Wednesday, January 04, 2006

"David Wanted the Feeling That You Were Completely Fucked": Forty Reasons Why ALIEN 3 Sucks

At this point in David Fincher's career, with his thematic concerns and recognizable technique firmly in place, it is tempting to return to Alien 3 (1992) for reevaluation. In common complaint/ explanation for box office failure, the film is too dark and mean-spirited (or in frequent dismissive misnomer, "nihilistic") for popular tastes, or bucks the expectations of franchise fans. I feel those explanations are passive-aggressive judgments that indicate the movie is too sophisticated for the multiplex set who ate up the precedingAliens. And I think they're wrong.

I understand the impulse of any Fincher fan capable of complex grappling with Se7en and Fight Club, to retroactively apply what they've found to Alien 3. For all of those films' grim images and storylines fraught with destruction, Se7en is ultimately meditative about our violent world, and filled with hope, and Fight Club a jet black sick joke satire. They're difficult works because their protagonists spend the majority of the running time with their brains at thematic odds with Fincher's ultimate messages. But Alien 3 is not Se7en in embryonic form; Alien 3 is just a bloody mess.

There are a multitude of reasons why this happened, long explanations of how it happened, and a hundred reasons the defensive can give about why none of this is David Fincher's fault. Those stories aren't of concern in the below list. I don't care whose fault it is.

Most terrifying place is jail? A giant fan? Oh, oh, you're trying to imply "Earth," aren't you? Ha ha. You wish.

1. Creature redesign

The idea is that the Alien partially replicates the anatomy of its host is not one that tickles me particularly in the first place. Because a) it's the idea of The Thing, b) it's a latter-day rule-rewrite. The first two films have bipedal monsters, but no concrete explanation that they've somehow absorbed human DNA. The idea doesn't particularly make sense, and these guys are complicated enough anyway. So when the Alien sucks up some rottweiler DNA, it's both confusing and a disappointing bad design. Part of what works for the original Giger design is the recognizable human elements poking through the biomechanics and ectoplasm.

2. Nothing happens

Until the grand finale, the essential plot is repeated wholesale from Alien. Just as James Cameron is proud that his sequel expanded the story, character, world and logically extended the narrative from the first film, so should Alien 3 be a little ashamed that it collapses back into the smothering Ten Little Indians-in-space story of Alien. There's a bunch of people trapped in dark hallways, and they get killed despite their best efforts. Any illusion that Ripley's character arc does anything but leapfrog backwards is strictly motion-control.

3. Nihilism confuses series themes

I suppose when people call Alien 3 "nihilistic," they're referring to the ending. No one says it about the other films, which are just as much about slaughtering every character one by one. It must be that Alien lets a cute orange cat live. This isn't the time to discuss a reading of Ripley's sacrifice at the end of Alien 3, but whether you consider it bleakly beautiful and noble, or a cynical last-ditch compromise, it confuses the issue of Ripley's survivor instinct. There's a point being made in Alien and Aliens about Ripley's singular ability to survive the creatures, a point about the character, the nature of female resilience, and sheer blue-collar gutsiness. If self-sacrifice were ever an option for Ripley, she could've simply blown-up her escape pod at the end of Alien. She could've told Newt to haul Bishop into the Sulaco and get off the platform while she distracted the Queen with a power loader scuffle. But Ripley doesn't do those things. But she is awfully eager to jump into a fire-pit in Alien 3 before exhausting all other options.

4. Newt autopsy

Even after nine seasons of "X-Files," and nightly "Forensic Files" viewing, Newt's autopsy is particularly unpleasantly staged. The physical and psychic ickiness of a nude child being cut open would be fine the scene were there to drive home Ripley's cool determination to confront the Alien at all personal cost. Instead it seems like a cruel joke on the character. Take that, Rips.

5. Alien life-cycle...

... altered and confused. So where do Queens come from? How do they plant their babies in chests? Because I don't see any huge facehugger finger welts on Ripley's face.

