ALIEN3 is much maligned, and unfairly so. Yes, David Fincher rather ruthlessly kills off fan favorites Hicks, Bishop and Newt. Yes, it's a slower paced movie than James Cameron's film. The two and a half hour long workprint is even slower than Ridley Scott's original movie. But ALIEN3 deals with weighty subjects such as faith, mortality, religion, and trust. It's not a great movie, but it is a very good one.
Does it have problems? Absolutely. David Fincher was obviously a work-for-hire, and you can see the vague shapes of the filmmaker he was to become, but ALIEN3 is very much a producer's project as opposed to the director's. I'm not going to get into the many iterations that this film took, from William Gibson's work, to Vincent Ward's wooden planet, to what finally wound up on screen. The documentary on the making of the film in the ALIEN ANTHOLOGY box set is excellent and goes into the entire movie's history, so if you're looking for more information you should see it. Even though David Fincher has disavowed the movie and did not participate in the documentary, it is still worth your time. I'd much rather go into what the movie is than what it could have been.
The preferred cut of ALIEN3 is, in my opinion, the extended workprint instead of the theatrical release, even though it's slower. Some may prefer the theatrical, but I think the character work in the extended cut is much better, and makes for a more resonant movie. From the opening credits, ALIEN3 has a haunting, elegiac tone to it that makes it feel more akin to the first film than to ALIENS, and there's a sense of despair and sadness to it that isn't there in the other films, even at their most intense moments. ALIEN3 isn't playing around. There are no "Game over!" moments of levity in ALIEN3, and the humor that does appear now and then is fleeting. At the same time, this is a franchise movie, so it has to deliver some aspects of what the fans expect, but what David Fincher has made is as much of a middle finger to the producers as it is, in some ways, to the fans.
ALIEN3, in its deepest moments, is a film about abandonment. More so than in the previous two films, Ripley is utterly alone. Furthermore, she's stuck in a place full of men who loathe her for what she is and can barely respond to her as a human being. Her shields are up and she can't trust anyone, especially the man that pulls her out of the wreckage of the escape vehicle, a company doctor named Clemens (Charles Dance). She can't be sure of his motivations, especially where the alien is concerned - she's learned the hard way by now that Weyland-Yutani has absolutely no intentions of destroying the Xenomorph and she certainly can't trust this sad-eyed doctor at the "ass end of space" as the prison planet Fury 161 is called. I think one of the reasons that people don’t love ALIEN3 like the first two movies is that it forces the audience to deal with these issues along with Ripley. No one wants their life to have no meaning, and Ripley, for all the fight she has in her, is starting to figure out that all her efforts really have come to nothing. It’s a pretty heavy place to go for a science fiction franchise.
Of course, there are the inmates - rapists and murderers to the last man - who, if they lapse in their newfound faith, would happily rape and murder her at the first opportunity. Ripley is in a tough spot, no doubt. And yet, these people have been abandoned too. Fury 161 can't be anyone's idea of a dream assignment for the three company people still left - Clemens, Andrews the superintendent (Brian Glover), and Aaron (Ralph Brown), who the inmates mockingly call "85" because of his supposedly low IQ. Although the prisoners have found religion through inmate Dillon's (Charles S. Dutton) speeches and prayers, all it takes for some of them is one bit of temptation for them to lapse back. Unfortunately, Ripley's arrived to provide that temptation.
Then there is the Xenomorph. In the opening credits, we see the egg (presumably laid there by the Queen before she was dispatched to the furthest reaches of space in ALIENS) hatch and its obscene flower burst forth and infect Ripley. She's carrying a Queen alien, and if it gets loose, the game, for Earth, truly is over. Supposedly the facehugger dies once it lays its egg, but this is one carrying the Queen. Those facehuggers carry two embryos - the Queen's, and a protector alien who guards the host until he or she gives birth. (That's supposition on my part, yes. Because the movie doesn't specify, and because in the past we've seen the facehuggers die after implantation, and we only see one egg aboard the Sulaco, I'm assuming as much.)
Add all that together, and we get a very different movie than ALIEN or ALIENS. ALIEN3 isn't the feel-good movie that ALIENS turned out to be, and it's not full of the mysterious horrors of the first film, so ALIEN3 becomes a contemplative, quiet movie about human issues and conflicts. It's a smaller movie than the first two and feels it, and many fans of the franchise didn't care for that shift from the epic to the intimate. It's even more intimate than the first film - there's very little variation in the set design, for example, so we aren't treated to the amazing set work that H. R. Giger did in ALIEN. We don't even get any new variations on the Xenomorph, really, except in that we can see that it seems to take on the attributes of its host. But this is a minor change in comparison to the Queen from ALIENS. Plus, David Fincher gleefully kills of Newt and Hicks in the first 5 minutes of the movie, outraging fans of ALIENS and even, supposedly, James Cameron himself. But for the character of Ripley, and for ALIEN3, their deaths are essential - there can be nothing that Ripley can hold onto to fight for, except herself. Because of the movie's refusal to "go bigger" and up the scale from ALIENS, all of this makes ALIEN3 a difficult film to embrace.
