Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 10, 2003)
When I first saw Aliens in 1986, I remembered its predecessor fondly, but I didnít consider myself a big fan of Alien. When Alien3 hit screens in 1986, however, my affection for the series had grown enormously. I really liked Alien, and Iíd come to adore Aliens; I still regard it as my all-time favorite movie.
That meant I went into Alien3 with very high expectations. I admit that I initially was somewhat displeased with Alien3, mostly because of the shocking character developments that occurred in it. In no way was I prepared to see a movie in which three prominent and likable characters from the last picture die during the opening credits and in which other serious developments occur. At first, that was just a little too much to take.
Nonetheless, even through my shock I found Alien3 very intriguing. In many ways, it echoed the first film, but it still managed to make its own mark. While Alien wasn't exactly a laugh-fest, Alien3 remains the darkest and most somber of the four films. It's much more of a tragedy than are any of the others, and a palpable sense of doom permeates the entire picture.
I didn't really know this then, but I now recognize those aspects of the movie as being clearly the result of having director David Fincher at the helm. He made the new world of Alien3 a very distinctive, unusual place, and his flair for the visual greatly helps keep the viewer interested in the proceedings. Fincher definitely displayed a lot of promise in Alien3, potential that would emerge in spades with his next film, 1995's brilliant Se7en.
One of the knocks on Fincher that follows him also dogs other directors who come from a TV commercials/music videos background: they provide breathtaking visuals but they can't back these up with adequate storytelling. That's partly true of Alien3; it's not the best-told story that's ever been filmed. However, I think that's a fault inherent in the script itself, not a problem that resulted from Fincher's direction; he keeps the picture flowing along at a nice pace, and his knack for the visual realm helps spice up quite a lot of less than scintillating material.
Part of the reason Alien3 was almost doomed to receive less than a terrific response came from the fact that Aliens left them little creative wiggle-room. We'd already seen a movie with one alien chomping down some folks, and then we watched a whole bunch of creatures in what was essentially a war movie. Obviously, the third film either had to feature one alien or more than one; I guess they could have given us zero aliens, but that probably wouldn't have worked out too well.
Anyway, my feeling is that whichever way the filmmakers went, the movie would seem to copy one of the two pictures. With one creature, it would then become virtually inevitably a search and destroy horror show like the first movie. With more than one alien, this would leave us with something along the lines of Aliens or just reprise the hunt and kill theme on a larger basis. That doesn't necessarily mean that it would mimic either of the movies, but that impression would remain. As such, they chose to return to some of the qualities of Alien. I have no doubt that the negative "been there, done that" reaction would have been even worse if they'd gone the multiple creature route, since Aliens was the more recent film.
I feel that while Alien3 clearly has some plot similarities in common with Alien, the focus has changed in such a way that the two pictures offer very different experiences. InAlien, the film really didn't concentrate on any one character; although Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) ultimately became our protagonist, this wasn't evident until the movie was nearly done. Of all four pictures, it's the only one that was truly an ensemble piece.
In Alien3, however, the focus is squarely on Ripley. This movie probably should have been called "Ripley of Nazareth," since it really turns her into a martyr who has to die for the sins of others. While I love Fincher, some of the Jesus imagery was just a little excessive. The story really concentrates on her coming to grips with her fate. Throughout much of the movie, we suspect that she should know what's going on, but she seems strangely oblivious to the, uh, changes happening within her body. By the end, however, she understands that there's only one way to halt the sin, and that's for her to sacrifice herself. (Not until after she's been tempted by the possibility of a "normal life," something that echoes parts of The Last Temptation of Christ.)
While I find some of the imagery a bit heavy-handed, I can't deny that Alien3 packs more of an emotional punch than the other films. Fincher beautifully stages the ending, as he manages to convey the tragedy of the scene without resorting to bathos. It's probably the best scene in the movie, followed closely by a similarly evocative funeral scene earlier in the flick. That part works especially well in the way Fincher intercuts the prayer from Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) with the birth of a new alien; to this day, both the funeral/birth scene and the climax give me chills.
Fincher displays a less deft hand when it comes to some of the action scenes. While these bits evoke a fairly strong visceral response, they nonetheless frequently seem a bit muddled. Take the extended "live bait" sequence toward the end of the film. Parts of it are quite thrilling and scary, but the entire plot becomes confused; there are too many similar-looking characters running around too many similar-looking corridors for us to ultimately keep track of what's happening.