6. EEV scan hides SFX

There is very cool special-effects work somewhere behind the fake-o video noise on the medical scan of Ripley's torso. Somewhere in there is a little puppet of a baby Alien Queen. One presumes anyhow, that is what freaks out Ripley and Aaron on the monitor. But you know what? If I didn't know already, I couldn't tell you that.

7. Where's the acid blood?

The most giddily retarded idea about the Alien is that it has acid blood. It's also the most ripe with possibility for interesting ways to damage bodies, objects, and sets. Maybe I'm just overly infatuated with Alien: Resurrection, which is obsessed with the acid blood. And maybe the acid doesn't matter as much without the threat of it "eating through the hull." But Alien 3 seems to hate the acid blood.

8. Clemens' secret

Ripley finds a sort-of friend with the sort-of nice prison doctor, not because they have any chemistry, but he's the only non-fanatic or person with any conversational skills on the planet. So why is he so twitchy when asked why he's on Fiorina 161? If you guessed "he's a prisoner," blue-ribbon dumbbell screenwriting machine points for you. But can you guess why he's a prisoner? If you even bother to guess, the joke's on you. It doesn't matter, and isn't terribly interesting after all the build-up. Nor does it enrich his character. Nor does it enrich Ripley's character that she still trusts Clemens after learning of his crime. It's not like she has much choice.

9. "Religion"

A big, presumably Symbolic idea of the prison world is that the convicts have all become monk-like religious converts. The film is astute enough to make this manifest in costume design; the men are shaved bald and wearing heavy robes for diegetic and metaphorical reasons. Unfortunately the nature of this religion is neither spelled out, nor tied-up with the story in literal or figurative ways. You can't just stick a big cross made of junk on the planet's surface and expect us to do the symbolic work for you.

10. Dillon's speech

In a magnificent eyeball-roller of a scene, Charles S. Dutton's Dillon gives a top-of-his-lungs pep talk to his fellow prisoners. It's the kind of locker room team pump-up nonsense that could've easily been in less tasteful writers' first drafts of Alien or Aliens. "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!" Indeed. That Alien never gave him anything. So fuck it. Who would think a mere ex-thug murderer contained such eloquent and passionate speech in his reformed criminal heart? No wonder these men look to him as a leader. Let's fight it!

11. Toxic waste room = no payoff

Please tell me in detail about the place where you can trap the Alien, including the room's history, and set up an elaborate plan, and then follow through on none of these things.

12. The Warrior and the Queen

It's a scary moment, and a great trailer clip, when the Alien sticks its face in Ripley's and hisses. Then it runs away. Because, you see, Ripley has a baby Queen inside her. Instead of letting the most precious of chestbursters be carried around by a woman who wants to destroy it, mightn't the Alien wish to cocoon the host to prevent damage to Her Royal Slimeness? It's not unheard-of protocol to cocoon rooms full of colonists simply to host regular hoppy Aliens. And judging by their behavior in Aliens, warriors will do anything, including self-sacrifice, to protect the Queen... unless, stipulates Alien 3, she hasn't popped out yet.

13. "I can't do it myself" : Ripley pusses out

I don't believe there's anything Ripley can't will herself to do, including kill herself if necessary. If she can't, it's because there's still another way out. The situation doesn't seem particularly more dire in the middle of the film than at the finale: the Company is coming either way. So. I say we fight it!

14. Last survivor

Part of the Ripley Thing is - er, was- that she's literally the last man standing in the face of interplanetary rape-menace in Alien, and fights all comers and homewreckers (also literally) to reconstruct a figurative family in Aliens. She fights forces which attack the heart (and chest!) of female values and not only stops them, but comes out on top. In Alien 3 she sacrifices herself that she may a) kill her metaphorical baby and b) let a sole ex-convict escape from Hell. This doesn't resonate; it thuds.

