Monday, May 29, 2017

Alien Week, part III: The planet of the vampires


Well, I strongly doubt it's gotten any less tedious.

Directed by David Fincher
Written by David Giler, Walter Hill, Larry Ferguson, and Vincent Ward
With Sigourney Weaver (Ellen Ripley), Charles Dance (Dr. Jonathan Clemens), and Charles S. Dutton (Dillon)

Spoiler alert: mild
Note: this is a slightly reworked review from my David Fincher retrospective, written two years back, which may explain why it's shorter (and no doubt better) than anything I manage to produce now; but the point, of course, is that if you thought I was going to actually watch this movie again, then the real joke, my friend, is on you

Let's recap.

Alien: superb production design and cinematography, some of the best monster design ever, sublime atmosphere, methodical pacing that grips you by the soul and never lets go. Aliens: even better in every regard except production design and cinematography.  Whereas both films (and especially Aliens) feature an exceptionally strong lead performance in Sigourney Weaver.  But the fact is, I've never had an intense love for the franchise itself: unlike Star Trek (just to name one example), the Alien movies have never made the jump from "a series of movies which I may or may not enjoy" to "a series that I shall enjoy, on some basic level, because my fondness for its characters and for its universe has been spread across the whole brand, regardless of whether any given installment of it is actually good."

So it wasn't going to take too much ineptitude at all to knock this franchise down from greatness to mediocrity.  And David Fincher's first film is not good.  It is absolutely not good enough to justify the effort to consistently replicate its title's special, stupid typography.

Alien 3 is the result of one of the most infamously tortured development cycles in history, and does it ever show.  Of course, as a franchise entry, it's disappointing to say the least.  Unfair as it is to say, one suspects that the final concept brought to life by Fincher made for a markedly worse film than any of the ones abandoned would have.  At least three radically divergent story ideas were developed, by figures as diverse as art-weenie Vincent Ward, eternal-pubescent David Twohy, and action-panderer Renny Harlin.  Perhaps unexpectedly, it's Harlin's that recommends itself most strongly in the cold light of 2015.  (And continues to do so, in 2017, too.)  Harlin wanted to take the franchise to the xenomorphs' homeworld, and describe their origin.  We can say with near-certainty that this was a missed opportunity: for whether it ultimately wound up good or bad, at the very least it might have prevented Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, and we know now that this would have been for the best.

The problems with Alien 3's final product are legion and well-documented.  For starters, the theatrical cut is reportedly near-incomprehensible.  Luckily, this seems very much less the case in the assembly edit that is the only way I've ever seen the picture.  And the plot goes like so: for what amounts to the third damned time this month, from her perspective, Ellen Ripley has to fight off a legion of rape monsters that rape.  Unfortunately, complications arise when she has to do battle with yet another xenomorph, too.

So you can guess that what's ineradicable by any alternate cut is Alien 3's supporting cast, a colorless haze of characters who are quite uniformly unpleasant and dull, albeit in rather incongruous waysall but Ripley herself seem to have arisen randomly during the thirty-odd drafts of the script (though Ripley, in fact, did arise randomly, due to a regime change at Fox and subsequent re-direction of the project).  Sorry, Michel Biehn fans: Hicks is dead before this movie even really starts.  Newt, too.  This is not the great sin of Alien 3, however; in fact, I admire the nihilistic reorientation of a franchise that has always danced upon the edge of making every effort of his heroine meaningless.  (Whereas I certainly admire the brusque nature of their deaths, in between the title cards of the opening credits.)  But, no; the real crime Alien 3 commits is replacing the survivors of Aliens with a whole bunch new partners-in-extermination who are, in every respect, worse.

You see, during that debacle of a development process, Vincent Ward's extraterrestrial monastery full of religious ascetics became a variation upon David Twohy's prison planet full of "double-Y chromosome" criminals.  In the unsuccessful amalgam, the prisoners also became religious ascetics; except now there's a lot of sexual assault.  (But certainly no gunplay, because Weaver, with her newly-minted producer credit, had decided that after spending time with James Cameron, that she didn't like guns.  Now, I kid: the dearth of firearm-mediated violence is probably the most genuinely interesting part of this film's whole "prison planet" conceit.)  Anyway, let us note, particularly, the warden of "Fury 161," as this prison planet is calledand let us note even more particularly the warden's sitcom-dumb second in command.  For each of them are totally undesirable, yet in two completely different ways, the latter seeming to serve entirely as some direly inappropriate and unfunny comic relief.

I begrudge no one involved their exhaustion, even if there was probably a way to have eventually hammered out a totally coherent version of Alien 3's bastardized conception.  But the Alien 3 we got fails to make any of Ward's semi-abandoned ideas stickindeed, if the Riddick series is any indication (and no doubt it is, inasmuch as it represents an unhealthy mash-up of Alien and Dune), this is Twohy's scenario above all others, despite the not-insignificant amount of verbiage the final screenplay wastes upon all of Ward's wayward notions.  (Indeed, despite the eyebrow-raising crucifixion imagery of its hammer-subtle finale.)

