Home / THREE TIMES THE TERROR: A Retrospective on Alien 3 (1992)

THREE TIMES THE TERROR: A Retrospective on Alien 3 (1992)

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What is there to say that has never been said before about Alien 3? Practically nothing is the answer. Its troubled production history has been the subject of many articles, think pieces, and profiles on its now justifiably famous and brilliant director, that to say anything else about it is almost a waste of time and one really ought to simply post a series of links to brilliant pieces of work that has covered it in detail.

The accompanying documentary, directed by the brilliant Charles de Lauzirika, that is attached the film on its DVD and Blu Ray releases, itself the subject of some controversies due to its footage of David Fincher’s on-set frustrations, have given the film a semblance of cinematic urban legend, and as such has become the case of a film whose history is more fascinating than what ended up on-screen itself, even though what is on-screen is still deeply fascinating in a tremendously flawed way.

Alien 3 would be released into movie theatres on the 22nd of May 1992, six years after the release of Aliens, a six-year period where 20th Century Fox desperately tried to capitalise on the success of James Cameron’s own sequel to Ridley Scott’s famed 1979 horror masterpiece by trying to bring in various writers and directors, the project languishing in development hell as many very talented individuals came and went, most famously Vincent Ward, who came very close to making his own version only for it to be abandoned pretty much at the last-minute by an anxious studio and producers. Such was the desperation to get a third movie into theatres that the teaser trailer for the movie actually hints at a completely different movie than the one that would eventually be released.


With Sigourney Weaver’s reluctance to return to her most iconic role, there were talks of doing an Alien film without her, with attempts at taking the story in various other directions with other characters, with many drafts putting Hicks, Bishop and Newt at the centre of the story. Various attempts at scripts were made by Eric Red (Near Dark), William Gibson (Neuromancer and The X-Files episode Kill Switch) and David Twohy (Pitch Black), whilst Renny Harlin was also attached to direct before leaving the project, his vacating seat taken up by Vincent Ward, winning over everyone with a pitch that they would eventually disregard in famous circumstances.

The Ward version of Alien 3 has, of course,  become one of the most famous unmade films in movie history; a vision of a wooden planet occupied by monks which would be changed into a prison colony and the monks morphing into the inmates. His script was a very deep and possibly more artistic and unique vision for where the series could go, with heavy emphasis on themes of loss and bereavement, hence the reason for the death of the “family” established at the end of the second movie, but alas proved too much of a leap away from what was seen as a more established blockbuster aesthetic that Scott and Cameron had crafted for their own movies in the franchise.

The movie that we would get was to be one of the bleakest and most depressing blockbusters in living memory. It would also be a film that would prove to be many other things; flawed, sometimes brilliant, horrific, with flashes of genius, problematic, darkly cathartic, and yet aggravating, especially in regards to what it would do to characters we had come to love in Aliens and their subsequent treatment here in the space of the opening twenty minutes.

James Cameron’s Aliens had left Ripley with a newly formed family and, better yet, it had left both the character and audiences with a sense of resolution, made even more so in its special edition which had reinserted a previously cut scene which established that Ripley had lost a daughter in her 57 years of hyper-sleep (also giving a new dynamic to her character also when one re-watches the first movie), thus becoming a plot point that brought an extra layer of emotion to the film’s already brilliant character development, and couple that with the reinstatement of scenes involving Newt losing her own family, and those final moments of Cameron’s superb blockbuster carried an element of emotional catharsis that was undeniably powerful.

It would be completely abandoned and effectively destroyed by the end of Alien 3’s first act, a story telling twist that still, to this day, angers many fans of the franchise. Of course, this wasn’t something that had been cooked up at the last-minute to facilitate not being able to bring back actors who either couldn’t or wouldn’t return; the death of Ripley’s newly gained family was there from Ward’s abandoned version of the film.

Work on Vincent Ward’s version of Alien 3 was well into pre-production, with sets already in the process of being built at Pinewood Studios in England,  before the change to a prison colony, itself an idea from a rejected script by Pitch Black’s David Twohy, with several aspects from Ward’s script changed to reflect the new location. Certain story elements such as the death of Newt and Hicks in the opening moments, with one of Ward’s characters, Brother John, essentially becoming Clemens, the Charles Dance character, meant that in the credits of the finished movie Ward actually still gained a “story by” credit.

Concept art for the wooden planet at the heart of Vincent Ward’s abandoned version of Alien 3.


With Ward let go fro,m the project, 20th Century Fox and Brandywine Productions eventually went with David Fincher, the film being his directorial debut, taking a chance on someone in the early stages of their career in much the same way they had done with Ridley Scott and James Cameron, who, although not making their debuts with their own entries to the series, were relative newcomers to film directing. Fincher had started his career at ILM before moving on to directing music videos, including Madonna’s Vogue and Englishman in New York for Sting.

