Alien Territory Part 3
And so the drop ship roars into the problem zone of the third Alien film, in a tangled situation entirely created by Fox’s suits.
The crowd-pleasing ‘Aliens’ had proven such a massive success that the franchise was now cursed with too-high expectations. You couldn’t go bigger, but could you scale it back? Our company had had no involvement with the second picture even though it was also shot in London, but on the third film constantly changing multi-coloured scripts (always a worrying sign) started turning up in our offices with frightening speed. Advice was sought; what would you do with this? How about this? As fast as we read each one, it was gone. We held opinion polls, gave gut advice, read and read more. Here’s what the sinister Weyland-Fox Corporation did instead.
Vincent Ward had made the mud-soaked medieval ‘The Navigator’, his calling card for ‘Alien 3’. The studio team’s idea was to explore ‘the underhanded Weyland–Yutani Corporation facing off with a militarily aggressive culture of humans whose rigid socialist ideology has caused them to separate from Earth’s society.’ Always a crowd pleaser, that theme.
The unspoken plan was to reduce Ripley to a cameo and replace her with Hicks in another war zone. Fox had already emasculatedWeaver’s role by removing key background scenes from ‘Aliens’. In the blur of changes, cyberpunk writer William Gibson came on board and his script, from the bits I saw, was a mess of half-baked ideas, but delivered on action. Unfortunately it became known as ‘Aliens in a Shopping Mall’ and was to be helmed by hack action director Renny Harlin, who now specialises in Far East action flicks, although he must be credited for having wanted to bring the aliens to Earth.
At one point the alien became a sort-of metaphor for HIV, but could have better represented human cancer if it had to represent anything. The main problem was that it seemed as if no-one was that interested in the alien part of the saga anymore. The public was expecting the creatures to reach Earth, and to be fought by Hicks, Ripley and Newt, a surrogate blue-collar family against an elitist corporation that might have been born from ‘Blade Runner”s Tyrell Corporation.
The ubiquitous Eric Red, David Twohy and other fashionable writers came and went (the film ended up with six writer credits) but no-one could fill the admittedly impossible criteria set by Fox executives.
By now the story was set on a wooden planet of religious extremists with no tools but their faith to fight the creatures, a sound idea but a place-card to hold the franchise back from Earth (I’ve always wondered why and assume it was simply too expensive for Fox, who wanted to shoot 3 and 4 back to back to save money). Monks on a dungeon-like satellite with pent-up sexual anger and down-and-dirty fighting – it seemed there would be enough going on without much room for a new alien creature as well – but the project was due for one more change.
David Fincher was a good choice to pick up the reins, a cerebral, original director with a clear-cut visual aesthetic. The wooden planet morphed into a prison world populated by British character actors. When Brian Glover, the prison warden, shouted ‘That’s enooof!’ the UK audience fell about laughing. Almost every single prisoner is played by a recognisable face. Look, there’s Withnail! And Philip Davies, from all those Mike Leigh films! Of course, it might have been just me who was bothered by it. America was the prime market back then, and the UK audience counted for little.
Fincher wanted a fresh alien, a rod-puppet creature from a genetic branch-line, something new and different, a fast-moving, uncatchable cross between a puma and a whippet.
But by now a classic conflict had emerged. The producers simply did not trust their new director, and every idea was gradually watered down. Some great moments survive. A cameo from android Bishop, a rare warm scene with addicted doctor Charles Dance, the arguing prisoners eventually uniting and the final tragic farewell/fuck you for Ripley as the corporates watch in horror.
But a fundamental mistake had been made at the outset. The audience had been denied satisfaction with the brutal off-screen deaths of the carefully set up new family, and a particularly brutal end to lovable Newt, who underwent the indignity of an autopsy. Instead of Cameron’s warmth was (for me) a welcome return to an ice-cold aesthetic. There were plenty of cool strange ideas – the planet being covered with ticks, for example, but many were lost. The prisoners were simply annoying, and the obligatory running-around-in-tunnels lacked any sense of geography to create tension.(Compare this with Ben Wheatley’s ‘Free Fire’, in which all the suspense arises from knowing exactly where everyone is).
The film is exhaustingly claustrophobic, its caramel-coloured corridors and bald criminals proving visually interchangeable. It disappointed audiences and was torn apart from critics who thought they had better ideas of where the series should go (but of course they’re critics and rarely create anything).
Several years later a grace note emerged with an alternative producer’s cut that feels genuinely different. It included 37 minutes and 12 seconds of new footage and better takes, to the point here, watching the two films side by side, you wonder why the theatrical release version made such terrible choices.
The alternate cut starts on a beach with the alien entering a tick-covered cow. There’s a slower, more contemplative pace overall, with the hopes and motives of the prisoners clearly delineated, so that their conversion to a new religion and their final cohesion into a group makes sense. Many sequences are ironically cross cut with opposing scenes – the burial service of Hicks and Newt against the birth of the new alien sets the tone for the rest of the film. The director’s cut makes sense in a way the studio cut doesn’t, the suits clearly driven by a fear of losing audience interest, a risk the newer cut brazenly flauts.
It’s no surprise that a disappointed Fincher disowned the release cut of the film and refused to talk about it. (For the full story see Dave Hughes’ ‘The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made’). But the ‘Alien 3 Alternative Cut’ is a lot better than what was to come.
To be continued