running length, and her motivations become clearer and clearer in the light of what happened in the first film. Faced with the fact that she no longer has a family of her own, her role shifts to making sure that the tragedy that occurred on the Nostromo never affects anyone else again. She forms a adoptive nuclear family of her own with Hicks (Michael Biehn), Newt (Carrie Henn), and the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) and, despite the nerve wracking, depressing, relentless tragedy of the film where every step forward (escaping the complex) is met with more setback (the crash landing of the drop ship and the imminent nuclear disaster---a Cameron trope), the three escape to their cryotubes and there is a glimmer of hope in the final image.
Alien 3 erases all of that; it is nihilistic to the point of inspiring suicide, literally with regard to the film's plot. In the opening moments, an alien egg hatches a facehugger on the Sulaco (I'm still unsure of how it got there and this creates one of the biggest plot holes in the film), impregnating one of the trio while causing an electrical fire that forces their cryotubes into an escape pod that crash lands Fiorina 161, a prison colony, killing everyone except for Ripley. Well, perhaps I've mispoken: Ripley is not the only survivor from the crash landing. Riding shotgun in the escape pod was the facehugger that plopped a chestbuster into, as we inevitably discover, Ripley. The facehugger goes on to impregnate an ox (I thought facehuggers were a one-time use organism, reflecting back on the first one, adding another odd mythological difference to what has come before) on the planet and ultimately lets loose a new form of xenomorph, inspired genetically from it's host (it's more ox-like than human-like, running on all fours). While Ripley gets to know the inhabitants of the prison, including the caring doctor Clemens (Charles Dance), the insane Golic (Paul McGann) who feels a kinship with the alien, the rapist turned apocalyptic Christian Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), and the warden (Brian Glover) and his assistant (Ralph Brown), the new alien gets loose and starts its rampage and the prisoners and their keepers are defenseless to stop it (there are no weapons on Fiorina 161).
The problem with the film is that Ripley's arc and the interworkings of the prison world are more engrossing than the horror sequences, partially due to the fact that it feels old hat to have the creature chase innocents through dark corridors and partially due to the most rudimentary effects seen in the films (this was at an odd point in the history of special effects, just between physical effects and CGI, and the blue screen work, miniatures, and CGI seem a bit off). Ripley's arc, building off of the terrified woman that we are introduced to in the first film and the protective mother in the second, reaches a point of existential resignation. Even before she becomes physically aware of the queen alien chest buster that grows inside of her, Ripley seems to embrace fatalism, no doubt the product of feeling cosmically cursed from her first two run-ins with the xenomorph and how it has robbed her of both her actual family and her adoptive families. It's almost a foregone conclusion that Ripley has become a host and, after Newt's enlightening autopsy, I think she begins to realize who is the host. From there on out, Ripley becomes a Christ-like figure, shaving her head like a monk, and offering absolution to the damned inmates of Fiorina 161.
These scenes are the most interesting of Alien 3, the best being her interactions with Charles Dance's Clemens. As the film progresses, we discover that Clemens is not just the prison doctor but a former prisoner himself, convicted of medicinal malpractice after accidentally administering the wrong dosage of medicine and killing some patients. He explains this to Ripley while preparing a dosage of medicine for her, turning the scene into a test of faith. Ripley accepts the injection, redeeming the doctor for his previous sins, only to witness his death at the hands of the alien. A similar situation occurs with Dillon. A sociopathic, murdering, rapist, Dillon has turned to God (continuing the religious theme at work here) and refuses to murder Ripley until she helps save the rest of the prisoners. He essentially fights his murderous nature, despite the temptation of Ripley, to ensure the survival of the others.
The film is an odd blend of fatalism (Ripley ultimately surrenders herself to the alien, diving into a vat of boiling led before the queen embryo can escape) and faith. While the film, Fincher, and the writers do not suggest that faith can lead to an afterlife of any sort (Alien Resurrection seems to answer that for us), it does acknowledge that faith can provide minimal comfort for the living, allowing them to face imminent death with a degree of peacefulness. Thematically, I can see strong ties between Alien 3 and, Fincher's follow up, Seven (1995). Like Morgan Freeman's character, Ripley has resigned herself to living in an imperfect world without considering herself a hero. Fincher renders these themes and plot into a unique color palate of rusty smoke and absolute darkness (I, personally, loved one shot of an all black frame with a small, opening, door in the lower left-hand corner) while adding a bit of stylization to the horror sequences (most notably, alien POV shots) and hiring two wonderful collaborators, editor Terry Rawlings (who spliced the first film and really does a bang-up job with the opening sequence here with nearly experimental ellipsis) and composer Elliot Goldenthal (the addition of chorus add a sinister and religious tone to the foreboding arrangements).
The film is far from perfect, with most of the errors emerging from the script including the inconsistences regarding the biology of the alien, the magical appearance of an egg on the Sulaco, some terrible dialogue ("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 fuck about one friend of yours that's -- that's died. Not one!"), and the aforementioned tediousness of the cat and mouse chases (perhaps a by-product of the assembly cut's nearly two and a half-hour running length). Yet, the film is a fascinating study of how a finished film can be derailed by pre-production decisions (I strongly recommend the documentary appropriately titled "Wreckage and Rape" on the Blu-Ray Alien Anthology set, now uncensored by Fox) and how filmmakers can attempt to re-invent a franchise in an attempt to surprise the audience, successful or not. The reasons why Aliens and Alien 3 are memorable is because they attempt to re-invent the wheel, not settling to retread the same terrain as before and, fittingly, the fourth film followed suit but biffed the execution because of one simple alteration: tone. Yet, it's tone that saves Alien 3, just like Ripley saves Fiorina 161.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.