Monday, November 8, 2010
TEFB REVISITS: ALIEN 3
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance
Anyone who's paid even the slightest bit of attention to inside-baseball when it comes to movies knows the infamy that surrounds the making of Alien 3. Director David Fincher famously walked away from the film after 20th Century Fox made what seemed to be an infinite amount of demands on the director and then re-cut the film after it was complete into a version Fincher wanted no part of. He still refuses to talk about the film to this day, even though he's gone on to have a remarkably successful career both commercially and critically. If the creation of Aliens showed that leaving a young, visionary director to his own devices can birth a film that not only pleases audiences but becomes historically important cinematically, the story behind Alien 3 shows that interference from bean-counters and creatively inept executives can destroy what could have been a brilliantly conceived ending to a brilliant trilogy.
After Alien and its sequel Aliens set the financial and pop-culture worlds ablaze, producers David Giler and Walter Hill were obviously craving a trifecta. After burning through multiple ideas, writers, and directors (including Renny Harlin, who walked off the project to direct Die Hard 2), Giler, Hill, and Fox decided to hire filmmaker Vincent Ward to write and direct the film. Ward's vision began with Ripley, Newt, Hicks, and Bishop crash landing on a strange, wooden planet. The planet's tenants turn out to be a monastic order of males, shunned from the rest of the galaxy and running a simple yet harmonious existence. Ripley turns out to not only have brought an alien to the planet with her in the Sulaco, but to also be infected with an alien embryo. The religious men begin to view the alien as the devil, and Ripley as its keeper.
After months of pre-production on the film, Ward angrily and suddenly shed his duties as writer and director. It turns out Fox was unhappy with the direction the film was going in - Ward's vision was apparently too "artsy" for the studio, and Giler and Hill thought the concept unsellable to a public who was expecting either a tense horror film, like the first movie, or a ballsy action movie, like it's sequel.
With only a few weeks left until the first day of shooting, Fox hired prolific music video/commercial director David Fincher, who had helmed videos for Madonna, Aerosmith, and Billy Idol. Impressed with the young director's resume (he was 28 when he got the Alien 3 job - what've you done with your life lately?), Fincher was thrust into a job that would not only determine the fate of the franchise, but also of his career.
What happened from that point on largely depends on which side you're talking to at any particular moment, and since Fincher has stayed mostly mute for the past 20 years about his experience there seems to be only one viewpoint to go by. The film "Wreckage and Rage: The Making of Alien 3", available on the Alien Anthology Blu-ray, documents the heated behind-the-scenes story, which boils down to this: genius, intense, finicky, technically precise director following in the footsteps of two other like-minded filmmakers meets stuffy, controlling, conniving, creatively bankrupt movie studio simply trying to protect their flagship franchise. There's no doubt there is plenty of blame to be tossed around on both sides (Fincher has a notorious reputation of being difficult to work with), but there's no doubt that no matter what happened, Alien 3 suffered from the shenanigans behind the camera. That being said, it's a film I feel is eons better than its critics make it out to be. It's the first film of the franchise I was exposed to (when I was very young and at a sleepover and barely paying attention to it, but having it stick in my mind anyway), and it's one of the first films I remember following behind the scenes (I videotaped a short "making of" documentary about it on HBO). In some ways prefer it to Aliens (relax - I don't think it's a better film than James Cameron's masterpiece, it just has aspects that intrigue me in ways that the previous film doesn't).
Fincher began work on the film while Giler and Hill rewrote the story. The movie begins much in the same way Ward's script does, with Ripley crash landing on a planet (Fiorina "Fury" 161) that has a population of males only. Instead of monks, though, the film has prisoners who have served their sentences but choose to stay on the planet as a custodial crew to a foundry. Newt, Hicks, and Bishop are all deceased (or deactivated indefinitely in the case of Bishop), and Ripley suspects the involvement of an alien. After befriending the colony's medical doctor, Clemens (Charles Dance), Ripley attempts to explain a series of murders to the foundry's superintendent, Andrews (Brian Glover) and is, of course, told to sit down and shut up. Soon, though, the alien strikes again, and the prisoners begin to realize they're up against one hell of a tough creature. Also as in Vincent's Wards version, Ripley is impregnated with an alien. A queen. After learning this, the film soon becomes a retread of the first film (cast members getting stalked in the dark), though with none of that film's memorable characters or any real sense of dread, but at least twenty times the gore.
The film is practically the definition of "mixed bag" as for every brilliant or mesmerizing thing about it there's something to offset the brilliance. For starters: it looks amazing. This is by far the best-looking film of the franchise. Fincher was working with grand and intriguing sets, a great production designer (Norman Reynolds), and a talented director of photography (Alex Thompson), and the golden hues and sepia tones of the film do a nice job of presenting the twilight of a beloved character's (and franchise's) life.
