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Prepping for PROMETHEUS: David Fincher’s ALIEN 3 (1992)

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–Note: to read Part One on Alien (1979), click HERE. For Part Two on Aliens (1986), click HERE.

[Major league spoilers to follow]

I have a soft spot for Hollywood’s troubled big-budget bombs (Sucker Punch, Heaven’s Gate, 1941), and Alien3 is one of the most troubled ever made.  This film should have been director David Fincher’s launching pad, kicking off his career in the same manner that Alien and Aliens benefited Ridley Scott and James Cameron before him, yet its production was so fraught that Fincher has borderline-disowned the finished film.  It went into production already over-budget, with huge physical sets and nothing close to a completed shooting script.  Every day was a constant battle between the headstrong director and money-conscious Twentieth Century Fox executives.  To top it off, after missing its projected June 1991 release window, Fox took the film away from Fincher and spent a year reediting it without his input.

That the 119-minute theatrical version opened in 1992 to bad reviews and worse domestic grosses seems less unfortunate than it does a brutal inevitability.  The best one can say about the first incarnation of Alien3 is that it isn’t horrible.  Fincher’s moody, surrealistic camera work impresses, and Weaver gives her best performance in the Alien series; this Ripley shares more in common with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven gunslinger, as both features find their protagonists searching for meaning amidst bloody violence.

But other than those elements and a ballsy ending, the film feels fatally compromised.  It’s a string of alien attack beats jammed together with just enough fragments of human insight to suggest deep and fatal editorial elisions.

In that regard, the special edition Blu-ray and DVD packages of the film offer Alien3 a critical reprieve.  The sets contain two cuts: the 1992 theatrical release and a new cut overseen by Alien3 editor Terry Rawlings that replicates David Fincher’s assembly edit.  This is not a director’s cut; Fox yanked Fincher before he was able to hone his preferred version.  What this Assembly Cut provides viewers is the next best thing: the last time that Fincher had any editorial influence on Alien3.

That the Assembly Cut bests the theatrical edition is no shocker: anything could.  What might surprise Alien fans is that in this extended format (145 minutes), Alien3 is just as worthy a franchise entry as Alien or Aliens.  This isn’t an attempt at a good movie anymore; it’s just flat-out good, with only a few caveats.

The restored footage turns Alien3 into a grisly discursion on faith: losing it, doubting it, regaining it.  As much as Fincher’s decision to kill fan-favorite characters Newt and Hicks in the opening scene incensed viewers, the move perfectly kicks off his thematic journey; Ripley needs to be at her lowest point so that her heroism in the second half becomes that much more grand.  So much of Weaver’s work in the Assembly Cut plays out in non-verbal takes, as her face (which Fincher loves) processes how to defeat the film’s alien lifeform when she herself is already spiritually broken.

Just as important are the minutes spent fleshing out Alien3‘s supporting cast at the prison colony that Ripley crash-lands on.  Before, they were interchangeable bald guys waiting to get killed.  Now, they get their souls back, whether it’s added beats emphasizing sardonic doctor Clemens’ isolation or the quiet, hushed exchanges between Charles S. Dutton and his band of born-again rapists; these men find their very real faith in God tested by the first woman they have seen in decades, and Fincher plays this struggle at an internal, simmering boil.  In much the same way he cares about Ripley reclaiming her humanity, so does he care about these prisoners, and whether or not they too can rediscover theirs.

The biggest sum gain?  When the alien starts killing people, we now ache to see them go.

Alien3 is no longer a compendium of horrors, and like Fincher’s subsequent treatises on violence (Seven, Zodiac, Fight Club), it is interested in the business of how love and death co-exist, even when the odds seem to favor the latter.

The Assembly Cut does so much to benefit Alien3‘s tarnished reputation that it’s a slight letdown when the film doesn’t stick the landing with the same force that Alien and Aliens did.  You definitely feel the lack of a finished shooting script in this longer cut.  After the picture’s first two hours, which thrum along with a heightened, dreamlike intensity, the movie slows to a crawl for a series of conversations between Ripley and the other inmates about the best way to kill the beast. You get the sense that Fincher and the other writers were spinning their wheels while they tried to invent a satisfactory on-the-spot ending and then perversely wrote their labored creative process into the final cut.

However, the film rallies for its final setpiece, a viscerally thrilling (if geographically confusing) suicide mission that finds Ripley and the prisoners trying to lure the alien into a molten lead mine; Fincher and DP Alex Thomson use an anamorphically stretched Steadicam lens to represent the xenomorph’s terrifyingly agile physical prowess.

Narrative gaffes aside, I can’t overstate the force of the Alien3 Assembly Cut.  It builds upon the tragic, brutal existentialism of the first movie, leading its audience into dark chasms rarely explored in big-budget Hollywood “entertainments.”  Best of all, it is a David Fincher epic, through and through, and for that, I owe.

Scariest scene: Ripley’s first encounter with the xenomorph in the infirmary.  Fincher gives this moment the texture of a nightmare: the way we only half-glimpse the alien through beakers or behind curtains, how he stages the scene through the eyes of Paul McGann’s insane prisoner Golic. Most of all, the sequence’s punchline, that now-iconic shot where the xenomorph regards Ripley mere inches from her face, regarding its prey with impersonal menace.