15. "I am a murderer and rapist of women": Dillon's arc

Dillon doesn't change in any appreciable way. Seismic character shifts are not a requirement of good drama by any means, though I think the film is trying hard to indicate Dillon's moved from asshole to saint. Certainly his selfless sacrifice is the inspiration for Ripley's a few minutes later. If anything, his bone-headed tough-love spirituality is vindicated... which is out of place in Fincher's larger body of work, and this secular series. As Miss Haley Mills says in Pollyanna, "he sure does sermonize somethin' fierce!" But so far as I can tell, the other prisoners listen to him because he will beat them up with a pipe if they do not.

16. Ugly without poetry

There's an undeniable effort to make the movie look like... something. To make it look dirty, wet, rusty, gooey, uncomfortable and hazy. But the same adjective list can be hauled out again for Se7en, which is beautiful, and for a whole host of stylish films outside Fincher's oeuvre, not least of all Alien. There's no grandeur, even in the large sets. There's no eccentric, interesting detail in the small sets. The only attractive element of the generally lusterluss photography is the color-coding of the chilly blue morgue, orange fan shaft and red furnaces, but it can't save the uninspired designs.

17. Alien-cam

It's disappointing to see what the world looks like through the Alien's eyes, but we do repeatedly in the final "leadworks trap" chase sequences. It's a demystifying idea of a mythic monster, and besides, the silly image distortion may indicate the beast sees less clearly than humans. The spinning Steadicam perspective could be a woozy thrill in another context, but we should not peer through the eyes this most unknowable of creatures. Especially since they don't appear to have eyes.

18. Leadworks trap: What? Who? Where?

The entirety of Panic Room plays like an apology or penance for the theoretical action climax of Alien 3. It's possible to watch the sequence and think you've seen the same screaming bald guy run down the same hallway five times. The later film is obsessed with making sure we know measurements, comprehend spatial relationships, and technical details of room layout all so that we may confirm that the outrageous suspense gimmicks are playing by the meticulously established rules. Alien 3 can't bother to show us a blueprint.

19. Underused Postlethwaite

Pete Postlethwaite plays one of a dozen identifying-mark-less inmates. If you'd told me it was possible to make matinee action junk so bland even Postlethwaite wouldn't make an impression, I'd direct you to The Lost World to prove you wrong. Zero opportunities for one of the best character actors alive to do anything weird, funny or memorable.

20. Only interesting characters wasted early

Problems with Clemens' backstory aside, he and Warden Andrews are the closest the film musters to believably shaded characters. This is mostly due to Brian Glover's funny performance as Andrews and Clemens being the only inmate who does more than scream or grumble. Andrews is wasted in an early surprise attack that boils down to a failed jump-scare gag. I suppose Clemens' early demise is intended as a variation on the Psycho-style shocking death. The secret of why this works for Psycho is that you end up following the most darkly appealing character after you lose your surrogate. In Alien 3 there's no one you'll want to spend time with.

21. Ripley's loooong gestation

Just me, or do these things take longer to incubate as the series progresses? Kane was only awake for a few minutes before he blew blood and Maypo all over the breakfast table, and he was in bad shape before that. But here Ripley is running around all day with occasional indigestion pains.

22. "This is a maximum security prison, and you have no weapons of any kind?"

I've got to share Ripley's disbelief here. It's a "cool" what-if plot conceit, battling Aliens without firepower, but best save it for another story. Another story not set in a place that would most certainly have weapons.

23. Bishop didn't wake them up?

I'll suspend my disbelief and assume that somehow, at some point at the end of Aliens, the Queen got inside the Sulaco for a minute and squirted out a couple eggs. Or whatever. I'm a little stumped as to why some monitoring system in Bishop or the flight computer didn't alert the crew and shake them out of hypersleep the very second the motion detectors picked up lifeforms. Or does Wayland-Yutani program computers to kindly smooth over all plot holes?

24. Golic disappears

One of the prisoners is driven mad by witnessing Alien attacks and is taken, wounded and gibbering, to the infirmary. Then he disappears from the movie. The studio-apology extended cut does explain this by restoring a goofy subplot which also pays off the toxic waste room. The point I'm trying to make isn't that the demented-Golic-frees-captured-Alien plot was crucial or well written. It's that the story was carelessly excised, leaving all the set-ups still clinging to the rest of the film. Then Data runs in and tells the reporter they saw an octopus.

