Faith and Fury: ALIEN³ at 30

Less STAR BEAST, more infernal beast. How David Fincher’s “unwanted child” endures.

By Rich Johnson · @richpieces · May 20, 2022, 12:00 PM PDT
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ALIEN 3(1992)

“It was a baptism by fire.”David Fincher [1]

20th Century Fox torched everything. Brimful of dread and despair, the third entry in the Alien franchise stamped all over Dark Horse Comics’ continuity [2] and delivered the ultimate sucker punch to one of the greatest sequels of all time. Yet, despite the film’s notoriety — the infamous production and choices made to tell its own story — David Fincher’s bleakest of installments remains a distinctive piece of science fiction in its own right. Separating it from the previous films, this is kitchen sink sci-fi; a what-if-Ken-Loach-pissed-on-your-franchise spectacle that took such a U-turn from James Cameron’s gung-ho approach, most of us are still recovering from the whiplash 30 years later.

Sequels defined early ’90s cinema. Predator 2 and Robocop 2 (both released in 1990) were derivative, adolescent fun, but it was Cameron’s return to his own franchise with Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) that broke new grounds (and the box office) with its innovative use of CGI, altering the course of cinema forever. On its release in 1992, Alien³ seemed like an abortion by comparison, “The child no one wanted” [3]. Fox was less concerned with breaking new grounds and, unfortunately, more concerned with a green light before the script was even locked. Alas, the “gestation period” and turbulent production have been told countless times, but a more introspective approach to the film reveals a much greater depth and important social commentary than its predecessors.

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Ripley’s inferno

In 2013, Scout Tafoya debuted his first video essay for The Unloved series. Exploring Alien³, he highlights critic David Cairns’ striking parallels [4] to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc. By comparison, Fincher’s film presents a distinct cinematic interpretation of a woman damned; Sigourney Weaver’s shaven head emphasizes Ripley’s anguish and traumatized nature as she is framed in much the same way as the heroic “Maiden.” Tafoya goes on to highlight that Ripley’s plight is not just to save the universe at a great sacrifice, but that it is made all the more difficult, “… stranded in a world denied the presence of women. We learn very quickly that without women, men become monsters.”

Tafoya and Cairn’s observations only reinforce how important the film’s medievalism has become in both its aesthetic and (more disturbing) themes. An unsung hero of Alien³ is New Zealand writer/director Vincent Ward. Through his obsession with medievalism, he laced such tortured themes into his initial story treatment and subsequent draft (co-written with John Fasano), which remains one of the most fascinating “unfilmed” sci-fi movies of all time. Heralding from a fine art background, Ward’s medieval veneer can be found in his debut feature, Vigil (1984) and The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988). Vigil, in particular, is a timeless piece of work, its distinct mood — the foreboding and isolation — reminiscent of Tarkovsky. Every detail reads like an installation piece; its narrative closer to a fable with very little rooted in contemporary society. In watching these early works, Ward’s vision of Alien³ becomes (frustratingly) clear, both visually and thematically. Picture his further concepts of a wooden planet — a “monastery satellite” called Arceon — inhabited by monks who have renounced modern technology. Such traces remain in the final version — hints of the baroque, religion; absolution, and redemption — but, coupled with David Twohy’s draft, the prison planet setting industrializes Ward’s world; the penal colony Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161. [5]

Fincher’s relentless, suffocating atmosphere imbues the sequel with existential dread. This bleak and brutal direction is punctuated all the more by Elliot Goldenthal’s uncompromising score, which, from the offset, hijacks the Fox fanfare before it devolves into something almost primordial — a hint of Goldsmith’s original cue — religious tones one moment, a gothic lullaby the next; building to an infernal dance with death. Gothic anguish permeates every dark, dank corridor as we navigate the environment. Fury is a torturous and unforgiving industrial environment infested with lice… oil, rust, and dirt sweating from every orifice. There is a devious quality throughout heightened by a conscious use of Dark Age imagery — Blake and Bosch’s visions of unearthly delights — emphasizing a distinct absence of God as they attempt to destroy a demon. The darkest reflection of their sins.

In this medieval future, it would appear the worst of humanity has found some peace at the arse end of the universe. One of the most interesting aspects of the story — skirted around in the original theatrical cut — are the religious themes initially embedded by Ward. Unfortunately, symbolism and other details are undermined along the way, including how the convicts perceive the Xenomorph. Take the turn tails and traitors we have come to love in the franchise. The character of Golic (Paul McGann) — a casualty of the cutting room floor — worships “The Dragon” so much that he releases it from its cave [6], a detail somewhat lost as the prisoner disappears into the background.

The nihilism on display throughout Alien³ is painted with devastating impact. What makes it so hard to watch — still today — is how such beloved characters are written out of the franchise. Newt drowns in her cryotube [7] and Hicks is crushed beyond recognition in the aftermath of their escape from the Sulaco, while Bishop — barely half the synthetic he used to be — is left on the scrapheap. There is no way out for anyone. Not even Ripley as she sacrifices herself to the inferno, her arms outstretched (Christ-like) before she clutches her demon child close to her breast. Two mothers as one, plummeting to their fiery deaths.

