It’s baffling that Alien3 exists in the form that it does. The third installment of the hit franchise was nearly meddled to death by a studio that balked at the crazy original concept (Monks! A wooden planet!) before barreling into production with a first-time director and lacking a completed script. You’d think that that kind of Hollywood sausage-making would produce something incoherent but safe; something familiar to audiences who were exhilarated by James Cameron’s bombastic, gun-toting take on the series. But that’s not what happened. Alien3 doesn’t care what you want. It doesn’t aim to please any crowds. It kicks things off by souring the classic 20th Century Fox fanfare, destroys everything Ellen Ripley has left in her life before the opening titles have even finished, then goes on to become what might be the bleakest blockbuster sequel ever made. Alien3 takes the traditionally upbeat ending of Aliens and rips it into bloody chunks.
This is especially true in the case of the film’s so-called Assembly Cut.
Given the extensive studio interference, director David Fincher has disowned Alien3. When asked to put together an extended version for the Alien Quadrilogy box set, he declined. That job fell to documentarian Charles de Lauzirika, who worked from Fincher’s notes in putting it together. It’s not a true director’s cut, but it’s the closest we’ve got to Fincher’s vision for the film.
In broad strokes, the Assembly Cut is similar to the theatrical. Thanks to a facehugger-instigated fire on the Sullaco, Ripley and her new friends from Aliens are ejected into space and their escape pod crashes on the godforsaken prison rock of Fiorina “Fury” 161. Ripley, the only survivor, is taken in by the staff and Bible-thumping inmates of the penal colony. Needless to say, they inadvertently take in a xenomorph as well. While the narrative of the Assembly Cut is essentially the same, there are some very noticeable differences. We have more character beats for some of the supporting characters, for instance, and there are alternate versions of elements that are more fleshed out than before. In one visually striking early scene we are shown Clemens (Charles Dance) finding Ripley’s soot-blackened and flea-covered body on the beach. Later, the xenomorph (aka the Dragon, aka the Beast) is birthed from a dead ox instead of the dog of the theatrical cut. The changes aren’t earth-shattering, but the final product feels richer and better paced.
However, the most significant change to the narrative is also the most interesting to me, and it has to do with Ripley’s first plan to deal with the Dragon. The plan, as portrayed in theaters, involves slathering the walls with highly flammable “quinitricetyline” and igniting it, forcing the fire-averse xeno into a toxic waste containment unit where it can be trapped. The Dragon, as you might expect, has other ideas. When it attacks one of the inmates the fire is set off prematurely, killing and injuring many, and the plan is ruined. In the Assembly Cut, the fire still happens and people are killed, but Junior (the attempted rapist with the teardrop tattoo) sacrifices himself by luring the Dragon into the toxic waste unit. Ripley slams the door. Mission accomplished. Dragon trapped.
For a while.
Enter Golic. Golic is mentally unstable, even by Fury 161 standards. When the Dragon slays a couple of his fellow inmates, leaving him alive as a witness, it’s generally assumed that Golic killed them. Only Ripley believes his story. In the theatrical cut, Golic vanishes from the film soon after. Based on the theatrical cut, I assumed he was released after it became obvious he wasn’t lying about the Dragon (His name for it!), but he later perished in the blaze. However, in the Assembly Cut, Golic is tied to a hospital bed throughout the rest of the cast’s fiery misadventures, only to be released after the beast is captured. Releasing Golic? Probably not such a good idea. Golic isn’t playing with a full deck, and he’s become obsessed with the Dragon to the point of worshiping it. He kills the inmate guarding the containment unit and opens the door, releasing the beast and killing himself in the process.
I feel that this sequence of events directly references elements of Alien and eventually subverts them. Ripley’s idea to trap the Dragon is clearly lifted from the strategy of the crew of the Nostromo: hem the creature in, use fire to drive it down a path, then shove it through a door which is then slammed behind it. But how do the plans differ? On a surface level the goal is inverted. In Alien the plan is to purge the xenomorph from the cramped ship by blasting it out into the infinite vacuum of space. In Alien3, the plan is to get rid of the Dragon by shoving it into a small space and locking it up. That inversion signifies to me that the film isn’t merely mimicking its ancestors.
How else are the plans different? Captain Dallas would tell you how things worked out the first time if he weren’t, you know, dead. In Alien3 the plan works! I’m not saying a few eyebrows weren’t singed, but the results speak for themselves: the Dragon went through the door. While both Alien and Aliens end with Ripley triumphant, having given the beast the boot through an open airlock, it’s after almost everyone else is dead and it comes about through happenstance. In other words, this sort of clearcut victory is rare in this franchise, which makes its undoing feel all the more painful. It is after this that Ripley realizes she has been implanted with an Alien Queen and becomes resigned to her fate. All is lost.
How Alien3 mimics and then rejects the traditional franchise ending could easily be a bit of juvenile nonsense, but that’s not what the film is up to. Despite its nihilistic reputation, it does end on a triumphant note, but a triumph defined by something more than elimination of creatures that, in the words of Alan Grant, just do what they do. Killing individual xenomorphs isn’t enough, as evidenced by the fact that Ripley is fighting round three at this point. The resolutions of previous films never touched the real villain: the Company. The franchise’s embodiment of avarice and inhumanity has always been out there, reaching for its precious new bioweapon and ensuring that Ripley remains stuck in her cycle of fear and death. By sacrificing herself at the end of Alien3, Ripley finds a real victory, not just an escape. She destroys the last known specimen of a potentially cataclysmic invasive species and in the process denies the Company said species, which both protects the galaxy and delivers a big fat middle finger to the people who have tossed and tortured her across the cosmos.
Although it’s been reevaluated in recent years, Alien3 has received a lot of criticism. Whether it’s the tone or the smaller scale or the deaths of beloved characters, people find a lot to hate. But for all its flaws (and it is rough around the edges), I think the film is a fitting send-off for a heroic character like Ripley. Instead of throwing the monster out the window yet again and living to fight another day, she brings the story of the xenomorphs and the Company to a close. When I see the lead-works shutting down and Morse giving the Company men his defiant smirk and the sun rising again over Fury 161, I feel that’s a great capper to an amazing life and series of movies; a decisive victory and end to the franchise.
Alien: Resurrection can buzz right off.