Okay, so because Casey Rae just won’t let sleeping dogs lie, I went ahead and re-watched Alien³. You see, waaaaaay back in 2009 Casey left a comment on my blog that said he thought that Aliens was “way weaker than Alien³.” I could not see how an otherwise intelligent and articulate hominid like Casey could possibly hold such an obviously outlandish opinion and made a mental note to revisit the film as soon as I had nothing better to do.
Five years passed in which I apparently always had something better to do.
Then yesterday on Facebook, presumably stirred to action by the untimely death of H.R. Giger, Casey poked the old wound.
Now I had not seen Alien³ since I watched it in the theater in 1992 with my friend Alex Woolfson. That night he and I agreed that the third installment of our beloved corporate-military SF franchise should just be chalked up to a hypersleep nightmare — a non-canonical sepia-drenched misstep to be immediately dismissed. The only question that remained for Alex and me was: which was a superior film, Ridley Scott’s horror-SF masterpiece, Alien, or James Cameron’s one-up-the-bad-assery sequel, Aliens? (Both sides of this unanswerable question have merit and it’s a worthy debate for another time.) But A³? Please. Do not bore us with your moody little brown stain of a film.
In the intervening years a new cut of A³ was released that reportedly restored at least part of David Fincher’s original intent for the film (though Fincher himself was not involved with the new cut in any way). That’s what I watched tonight. The “Assembly Cut,” as its called.
Aaaaaaand okay. It’s not as bad as I remembered. In fact, it’s not really even a bad film. It has merit. It’s moody, not terrible to look at from a production design perspective (the oppressively brown palette and dated alien effects notwithstanding), it takes itself seriously and the acting is mostly pretty good. I’ll add that it has a clear main character with fairly clear stakes, a ticking clock that ups the stakes nicely and a few surprises/twists/reveals along the way that make it more interesting. There’s even a (darkly sardonic) laugh or two.
The new cut improves on the theatrical version in at least one very important way: the eye-rolling laugh-at-it-not-with-it moment in the theatrical version where the queen chestburster erupts from Ripley’s chest as she descends into the molten furnace and Ripley cradles it lovingly as they fall into the fire together — yeah, that shit’s gone. Ripley just falls into the fire and dies. Much better.
But just because A³ isn’t a complete train wreck of a film is no reason to go around making crazy claims like it’s somehow superior to a classic like Aliens. I know that opinions about art are subjective and Casey is entitled to his, however misguided they are. Nevertheless I shall attempt to explain the reasons why I think A³ fails to live up to the standards set by the previous two films in the franchise.
First though, why is Aliens considered such a classic? What makes it so great that it’s arguably better than Ridley Scott’s original (note: I happen to prefer the original film for reasons I won’t go into here, but many people consider Aliens an example of a sequel that outshines the film it follows, like The Empire Strikes Back and Godfather Part II)?
Aliens succeeds on a number of important levels that very few sci-fi action films manage to pull off. It gets all the basics down perfectly: a main character we care about (Ripley), clear goals and a sense of what’s at stake if she fails to achieve her goals (lots of people die, The Company wins), A very clear antagonist (aliens), great obstacles to her goals (dumb military jarheads, Burke, no ride home, etc.) a really clear and empathetic character arc involving confronting her fears (PTSD from the first film) and finding something to care about and keep her connected to the world (Newt and to a lesser extent, Hicks). It’s got fantastic reveals (the alien nest, Burke’s duplicity, the aliens using the duct-work, the queen, Bishop isn’t evil, the queen’s appearance on the Sulaco, etc.).
It also totally delivers on the pacing and action level. Cameron is a master of this kind of filmmaking and Aliens is arguably his best film. The characters in the ensemble all seem three-dimensional and real — even the throwaway characters that die early. There’s a reason the dialogue in Aliens is so quotable — because it’s so great. The screenplay and actors and director were the right mix and they struck gold.
And importantly, it’s a smart film. I don’t mean on a subtext level, though there is subtext to be had here (not as chewy as the first film, to be sure, but it’s there). I mean the characters are smart and they react in realistic ways to their situations. The plot is very rarely moved forward due to stupid or incompetent behavior. The drama all feels real. And the set-up/pay-off of the loader exoskeleton suit is iconic for a reason — it’s fucking awesome.
And in context with the previous film, Aliens feels fresh and exhilarating and a worthy sequel. You thought one scary monster on a ship was bad? Well now there are HUNDREDS of them and even these bad ass marines can’t stop them. And remember how hard and tough Ripley was in the first one? Well that experience BROKE her. She’s a frightened, badly damaged woman who has lost everything and everyone she ever knew (including, importantly, her daughter) and is suffering from PTSD.
Aliens is very nearly a perfect action movie. It does everything right in a tight, concise way, and totally, satisfyingly, delivers the goods.
Now let’s talk about A³. I already mentioned the things I like about it. Let’s look at what’s not so great.
First, we can’t begin a discussion about A³ without addressing its original sin — the title sequence murder of Newt and Hicks. Fincher famously never talks about his involvement with A³ but my friend Ian Albinson interviewed him for Art of the Title and before the interview, Ian asked me if I had any questions for the director. I had one. Fincher replied:
The writers weren’t bringing [Newt and Hicks] back. They had a script that didn’t include them, so we had to tell the story of their disappearance. … The script had the Sulaco pod being ejected, but we decided afterwards that we needed to see what happened on the ship that led to that event.
So we can’t blame Fincher for this sin. In fact, we should thank him for at least showing us how they died. But let’s just acknowledge that A³ exists in a context with the other films. Part of what made Aliens so great was taking what Ripley had been through in the previous film and building realistically on it. A³ strips away all of the progress we’d made with Ripley’s character in the previous film before the opening credits are done. At best, that’s lazy storytelling. It’s a reset button that’s merely convenient for the writers’ short term goals and doesn’t respect the work that’s been done before. In that opening title sequence, A³ utterly lost the franchise’s core fan base — before a single line of dialogue was uttered.
But let’s not stop there! As long as we’re talking about continuity with the previous film, here’s a question: how did the alien queen get not one, but two eggs on board the Sulaco? The title sequence of A³ shows an open egg and a facehugger. That facehugger somehow impregnates Ripley with a queen and another one impregnates an ox on Fury 161 (it was a dog in the theatrical version). I’ve seen Aliens about a hundred times. How did that supposedly happen? The queen would have had to have brought the eggs with her up the elevator, onto the drop ship and then deposited them somewhere in the Sulaco’s hangar before being sucked out into space. We saw her egg-laying capacity get blown up by Ripley, so she couldn’t have laid the eggs. And once the eggs were deposited, unnoticed, in the hangar bay of the Sulaco, how did the facehuggers manage to get into the place where the hypersleep pods were? Can they open doors like velociraptors? I’m just saying, there are troubling questions before the movie even starts.
Okay, so maybe we should just discount the previous movies when judging this one. Maybe its unfair to judge A³ based on what did or didn’t happen in other films. This is its own beast, after all. So we just accept the deaths of Newt and Hicks and the fact that there are two facehuggers in with the sleep pods. Fine. We’re still in trouble from a basic plausibility standpoint. I’m going to bullet-list this in chronological order:
And just to be fair, here are a couple of moments I liked:
So yeah. Is A³ a horrible film? No. It’s fine. It’s moody and well acted. It’s a bit long in its third act and you can’t really think about the story for too long before running into the problems I listed above, and the alien effects were kind of bad. It’s a fine film, but there are reasons Aliens is considered a sic-fi classic and Alien³ is not.