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Abortive measures

From its vast external regions of space to its suffocating womb-like interiors, this horrific labyrinthine universe places its monster right at the center of its mise-en-scène before it explodes from within. It has always been about monstrous (chest-bursting) births and feminist iconography, the probing phallic terror, and abject representations of reproduction. At the time of the film’s release, American author and film critic, Amy Taubin, provided an acute analysis [8]. Alien³ tapped into not only the abortion metaphor but also other (deeply rooted) anxieties surrounding homosexuality and fear of contagion from the spread of HIV. It’s all there, hiding in plain view; the shaved heads, a lethal organism attacking an all-male community — punctuated by Ripley’s blunt force delivery, “They think we’re scum and they don’t give a fuck about one friend of yours who’s died.”

Taubin makes a further (explicit) reference as Ripley descends into the alien’s basement lair, “… its dripping pipes and sewage tunnels, represents not only the fear of the monstrous-feminine but the homophobia as well. It’s the uterine and the anal plumbing entwined.” If this doesn’t hit home, she reinforces these theories further by stating, “the film is all about the AIDS crisis and the threat to women’s reproductive rights … It’s whatever images surface on your dream screen when what’s really terrifying you is AIDS, or being pregnant with a monster, or being forced to carry a foetus you don’t want to term, or never being able to have a baby though you desperately want one because this is the end of the industrial age which is also the end of the age of movies, the end of pleasure and unpleasure, the end of the world as we know it.” Apt. Ultimately, for Taubin, Alien³ was a return to the female body, an antithesis — and “ultimate outrage” — of the male rape and impregnation on display in the first film.

There are distinct perspectives throughout the first three films. Alien (1979) falls into the trappings of objectification, sexualizing our heroine during those closing moments. Yet, in staple Cameron fashion, she is desexualized throughout Aliens (1986); demoted then called upon for help by the Company (Weyland-Yutani Corporation) — the ultimate villain of the Alien franchise — when they lose contact with the colony of LV-426. Ripley isn’t as hysterical or deluded as they think she is. We know full well they know she isn’t, as the insidious activities behind the scenes originally sent the Nostromo crew to their fates.

In Alien³, Ripley (by default) is imprisoned with no choice but to adapt amongst monsters. She is the lone female already living with a survivor’s guilt; any hope of a new life and family destroyed. If it isn’t already worse, she discovers an alien queen growing inside her. Now she has become the asset; any semblance of motherhood mutated into something demonic she must abort. Her body may have become corrupted, but she is still defiant in never allowing the Company — these corporate pro-lifers — to weaponize something beyond their control. Worse still, her circumstances lead Ripley to abort her pregnancy through assisted suicide, but her “rights” are overruled and, in turn, her freedom. The “unsafe abortion” — a major cause of death and health complications for women of childbearing age — is taken to the extreme.

The protection and rights of women during this period were major news stories. Throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, there was an erosion of the constitutional protection for abortion rights; the US Court eventually opening the door to new state restrictions on abortion. Ripley, in being forced to keep her “child”, is controlled by the male prisoners around her in their efforts to kill the “alien” threat. This is somewhat echoed the year of release when, in 1992, a further decision was made in a landmark US Supreme Court case. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a (terrifying) theme emerged; a sanction to regulate the health care of pregnant women to “protect fetal life from the moment of conception so long as it does not ‘unduly burden’ access to an abortion.” [9] With all of this in mind, Scout Tafoya raises another valid point by asking, “How many mainstream films are sympathetic to the cause of a woman seeking an abortion?”

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Signing off

Ridley Scott’s ’79 original still presents some of the most shocking body horror. But, it wasn’t just about such potent and intrusive imagery. To bookend the opening of this piece, Alien was also commenting on something more mundane and relatable; presenting something about the “struggle”; working-class — blue collars in space — better pay, the oil and grease of it all. Fincher brought the franchise back to its British roots — that kitchen-sink realism — and, therefore, as Brits, we relate all the more to the film’s downtrodden nature. There’s a pang of bitterness — spits of acid — as our film industry has hobbled along with a comparatively limited output since Thatcher drove her own serrated tongue through the heart of our creative industries.

With all of this in mind, Alien³ isn’t just a contagion and abortion metaphor but also reflects the unfaltering, downtrodden British spirit of picking ourselves up out of the dirt, figuring things out, and fighting insurmountable odds with limited resources. It is, after all, what makes us tick. Indeed, the convict Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) speaks to us all, “We’re all gonna die. The only question is how you check out. Do you want it on your feet, or on your fuckin’ knees... begging?”

[1] Mark Salisbury’s Guardian Interview (2009)
[2] Those of us who were comic book readers in the late ’80s and early ’90s were somewhat spoilt by publisher Dark Horse Comics’ ability to revitalize 20th Century Fox franchises, including Star Wars, Predator, and Aliens. The latter showed Newt stepping into Ripley’s overalls, accompanied by Hicks (and his scars) as they discover the Engineers’ pre-Prometheus origins. None of us were quite prepared for the nihilism and unforgiving nature of what was to come.
[3] The Unloved – Alien³ (2013), Scout Tafoya.
[4] Via his blog, Shadowplay.
[5] Twohy would bring us another sci-fi convict with Vin Diesel’s Riddick in Pitch Black (1999).
[6] Although later fixed in the 2003 “Assembly Cut”, unless you had read Alan Dean Foster’s novelization at the time, you would have been completely unaware of Golic’s pivotal scene in which he sabotages the original plans to destroy the alien.
[7] However, it would seem — for an already traumatized young girl — death was a Godsend, as it turns out Fury is a prison planet of murderers, rapists, and child molesters.
[8] Taubin, A., (1992). “Invading Bodies”, Sight and Sound, pp. 8-10.
[9] Excerpt from the “Abortion” chapter of Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century (1998).