Saturday, November 03, 2012
I was on the debate team at Barrington High School, and while in college I spent a lot of weekends co-coaching a team from Classical High School in Providence (which, let's face it, is a much cooler high school). My favorite part of overnight debate tournaments was going to the movies afterwards, and it was on one of these trips that Alien 3 opened and the high school kids all listened to me and we saw it. I was all pumped because of the trailer above, which I just saw for the first time since then. I was surprised at the extreme level of cheese, but when he got to "the bitch is back," I could remember what an exciting thing it was to see in a post-Aliens world.
But you've probably guessed how my story ends: with me leading two-dozen sad and annoyed kids out of the theater, all of us issuing a collective sigh as we glumly acknowledged we now existed in the post-Alien 3 world. Sigh.
It wouldn't be right to define this movie solely by that moment; I did give it three stars, because I feel it's adequate, and in some ways I truly dig it. It marks the feature debut of director David Fincher, whose visual style I admire. There's a way he can film windswept heaps of industrial trash and make it beautiful and evocative. I think he perfected that talent with Se7en in 1995 and countless horror movies since then owe some aesthetic credit to that movie. And you can see a lot of it in Alien 3 (and Madonna's "Express Yourself" video a little bit too, if you want to keep going back).
Alien 3 also reverses Cameron's trend away from artsy-fartsy moody sets and towards forgettable utilitarian sets. The world here is once again imposing and oppressively attractive. And that ties in neatly with the nihilistic tone of the movie, which I was able to embrace a bit more fully this time around. If you look at it that way, there's a respectable feeling of destiny to Ripley's fate in the end.
But despite these merits I still feel much the same watching this today as I did in 1992, and there are two main reasons for this and I will address them in reverse order:
It's boring. It's an entire hour before the Alien rampage begins, and we spend most of that hour waiting for the doctor to tell Ripley about his drunken ER accident that resulted in his imprisonment. It felt exactly like being jerked around by a character from LOST, waiting for them to finally unburden themselves and then realizing they could have done so a while ago. Meanwhile Ripley isn't telling him about the Alien because she doesn't think he'll believe her, but there's really no stake in whether he believes her or not. Even after the Alien is public knowledge the movie really doesn't maintain any suspense.
But the main problem with this movie is obvious, and that's the decision to kill off Bishop, Hicks and Newt from the previous movie.
Earlier I referred to Aliens as the only time someone switched genres mid-franchise (from horror to action) and had it work out. What happens here is an attempt to do the same thing again by switching the franchise back to horror -- which in my opinion is indeed a bold move -- but which in my opinion did not work out. Here's a quote from Wikipedia:
"Cameron, in particular, regarded the decision to kill off the characters of Bishop, Newt, and Hicks as 'a slap in the face' to him and to fans of the previous film. Biehn, upon learning of Hicks' demise, demanded and received almost as much money for the use of his likeness in one scene as he had been paid for his role in Aliens. Alan Dean Foster, who wrote the novelizations of the first two Alien films, called the death of Newt and Hicks 'an obscenity'."
Maybe those guys aren't the most impartial jury, but they accurately echo almost all of the reactions I've heard, and my own. Why does that piss everybody off? Alien is five star horror, and it was a total crapshoot who'd survive that movie, right?
It's not a mystery; it all comes down to offing them all in a crash, before the movie really even starts.
When a movie I like has a bad sequel, I almost never think the of the sequel as having ruined the earlier movie. Alien 3 does its very best to do just that, with a bit of narrative hackery that is on par with (and almost the exact opposite of) ending a story with "then I woke up!" and it goes like this: "On the way to the next movie, everyone died in a crash."
Right? Isn't that just a sucker punch? If you came to the theater expecting an action movie's requisite happy ending, you instantly get this: no happy ending for the movie you're watching and no happy ending for the movie that came before it, the movie that got you here in the first place. You already hate the movie you're watching and you still have almost all of it yet to see.
And even if you can instantly accept the genre switch and the uncertainty that comes with it... a crash in the opening credits? Killing off the characters from previous entries is a horror tradtion, but where's the respect? They needed to have Hicks wake from a chestburster dream, go to get a space beer and reveal the hiding Alien when he shuts the fridge door. There are rules, man.
I believe I've only seen this movie one other time since 1992. I watched the alternate longer cut this time, but I didn't experience any real difference. Alien 3 has got game and is worthy of some respect, but it doesn't reach the classic status of its predecessors. As the overly bombastic music rolled to a close and the camera revisted parts of the prison, I thought "Hey look, the cafeteria... so what?" Watch if you're in the mood for something bleak.
(For the record, I mostly really liked LOST, but it did bug me sometimes.)