However, whilst the directors of the first two films were allowed to make the movies that they wanted to make, Fincher would be stage handled by the studios and his producers, the nightmarish chaos that went on behind the scenes somewhat lending itself to the truly nightmarish vision within the film itself, but one which its director would disavow as the years would go on, effectively disowning it in all but name (his name has never been removed from any released version) and would even turn down contributing an alternative cut to the DVD and Blu Ray editions in the manner that Scott, Cameron and Jean-Pierre Jeunet would do. In the end there would be a “work print” version put together, but it is, alas, the only alternative version on the set without the involvement of its director.

The production would become one of the most fraught in Hollywood history, but would also become indicative of how the game had changed for the franchise somewhat. The first film had been an attempt, like many studios were attempting to do in the late 70’s in the wake of the success of Star Wars, to try to cash in on the sci-fi boom unleashed by George Lucas’ iconic blockbuster. Unlike most of the knock-offs, some of which were either low-budget and derivative in nature, Alien was a genuine attempt at cashing in by doing something truly original; it was filled to the brim with violence and darkness, it felt more gritty and plausible, or at least the world the characters existed in did, with the crew of the Nostromo seen to be wearing sneakers, eating junk food and smoking cigarettes when they weren’t being killed, not to mention that the imagery and symbolism made what was a film with no sex scenes feel positively filthy. Sex was everywhere in Alien and thus was truly its own film even if the aesthetic was an attempt by Fox to cash in on what was its biggest movie to date. In the UK the film was an X rating in 1979, nowadays an 18, making it feel like some sort of forbidden fruit to my younger self; an outer space movie, regarded as one of the best that I desperately wanted to see as a child but which I was not allowed to do so. The same would go for every other movie in the series.

Likewise, Aliens was its own thing and from the looks of it Cameron was given free rein to do his thing. It took the series in a somewhat different direction, but never once betrayed its roots, tipping its hat to the movie it spawned from, but doing it in a more action packed style and won over critics and fans of the first film instantly. It is a truly fantastic film. The success of that film, as well as the feelings of admiration for the first film from a plethora of film critics, genre fans and scholars who would study the film especially in regards to how Freudian a lot of it was, gave the Alien franchise a cache value that Fox were eager to cash in on, and were doing so ferociously, even if it meant rushing a new instalment into theatres, putting out a teaser trailer that was in no way reflective of what was on-screen and manhandling its director.

Given the treatment of Fincher by the studio, who has since went on to become one of the greatest directors working in Hollywood today with one of the best records of work for any modern director, as well as their attempt at making and marketing a much more overt “blockbuster”, there was clear evidence that the stance held on the movies by the studio had changed. These weren’t movies to be made anymore by auteur’s of the blockbuster (Scott, Cameron) or the art house (Ward) persuasion; the series was now being seen a licence to make money.

Not to be naive about it because at the end of the day any movie studio wants to make money and there is always more of it to be made through means other than the film itself. In the interim the Alien franchise had given way to best selling adaptations of their screenplays by Allen Dean Foster, turned into comic books, and video games, but there was a feeling, as Vincent Ward is himself said, that the series still felt like one that could be allowed to fit the visions of their director’s and thus feel more different than the usual assembly line of blockbuster fodder. Clearly in the six year gap between Aliens and Alien 3, that outlook had changed.

At times a deeply oppressive film, there is much to admire in its cinematography, music score and production design. Being filmed in Britain at Pinewood Studios like the first two movies, as well as many other Hollywood blockbusters during that period of time, the film would be full of British talent in front of the camera, with Charles Dance, Paul McGann, Ralph Brown and Brian Glover playing major roles, with small appearances from the likes of the late, great Pete Poselthwaite and Clive Mantell. You could almost be forgiven for thinking you were watching a dark, gritty science fiction prison drama on the BBC, complete with cockney British accents shouting a plethora of swear words throughout (“Faaaaack me”). American actors in the movie include a superb Charles S Dutton, Holt McCallany and a returning Lance Henriksen as both the android and (possibly) real Bishop, the only other returning cast member from the previous film.

As the years have went on and stories about the making of the movie have been told, most of which through Charles De Lauzurika’s superb documentary on the film’s home entertainment releases, the making of Alien 3 has taken on the mantle of almost being a war story told by those involved and reaction to the film has remained somewhat polarizing. Some have claimed the film to be either better than its reputation would have you believe, while others still hurt over the film’s systematic removal of the core family that Aliens established and thus hate with it with a fiery passion. The film’s oppressive and somewhat depressing atmosphere also splits opinion. Some love it for that very atmosphere, whilst others hate it for it.

