For more on how I am choosing these films, see my post on Battlefield Earth.
Long long ago, in the before time, during the Carter administration, a plucky young filmmaker named Ridley Scott made a little film called Alien.
Scott would direct Blade Runner three years later. This means one man directed two of the ten best sci-fi films ever made, one after the other. Unfortunately, from there he went on to make movies about women driving off cliffs and painstakingly detailed, painstakingly dull films about gladiators. Please, Sir Ridley, make another sci-fi film before you die. And finish it yourself — don’t let Spielberg get at it.
But I digress. Alien was a science fiction film, but it was more properly a horror film. The Nostromo was the haunted house; Ripley and the crew were the horny young teenagers camping out at the lake; the Xenomorph was Jason/Freddy/Leatherface; and the evil Weyland-Yutani Corporation was… well, the evil Weyland-Yutani Corporation.
Alien was well acted, well scripted, and very well directed. The Xenomorph, designed by Swiss painter Hans Ruedi Giger, was unlike anything the average movie-goer had ever seen. Penny Robinson was in it, as were Bilbo Baggins, Trevor Bruttenholm, and the sheriff from Picket Fences. The actors were older and more experienced that the typical horror film cast, able to lend reality to their characters without too much wordy exposition. And Sigourney Weaver was super-sexy when she stripped down to her underwear.
In 1986, James Cameron followed up his excellent low budget sci-fi action film The Terminator with Aliens, the sequel to Alien. Cameron would go on to direct The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, two very good sci-fi films.
Aliens was not a horror film – it was an action movie. Yet it somehow managed to seamlessly develop out of the first film, despite the difference in genre. This time there were lots of xenomorphs, and lots of heavily armed marines to blow them to bits. But ultimately it’s up to Lt. Ripley to save the day — and when she shows up at the climax in the power loader, it’s one of the greatest moments in any action film.
Plus it was all, like, feminist and junk.
After Aliens cleaned up at the box office, 20th Century Fox decided they wanted a third film. Before we get into the clusterfuck that was the development process for Alien3, let’s first get through our Bitingly Sarcastic Plot Synopsis, shall we?
By the way, I must point out here that I am working from the 2003 “Assembly Cut,” which is a half hour longer and contains changes to about three-quarters of the scenes. It’s a vast improvement over the theatrical cut.
BEGIN BITINGLY SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS (spoilers)
Something is wrong aboard the Space Marines ship U.S.S. Sulaco — and I don’t just mean a terrible rewrite. Look — there’s a xenomorph egg on board! Because God knows Ripley and Hicks wouldn’t have bothered to search the ship before taking off for home! That’s just crazy talk!
The Sulaco is passing right by a planet called Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161, because (a) it needs to slingshot around Fury 161 to get to Earth, (b) the Sulaco has drifted off course dangerously close to a star, or (c) the plot demands it and who gives a crap about science?
The Sulaco ejects an escape pod, which happens to land right next to the Fury 161 penal colony, and not anywhere else on the whole friggin’ planet. The inmates of the penal colony all suffer from XYY aneuploidy, the symptoms of which, according to the film, appear to include being working class, loud and British.
Actually, the film operates under the conceit that men with double-Y syndrome are more violent than the rest of us. This isn’t true — the actual symptoms of double-Y syndrome are learning disabilities and acne. But the filmmakers can be forgiven — Wikipedia didn’t exist in 1992.
Ripley is taken to the infirmary by the prison doctor, who is played by the guy who was the villain with the fake eye in The Last Action Hero. You don’t remember that movie? Lucky you. Think The Purple Rose of Cairo, but starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Scary, I know.
Ripley learns that Hicks and Newt are both dead, thereby rendering the entire 154 minutes of the previous film entirely moot. (More on this below.) Ripley is initially very upset about this, but manages to get over it pretty quickly. Please note that, at this point, nobody performs a simple medical exam of Ripley. This is because (a) the doctor is incompetent, (b) the infirmary is not properly equipped, or (c) the plot demands it.
The Warden of the penal colony, played by a guy who seems to be Bob Hoskins but isn’t, demands that Ripley be confined to the infirmary to protect her from the prisoners, some of whom view violent rape as a kind of gentle foreplay. Ripley of course does the logical thing — and wanders freely all over the place. This is because (a) Ripley is retarded, (b) — oh, we all know the answer is (c).
Meanwhile, one of the facehuggers from the Sulaco impregnates a space yak with a chestburster. (In the theatrical release, it was a dog. The space yaks are cooler.) The chestburster bursts from the space yak’s chest, and grows into a quadrupedal variant of the usual anthropomorphic xenomorph.