But Sigourney Weaver's performance in ALIEN3 is extraordinary, and in some ways tops her work in ALIENS (for which she was nominated for an Oscar). This weak, frightened Ripley is the antithesis to the strong, brave woman she became in ALIENS - there is little of the rifle-touting "Rambolina" Ripley left, and that was intentional, both on Weaver and Fincher's parts. Tonally, that's a problem, especially with fan expectations who certainly did not expect this weepy, sickly woman from the action heroine that she was. But Ripley is strong in other ways - her convictions haven't changed, and she knows what it means if the Queen gets back to Earth. Her sacrifice is all the more meaningful because she is as alone as she is - with nothing back on Earth (except for a poor cat in her apartment - what's that about? I only hope she left Jones with neighbors or something), no allies or friends, she still selflessly makes the choice that she does.
I also think Charles Dance's Clemens is one of the most intriguing characters that we've seen in the franchise so far. Other than ALIEN with its "truck drivers in space" we hadn't seen much of the people that mortar the bricks in this particular universe - they've all been marines, corporate suits, robots, or Ripley herself. Clemens is a sad, quiet doctor who made a dreadful mistake and punished himself because of it. Dance is terrific in ALIEN3 - he puts a lot in the quiet moments of his character, and we feel his loss profoundly when the alien kills him. Due to her own experiences Ripley simply cannot trust him completely with what she's gone through, and by the time she decides to do just that, it's too late.
Charles S. Dutton's Dillon is another interesting addition - a self-admitted "murderer and rapist of women", he's found a purpose on Fury 161, and Dutton plays him with conviction and even a little empathy. He can't even bring himself to kill Ripley when she asks him to - Ripley just assumes that he can kill at the drop of a hat, and it's a nice little twist on those prejudices. But Dillon has found honor in the last place in the universe that one would expect to find such things, and while Dutton is prone to get a little preachy and repetitive at times he plays the character well.
Unfortunately, the rest of the inmates are cannon fodder and we don't get much into their backstories. They are simply meat for the alien, to be killed for the alien's (and our) pleasure. Gone are the days of ALIEN where we became invested in every crewmember, and even in ALIENS, although those characters were mere templates and not really given flesh and bone like in the first film. Even Bishop's return feels a little perfunctory, although I think the set-up for the human Bishop at the end is worth it. I wish that Weyland-Yutani’s ambitions for the alien at the end of the movie would have been more ambiguous, making Ripley’s sacrifice seem more tragic, but that’s a minor nitpick.
As far as David Fincher’s career goes, ALIEN3 hardly seems like it was made by the same man. There’s no classic, definitive Fincher moment in ALIEN3. Even the special effects are wonky, especially in the extended cut where it was obviously rushed for home release. On a technical level and considering his subsequent work, I can see why Fincher would want to have nothing to do with this movie. And yet, there is a real sense of empathy in ALIEN3, and that shows itself in Fincher’s other movies. If there’s one unifying strand between ALIEN3 and Fincher’s other work, it’s that. Well, that, and the bleak nature of the movie, which Fincher specialized in for a long time. I’m also glad that he took the “less is more” approach to the alien, and although the work of Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. is still a bit too wet for my taste, I love how the alien moves, inspired from the attributes of its host, and that we still can’t see it very clearly.
I prefer the extended cut for a lot of reasons - I like the addition of the cow-alien instead of the dog, and Golic's (Paul McGann) subplot expands on the story more with the trapping of the alien - but mostly it's because of the little moments with these characters. The theatrical cut rushes through and excises some pretty essential plot moments. But the drawback is that the ALIEN3 workprint is much longer and feels it. Pacing is a problem, especially since this is an ALIEN movie after all, and character moments have to take a backseat to the action and horror, but it’s still worth the extra breathing room. I have no idea whether it's David Fincher's preferred cut of the movie, but the character motivations are clearer and the film feels much sadder and final to me in the extended edit.
And make no mistake - ALIEN3 feels like the end. That is what may have upset fans most of all, who would have rather seen more action a la ALIENS or the horror of ALIEN. There is very little fun in ALIEN3 to be had. But I think that the themes and messages of the film have value and that because it genuinely tries to be different from what has come before it is an essential addition to the franchise. These ideas of abandonment, of hopelessness, make ALIEN3 much darker in tone than even the first two movies. The film basically takes the audience to a deep place and leaves them there. We are not given any kind of catharsis at the end of ALIEN3 – Ripley may have saved the universe from the alien threat, but things will go on much as they always have; Weyland-Yutani isn’t going anywhere, and perhaps someday they will find their bioweapon. Everyone Ripley has ever known and loved is dead. The people of Earth will never know about her sacrifice. And yet, all of that makes Ripley more heroic, not less, and more so, in my opinion, than in ALIENS. It’s not an easy heroism, like shooting the bad guys. It’s more ephemeral, and not as easy to put on a poster.
ALIEN3 isn’t a casual addition to the ALIEN series, and through all the tumult of its making it seems a miracle that we got a coherent movie out of it. But what the film adds to the franchise, to me, are essential – questions of fate and faith, of sacrifice and death, and is a worthy film on those merits. It’s easy to love ALIEN or ALIENS. ALIEN3 wants you to work at it, but it rewards those willing to do so with an emotional richness and complexity deserving of the franchise.