Also indicating a lot of the craziness behind the scenes was the fact that key scenes from the film were removed from the theatrical cut that revealed the fate of several characters, including an ongoing subplot involving Paul McGann’s character Gollic who simply disappears from the theatrical version of the film halfway through with no explanation. The Extended Cut on DVD and Blu Ray fills in these gaps, with the character playing a much more larger part in proceedings, and amazingly, even though it makes the film longer, it feels somewhat faster and more cohesive than the released version, which seemingly tries to fast-forward its way to the set-pieces and splashing of gore.

The film debut of David Fincher, Alien 3 would eventually be a film he would disown as his career would go from strength to strength.

If there is any part of Alien 3 that sums up the beauty, ugliness and potential for brilliance, it’s Elliot Goldenthal’s score. A disturbing, discordant score of themes, it builds up to a cathartic sense of brilliance in its final moments, the piece named Adagio being a grand cathedral of darkness that’s incredibly symbolic of the film’s darkened atmosphere and borderline oppressive nature, and is set to the film’s final moments beautifully.

Of course, very famously, the final moments of the film would kill of its heroine, effectively bringing the series to an end, an end that would last five years when the series would return with the execrable Alien:Resurrection. Licence to print money, remember? Why let the death of its leading lady get in the way?

For all Alien 3’s problems, the ending does feel incredibly final, the replaying of Ripley’s final words from the first Alien film giving a senses of closure and completion to the series as they play out over the closing of Fury-161. Even the film’s climax, however, wasn’t without problems. Production was becoming increasingly fraught and with the film struggling to finish for its projected release date in the face of never-ending reshoots, which were conducted in Los Angeles after filming “completed” at Pinewood Studios in the UK,  it couldn’t even afford to take time to be changed in the light of its similarities to the climax of Terminator 2:Judgement Day, which had been released the year before.

Despite the visual similarities to T2, ironically a James Cameron film, the imagery of those final moments, combined with Weaver’s performance, Henriksen’s scream of turmoil and the manner in which Goldenthal’s score builds and builds, sends the film off in an incredibly dark crescendo. Having spent three movies with her, Ripley’s final sacrifice should have been the ending of the series, a final death cry for a character finally taking herself and her own enemy with her to the great beyond. Like Aliens, it feels somewhat final, and in reality we don’t need anymore, but even in the face of a mixed critical reception when it was released and lower than expected box office, the franchise was exactly that. A franchise.

A fourth movie would be put into development and released, with only a five year gap this time, so the gaps between instalments were getting smaller, and even in the face of being effectively the Batman and Robin of the series in many fans eyes, the series still wouldn’t stop, eventually crossing over with Fox’s other big R-rated sci-fi monster series for two instalments, one of which wasn’t as bad as expected it has to be said, although still nowhere in the same league as the works of Scott and Cameron, but which gained a sequel which truly was the worst thing to feature both an Alien and a Predator.

What has the lasting impact of Alien 3 been? Is it a bad film? Does it deserve its reputation from those who don’t like it? No. For all its problems, and it does have problems, for the life of me I cannot hate it. In fact I rather admire and respect it. Yes, killing Hicks and Newt does the film no favours for likeability, but then I don’t think it’s trying to be likeable. It certainly doesn’t have as likeable a cast of characters as the first two movies (no Hudson or Brett here unfortunately), although the one character who does come across as three-dimensional and interesting, Clemens who is played by Charles Dance, is killed off halfway through the running time just when he tells us his interesting backstory, but then again maybe this sums up the film’s attitude; it’s dark and wants to be unforgiving about that. Any respite you can say goodbye to.

In the history of this most fascinating of Hollywood franchises, it is possibly the most interesting instalment of the series primarily due to its history and to what ended up on screen, and for the talent that we ended up with. Even if the film isn’t as well liked as the first two, its director, like Ridley Scott and James Cameron, has went on to be one of Hollywood’s greatest talents, with a body of work that is truly incredible. Rebounding with the superb Se7en, Fincher has went on to direct modern classics such Zodiac, The Social Network and Fight Club, whilst his adaptations of best selling novels such as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl are the type of brilliantly well made grown up thrillers that are all too rare in in Hollywood nowadays.

Love it or hate it, or merely respect it despite it’s flaws, Alien 3 is still a most fascinating work and in some respects also a substantial and  important one.

Possibly the geekiest man in all of Ireland, I have consumed too many television shows, movies, books and comics to know the difference any more between being geeky and not geeky. Very proud of my geekdom, it brought me together with my one true love, and if that’s not a great reason to be geeky, I don’t know what is. Could also beat anybody in an X Files trivia contest. True scientific fact.