Ripley demands an autopsy on Newt, to make sure the little girl wasn’t impregnated by a facehugger. She wasn’t. This would naturally lead to the question of whether Ripley was impregnated, yet this never comes up (c). Ripley doesn’t tell anyone about the xenomorphs, even after inmates start getting killed.
It’s somewhere around this point that a bunch of inmates try to rape Ripley, who only escapes because a messianic religious leader, played by that guy who starred the TV series Roc, schools the would-be rapists with a lead pipe. What, you don’t remember Roc? It lasted three seasons on FOX!
Ripley decides to jump-start the damaged android Bishop, who reveals that yes, there was a facehugger on the Sulaco. Bishop asks to be deactivated, since he’s too damaged to be top-of-the-line anymore. What is he, an Apple product?
Ripley tells everyone about the aliens, but no one believes her, except maybe the doctor, whom she had sex with, although we didn’t get to see anything. This makes it all the more poignant when the doctor is torn to bits by the xeno-yak, who sniffs at Ripley but doesn’t kill her. The reason for this is obvious to anyone who’s not a character in the movie.
Our heroine returns to the smashed escape pod, which nonetheless has better medical facilities than the prison, and discovers — GASP! — she has a chestburster in her chest. What a surprise! It’s a twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan — in that the audience figured it out 90 minutes ago.
Using her five dots in xenobiology, she determines it’s an Alien Queen chestburster. Ripley asks the messiah guy to kill her, but he refuses because his religion forbids killing. Not maiming people with a lead pipe, just killing.
In the mess hall, Ripley tries to get everyone interested in killing the xeno-yak, or at least in not getting killed by the xeno-yak. The Warden gives a speech trying to calm everyone down, but the xeno-yak pops out of the ceiling and eats him. This is very much like the scene in Deep Blue Sea where Samuel L. Jackson gets eaten by the smart shark in the middle of his speech, except Deep Blue Sea was supposed to be kind of cheesy (I hope), while Alien3 wasn’t. (The only reason to watch Deep Blue Sea is to check out Saffron Burrows before she stopped eating.)
Anyway… Ripley works out a convoluted scheme, whereby a planet’s worth of chromosomally-damaged murderous religious nutjobs will coat the insides of the steam tunnels with an explosive chemical. It doesn’t matter why she suggests this, because it goes as badly as you’d expect — one of the nutjobs gets attacked by the xeno-yak, drops his torch, and half the prison blows up.
Still, they manage to get the xeno-yak trapped inside a toxic waste containment unit, which features a giant sign that says “toxic waste” in a wacky font, just in case you forgot what it was. If the xeno-yak had seen Alien: Resurrection, it would have known to just bleed on the floor and use its “molecular acid” blood to escape (isn’t all acid made of molecules?). But alas, like most moviegoers, it hadn’t seen Alien: Resurrection, even though it had Winona Ryder in it, and she’s incredibly cool.
Now for some reason the Eighth Doctor is in this movie, playing the craziest and nutjobbiest of the crazy nutjobs. He helps the xeno-yak to escape, but never once explains that whole “half-human, half-Gallifreyan” thing.
With the xeno-yak back on the loose, Ripley and Messiah Guy work out their most convoluted plan yet — in fact, it’s pretty much impossible for those of us in the audience to figure out what the plan actually entails. Basically, if enough religious wackjobs run around through an inexplicable maze of tunnels, randomly shutting doors, the xeno-yak will somehow die in a pool of hot lead. The fact that the prison has a giant betunneled lead smelter is something it might have been good to establish earlier, rather than having Messiah Guy pull this important information out of his ass.
This is when a group of Weyland-Yutani scientists dressed in plastic trash bags arrives on the planet. The exciting footage of religious nutjobs being chased by a xeno-yak through tunnels is intercut numerous times with exciting footage of scientists walking. Jesus, why didn’t they just park closer to the prison?
Somehow the plan comes together, and Messiah Guy and the xeno-yak are buried in molten lead. Unfortunately, the xeno-yak makes his saving throw versus liquid metal, and pops out of the smelter, now totally pissed off. Only Ripley and a minor character we never paid attention to before are left alive. Hmnn — I’d better give him a name: Minor Character We Never Paid Attention to Before. He’s played by that guy who was in that one episode of Doctor Who where Satan lived inside a planet orbiting a black hole.
So Minor Character We Never Paid Attention to Before tells Ripley to spray cold water on the xeno-yak, which is the first smart suggestion made by any character in this entire movie. The water cools the molten lead on the xeno-yak’s exoskeleton, and the alien explodes. Conveniently, the giant cloud of molecular acid this releases doesn’t hurt anyone or destroy anything.
Now the scientists show up. One of them is played by Lance Henriksen, and claims to be the creator of the Bishop android. (Apparently he went to the Noonien Soong school of robotics.) He says he was sent by the company so Ripley would see a familiar face.
