Content warning for descriptions of violence and symbolism involving sexual assault.
The, “Alien” franchise is known to encompass two things: action, sci-fi, and horror. Wait, no, it encompasses three things: action, sci-fi, horror and a sexy Sigourney Weaver. Wait, hold on, no…it has those things, plus an overwhelming consensus amongst fans that only, “Alien” and, “Aliens”, directed by Ridley Scott and James Cameron respectively, are the only good entries in the series. “Alien 3” in particular is quite a black sheep, due to a troubled production and also due to how the movie opens up with a giant, “Fuck you” to fans of the previous movie, “Aliens”. Not to mention that the theatrical cut gives off the impression of being little more than a failed retread of the claustophobia and survival horror premises of the original movie, with a muddled mix of religious theming that distracts from the horror it tries to serve. But then there’s the Assembly Cut, released in 2002 and also featured in the, “Alien: Quadrilogy” DVD/Blu-Ray pack (which I happen to own), which while disowned by director David Fincher has been put together with the help of his production notes and the work of producer Charles de Lauzirika. The result is a much better movie, one that approaches greatness save for a few goofs that arise from the moviemakers extending just a little beyond their reach.
(Spoilers abound if you haven’t seen, “Alien 3” yet…in which case you need to exit out of this page and give the, “Assembly Cut” a try, because it is seriously great)
The story? Well, Ripley crash lands onto a prisoner planet populated only by men, with the other passengers from the previous movie, “Alien” having since died. No proper good bye is given to Newt, the sweet little girl Ripley saved, and Hicks…well, he’s been torn asunder. Recovering with the help of a doctor with a past, Ripley finds herself in a tense society where the prisoners try to do good under the name of God, watched over by a prison warden but united together by a converted convict named Dillion…and it is here (amongst other places) where the Assembly cut shows its strengths. It’s not just the difference in how the opening sequences of Ripley’s crash landing and her marooning/rescue, it’s also on how hard the movie leans into the religious imagery and themes, in a contradictory and fascinating fashion. The setting of this movie, Fiorina 161, is a shithole. Temperatures are described as dropping to below 40 by a few prisoners in the movie, and as for the shelter these prisoners have? Well…just watch the movie:
Not exactly a place one wants to call home, and it’s not as if the prisoners have any choice…until its revealed that they did have a choice to leave when the place was closed, and chose to stay due to a strained bond created by their actions, circumstances and beliefs. Unlike the theatrical cut, the assembly cut gives the viewer more time to explore this location and the characters. So while the prisoners are still reprehensible people (Dillion in particular describes himself as, “a murderer and a raper of women”, and he’s the saint of the group), there is more time to know their humanity and their yearnings. Meaning that there is more punch both in Ripley’s meeting with, assault by, and leadership of, the prisoners along with their respective deaths.
Also, when the deaths come, it’s a result of both environment and even the psychology of the characters themselves. There is a curious sequence, after a few prisoners see the alien while paying respects to a prisoner who died in what is described by the warden as an, “accident” (of course, it’s not), where one survivor is shown, eating cereal in the cafeteria, covered in gore and smiling back at a cafeteria worker. This same prisoner is made to stay in an enclosed medical office, where Ripley also resides due to sickness. A significant change from the theatrical cut is made here: the assembly cut’s approach to humanizing the prisoners gives this particular prisoner’s betrayal more heft, by showcasing a possibility that the man has a mental health issue. Granted, the framing is icky, emphasizing a trope-y view of mental illness, since we’re told that the person is a, “Crazed killer” known for his methods. But the movie also shows the person having a long relationship with some prisoners. After all, a person who is dangerous would not have stayed in the environment for long were it not for people who gave him the benefit of the doubt in the first place.
