Friday, May 31, 2013

Alien 3 Times the Error


Coming on the heels of two of the best science-fiction movies ever produced, it’s understandable why filmgoers held Alien 3 to such a high standard.  Had that movie been based on an inferior franchise like Predator or the infamous Star Trek film adaptations, then it’s possible that Alien 3 would not have inherited the notoriety which is its signature.  In reality, though, Alien 3 is a mere mimicry of its predecessors, a product so alien to the ideas which defined the series’ former entries that it bears almost no semblance to its host and will forever be remembered as a parasite that fed on hopeful fans but had no life of its own (yeah, that whole sentence was one big pun).

In the course of reviewing this film, I won’t refrain from giving spoilers, as Alien 3 is itself a spoiler of the worst kind.  The movie opens within the Sulaco, where a fire alarm triggered by a facehugger forces Ripley and her companions into an escape pod which lands on a dreary, lice-infested planet called Fiorina.  Ripley is retrieved from the craft and taken to a kind of rehabilitative prison inhabited by a lot of reformed thugs who claim to have “found God”.  Although Bishop was injured beyond repair (no surprise there, as he was brutally Mauled by the queen in Aliens) and the ship’s two other human passengers were found dead for no apparent reason other than to start Ripley off with a blank slate, an unfortunate dog soon learns firsthand that our intrepid heroine was not the only survivor aboard the pod.  As the prisoners mourn the deaths of Ripley’s friends, new life is born violently elsewhere in the facility, and so the terror begins for the 3rd time.  Without guns, intellect, or solidarity of purpose, the inmates must nevertheless withstand a force swifter and deadlier than all the prior xenos save the queen.  At least that’s what the writers intended us to believe, despite the fact that it takes this canine-based alien far longer to eliminate a far dumber and weaker contingent than it took the basic drone of the first film.  We also learn that Ripley has somehow been impregnated with a queen alien, an inexplicable plot twist that leads the Weyland-Yutani Corp. to dispatch a rescue party to secure the woman and her precious cargo.  While the newborn canine-based alien refuses to harm Ripley, the other inhabitants of Fiorina are not so fortunate, and without any real weapons to counter the beast, they’ll be challenged to hold out until the ship’s arrival.

To be a fair critic, I must recognize that the first 40 or so minutes of Alien 3 are halfway decent.  Early shots of the alien are promising, the setting looks cool from what few glimpses we get of Fiorina’s landscape, and the actors, especially Sigourney Weaver and Charles Dance, convincingly portray their characters, however stereotyped they are on paper.  The prison’s bleak atmosphere is augmented by shadows and orange hues, the score is equal parts mysterious and grand, and the editor initially manages to maintain suspense similar to Alien’s.  The scene in which the alien bursts from the dog is spectacularly well made yet heartwrenching at the same time, which is oddly sad because it illustrates how people often esteem animals higher than their fellow men, labeling a scene of human suffering as entertainment but that of animal suffering as “cruelty”.  But that’s irrelevant to the movie itself.  While Alien 3 starts strongly, it all falls apart once the prisoners go on a bug hunt and the movie’s pace grinds to a near-halt.

Alien 3’s errors can be simply condensed to a lack of clarity, plausibility, pacing, and pathos.  One of the marks of Alien and Aliens is that they rarely slowed down in their 120-140 minute run times and hardly ever wasted time with exposition or developments that were unnecessary to advancing the main plot.  Alien 3 is fraught with scenes that should have been heavily trimmed or cut entirely.  One early example is the scene where the doctor performs an autopsy on Newt, only to confirm that she did indeed drown and was not impregnated by an alien.  The only valid reason for inserting said scene into the movie would be to reveal that the initial theory concerning Newt’s demise was gravely incorrect; otherwise, the scene only eats up time and restates information that the audience has already received, albeit with less blood and guts.  Another instance of unnecessary narrative shortly follows when Ripley revisits the EEV to retrieve Bishop’s remains and almost gets raped by 4 thugs in the process.  I suppose this scene was meant to substantiate earlier dialogue which identified the prisoners as a bunch of violent rapists and murderers, but it serves no purpose in the grand picture of the movie and ultimately seems tacked on for the filmmakers’ sick pleasure.  Later in the movie, Ripley finally persuades her romantic interest, the doctor, to explain the barcode on his head and confess his rather ignoble background.  This scene establishes the doctor as one of the movie’s few characters who’s remotely developed, but mere seconds after the man concludes his “long and sad” story, the alien sneaks up and rams its jaw through his skull, thus nullifying any impact the doctor’s monologue might have had on the rest of the movie.  What’s the point of fleshing out a given character only to kill him off immediately afterwards?   Wouldn’t it be more time-efficient to simply kill him before he monologues?  Having finally discovered the beast, the inmates and Ripley devise a Mystery Inc.-worthy plan to trap it in a sealed room; to make a long story short, the plan fails, a lot of people get burned, and the prisoners spew obscenities at each other in the aftermath.  Eventually, after much more unnecessary exposition, the prisoners convene and formulate another plan to kill the beast, which also fails but takes up at least 10 choppily edited minutes of film time regardless.  Since both plans were doomed to failure, most audiences would appreciate it if the filmmakers spent less time dwelling on a wasted effort that doesn’t progress the overall plot, but Alien 3 delights in wasting time.  In reality, the movie is only 2 hours, but thanks to a bloated script and poor time-management it comes across as a 3 hour bore.