It's a shame, then, that the movie doesn't have more interesting character's to capture - besides Ripley, of course. Charles Dance gets a nice story with Clemens, but he's disposed of early in the picture. The only other prisoner who's even given a life is Dillon, played by Charles S. Dutton. While Dutton is surprisingly great in the role (as the groups spiritual leader he gets a few nice speeches, and NO ONE says the "F" word better than Dutton. No one.), he's not really given much to do other than be Ripley's sidekick/protector. It's also hard to root for him (at least at first) because he outright admits he rapes and murders women, and Ripley could possibly be next. In fact, it appears all of the prisoners on Fury 161 have a history of violence towards women, as displayed in conversations between them and the on-screen attempted rape of Ripley. The first rule taught in Screenwriting 101 should be this: don't populate your film with characters who could, at any moment, forcibly have sex with your main character. It doesn't bode well for creating empathy with your cast. While the film ends with a tremendously shot (seriously, I adore the look of the last 30 minutes of this film) series of chases through the foundry's corridors, the impact of the prisoners deaths is lessened by the fact that a) we don't know them and b) they're horrible people anyway (no matter how many times we hear Dillon tell us they've "found God).
Offsetting the great full-bodied physical look of the creature, though, is the film's staggeringly awful motion-control work. To get the look of the alien running full speed down darkly lit corridors, the effects team filmed a rod-puppet of the alien and then blue-screened it into the film in post-production. In these shots, the creature looks 1/5 of the size it should, with spindly arms and a disproportioned head, and the black-outline around the puppet - due to the blue-screen work - is obvious and eye-catching in the way that getting an onyx painted softball to your eye is. It's shoddy, shoddy work, that seriously hurts the film, as it's not a "one and done" shot. There are multiple scenes with this awful effect, and a low-point for the franchise.
An aspect of the film that's not a low-point, however, is the decision to kill-off Newt and Hicks at the beginning of the film. There aren't many folks who will agree with me, but I believe it's not only better for the movie, but better for the franchise and for the story of Ripley as well. Getting rid of Newt and Hicks - the only two people Ripley has become attached to - severs any emotional connection Ripley has made with anyone from any of the films. It resets her character back to zero, and reaffirms the theme that Ripley is all but cursed when it comes to this monster. The Alien Saga is Ripley's and Ripley's alone, and although the producers of Alien 3 didn't get many decisions right when it came to this film, they absolutely nailed the need for Ripley to come into the film by herself.
If you're loathe to revisit Alien 3 because you remember it as being the black sheep of the franchise, I advise you seek and find the "assembly" cut of the film which, much like a director's cut, inserts footage not seen in the theatrical cut back into the film. The difference between Alien 3's "assembly" cut and other director's cuts is that David Fincher had zero input when it came to what the producers put back into the film.
That being said, the assembly cut actually enhances the quality of the film and expands and explains many things the theatrical cut of the film left open-ended. For instance: the character of Golic (a really great Paul McGann) in the theatrical film simply disappears at one point, never to return. He's accused of murdering two of his friends, confined to the infirmary, tied up in a straightjacket, and that's that. He never comes back to the film. The assembly cut, however, inserts a sub-plot back into the film which demonstrates that Golic forms an almost Renfield/Dracula relationship with the alien and, after escaping from the infirmary, releases the alien from a room the prisoners have trapped it in - which is another sub-plot cut from the film (in the theatrical release the alien is never captured mid-film). The assembly cut also modifies significant portions of the film - in the theatrical version a dog becomes the host for the alien. In the assembly cut (and as originally intended) it's an ox. The beginning of the film is also expanded upon, showing more of Fiorina 161 and the process the colony goes through to rescue Ripley. While this expanded (by over 30 minutes) version of the film has its own set of problems and messes, it greatly improves a film I'm semi in-love with anyway.
There's no doubt that Alien 3 is the product of a troubled production and a deeply flawed film that disappointed nearly everyone who saw it upon its initial release. There is also no doubt that it has taken far more hits over the years than it deserves. It's a deep, dark film that's mostly humorless, with a mean nihilistic streak that doesn't lend itself well to casual viewing. But it's got a few bold ideas (and an even bolder soundtrack - Elliot Goldenthal's score is my favorite out of any of the Alien films), it's very beautifully shot, and contains yet another fine "Sigourney Weaver as cinema's greatest hero" performance. It's a film that deserves a revisit (to the assembly cut, stat!) and a re-analysis.