There’s also the way the movie leans into religious theming, first as a form of window dressing and then with a psychological bent that suggests that for all of the zealotry of Dillion and his flock, it is ultimately just a thin shield against a cold and uncaring universe. I recall a conversation with a friend about the movie, “Prometheus” (a movie I hate) about how the alien is basically a wrecking ball that the Weyland Corporation has been trying and failing to get a handle on for 5 goddamn movies now. Well, here, the alien is a wrecking ball with a thematic purpose. It, along with the opening, is a violent reminder of the flimsiness of belief in the face of unspeakable evil. Try as the prisoners might to redeem themselves through belief, there is a nightmare stalking each and every single one of them, Ripley included.
And as for the would-be saviors the Weyland Corporation? They’re a nightmare too. Not because of their body count (though their plans certainly help in that department), but also in how they approach this being: as just another tool in their arsenal, another section of their balance sheet, damning the consequences…though even by, “Alien 3”, one has to question why they would keep going at this in the first place. I know that corporations are not necessarily run by the most rational people, but one would think reducing a colony to a glowing white ball in the previous movie just to get rid of the fucking things would deter them from investing any further in this venture.
And then there’s how the movie deals with Ripley herself. She’s left with just her wits, Bishop nothing more than a pile of scrap begging her to put him out of his misery (and she does, in a sequence that is gut-wrenching, second only to the autopsy of Newt that occurs at the beginning of the movie). A lot has been said about how H.R. Giger’s design of the alien is based on very warped visions of the fear of the unknown and of sex, with the monster’s mouth having the shape of a vagina with a phallic shape coming out of it, all sporting teeth so that they can both be used to tear apart human beings with swiftness. A heavily foreshadowed twist has Ripley housing a queen alien inside, and at the opening sequence, there are abrupt cuts showing a face-hugger hatching from an egg and opening a hatch. The cross cutting gives the impression that the victim is Newt, but it is revealed to not be. So…design of the alien, crossed with that particular plot point, with Ripley waking up from the crash disoriented and fearful at the outset, only to come to grips with what happened and then resolving to do something about it (read: aborting the fetus along with herself, lest the spawn destroy life as we know it). Yeah. How’s that for a fucked up story?
“Alien” and, “Aliens” are great at doing their particular jobs of scaring and thrilling audiences, but, “Alien 3” represents the first time the series actually uses the titular monster in service of big ideas. Big ideas about life, belief, survival and death. This movie is essentially a haunted house spookfest spliced into a cynical prison/religious drama, showing people trying (and failing) to do good by a god that doesn’t care about them. Even the survival feels hollow, not as to say that the movie does a poor job in scaring and horrifying people, but in the way that Ripley herself has to make a hard choice to eliminate the threat once and for all. There’s no glory, just a job that has to be done at all costs, lest human greed, incompetence or both of those combined spreads the disaster across the universe, destroying life as the characters know it (or, in the case of the prisoners, don’t even know anymore).
That, above all else, is what pushes the Assembly Cut of, “Alien 3” to greatness…but of course, there are a few mishaps along the way. The aforementioned sequence where a prisoner dies of an, “accident” has the guy calling out to a dog named, “Spike” which existed in the theatrical cut but is nowhere to be seen here (at least from what I observed of the Blu-Ray release of this cut). Also, this movie’s way of showcasing the Xenomorph is…a mixed bag. There are great moments where the creature is shown through old-fashioned puppetry and practical effects, but there are other scenes done with questionable CGI and green screen compositing that takes one out of the movie. I’m also not very fond of how the alien is potrayed by the end of the movie, showing us first-person footage of the thing chasing prisoners and then killing them. It’s gimmicky at best, and it’s a shame that its used since even with the problems the production went through, “Alien 3” does a good job of showcasing scares and kills by using old-fashioned moviemaking techniques like scene blocking and 180 degree scene composition.
But hey, thanks to the, “Assembly Cut” I now officially like, “Alien 3” despite the problems poor David Fincher went through. In a better existence, David would’ve been allowed to do what the hell he wanted as opposed to being hamstrung by corporate meddling, and maybe then the alien would’ve been rendered in a way that rivals the first two movies. But this, “Assembly Cut” does the job well. A movie with ideas, atmosphere and brutality that shows that giving the finger to fan expectations and franchise maintenance can lead to great things.
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