I made this statement while writing a follow up to The Five Most Disappointing Films of All Time article. There were a few readers who suggested Alien 3 should have been included on the original list. I debated that assertion and quickly found a growing army of Alien 3 haters who believe the film is an abomination. Some went so far to claim that there are only two Alien films and that everything after Aliens is nothing more than a sad reflection of a franchise that has been oft maligned and left for dead.
Film fans certainly love the hyperbole, don't they?
Sure, Alien: Resurrection is not a great film. The Alien vs. Predator series proved that some concepts can be executed with blunt brutality. Watching those movies is like witnessing the unrelenting murder of an interesting idea. Ever since the tease in Predator 2, the idea of putting an Alien and the warlike Predators into one cinematic universe seemed like a great idea. Paul W.S. Anderson managed to make you regret thinking that.
I'm not sure if we need to drag Prometheus into this discussion. Yes, it's terrible. Yes, it's connected to the Alien franchise. And yes, it's just as bad as Paul W.S. Anderson's AVP movie. Equally stupid. Poorly plotted. Terrible, worthless characters. Did you ever think you'd see a Ridley Scott movie that was as bad as a Paul W.S. Anderson movie? And yet, it happened. I'm sure people will find that statement offensive. People are quick to defend the terrible work of talented directors based on the quality of their past work. However, if we're being fair: Prometheus was terrible. As terrible as Alien: Resurrection or AVP: Alien vs. Predator. Just because it had superior talent in front of the camera and state of the art special FX doesn't make it a better film. In fact, I would think it would be even more damning since they had all the right resources and still delivered a beautiful looking pile of trash. Ridley Scott helped birth the Alien world into existence. I suppose it's only fair that he got to put the final, terrible nail in the coffin. But I digress...
To me, if we're ranking Alien movies, it goes like this...
2. Alien 3
Between three and four is an epic descent in both quality and watchability.
4. Alien: Resurrection
5 (tie). AVP: Alien vs. Predator
5 (tie). Prometheus
6. AVPR: Aliens vs Predator - Requiem
Alien 3 is a masterpiece of mismanagement and an odd kind of classic. It's a movie that was forged in the fires of production hell going through a dozen different writers and being pulled in every direction by the creative forces behind it, torn to shreds, and then reassembled into a bleak and confounding movie that I have learned to love.
I liked it the first time I saw it. In those pre-internet days, you weren't able to tap into the cultural zeitgeist at a moment's notice. So for many years, I was under the assumption that Alien 3 was a fine movie, and not the hated bastard stepchild of the Alien franchise. It's only in the last ten years or so that I've realized just how many people hate this movie - including the director, David Fincher who blames "studio meddling" and the creative economics of Hollywood as the cause for the film turning into an unsalvageable nightmare. And even knowing all this, I still say it's superior to James Cameron's action filled, steroid fueled take on Alien. It also serves as a fitting finale to the series. Alien 3 is like The Empire Strikes Back of the series, but it happens last.
Now I'm not saying Aliens is a bad movie. Far from it. It's a big, crazy, fun action movie. It's exactly the kind of over produced confection that James Cameron is known for. In the wake of Alien, Cameron decided to go another way. Where I would call Alien a horror film, Aliens is very much a big Hollywood action movie, filled with your typical James Cameron characters and various personality types posing as people. Every choice he made seemed predicated on taking everything that worked for Alien and cranking it up a hundred decibels. Big guns, big explosions, big Queen aliens, big mech suits, FLAMETHROWERS. To his credit, it was kind of awesome. Though at times it felt like a cartoon. Bill Paxton and Paul Reiser, I'm looking at you.
Alien 3 brought thing back to a more confined world. It's also dark. Real dark. As bleak a science fiction film as you'll ever see. It was returning the movie to its horror roots. Something that is difficult to do after Cameron turned the franchise into an action spectacle. A quieter, simpler Alien movie was difficult to appreciate after Cameron had blown out everyone's eardrums.
I will always appreciate Alien 3 more because it is so damn bleak. Because they take the happy ending that James Cameron handed audiences on a silver platter and take a good piss all over it. All the audience pleasing, mainstream moves Cameron made to turn the franchise into a roller coaster like theme park ride is crushed. Newt drowns in her cryo-pod. Hicks is impaled by a safety beam. Bishop opts to be shut down rather than stick around to witness the gruesome events that are about to unfold. And our hero, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is left on a prison planet full of rapists, thieves, murderers, AND an alien. This is the kind of dark, cold, and unforgiving scenario that seems fitting for an Alien film. There's a certain degree of parity with the original. Alien 3 sheds all the high tech, infinite ammunition mentality of Aliens in favor of a down and dirty slaughter. I think many film fans couldn't adjust to a joyless, generally explosion free experience. Cameron upped the ante. And rather than double down, they flipped the table, doused it in lighter fluid, and reduced it to ash.
I rather respect that sensibility.
Just to be clear, I do like Alien 3 as a movie. It's more than a nihilistic example of a franchise being doused with napalm. I like the prison planet scenario. I really like the idea of having to face down the enemy without weapons. And more than anything else I love the ending with Ripley cradling the alien spawn in her hands as she descends into a pool of molten lead. It's a fitting end for the dark world of Alien. The third installment presents such a bleak world view. It presents humanity at it's most unflattering and pushes Ripley to terrible new territory. As a character, some of Ripley's best moments are showcased in Alien 3. The truth is Ripley is one of cinema's most fascinating transformations. In the first she's the typical horror film survivor forced to use her wits to overcome a horrific creature. In the second she transforms into an action hero who can will herself out of the deadliest encounters, spewing trailer-worthy catchphrases. "Get away from her, you bitch!". The third film is where we really get to know Ripley. In this tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes. Where all the fighting, all the struggles, and all the horrors she has witnessed has not brought her any closer to salvation. She has been dropped into the hell of Fury 161, to suffer this last alien encounter without aide. Without the spunky sidekick she picked up in Aliens, or a devil-may-care Colonial Marine to save the day.
Alien 3 is brave in a way so many other sequels aren't. They didn't just mess with the playbook, they eviscerated it. They took their iconic main character, shaved her head, threw her on a planet of psychos and then impregnated her with an alien. Within the first forty five minutes you know that Ripley is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. A walking death sentence. She's not walking away from this one. The entire movie is almost like a eulogy for a fallen hero who has sacrificed everything for ultimately nothing.
You could argue that her nose dive into molten metal did prevent the evil Weyland-Yutani corporation from getting their hands on an alien, and thus doesn't constitute 'nothing'. Still, Ripley's life was marred by constant tragedy. In three films she had been transformed from survivor, to hero, and finally to pariah.
I understand the criticism some express for Alien 3. And most of it comes from the differences it has with Aliens - differences that I see as strengths. Jettisoning the largess of Aliens, turning up the tragedy, and allowing the story to end in an unconventional way. These are risks most large franchises would never take. Alien 3 is a film that is both compelling and frustrating. There are people who will never be able to see past the choices made and the direction taken. But I contend Alien 3 is not only a sequel worth consideration, but a dark piece of science fiction tragedy that is only bested by the original.
Next up: In defense of Alien: Resurrection. Just kidding. That movies is heinous.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the graphic novel EXE: Executable File, is available from Lulu.com.