Ripley's Inferno: Deep Down, You Should Love ALIEN3

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
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Ripley's Inferno:  Deep Down, You Should Love ALIEN3

Think back to 1992 for a moment. It was six years after James Cameron's Aliens turned what was a magnificent stand-alone science fiction horror mash-up into fully viable franchise and created a legion of breathless fanboys quoting Bill Paxton and Michael Biehn.  

There was enough energy and excitement surrounding the impending Alien3 to echo, well, exactly what is going on right now with Prometheus. And, it was galling to have all that adrenaline-pumping struggle of the previous film erased before the opening credits were even finished. Not only that, but this new director, some music video guy named David Fincher, rubbed our collective noses in it by lingering on a rather graphic autopsy of poor Newt, the little girl who was triumphantly rescued by Ellen Ripley and Corp. Hicks from the horrors of LV-426.  

With clinical, gory precision, that was the end of the surrogate daughter and cosy new family unit existing only briefly in hyper-sleep. Production issues and sloppy re-edits in the middle of Alien3 resulted in muddled pacing and a fair bit of narrative confusion. This was something for which the large cast of grimy bald-headed Englishmen did little to clear up. Finally, dodgy matte-work of the creature itself, the first time the xenomorph was digitally rendered - a less than perfect combination of puppeteering and CGI -  seemed to add further insult to injury.  In all fairness, however, the 20th Century Fox logo was still quite analog at the time.

The grand sum of all these issues tends to blind people to just how exotically magnificent Alien3 actually is, both in terms of aesthetics and ideas. How the film is the hellish karma of Ripley's broken promise to Newt writ large. 

It is the first tone-poem of the franchise; both apocalyptic end-of-the-world grandeur, and an elegy for broken souls besides. It is singular, and like the 'cubed' exponent in the title graphic, it is orthogonal to the other two entries; its own dimension, if you will. There was a practical optimism in Alien with its cross-section of society, in the the barest of microcosms; the working class doing their best under extremely unexpected pressure. There was a dick-swinging hubris in Aliens leavened with the raw power of maternal instinct. 

The grim resignation, the fire-and-brimstone matryrdom, on display in Alien3, as scored by Elliot Goldenthal's gooseflesh inducing soundtrack, is not only a welcome addition to the franchise, but as worthy of love as either of the previous entries; even if it is the tough-love of a bold, rather unexpected, vision. Fifteen years since the last proper film (AvPs don't count, and Alien: Resurrection just barely) this should be obvious:  All four entries are unique in their style and stand-alone storytelling in this universe. 

Think about it. Deep down you didn't want a Ripley and her happy family running away from aliens on Earth.


The "Assembly Cut" of the film is a re-edited 30-minutes-longer version restored in 2003 and buffed up into full glory in the latest BLU-ray release. This was done by Terry Rawlings, who served as editor on Alien3 as well as Ridley Scott's Alien (also on Blade Runner), working from David Fincher's original work-print. It goes a long way to relieving the pacing and narrative issues of the eventual compromised theatrical release. It gives plenty more characterization to the prisoners and the internal politics of Fiorina "Fury" 161 to make them characters rather than just xenomorph-fodder.  This is particularly so with prisoner Golic (played by Paul McGann, the "I" of Withnail & I) whose Judas-like arc was completely excised from the theatrical cut. Golic's worship of 'The Dragon' is one of the myriad religious parables on display in this film. I urge you to give this cut of the film a whirl, it is the version that has been given the nod by Fincher who otherwise has washed his hands of the sordid affair (his own painful birth into the world of studio feature film-making) and moved on to projects where he has retained far more control. The Assembly Cut is the version that I will be talking to, below.  

RIPLEY: "It's just down there, in the basement."

85:  "The whole place is a basement."

RIPLEY:  "It's a metaphor."

The stark, Darwinian nihilism of the creature at the heart of all of these films ("I admire its purity," the android, Ash, gushes in the original) is ripe for the many ironic juxtapositions in Alien3.  As Dillon, the spiritual leader that holds the prisoner colony together as a monastic brotherhood, delivers a stirring eulogy for Newt and Hicks while their corporeal remains tossed into the furnace, the rebirth of the xenomorph from the corpse of a maggot-ridden ox is cross-cut to highlight the perversion of the circle of life. Similarly, a lengthy gestation of a new Queen inside of Ripley inverts (and perverts) the power of motherhood which made her such a force of nature in Cameron's film. 