Nevertheless (and to my great surprise), I found myself enjoying the interplay between Ripley and Charles Dance's prison doctor, not to say their intercourse.  Briefly, I was even beginning to wonder why most folks hated Alien 3.  As you no doubt learned nineteen years ago, that's when the only other character worth investigating eats it in an admittedly-surprising but ill-considered shock sequence.  After that, the only real supporting player left is Dillon, the prisoners' prayer leader, and while Charles Dutton does work that I can easily recognize as "good," I don't know what "good enough" would have even looked like here.

Related to its issues with character are issues of pace: simply put, Alien 3 is too long and it is boring.  This is the case all throughout the back half, and then there's the action climax, a hash of geography requiring this film's metric ton of gray Meat to bait the xenomorph down a series of anonymous corridors and into a bath of molten metal.  I suspect this scene is still happening, even as I write this weeks later.  (Hell, even as I republish it years later.)

But it surely has its momentsand, undeniably, it has atmosphere to spare.  We learn from Alien 3 that even in his formative period, Fincher was compelled to make movies that were very long, though his chops as a storyteller were still in the mail.  We also learn, however, that, as a pure stylist, his formative period was already in the past.  Fincher, having toiled in the music video mines for years, was as experienced as any first-time feature director could ever be by the time he sat down to helm Alien 3.  Thus, as a collection of highlightsrather than a film one diligently perusesAlien 3 reaches genuinely sublime heights.  (Certainly, that scene in an infernal ventilation duct has stuck in my memory for almost a thousand days, now.)  Of course, calling this all Fincher's doing takes mystical auteurism far too far: production design was by Norman Reynolds, and if it's a B-side for that man, it would be career-defining for most.  It's Reynolds who delivered up the look that would wind up being Fincher's own stock-in-trade for a decade, imagery that looks so diseased that if you just touched the screen you might contract syphilis.  If I say "decay," you'll think "David Fincher, 1992-1999."  And if all that burnt siena cinematography eventually becomes wearying, well, that just goes back to how unacceptably long Alien 3 really is.

Others have tended to dock him points for Alien 3's new model of xenomorph; though I tend to like its redesign, done by Giger himself.  It is compelling as a one-off, if nothing else.  It's lithe and quick and looks hungrier; it still looks gross.  It is, obviously, not the emblematic alien of 1979; but that is, in itself, okay.  Rod puppetry and egregiously bad compositing, thoughwell, maybe not so much.  (And, of course, at this point, complaining about the alien life cycle would be nothing but repeating myself, so I'll refrain from even mentioning that the extended cut makes a real mess out of the idea, apparently in the theatrical cut, that the xenomorph has taken on the traits of a chest-burst dog.  For whatever reason, the assembly edit decides that the monster will come out of an ox instead.  I will also refrain from questioning how or why an ox has been transported, no doubt at great expense, to some far-off world on the ass-end of nowhere, except the notion in someone's mind that, "hey, didn't monasteries have oxen?")

So, what did Fincher himself learn from Alien 3?  Above all, he learned that studios will fuck you, for better or worse, and in this case absolutely to the "worse."  (Though it's clear, nevertheless, that their impulse to make this particular film shorter was neither a cruel nor capricious one.)  Moreover, Fincher learned the director always gets the blame, no matter how unfairly.  Thus did he immediately mature into the fascistic control freak we know and love, pathologically terrified of ever being told what to do with other people's money.  He determined that if he was ever going to make a bad movie, he would be the one to make it bad.  And so he did, at least three more times.

You may also have heard recently that, thanks to this unbending attitude, Fincher passed on Disney's offer to direct a $200 million new adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  I'll just say what all of us are thinking: "Jesus, thanks a lot, Alien 3."

Score:  5/10


  1. Of all the "Alien III" scripts floating around, I gotta say Eric Red's "hillbillies vs. aliens" draft is my favorite. It was too early for the series to get that silly, but I think they should've revisited the idea by the time 'Aliens Vs. Predator' came around.

    1. I mean, it's an echelon up in the class hierarchy (suburbanites rather than hillbillies), but that more-or-less describes Requiem. And Requiem is so, so not good.

      I think Ward's Alien 3 had a shot, and though it's extremely on the nose (and Ward's extremely goofy ending was properly modified for Fincher's version), I kind of like its gestures at allegorical depth (it appears to be about irrationality, witchhunting, and the insufficiency of all modes of human existence to be satisfying). Certainly no worse in that respect than Prometheus, which I bound up and down on from "it's actually bad" to "it's actually bad but has enough atmosphere it doesn't matter."