In Defense of Alien³ and the Risk-Taking Franchise Film
(Note: This article contains spoilers for all four Alien films.)
On February 18, director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium, the upcoming Chappie) announced via Twitter and Instagram that his Alien sequel would be moving forward at 20th Century Fox. The project first came to light in late December, when the director posted a bunch of his concept art on Instagram, which he had developed in his own time, between projects. On the set of Chappie, he shared his ideas with none other than Sigourney Weaver, who later told MTV that she was excited by his concept.
However, rumors have been flying that Blomkamp’s film will remove David Fincher’s Alien³ and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection from continuity, in order to bring back Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), a space marine who seemed to have eyes for Ripley in James Cameron’s Aliens. EDIT (2/25/2015): Although Blomkamp still doesn’t quite come out and say he would want to retcon part of the series, he does state in this interview with Sky Movies that he wants this film “to feel like it is literally the genetic sibling of Aliens. So, it’s Alien, Aliens, this movie” (Hat tip to fellow Online Film Critics Society member and eFilmCritic writer Brett Gallman for the link).
Alien³ and Alien: Resurrection are far from the most popular films in the franchise, but retconning them from the story would be both a creative and narrative mistake.
Alien³ was the first feature film by Fincher, who started as a matte painter with Industrial Light and Magic, then made his mark in music videos and TV commercials before being tapped by 20th Century Fox to direct what was originally envisioned as being the final film in the Alien trilogy. Sigourney Weaver was lured back to star, with the promise of creative control. Among her demands: there would be no guns in the film, and Ripley would be killed. Fincher was game, but the studio was nervous about putting one of their flagship franchises in the hands of a first-time filmmaker, and they micromanaged the project throughout production. When his initial assembly cut was poorly received by the studio and lengthy changes were requested, Fincher walked off the project and never returned.
The theatrical cut of Alien³ is a frustrating experience, filled with continuity errors that create confusion and patchy editing that prioritizes action over character. It also failed to live up to massive fan expectations created by a teaser trailer that implied the movie would bring Xenomorphs to Earth. However, its biggest crime in the eyes of fans is that it’s a tonal 180 from the action-packed Aliens, which served up an Alien Queen, an ensemble cast of memorable space marines (in particular, Bill Paxton’s panicked Hudson and Jenette Goldstein’s tough-as-nails Vasquez), and of course, the final fight, where Ripley jumps in a power loader to protect young, orphaned Newt (Carrie Henn) from becoming a living incubator.
Fan opinion of the film began to shift starting in 2003, when 20th Century Fox released the Alien Quadrilogy DVD set, which included the initial assembly cut that David Fincher presented to the studio. The 2010 Blu-ray Anthology set goes a step farther, bringing Weaver and actor Charles S. Dutton back to the studio to loop some lines that were nearly inaudible on the DVD, as well as restoring the complete cut of Charles de Lauzirika’s excellent making-of documentary, which was truncated on the DVD to try and take the edge off of the studio’s interference during production.
It’s understandable that those who loved Hicks and Newt were less than thrilled to discover both characters are killed before the end of the movie’s opening credits. Alien³ is the bleakest of the series: a facehugger gets loose inside the ship where Ripley, Hicks and Newt are in cryosleep, prompting the escape pod to fire. It crash-lands on an industrial prison colony on Fiorina “Fury” 161, and only Ripley survives. When she awakes, she is met by an all-male contingent of guards and inmates, dressed in mud-colored rags, their heads shaved. Ripley is not just alone in the sense that her companions are gone, but isolated in a community of people who haven’t seen a woman in years and stranded in time (her previous cryosleep at the end of Alien lasted so long, her daughter died of old age).
Yet, it’s this deep sense of loneliness that gives Alien³ a sense of purpose. Through that loneliness, Fincher draws out what may be Sigourney Weaver’s best performance in the series. Her spirit is not broken, but she’s worn out and weary, having reached the end of a rope she never expected to find herself sliding down. She connects with the colony’s doctor, Clemens (future “Game of Thrones” star Charles Dance), who treats her with compassion. “You’re very direct,” he says. “I’ve been out here a long time,” she responds, with the weight of every close call and tragedy from the previous two films hanging on her words.
