Welcome back to our trawl through the Alien universe! After starting back to front with gung-ho actioner Aliens followed by Ridley Scott’s cerebral sci-fi chiller Alien, we’re back in release order for David Fincher’s divisive and dark Alien 3.
Controversially stripping Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, now a producer with no small amount of clout) of her potential happily ever after when both Hicks and Newt are killed when her shuttle plummets out of the sky, our beleaguered heroine finds herself stranded on a godforsaken foundry-turned-prison with a rogues’ gallery of double-Y chromo villains, who have found a very apocalyptic version of Christanity at the arse end of space. Unfortunately, aside from a terminally tattered Bishop (Lance Henriksen), there is, in fact, another survivor of the accident – a familiar, vicious creature set to wreak havoc on the unarmed and disbelieving inmates. Forming a tentative bond with the mysterious medical officer Clemens (Charles Dance), a grudging mutual respect with the evangelical Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), and butting heads with the officious and ineffectual warden Andrews (Brian Glover), Ripley finds herself once again the only person who can stand between the xenomorph and the shadowy Weyland-Yutani Corporation who wish to get their hands on this perfect organism.
Beset by production woes from its very inception, the always-terrific Quadrilogy boxset making-of documentary was especially revealing for this film. The massive success, financially and critically, of Cameron’s sequel ignited 20th Century Fox’s interest in milking the series for more. However, primary series producers Walter Hill, David Giler and Gordon Carroll (collectively Brandywine Films) were less keen, feeling that they’d said all they could with the property, and star Sigourney Weaver seemed to agree. Somewhat reluctantly getting the ball rolling, Giler, Hill and Carroll started commissioning various scripts, trying to avoid aping the grimy-corridors-and-big-guns aesthetic the first sequel had set up, and having to work around Weaver’s potential no-show. Cyberpunk author William Gibson’s version, focussing on Bishop and Hicks’ travails in dealing with The Company’s machinations, became both a published book, a comics miniseries, and an immersive audio play but went undeveloped for production. Later drafts from The Hitcher scribe Eric Red and future Pitch Black creator David Twohy in the late 80s were rejected for either deviating too much, or not enough, from Brandywine’s plans and from the pattern left by Cameron. Stand-by director Renny Harlin departed, disappointed by the direction, or lack of, for the project. This nudged Brandywine into offering Weaver a bumper payday and a producer credit to return to the series (that, along with Fox’s insistence that she be brought on board in line with audience expectations).
Next up, Kiwi Vincent Ward was brought on board after impressing producers with both his visually resplendent body of work, and a bold and weird idea to set the film on a giant floating wooden planet peopled by space monks. However, despite a greenlight and expensive sets already being produced, the studio got cold feet and tried to remove the central elements of the story once the director had arrived at the location. With money now sunk in to set and creature designs, a release date already set, even a teaser trailer deployed, and a furious director walking off the film, Giler and Hill scrambled to assemble a workable draft that spliced ideas from their scattered scripts – the isolated religious group of Ward’s, space prisoners from Twohy’s, and set piece elements from Red’s, and hired first-time feature director David Fincher, the latest music video and commercials hotshot in town who came with a pedigree of training at ILM.
An arduous shoot, including legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth having to leave production due to ill health, was exacerbated by last minute script changes that occasionally resulted in jarring tonal and story inconsistenies from one scene to another. After the studio called time on production due to spiralling costs, a tug of war over the editing process began, stretching out for an entire year and involving expensive reshoots to completely reconstruct the ending of the film. Released to disappointing notices but a decent box office haul, it was nevertheless considered a flop given the pedigree of what it followed. When Fox decided to offer all 4 ‘Quadrilogy’ directors the opportunity to overhaul their films with the special edition reissue in 2003, Fincher conspicuously declined to be involved, instead authorising the boxset’s producer Charles de Lauzirika to use deleted scenes and Fincher’s editing room notes to construct an alternative version alongside editor Terry Rawlings that, in the initial home video version, was very visibly an assembly cut but in the eyes of many viewers, added character and story beats that helped paper over some of the more headscratching errors in the theatrical cut, as well as quite significantly changing the events of the narrative. The later Blu-ray reissue does a fantastic job of better integrating those additional scenes in to the film proper, creating a fascination contrast between the two versions that offers a tantalising glimpse of what a better prepared, or better supported, Fincher may have produced given the opportunity.
While you’re here, please take a bit of time if you like to head to Ralph Brown’s (Mr Aaron, A.K.A “85”) website, where you can read his diaries of his time on set, including the extremely tense discussions that led to his character’s complete rewriting from capable, sneaky survivor to literal dunce and his obvious displeasure with that.