25. Fury 161 back-story: What?

So it's a prison planet. But it's also a leadworks. But then they decided to close the leadworks. But they let some guys stay on it. Because you gotta have some guys looking after your closed-down leadworks! So it's a maximum security prison where a warden and assistant are paid full wages to look after 25 prisoners, and expenses are covered for semi-regular supply ships to fly out. Because that is money very well spent instead of moving a handful of prisoners out of the abandoned factory and into a real prison.

26. Hicks is dead. Let's fuck!

I'm sure the logic here is that any of us, after having been through so much exhausting adventure and prolonged isolation as Ripley, would need to get laid. That much is true. Problem is, the last exhausting adventure she went through was coping with the loss of the last man with whom she connected. Your personal take on if Hicks and Ripley relationship is your business, but my feeling is: it's the kind of thing where you know you're going to be in love in a month, as soon as shit calms down. Promiscuity and/or self-destructiveness is not an infrequent part of the mourning process. Kieslowski's Blue is partly a poetic, lump-in-throat examination of this phenomenon. I do not get the feeling Alien 3 has any psychology so complicated in mind. Besides the bad-taste disrespectful timing for Ripley, as the only successful literal sex in the first three films, it pales in compare to the clever and sweet metaphorical sex scene in Aliens. If you missed it, it's the one where Hicks shows Ripley how to handle his pulse rifle.

27. Shh! There's an alien. Don't tell anyone!

Ripley may be soured on warning people about the Alien after suffering Steve-McQueen-in-The-Blob Syndrome in Aliens. But it's different when you're locked up in a building with the monster. So why she needs to beat around the bush even after making friends with kindly Dr. Clemens, I cannot tell you.

28. Outrunning the beast

I heard this kid saying once that if he made an Alien movie, the first rule would be if a human and an Alien were on screen together? That human was dead meat. No chance of survival. You don't see an Alien and live.

That's a dorky way to put it, but... he was right.

29. So isn't the queen alive?

Aliens can float around in space without dying. They can be coated in molten lead and live. Please tell me why we should think the chestburster queen is successfully killed in Ripley's lava swan-dive?

30. Missed opportunity: repressed sexuality

Someone had the twisted good taste to hire H.R. Giger to design a creepy-sexual monster (O'Bannon and Scott will both take credit, but O'Bannon not taking credit is like Alien 5: Jonesy's Story: ain't gonna happen). And by the end of Alien: Resurrection, Whedon and Jeunet have the smarts to let Ripley tongue-kiss the monster and roll around on the Queen's giant slimy labia. So where, in this entry about men isolated from women, where the only sexuality on display is a mercy-fuck and a near rape, is any semblance of the Alien as a psychosexual metaphor? It's unfair to judge a film for what it doesn't even attempt to do, but it seems the story is halfway to acknowledging this idea, and chickens out.

31. Tell me one thing about any of these guys

What are David and Troy like? Do you even recognize those men from their names? How does William feel about Ripley's presence on Fiorina? The first film was notoriously brief in the character department, but I can tell you the Nostromo crew's names, funny things they did, how they feel about other specific crew members, and how they fit into the ship's social dynamic. Over the course of incarceration, the Fiorinans have developed no dynamic except that Dillon is a blowhard.

32. Opticals all suck

Moaning about special effects is normally dullard's film criticism, but the image compositing is really distracting here. Did they forget to light the puppet like it was running through the same dark hallway as the guy two steps ahead? It's slipshod matte work on objects that are otherwise moving in a convincing manner.

