Topping Aliens was never going to be easy. James Cameron took Ridley Scott’s 1979 film and turned it up to eleven and upped the threat – the first Alien was a horror movie, and Cameron made an action picture with Vietnam undertones. This energised the franchise and took into a direction that nobody expected. Those behind the series (Gordon Carroll, David Giler and Walter Hill) then had to figure out where to go next. Unfortunately they took a wrong turn. After many aborted scripts the producers were set on the idea of having Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley crash-land on Fiorina 161, a penal colony filled with monk-like violent criminals (is that even possible?) Newt and Hicks are killed in the crash, and Ripley is impregnated with an Alien embryo – a queen. On arrival Ripley discovers that she is the only female on the planet that is filled with murderers and rapists, but soon these ‘nasties’ are picked off one by one by the biggest nasty of them all – the Alien.
Alien 3 is a good looking film; it follows the same dark visual palette that Scott and Cameron had set and whatever charges are levelled at the film it can’t be called visually flat. Where the film goes wrong is with the narrative and the casting. And those are two pretty big things to get wrong.
The killing of Newt, Hicks and Bishop is a big no-no. It’s slapping the audience in the face from the outset. You’ve already invested in the characters from the previous instalment, and to kill them off is breaking the emotional contract that you made with the audience. It also stinks of the studio for not wanting to pay Michael Biehn a higher fee for returning (he sued them for using his image in the film).There aren’t any sympathetic characters (something the previous characters had in spades). All the prisoners on Fiorina 161, are unsavoury types, and pretty undefined unsavoury types at that. Charles Dance’s Clemens is the closet there is to a likeable character- and he dies fairly early on in the proceedings. So, as the Alien picks off each cast member, you simply do not care. It’s not helped by the fact that they all look like a bunch of neo-Nazi football hooligans.
David Fincher‘s Alien 3 has no sense of danger. The Alien won’t kill Ripley because she is carrying a queen, and there is no urgent threat because of this. Sure, the Alien seems to be picking off extras from Eastenders, but like I’ve said, the audience doesn’t care about this. They aren’t invested in these underwritten characters. Charles Dutton attempts to step up to the plate in the last act, but by then it’s too late. The damage is already done and audience apathy has set-in.
Removing guns from the film was a way of distancing the film from Cameron’s Aliens, keeping it low-fi and it’s perhaps a brave move, but again, it just doesn’t work. The film just becomes a bunch of bald people running around dimly lit corridors shouting. That’s not drama-its play-acting. The only sense of urgency is in the final twenty minutes when Lance Henriksen appears and attempts to stop Weaver’s character from killing herself (in an ending that is all too similar to Terminator 2), but frankly you just want proceedings to come to a close.
The ending of Alien 3 was seen as a way of closing the series (or at least Weaver’s participation) but the Alien and Weaver would return in 1997’s Alien: Resurrection. That, however, is another story.
Budgeted at $50 million, Alien 3 grossed $55 million at the US box office and $159.8 million globally in 1992.