The immaculate conception on board the Sulaco's EEV in the opening moments of Fincher's movie is a likewise perverted take on Christian mythology. The prisoners have organized themselves into a celibate Monkish order, an extreme brand of sinners 'waiting for the apocalypse and rebirth,' when Ripley literally falls from the sky into their world. Post-industrial monoliths and shipping cranes stand at the edge of the water like so many crosses. The ox which hauls the escape pod to shore and eventually is the living vessel for the alien is in itself a Christian symbol of nativity. This aggressively symbolic take hearkens back to the original Alien but stands in contrast to the secular, scientific approach taken by the Nostromo crew.   


Alien3 is book of revelations stuff with its urine-yellow cinematography and glowing pit-of-hell leadworks. The austere common areas, imposing and chapel-like, Ripley fraternizes with all the murders and rapists of humanity as out of place in both gender and belief, but mingling without hesitation.  

She gets to put on not one, but two Jesus Christ Poses - her pleading suicide request to Dillon at one point and her quite empowered martyrdom which closes out the film. She even delivers her 'sermon on the mount' to the assembled riff-raff to win them over (bonus points for the using "crud" as emphasis) to dealing with the alien themselves rather than allowing the Corporation to possess it. 

After an initial plan to trap it by fire yields a vision of the purest burning hell in its failure, things culminate in the alien's demise via a baptism of 'holy' water on hot lead. In the confused race-around-the-maze in the lead-works, each of the prisoners willingly sacrifice themselves for the cause, except for Prisoner Morse, indeed the lone survivor of Fury 161, who jokingly (more irony?) has a pact with god to live forever. A side note: the fish-eye steadicam work, the xenomoroh's POV, is a triumph of the sensation over sense it serves the blockbuster requirement for motion after much moping and brooding over crises of faith.   

Alien3 turns the image of Bishop, the good android, into the Devil's doppelg√§nger. Lance Henrikson gets to reprise his original role when he is rescued from the prison scrap heap, as casually discarded as Hicks and Newt. Bishop's entry into the film is utterly without dignity as he is lugged across the shoulders if Ripley in a burlap sack to be shocked back to life for the purpose of replaying the flight recorder information. And yet his lone (and lonely) scene is warm and human, all things considered. 

More interesting is when the actor makes a second, grander entrance as the masked Weyland-Yutani man and offers Ripley the faustian bargain of her continued existence in exchange for the mere cost of handing over the Queen fetus nestled inside of her. Her life for her soul. The answer to the proposition echoes back to Bishop the android's plea that he would rather be shut down than be less than top of the line. There is the lingering irony that Bishop the android is better and more human than his own creator. Bishop will not accept a physically stunted compromise, willing to give up his existence. And Ripley, uncompromising right from the get-go in Alien when she wouldn't let an infected Kane (Cain?) onto the Nostromo, will likewise offer no quarter to the company; not for her own morality. Like a similarly shorn Joan of Arc, she gets a martyrs death.

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... begging? I ain't much for begging! Nobody ever gave me nothing! So I say *fuck* that thing! Let's fight it!"

Aside from the big themes of the film, there are so many well-realized tiny details. One such stratagem does not become apparent until after a few viewings: Many of the convict-monks begin to shed their religion-and-rites-veneer as the fear of an imminent death mounts. Notice that there is scant cursing at the beginning of the film; there is even a conversation on the nuance of what bad words might be permitted under God. As the shit (and a prisoner) hits the fan, blasphemy comes easy to even the lips Dillon, the preacher himself. Nevertheless, when push comes to shove, the inmates do indeed fall into line and do their duty to the flock. 

Thus, language forms a narrative line through mere appearances (piety through triviality) to actual commitment to duty. Fuck the protocol, live the values. This is a nice touch. Or maybe they are just backed up against a wall with nowhere to go. Religion is the province (or perhaps providence) of scoundrels.


CLEMENS:  "Given the nature of our indigenous population, I would suggest clothes. None of them have seen a woman in years. Neither have I, for that matter. "

No conversation about Alien3 would be complete without Charles Dance's acute, if maddeningly short-lived, Dr. Clemens. Those who easily dismiss the film would be overlooking his massive contributions as a character to this franchise. A disgraced physician who rescues then befriends Ripley, he is the only character (outside the alien) who achieves any real intimacy with her. Even if it is a broken-adult type of transaction (but not without warmth) that actually acknowledges Ripley as a sexual being. 