Alien 3’s defenders have cast the film as a kind of dark tragedy, as opposed to the horror and action movies which preceded it, but in order for a story to be tragic, the audience must be at least partially sympathetic to the characters, and Alien 3 fails to conjure even a single likeable person.  In fact, Fiorina’s prison-dwellers almost rival Commodus, Hannibal Lecter, The Joker, and Emperor Palpatine as the most unpleasant and repelling figures ever put to film, and they’re supposed to be the good guys.  The movie makes a weak attempt to cast them as reformed, holy men who have found God in the sewers of Fury 161, but their actions indicate they’ve never even looked at a Bible.  These “spiritual” men spew obscenities at Ripley throughout the movie, curse her essentially for being a beautiful woman, beat her, and generally speak most unchivalrously of their fellow brothers in Christ.  At times I thought the screenwriter was conducting a strange exercise in profanity, testing how many F-bombs he could string together while still maintaining the original meaning of the dialogue.  In all, I think the word is slung at least a hundred times in Alien 3, particularly in situations when there’s no emotional or physical tension to warrant its use.  The constant stream of vulgarity eventually starts to grate on the ears, causing sighs of relief amongst the viewers when the alien rips its victims’ throats out and silences their sailor talk.  As if the new additions weren’t bad enough, the writer also felt the need to ruin the story’s protagonist by exposing a different, weaker dimension of her character.  By the time Alien 3 was released, Ripley had attained an iconic status in pop culture for being the first strong, independent, and masculine female lead in a science-fiction movie and perhaps all the cinema.  The girl power theme of the Alien films would inspire such legendary franchises as Metroid, Buffy, and countless other series.  For some reason, the girl power formula didn’t appeal to the Alien 3 team, as this movie reduces Ripley from a courageous and able-bodied heroine to a sniveling, helpless wimp.  Perhaps the convenient passing of her daughter-figure Newt and comrade Hicks contributed to this change, yet she had managed to hold her composure amidst the horrors of the 1st and 2nd movies.  Whatever the cause of Ripley’s evolution, it’s inconceivable why the writer would kill off Hicks after Michael Biehn expressed his interest in an Aliens sequel.  Bringing back Newt would obviously have been difficult without recasting the girl or retreading the 2nd movie, but having Hicks return would seem like a feasible and expedient course for the 3rd movie.  Alas, Bishop is the only likeable character to return in Alien 3, and he only appears for a short minute before Ripley pulls his plug.

Alien 3 borrows a page from Prometheus by introducing several narrative trains whicch are never sufficiently explained or justified.  How did an egg get on the Sulaco?  Exactly how was Ripley impregnated with an alien queen?  Why are there no arms to speak of but axes and knives in the allegedly “maximum-security” prison (maybe it’s a New York City facility)?  Why does the alien slaughter its prey and feed on them like a carnivore when Aliens clearly established that the xenos cocoon their victims, preparing them to be new subjects for impregnation?  Why does the movie’s final quarter consist of a really cheesy “alien-cam” chase sequence when H.R. Giger, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, and other distinguished people involved in the series’ production have all argued that one of the alien’s scariest attributes is its lack of eyes?  Some questions just stem from the movie’s poor screenplay.  In the course of planning the 1st trap, the cult’s leader Dillon asks Ripley why he and his men should put their butts on the line for her, as if the alien is hunting her exclusively and couldn’t care less about the prisoners. Ripley curtly tells him his butt’s already on the line, but one would think he already knew that.  Why in the world does Dillon drop his axe to drag one of his fellows, clearly beyond rescue, out of the creature’s jaws?  Why do all the inmates mess around and smack talk each other when they’re supposed to be cooperating to catch the alien?  Why have the inmates “taken a vow of celibacy” when their home is completely severed from any planet women might inhabit?  Gosh, that'd be a hard oath to keep.

Like post-1920s America, Alien 3 tragically regressed into something worse by trying vainly to progress into something better.  While the trilogy's conclusion isn’t exactly horrible and has some fine moments, however brief, it’s incredibly disappointing and fails to capture the suspense and breathtaking action of the first two installments.  Much like the alien itself, which can’t decide whether it’s a parasite or a predator, the movie can’t even attach itself to even a basic genre, be it horror, action, or even Alien.  From a movie so deceptively titled Alien Cubed, one would expect to see more than just a few momentary shots of a single monster.  Perhaps it meant illegal aliens.  HAHAHAHA… Wrong movie.

Grade rating: C.  Hardly a magnificent specimen.

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