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Alien 3 at 30: The trio that divides David Fincher remains a fascinating failure | David Fincher

Alien 3 at 30: The trio that divides David Fincher remains a fascinating failure | David Fincher

A film’s reputation is a moving target. The first reactions give way to critical reassessments. Flops become cult classics. Sometimes we misremember how a work was received in the first place.

For much of the past 30 years, Alien 3 has been considered a flop, a major disappointment after the explosive genre hits Alien 1979 and Aliens 1986, and the franchise’s worst film. The film’s poor reputation was polished even before its release, codified by its own director, and bolstered by a passionate fan base. Alien 3 was a notoriously troubled production; several directors came and went during pre-production, its script was in a state of flux during filming, and its first filmmaker – a young music video director named David Fincher – engaged in daily battles with producers for creative control.

Following reports of the on-set unrest, audiences and press were prepared for disaster, but instead its reception was a mild disappointment. The film grossed $159 million worldwide, just a shade below its predecessor’s $183 million gross. He was disliked by critics, but he was hardly reviled. Roger Ebert called it “the best bad movie I’ve ever seen”, which is representative of his perception at the time: flawed but certainly not without merit. It was successful enough to spawn another sequel, 1997’s Alien: Resurrection, not to mention four more. Extraterrestrial movies (if you count the dreadful Alien vs Predator movies) and count.

But his reputation suffered its fatal wound in 2009 when Fincher himself essentially denied the movie, saying, “A lot of people hated Alien 3, but no one hated it more than me.” It’s unclear if he was referring to the experience of making the movie or the finished product (if he could even separate the two), but the entire of his denunciation had an impact. Since directing Alien 3, Fincher had become one of the most revered filmmakers of his generation, and few of his bandmates were willing to disagree with the master’s assessment of his own work. It didn’t help that when word leaked about earlier versions of the script that have been scrapped, and some of them sound pretty darn good. One featured a ground war on Earth between xenomorphs and humans. Another took place on a planet made entirely of wood and inhabited by monks who believe the alien is the second coming of the antichrist. Fans mulled over these ideas, imagining all the ways they would have been better than the flawed finished film. One, a more overtly political script by William Gibson, was even published like a novelization.

Divorced from the experiences of the production and the exorbitant expectations of its fans, the film still has a lot to offer, however. Ebert was right: it sounds amazing. Fincher has created an original and challenging world for the xenomorph, an all-male penal colony in deep space with a series of damp tunnels that make Ellen Ripley and the prisoners look like rats in an eerie maze. He films almost everything from an appallingly low angle, which heightens the claustrophobia. It rejects the cold grayscale of Ridley Scott’s Alien, as well as the piercing blues of Aliens (a staple of James Cameron’s filmography). Instead, Alien 3 appears to have been shot with a layer of yellow-brown gunk on the lens. Whether it works for you or not, to the credit of the directors they searched for new ground when they might as well have relied on the visual language of previous films.

In fact, much of Alien 3 seems designed to reject what viewers loved about its predecessors. It’s a movie that kills the innocent child Ripley fought to save in Aliens in the first reel, then subjects the viewer to his gruesome autopsy. It also kills a dog, as well as the handsome prison doctor that Ripley develops feelings for. Just for good measure, it ends with Ripley dying by jumping into a fireball as a baby xenomorph explodes out of her chest. By the end of the film, everyone we care about is dead, and while we’d expect such nihilism from Fincher, viewers expecting another crowd pleaser in the Aliens mold must have gotten the hang of it. felt like their hopes and dreams had just ended. were blown in the back of the head.

Charles S Dutton and Sigourney Weaver
Charles S Dutton and Sigourney Weaver. Photography: Everett/Rex/Shutterstock

Over time, however, the emotional wounds gave way to grudging respect. Alien 3 isn’t considered a classic, and many fans still consider it the franchise’s worst, but a line of defense has emerged. In 2013, the very first installment of critic Scout Tafoya’s The Unloved series on misunderstood films focused on Alien 3, which he calls “beautiful and tough”. Now, it seems like every time a new Alien movie comes out, a critical reassessment of Alien 3 pops up, with titles like “Alien 3 is good, actually” or “Alien 3 is far from the worst movie in the franchise. In fact, it’s pretty awesome.” Of course, reassessment is an inevitable step in the cycle of public opinion. Contrarianism gets clicks, and for every piece of culture reviled, there are at least three people willing to publicly declare that it’s not really that bad.

Fincher himself never changed his mind on this. In 2003, Fox released an “Assembly Cut” which attempted to reconstruct the director’s vision of the film which was cut to pieces after rough test screenings. The cast and crew helped set up the new cut, but Fincher himself did not participate and claims he never watched it. It doesn’t matter: he got what he needed, and so did we. Fincher learned to fight for his vision on the set of Alien 3 – a lesson the famed, obsessive director used to direct some of the great masterpieces of the past 30 years – while the film itself unleashed the straightforwardness of the expectations of the first two films, leaving the filmmakers free to put their own stamp on the material. Without Alien 3, we might not have had Fight Club, Zodiac or The Social Network; nor would we have had the goofiness of Alien: Resurrection, the gripping imagery of Prometheus, or the gnarly kills of Alien: Covenant. And with yet another new alien movie on the horizon, the franchise is not likely to slow down. Like its monster, Alien 3 had to die so others could live.

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