This was rather ignored in the previous entries, unless you count the mild ninth grade flirting-with-gun-handling from Hicks, or stripping down to her undies in the Nostromo escape pod with her kitty cat. In yet another act of the films sense of irony, Superintendent "rumour control" Andrews, feels that the threat of Ripley's sexuality, even if one eye is blood-shot before her hair has been shorn off, is of significantly greater threat to the sanctity of his institution than a potential unstoppable beastie.  In a rare form of agreement between prison leader and cult leader, Dillon agrees.

Clemens, however, is an intelligent, competent, and secular lost soul who made a serious mistake in life which matter-of-factly stated in the film as an icy, but pain-laced, monologue delivered mere moments before his exeunt.  Clemens has paid his dues and is resigned to his station. 

The first half of Alien3 plays as an unconventional professional courtship of trust between Ripley and Clemens as they investigate the dangers of alien on the prowl. But, in the spirit of this movie, just after we hit the point where things are going good, the film makes the gutsy move of violently removing him from the equation. And his removal gives way to perhaps the most lasting image of this film, and that is the alien brandishing its teeth and dripping saliva mere millimeters from Ripley's shaven head.


RIPLEY:  "You've been in my life so long, I can't remember anything else."

Earlier, in a face-to-face with the four-legged alien, Ripley offers that above quote. And the film goes existential in not having her go mano-a-mano with the beast in furious rage and struggle, but rather by having Ripley resign. In a christian context, this sacrifice is wholeheartedly noble. 

There is something immensely satisfying (to this observer, anyway) about Ripley hanging up her incinerator for good. This is especially so if one considers that with her being unconscious during hypersleep most of the in-between-films stretches of time, the entire Alien Trilogy probably happened to Ripley over the course of a few months. I have not done the math - it may be less time then even that. With all that death and trauma, Alien3 offers her a way out. 

This was even something that Weaver herself asked for during the genesis of the project. While the comic-book-ish Alien: Resurrection does not have a lot of brains or any emotional weight (read:  any humanity whatsoever), one can perhaps appreciate the extra irony that Ripley's sacrifice at the end of the trilogy is rendered meaningless with cloning technology and that the big corporation, by another name, gets its way in the long-game. Film franchises have to be fed to the masses.  That this sloppy resurrection chapter further bleeds the meaning of her martyrdom out of the final act of Alien3, well, that just makes the film a tad more acidic.

COMPUTER RECORDING:  "This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off. "

Oft times, a great movie does not actually give its audience what it wants. It takes expectations, particularly considering big franchises, and tries to stretch things into something vastly different. James Cameron certainly accomplished that with Aliens, and I believe, David Fincher, Terry Rawlings and Vincent Ward (the curious story of his original vision of a Wooden Monastary floating in Space being the genesis a quite different final film) accomplished this despite frictions and fallings-out with the Fox executives during production.  Alien3 asks that you will swallow its poison and wallow in the last outpost (purgatory if you will) before heaven and hell where even victory results in, as per the final text of the film  "things will be closed down and sold off for scrap."  It is the only film in the series without a conventional, happy, ending and it is all the better for it.


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Ard VijnJune 6, 2012 11:09 AM

Well written Kurt, easily the most eloquent article yet in this particular miniseries!
Still hate the film though...

Kurt HalfyardJune 6, 2012 11:24 AM

Well one can only do so much Ard! (Thanks!)

I do wonder if people can ever disentangle their initial 'gut' reaction from this film (which was probably the Theatrical Cut). Agreed that it is hard to 'love' dour and depressing, but I can't help it. I certainly do love this film!

Joshua ChaplinskyJune 6, 2012 11:29 AM

Great piece.

I don't think Alien 3 is terrible. I echo the sentiment that it has a great aesthetic. In fact, I feel it is a fulfillment of the potential promised in Bop 'Til You Drop:

tederickJune 6, 2012 11:30 AM

God DAMMIT Kurt your piece is better than mine.

Well anyways here's mine. 6, 2012 12:42 PM

Great article.

I think religion is old fashioned/irrelevant in sci-fi, and its insistent promotion in many science fiction films, including Prometheus and the Alien Series, irks me to end.

Perhaps you're right about the ironic position of its use in Alien 3, but I think it was actually the wrong theme in the wrong story line regardless.

Kurt HalfyardJune 6, 2012 1:12 PM

I dunno warkwickc, I think it is used absolutely magnificently in Danny Boyle's allegory on Christianity in deceptively secular clothing. In that film, the sun is the 'awesome power of god' and it drives men mad, particularly Mark Strong's Captain Pinbacker.