33. Boring set design

Corridor. Corridor. School nurse office. Cafeteria. Junkyard. They're boring locations - surely they would've worked in that abandoned warehouse that features in all low-budget cops and robbers pictures if they could have. Alien, after returning from the jaw-dropping derelict ship, is mostly set in corridors, kitchens and medical labs. But from the padded womby Mother computer chamber to the dining room that suggests an operating theatre, to that strange cathedral filled with nothing but a jungle of hanging chains and dripping water, the first film proves there are ways to make everyday settings beautiful, striking, or at worst interesting. Alien 3 certainly has a lot of corridors. I think. I'm not positive, because they all look like the same corridor.

34. Fire trap: no payoff

There are scenes - excitingly different, but linked by nature - in the first two films, where firepower is assembled (Dallas with flamethrower, Colonial Marines with guns), Aliens are hunted, and humans are ambushed. In those scenes, the humans fail because "superior firepower" ain't enough if you can't see where the monster is coming from. Thematically, it's a matter of learning to master those dark spaces and traps and use them as intuitively as the thing you fear, and use single-function tools in a nontraditional manner; mastery and cleverness which Ripley is eventually able to achieve. In 3, the trap to use noxious fire chemicals to lure the Alien down the correct corridors fails because some idiot drops a match.

It's funny, I would normally like a film set in a universe so capricious. However, I want some kind of narrative and thematic development (and yes, yes, series continuity), not repeated rug-pulling.

35. We want facehuggers!

Might just be that James Cameron seemed as fascinated by facehuggers as Jeunet is by acid blood, and they don't want to overdose us on the little guys. This movie does everything possible to avoid showing us any huggies, though.

36. Less gore is more in THIS?

Everything from little girls to cute dogs get their torsos ripped apart in Alien 3. So why does Fincher occasionally cut away from some deaths? Variety? Look, as long as you're doing Slaughter High in a space prison, you might as well give us the stylish death scenes that are the lifeblood (and have the high-style potential) of the slasher genre.

37. Rape! Now we're pals

As attempted rape scenes go, Alien's moments during Ash's meltdown wherein he tries to mouth-sodomize Ripley with a rolled-up girlie magazine are scarier, more bizarre and somehow more on the money. Alien 3 has Ripley getting jumped in the rainy junkyard, which is kind of a metaphor for the movie. At least she gets saved by burly black fellows both times, in a rare nod to series unity. The problem is, I don't buy that Ripley would give two figs about any of these people after this incident.

The beasts close in on Ripley: but who is worse? The Alien, or the company that wants it for a weapon?! WHO IS WORSE? WHO? WHO? NOOOOO!

38. Quit wandering around, you!

Nobody in this movie wants her running around, but for unexplained plot-necessary reasons, everyone refuses to take any steps to confine Ripley! Not the Aliens, not even a prison warden, whose only job is to imprison people. Instead Warden Andrews screams at her not to leave the doctor's office, and she pouts.

39. Look, show the shark, or don't show the shark

Alien makes the choice to keep its main creature's shocking visage in the shadows, for maximum impact of its rare appearances. Alien: Resurrection makes the choice that, as Mr. Jeunet has said, we all know what the Alien looks like; the mystery is gone. You might just as well show it, and let yourself make a more balls-out "monster movie." Similar to the film's sometimes-graphic, sometimes-coy gore, the Aliens are variously revealed like some big secret, and shown in full light for entire action sequences.

40. Title

The only series title with a numeric tag, 3 is a nothing title, and looks foolish next to three other cleverly named films. At least, given the boring possibilities, the logo designers came up with ane eye-catching, numeral-decreasing way to typeset the title on an absolute stunner of a poster. And really, it doesn't make you flinch like Alien Vs. Predator, huh?

1 comment:

Cinefantastique Online said...

Good post, but your first point is wrong - that claim that having aliens take on their host's characteristics is a later-day rewriter. In the first alien, after Brett gets killed, Parker says that alien walked upright like a man, and Ash (who knows more about the alien than anybody) mouths the word's "Kane's son." Although Ash does not give a "concreate explanation" for how Kane's DNA could have affected the chestburster, the clear implication is that the alien has aquired some characteristics from its "father."