Saturday, April 2, 2011
#104: Alien 3: The Assembly Cut (David Fincher, 1992)
Ignoring the Alien vs. Predator franchise because it doesn't even rate, I find it fascinating that the four Alien films have been made by four different, visually distinctive, powerful directors: Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise), James Cameron (The Terminator, Titanic), David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children, Amelie). Most of us agree that the first Alien film is a kick-ass horror/sci-fi classic and the second one is a kick-ass action/sci-fi jam, but I am in the minority in my enjoyment and admiration of the final two films in the series, particularly the fourth film, which only my wife and I and one friend enjoy among the entirety of planet Earth. I really like the Alien series. My wife loooooooooooves the Alien series. She is like a fan of the band Phish when it comes to Alien, if that fan stopped loving a terrible, noodly rock band and transferred that love to a movie series about killer aliens. My wife's enjoyment of these movies enhances my own enjoyment. I love how much she loves them.
When I first saw Alien 3 on the big screen in high school, I found it ambitious and visually interesting but dreary, confusing, and tedious. I watched it again in college with my wife in the early days of our relationship and liked it a little more but generally agreed with my previous opinion. I also found the comical overuse of the f-word unintentionally ridiculous. It was a film easier to admire than enjoy. Still, there was something in there worth seeing. Fincher wasn't just copying the highs of the first two films.
The production of Alien 3 was troubled. Screenplays by cyberpunk author William Gibson and Near Dark co-writer Eric Red, both supposedly awesome, were rejected. The shooting screenplay, by Hollywood jobber Larry Ferguson from a story idea by Vincent Ward (Map of the Human Heart), underwent an emergency rewrite from producers David Giler and Walter Hill (Hard Times, The Warriors, TV's Deadwood), and some reports indicate the film was still being written as it was shot. Fincher, in his debut film, endured constant interference from the studio and had final cut taken away from him. In most instances in which a Hollywood studio takes final cut away from a strong director, poor decisions were made. Fincher, still apparently bitter about the experience, says he hates the film and refuses to watch it again.
This leads us to the "assembly cut" found on the special-edition two-disc DVD. Sometimes misleadingly marketed as Fincher's "director's cut," (Fincher says he doesn't know who assembled this cut, and he refuses to watch it to find out) this version of the film is 30 minutes longer, restores some deleted scenes, takes out some scenes, and is a differently edited, vastly improved beast. This cut of Alien 3 turns an interesting failure into a solid sci-fi/horror film with a stronger sense of character development, narrative momentum, and suspense. It makes more sense, moves through the story with more fluidity, and just plain looks better. Despite being 30 minutes longer, it is far less tedious and leaden. And the comical overuse of the word "fuck" is mostly absent until the concluding scenes. I suspect this version is much closer to what Fincher intended, but we may never know.
The basic story, if you haven't seen it, begins when the escape pod from Aliens crashes into an ocean on a not very hospitable planet, which is deserted save for an all-male prison colony of violent YY-chromosome offenders. Ripley is the sole survivor of the crash. Except for the motherfucking alien! Oh yeah! Her presence in the colony stirs up some shit. These men haven't seen a woman in years. Charles S. Dutton, a prisoner, has become the de facto leader of the place and converted most of the other bad apples to a fundamentalist Christian offshoot of his own devising. The only employees are a doctor who used to be a prisoner, the warden, and the warden's second-in-command. Most of the prisoners are British, with a handful of Americans spicing things up. There are a lot of solid actors in this crew, including the late, great Pete Postlethwaite, Mike Leigh veteran Philip Davis, and Withnail & I's Paul McGann. Into this claustrophobic, dystopic, sweaty, all-male gumbo comes Ripley and a cute lil' alien. The alien, still in its infant crab/camel spider-looking phase, jumps into the body of an ox (deleted and re-shot as a dog in the theatrical cut, for inexplicable reasons) and births itself for realz (that spelling is really going to bring the youth demographic into this blog's readership), quickly mutating into a full-sized adult killing machine.
This version of the film restores a number of images that were idiotically removed from the theatrical cut, including a number of shots of the surface of the prison colony's planet. One particularly neat shot shows a work crew leading a team of oxen through a dusty, snowy landscape to get to the crashed ship. Some early CGI of the alien in movement looks pretty weak, but Fincher uses these shots sparingly and goes for the full-on animatronics, make-up, and latex suits when the creature is in close-up. I continue to remain excited about H.R. Giger's sweet alien designs. This is one of the great movie monsters. Giger's involvement with all four films is one reason why they look so good. (Let's also give credit to Sigourney Weaver's excellent work in all four. She makes a great action hero.) The conclusion still drags on a bit too much for my taste. How many shots of alien POV and guys running down a hallway and buttons being pushed and hatches being closed can a person sit through? However, the final scene is a bleak yet oddly optimistic conclusion, dulled a bit by the existence of the fourth film, but still pretty unexpected for a Hollywood movie.
Fincher may have had a miserable experience making this film, but he's done alright for himself since, making Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Social Network. Still, I think he's too hard on Alien 3. He should watch this assembly cut sometime, at the very least to end the debate about whether it's his version or not.
One final observation: the placement of the 3 in the logo for the film makes it look like Alien Cubed. I'm no mathematician, but isn't this misleading? The film should follow this equation: (the number of aliens in the first two movies) x (the number of aliens in the first two movies) x (the number of aliens in the first two movies) = a holy living fuckload of aliens. This movie has just one full-grown alien, plus an alien fetus. What gives? Aah, I'll let it slide. It's the weekend.