James MarshJune 6, 2012 1:32 PM

Damn, you guys. The bar has been set impossibly high. There's little hope that my Alien: Resurrection piece will have anything like the same wallop. Great job! Held off reading any of them until I had seen Prometheus - which I have just done - so read through all these. Great stuff, hugely insightful while also retaining a distinctly personal perspective. We should do more series like this!

Shelagh M. Rowan-LeggJune 6, 2012 5:39 PM

I was more impressed by this when I rewatched it this week, but that was still the original theatrical cut. Hopefully I can watch the extended cut soon.

DrizzleJune 6, 2012 6:33 PM

Alien 3 is my favourite Alien Movie. Why does everyone hate it?

Mr. CavinJune 6, 2012 8:51 PM

I dug the third Alien movie from the get-go, even the hasty and confused theatrical cut was pretty satisfying to me--though later attempts to rescue Fincher's original work are a whole lot better. I guess I'm just wired for this kind of Gothic existentialism, I don't know, but the entry really does proudly nod to the gritty supernatural body horror of the seventies by dragging its pristine sci-fi right into the thick of Faustian allegory to exorcise that last little bit of horror lodged deep inside our protagonist / ourselves. Sure, it was definitely lazy literature--look, shaving Ripley's head evokes both Saint Joan and her burgeoning resemblance to the aliens themselves!--but that sense of YA earnestness doesn't do it any harm in my book. Most space horror tends toward the sterility of cold secularism (warwickc's attitude above certainly relevant), and I was chuffed to see some good old fashioned brimstone thrown into the mix.

jamesfshawJune 7, 2012 12:57 AM

I couldn't agree more. I have always admired this film for it's brilliant set and costume design as well as it's unrelentingly dismal and depressing vision of a black hyper-post capitalist universe. To a large extent - beyond the many and various problems - this is one of the few effective visions of dystopia. And I agree, the longer cut is something of a gem. Fantastic article!

SonaBoyJune 7, 2012 1:21 AM

Thanks for this thorough retrospective. This week in anticipation of Prometheus, I watched all 4 previous Alien movies. I never understood the outright hatred of this film. It's about as lean as they come. It's essentially a fist fight with the baddest species in the galaxy, and the perfect anti-thesis to the tech jock bravado of Aliens.
Fincher didn't have much room to move in, yet was able to finesse some real visceral dread and atmosphere out of a big iron cage and some dirty actors.
The hive mentality of supposed sci fi fans against this film makes me grit my teeth. I think if this film had been the second of the series, history and "fans" would also have been much kinder to it. It wouldn't have taken much punch-up to make it the sequel, either.
Excellent work.

Ard VijnJune 7, 2012 6:40 AM

Kurt, you've managed the impossible: I'm going to rewatch ALIEN3.

And I can't wait to hear your take on PROMETHEUS, so if you are not going to write an article about that please do put something in the comments here.

Kurt HalfyardJune 7, 2012 4:41 PM

Then it was totally worth the effort to write this. Also, I'm happy to see as much love as I do in this forum.

It has felt lonely out there in the darkness defending this movie (admittedly I did this even before the 2003 Assembly Cut.) I am glad to see some warm bodies have built a little campfire and huddled around it.

andrewcdubJune 7, 2012 5:21 PM

I always liked this movie to be honest. It was nothing like Aliens which I thought was good. The mood, color and just over all kinda dirty feel of the movie was good imo. I haven't seen it in a while but will definitely buy this blu ray.

archetype2311June 8, 2012 9:31 AM

I introduced a kid I know to the Alien movies and my re watching and his first watching of Alien 3 was stunning. We watched the Fincher director's cut and I was amazed I had not seen it. The images at the beginning of the ox-like beasts of burden hauling the escape shuttle out of water was awe inspiring.

Kurt HalfyardJune 8, 2012 10:33 AM

Agreed. It is kind of crazy to think that the studio would cut out so much of the beach scenes, considering that imagery INSTANTLY pulls you into the story and world of the film. Angel of Death and black leather coats (I love Charles Dance just walking into the frame, and that 90s grim-cyberpunk feel) which pre-empts The Matrix aesthetic by 7 odd years.

Kurt HalfyardJune 12, 2012 2:10 PM

One thing I read today, that I feel I should add to the conversation of Alien is that it broke almost every rule of making a sequel, but the cardinal rule of always going BIGGER with each entry. The fact that Alien3 went much smaller in scope (but fortunately not in Ripley's character) in terms of one small Alien and no weapons is very forward thinking - and that is excellent Sequel makin' folks!