When the Xenomorph finally arrives, its presence is like a knife twisting into Ripley’s isolation, the only familiar element in a world she has no other connection to. While hunting the creature in the prison’s labyrinth tunnel system, she whispers in frustration, “You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else!” There’s no question that Alien and Aliens tap into Ripley’s strength, but in Alien³, she reaches an emotional rock bottom and pulls herself up from it, finding purpose in even the darkest developments. The subtextual elements introduced by Dutton’s character Dillon, the colony’s priest, are scattershot and incomplete (something that would’ve been honed and changed in editing and reshoots), but as a character journey, the film is a knockout.
THE IMPORTANCE OF RISK-TAKING
The notion of sequels is a tricky one. The filmmakers are expected to find a perfect balance between what worked the first time and surprising the viewer with something new. Yet the creation of an original film is driven by inspiration and spontaneity, whereas the development of a sequel is naturally rooted in everything people already know about the movie that came before it.
In that sense, the Alien franchise is one of the few out there that has reinvented itself nearly every time. The original is a slow-boil horror movie, filled with mystery and surprise as the Xenomorph reveals how it works. The second movie is an action film, with more of an emphasis on full-force combat than terror (although the scene in the medical bay recaptures some of that energy). The third film is a character piece, focusing on Ripley’s journey. It helps that each of the films were directed by different filmmakers with their own unique style (Ridley Scott, Cameron, Fincher).
The fourth film, Resurrection, which would also potentially be negated in Blomkamp’s plan, is sort of an amalgamation of all three of the previous films, with Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who co-directed the cult sci-fi classic The City of Lost Children with Marc Caro and would go on to make the Academy Award–nominated Amelie) bringing a heightened, almost comic-booky stylization to the series. It was written by Joss Whedon, who has stated that the crew of mercenaries (which include Ron Perlman, Winona Ryder and Jeunet repertory player Dominique Pinon) were sort of a proto-Firefly. Ripley, who sacrifices herself at the end of Alien³ in order to kill the Xenomorph, is now a clone, with traces of the alien’s DNA inside of her. Weaver has a lot of fun playing an “enhanced” version of the character, and Jeunet incorporates some Cronenberg-like body horror through the trial-and-error cloning process. It’s the weakest of the four, but it too pushes the story forward in new and interesting ways (a scene with Xenomorphs swimming is great fun), and deserves to be preserved within continuity.
These days, franchises are a big deal in Hollywood, with more and more studios picking up YA novels or attempting world-building that they hope will be played out over a number of movies. Unlike the Alien series, which was developed film by film, the long-form plotting of these series places value on consistency over innovation. Despite that, many of the most beloved franchises have thrived on expanding and shifting within their formula. The Mad Max series follows a similar trajectory to Alien, going from revenge thriller to action ride to adventure movie. The Fast and the Furious grew from street racing to bank heists, assembling an Avengers-like recurring cast along the way. Odd movies out, such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are growing in reputation.
DON’T LOOK BACK
What most people seem to want (and what Blomkamp apparently wants to provide, based on his Sky Movies interview) isn’t Alien 5, it’s Aliens 2, but that’s antithetical to the series’ drive to do something new. Weaver often said she’d like to reunite with Scott to make a finale set on the Xenomorph homeworld, which would’ve probably expanded the scope of the series to that of an epic. It’s an idea that falls right in line with that sequel mantra: familiar, yet excitingly original. For the franchise to take a step backward and retread over old territory is both regressive and a recipe for disappointment. Alien³ is the rare sequel that goes even farther, striking out in an entirely new direction from its predecessor. It’s exhilarating, unfamiliar and risky—exactly the kinds of things movies, and especially sequels, could use more of.
(For a different, sociopolitical look at why Alien³ needed to get rid of Hicks and Newt, check out this article by Devin Faraci over at Badass Digest.)