Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. With his latest, Mank, now on Netflix, we’re spending December rifling through the cold, exacting details of David Fincher and the ways his music-video-inspired aesthetics changed American filmmaking. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Aliens (1986) ended on an ostensibly happy note. After a harrowing battle with swarms of acid-spewing xenomorphs, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), marine Hicks (Michael Biehn), android Bishop (Lance Henriksen), and young Newt (Carrie Henn) went into hyper-sleep. They were on their way home, but of course the horror would continue, though not how anyone predicted. After years of development hell and creative differences, Alien 3 (1992) emerged six years later. In fact, it inspired such revulsion from virtually everyone that it seemed as though it might single-handedly kill off not just the series, but also the career of the first-time filmmaker David Fincher.
Although Fincher’s hiring may have struck observers at the time as an odd move, it fit the earlier films’ pattern of up-and-coming, visually distinct filmmakers helming their first big studio project. Fincher hadn’t directed a feature. However, he was already known for music videos he had done for Madonna, Aerosmith, and George Michael, which demonstrated a unique sensibility the producers hoped would transfer to the franchise. That would prove to be an understatement.
One might have readily assumed the screenplay for Alien 3 would center on Ripley and her fellow survivors. The script—credited to David Glier, Walter Hill, and Larry Ferguson but reported reworked by Fincher and author Rex Pickett quickly disabused viewers of that notion. Instead, it opened by killing off all but Ripley before a crash on Fiorina 161, a men’s maximum-security prison led by a warden (Brian Glover) and a few flunkies. To twist the knife even further, once Ripley wakes up and learns what happened, she insists to the prison doctor, Clemens (Charles Dance), that an autopsy be performed on Newt. She finds nothing in Newt, but it turns out one of the face-huggers attached itself to the ship, already infecting an inmate’s dog.
For those of you keeping score, this means that within the first 20-odd minutes, Fincher has killed off a little young girl and a dog. He also takes additional time to show the autopsy of the former and the equally grisly emergence of a new alien creature from the latter. If Fincher tried to do something along those lines today, his reputation as a master of bleak and uncompromising storytelling might—might—have allowed him to get away with it. To do it within the first reel of one’s first film is certainly an audacious move, but at the time it turned the audience against it entirely. Even horror buffs were outraged by the cavalier disposal of Newt, Aliens’ emotional force.
Before long, Ripley discovers an alien made the journey with her. Clemens informs her there are no weapons to be had on the planet. (This detail was apparently done at the insistence of Weaver, who disliked acting with guns in Aliens.) The now-grown alien begins picking off the prisoners and the warden says to hide and wait for the rescue ship. Knowing better, Ripley bands the prisoners together to lure and drown the creature in molten lead before the corporation reps can take it. While the creature decimates the prisoners, it mysteriously doesn’t kill Ripley and when she the very personal why that is the case, it becomes more than just a case of destroying the alien.
It’s no exaggeration to say virtually everyone hated Alien 3 when it opened. 20th Century Fox was irate that Fincher took a sure-fire property and turned it into a downer that seemed to go out of its way to kill off the series for good. Fincher, meanwhile, was upset with Fox for their studio interference and his belief that the studio made him the scapegoat of an instantly doomed production. To this day, his few comments on the experience are contemptuous. When the series was being prepared for a DVD box set, he was the only director to not participate.) Audiences were appalled as well, and while it made decent money worldwide, it was an American box office disappointment with a slew of negative reviews.
And yet, for all of its flaws—chiefly the somewhat messy narrative that eventually devolves into a series of chases during the final third—Alien 3 was never as bad as its reputation suggested. When people see it today with a better idea of who Fincher is as a filmmaker, they may be surprised to discover how effective it really is. Despite the production headaches, Fincher presents a clear cinematic vision from start to finish that’s undeniably striking to behold. It’s always visually breathtaking, and although the chases get a bit repetitive towards the end, Fincher infuses the material with a genuine sense of dread thanks in part to Elliot Goldenthal’s creepily effective score.
It’s always visually breathtaking, and although the chases get a bit repetitive towards the end, Fincher infuses the material with a genuine sense of dread.
It’s just as strong as the moods that Scott and Cameron lent to their installments. The film also has the grace of a very strong performance by Weaver as Ripley, who, outfitted with a Falconetti-style buzzcut and nothing to lose, is as fierce as ever while bringing the tragedy of her existence to the center. In fact, I might go so far as to suggest that her work here is her strongest of the four Alien films she’s done to date.
Coming on the heels of two instant classics, Alien 3 was probably always doomed to come across as a disappointment to many viewers. But no one, with the possible exception of Fincher, could have dreamed that it would go on to—no pun intended—alienate so many of them in the process. Despite that, it proved to be a more than worthy addition to the series with its borderline avant-garde mood meshing with the equally distinctive aesthetics of its predecessors.
For fans of Fincher, it’s equally interesting. While the singular vision he would display in his subsequent films is somewhat diluted here, you can still see a great and distinctive filmmaker beginning to emerge amidst the chaos. Both the Alien franchise and Fincher’s career would survive the Alien 3 experience, but it’s safe to say that neither one nor the filmmaking world would be the same afterward.