Rapture and Redemption
Many critics liken Alien 3 to a Bergman film thanks to its rich religious iconography and obsession with death. Death visits every prisoner on Fury except Morse, the most selfish and cowardly of the prisoners (“I forgot – you’re the guy who made a deal with God to live forever,” Dillon taunts him, a prophecy suggested to be true by the film’s end). The film’s apocalyptic scenario and obsession has the feel of a rapture whose meaning is summed up in a rallying speech by Dillon:
“You’re all gonna die. The only question is how you check out. Do you want it on your feet? Or on your fuckin’ knees… beggin’? I ain’t much for begging. Nobody ever gave me nothing. So I say fuck that thing. Let’s fight it!”
Alien 3 is about redemption – for the prisoners, the absolving of their sinful, wasted life through fighting back against death personified. Another speech by Dillon in the extended work-print version of the film makes this idea even clearer.
“Even for these who have fallen, this is a time of rejoice. We salute their courage. They will live forever. Those who are dead are not dead. They have moved up. They have moved higher…”
For Ripley, it is her own death that gives the entire struggle against the company and the Xenomorph species meaning. Many fans claim that the deaths of Hicks and Newt gives Aliens‘ denouement a lack of meaning. This is untrue – if anything, their deaths give Ripley’s own sacrifice even more gravitas. She dies so that Hicks, Newt, Clemens, Dillon, and the rest would not die in vein. Their deaths have meaning as they ultimately aided Ellen Ripley in saving the universe.
Depending on which version of the film you watch, the ending is slightly changed. The extended “work-print version” extends the conversation between Ripley and Bishop II to a kind of “deal with the devil” territory as Bishop attempts to seduce her into trading the creature for her life and a shot at a normal existence that has eluded her since Alien. The theatrical cut trades this for a more lavishly operatic, gory demise for Ripley (she drops into the pit as she gives birth to the Queen but holds it in place). Also, 85, the prison’s yellow-bellied guard finally mans up in an attempt to kill Bishop II, but he’s blown away by gun-toting mercenaries.
While one ending focuses more on character, both communicate this theme in a unique and beautiful way.
This is what frustrates me about Alien Resurrection. While I enjoy the film and its attempt to blur the lines between humanity and Xenomorph through cloning both Ripley and the species, the entire intention of the film seems to be to erase any memory of Alien 3. While Giler and Hill would hang on to the franchise as co-producers of the fourth entry, they would be on record as opposing the film’s ideas, citing it would ruin the direction of the franchise. And it sort of did. At best, Alien Resurrection is a fun exploration of the Frankenstein-ian themes of the universe, with fun characters, an eclectic cast, and the most suspenseful set piece of the series (the underwater chase, natch).
Yet everything about it is all wrong – the color palette is a kind of psychedelic blend between the first three films that feels too comic book-y, the casting is all wrong (Winona Ryder), and the dialogue becomes far too cutesy for my taste (a common Joss Whedon shortcoming). Plus, they kill off Michael Wincott by the second reel (what the fuck?). Mostly, though, the film undoes Ripley’s sacrifices in the previous films and nullifies it as a single trilogy. Sure, bringing her back cements the Christian parallel created by the third entry, but it’s gone about it all wrong, using the plot device of said film while retaining only a shred of its spiritual ideas and angst.
Resurrection is more focused on blurring the lines between good and evil with clone Ripley and her brood, and then aping the roller-coaster-ride vibe of Aliens around it. It also is intent on starting a new trilogy, an intention that failed with the film’s box office disappointment. Ultimately, Resurrection just gave birth to the Alien Vs. Predator films, which tried far too hard to retain the feel of the original trilogy. These attempts also didn’t work, in part because the films lacked a human identity like Ellen Ripley to guide them. Whether or not Prometheus overcomes this curse remains to be seen, but distancing the prequel from the Sigourney Weaver stigma of the previous films seems to be a step in the right direction.
As the essay may prompt readers to revisit Alien 3, one must address the argument of which is better – the film’s theatrical cut or the extended work print? Neither has been cut to Fincher’s approval. Somewhere in between these versions is his preferred vision of the film. As is, both represent two flawed but wonderful sides of the same coin.
The theatrical cut plays like an Alien film, trading character development for a faster pace and favor for gooey Xenomorph action. Alien 3 stands out as the only film in the series to replace the traditional “rape attacks” of the Xenomorph (which usually involves some sort of horrible maiming and being jellied to the wall) with a straight up killing machine. The Dog-Beast has one goal in the film – make sure Ripley gives birth to the Queen. Anyone who threatens her gets a double jaw through the brain pan. End of story.
This makes Alien 3‘s beast a more formidable threat. It isn’t as scary as the traditional rapist Alien, and it’s far less terrifying than the armored, 25-foot-tall queen of Aliens, but its animal origins and agility suggest a kind of super-Alien that’s far more badass than its franchise brethren. The theatrical version of the film plays to sell this idea of “death personified” and demonic undertones and it does so beautifully.
The work print edition is the superior film, but often treats the titular beast as an afterthought. It originates from an Ox instead of a dog – a definite deviation from Fincher’s vision – and its animal attributes seem like an afterthought. Its relationship to the insane Golic is emphasized as he compares it to a dragon God, which heightens the demonic undercurrent even more.
As is, though, the Alien itself is less important than the chest-burster residing in Ripley. The work print focuses more on her mortality, her choice, and her relationship to the prisoners around her. This is the really Bergman-esque cut – it moves and breathes slowly, building slow rather than frenetically. It is an amazing example of an arthouse horror film, but as an Alien movie, it doesn’t quite sync up with the ferocity of previous entries. Yet the prisoners are more fleshed out and easier to differentiate and Ripley’s plight is given even more heft. Either way, you’re getting the same story, just delivered in a different way. I have no real preference, other than I wish Fincher would assemble his own definitive version.
Dillon’s Last Words… Sorta
Otherwise, my preferred version really depends on mood. Either way, Alien 3 treats me to an exquisitely intelligent and profoundly deep meditation on death, sacrifice, sin, faith, and existence in a universe populated by men and monsters alike. It isn’t a popcorn action thriller or a seat-jumping chiller, but something more meaningful, more philosophical, and ultimately more rewarding if you’re willing to do the heavy lifting.
The question is how you want to check it out – on your feet and intellectually or on your knees, beggin’ for James Cameron’s popcorn-shilling ass to swoop in and make it all better? Well, I say fuck fan opinion. Nobody ever gave David Fincher nothing, especially Brandywine Productions and 20th Century Fox. Fuck those studios! Let’s watch Alien 3! Again!
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