This makes no sense, and here’s why. Weyland-Yutani knows that Ripley was betrayed by the Ash android in Alien, leaving her with a deep bias against androids. They can’t possibly know that Ripley developed a friendship with the Bishop android in Aliens — she was still on her way back when this movie started.
Anyway, Lance tries to convince Ripley to let them remove the chestburster from her body, promising not to use it for military research. Ripley knows he’s lying — and takes a double-gainer into the furnace, killing herself.
So Ripley is totally, completely dead — until Alien: Resurrection, when Bones returns her katra to her reincarnated body from the Genesis Planet.
END BITINGLY SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS
Alien3 isn’t aggressively terrible, just long, dull and pointless. It’s on this list because expectations were so high after Alien and Aliens.
So what went wrong? So horribly, horribly wrong?
First, the producers hired famed cyberpunk author William Gibson to write the screenplay. Handed 110 pages of sheer sci-fi gold, the producers then shat all over it by hiring one team of writers after another, doctoring the script until nothing from Gibson remained. Seriously, why hire talented people if you’re just going to ignore what they give you?
Then Sigourney Weaver, previously committed to never appearing in an Alien film again, finally accepted enough cash (reportedly $4 million) and came on as star and as a producer. She insisted that Ripley die in this one, so she wouldn’t have to star in another one. I guess she should have talked to Leonard Nimoy first.
The incredibly talented David Fincher was brought on board, very late in development, to direct Alien3 as his first feature. Fincher decided to become a filmmaker when he saw Alien as a kid, so this was his dream gig. Unfortunately, the studio and the producers and the star wouldn’t let him just direct the damn thing, and Alien3 turned into one of those typical Hollywood “too many cooks in the kitchen” clusterfucks. The 27-year-old Fincher didn’t even have a finalized script from which to work.
To this day, Fincher hates hates hates Alien3, won’t talk about it, and wouldn’t contribute to the special edition DVD features. (The 2003 Quadrilogy set even edited out part of an old documentary in which Fincher blasted the studio.) That’s okay, he made Fight Club, a film they’ll still be teaching in film school 100 years from now.
But people don’t just dislike Alien3, they despise it. And I can tell you why.
Aliens was a great film. It was fun, exciting. and action-packed. The plot gave us plenty of heavily armed people running around, trading quips, and getting torn apart by aliens. But the story is what mattered — and the story was about Ripley overcoming her fears and building a family unit with Newt and Hicks. By the end of the film we’re happy and relieved that the survivors are going to make it home.
Now obviously, any sequel starring Sigourney Weaver has to involve Ripley getting chased by aliens again. What the sequel did not need was Newt and Hicks slaughtered unnecessarily, offscreen, during the opening credits.
That’s right, moviegoers — screw Aliens, and screw you too. We just offhandedly killed your favorite characters. And we won’t even show it to you. It’s not even in the movie. It’s like The Empire Strikes Back, where we find out Han and Leia were killed off during the credits roll. Or Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in which Bones, Scotty and Uhura get killed during the Paramount Pictures flying logo. Oh wait — that doesn’t happen!
Jesus Christ, if you have to kill off Newt and Hicks (which you don’t), then make it part of the movie! This might be difficult, since Carrie Henn selfishly insisted on growing up — so how about just not doing it at all?
In fact, a number of cast and crew from the series, including Aliens actor Michael Biehn and director James Cameron, expressed disappointment with the film’s story. Cameron said the decision to kill off the characters of Bishop, Newt, and Hicks was “a slap in the face” to him and to fans of the previous film. Biehn, upon learning of Corporal Hicks’ demise, demanded and received almost as much money for the use of his likeness in one scene as he had been paid for his role in Aliens.
Then there’s the setting, which is basically just the Nostromo with crazy religious people instead of space truck drivers. None of the prison inmates are compelling or interesting characters. We feel a slight emotional twinge when the doctor gets killed, but that’s only because he slept with Ripley. The other characters are just a bunch of asshole cyphers — even with the extra half hour of character development edited in.
After upping the ante in Aliens, going from one alien to hundreds, Alien3 tries to shake things up by going back to just one xenomorph. One small, quadropedal xenomorph. A small, quadropedal xenomorph that was shot as a puppet against a blue screen, and optically composited into the film. This was so we could see the xeno-yak running at high speed. Unfortunately, the composite effects are really, really poor.
We don’t see very much of the xeno-yak, and even when we do, each shot is identical to one we’ve already seen in Alien or Aliens. There’s nothing new. Even Alien: Resurrection has some original visual ideas, as crazy Ripley/Xeno clone interacts directly with the xenomorphs.
Unfortunately, what Alien3 boils down to is a poor remake of Alien. Which is too bad, because there was so much possibility there.