That last point also leads me to one of the other faults of Alien3: it offers by far the weakest characters in the series. In a way, I'm not all that sure I consider it to be a fault, since it allows the focus to remain much more strongly on Ripley, but it's an aspect that has frequently been criticized. Actually, the main characters aren't as poorly drawn as people seem to believe; in addition to Ripley, we see a lot of Dillon, Doctor Clemens (Charles Dance), warden Andrews (Brian Glover) and his dim-witted assistant Aaron (Ralph Brown). While these characters may not seem as distinctive as many in the previous two films, I don't think they're written or portrayed any more weakly than their predecessors.
Most of the problem that surrounds perceptions of the characters stems from the fact that most of them look an awful lot alike. We have lots of basically bald white British guys running around, all of whom wear virtually identical clothes. It's frightfully hard to stand out in that crowd, especially when the story doesn't really allow them much time to make any kind of mark. Still, I don't have any real complaints with that aspect of the film, since I regard it to be Ripley's story.
Alien3 does run into some trouble with its portrayal of the creature itself. Since this alien popped out of a poor doggie, we expect it to look and behave differently than the first human-related monsters, and it does - to a degree. Essentially, the special effects crew's ambitions seemed to surpass their abilities in this case because the alien's appearance varies pretty wildly from scene to scene. They alternated use of the traditional "big dude in a costume" technique with some new attempts with a stop-motion puppet. On their own, either version works okay; though the costume still seems most real, at least the use of the puppet allowed them to offer some new, more kinetic shots of the creature. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that the group that worked on the costume consulted with the crew who made the puppet, because the two look pretty dissimilar. I don't think this factor negatively affects the film, if just because views of the alien remain (as always) fairly fleeting, but it certainly doesn't help.
One other problem that faced Alien3 has nothing to do with the film itself; it stemmed from the picture's bizarre marketing campaign. I don't think the advertising geniuses who created the trailers and other ads actually saw the movie. Look at the two trailers, for example: one echoes the preview for the first film by saying that "in 1992, we will discover that on Earth, everyone can hear you scream" as the image shows a cracked egg - similar to that seen in the trailers for Alien - that floats above Earth. The other trailer offers a narrator who says, "In case you haven't noticed, the bitch is back." The combination of these two ads is that we think a) Alien3 will take place on (or at least involve) Earth, and b) we'll encounter a queen alien again. Unfortunately, neither of these is even remotely true, and I'm sure a lot of people were cheesed off that the picture itself in no way resembled what they thought it would be. Bad call, Fox, bad call!
Still, I think that Alien3 is a legitimate and strong continuation of the series. Like Star Trek V, it seems to be one of those movies that has received a negative appraisal through "conventional wisdom" and as a result, few are willing to truly give it a chance. Taken on its own terms, I find it to be a very entertaining and compelling feature.
The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio A-/ Bonus C
Alien3 appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The DVD mostly reproduced the material well, though it didnít seem like a standout transfer.
Sharpness generally looked good. Some of the movieís wide shots came across as a little soft and ill defined, but those didnít occur frequently. Instead, the majority of the flick appeared detailed and accurate. No issues connected to jagged edges or shimmering occurred, but I noticed mild edge enhancement on occasion. The picture lacked any signs of print flaws. Some light grain showed up at times, but this seemed unobtrusive, and the rest of the movie remained free from defects.
No one will mistake Alien3 for an Austin Powers flick with its severely restricted palette. Brown was the color of the day, and the movie rarely displayed any tones that could remotely be considered vivid or bold. This made matters look a little muddy at times, but the DVD seemed to replicate the hues with reasonable accuracy. Blacks seemed well defined and deep, and low-light shots appeared concise and distinctive. Since so much of the movie took place in dim conditions, that became especially important. Because of the occasional blurriness and the edge enhancement, Alien3 fell short of greatness, but it mostly seemed very satisfying.
Created back at the beginning of the digital era in theaters, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Alien3 worked quite well. The soundfield generally favored the forward speakers, but it blended nicely with all the channels to build an involving and lively experience. Elements seemed appropriately localized and they meshed together smoothly. Music displayed solid stereo delineation, and effects moved neatly across the speakers. The surrounds contributed a good sense of atmosphere that helped make the movie moodier. They also kicked to life well in the action sequences and added a punch to those scenes.
Audio quality appeared fine across the board. Speech was distinct and natural, and I noticed almost no concerns with edginess or intelligibility. Music came across as bright and dynamic. The score appeared well defined and vivid, with good definition and range. Effects also were accurate and bold. They showed clean highs and packed a nice, smooth sense of low-end. While not on a level with more modern soundtracks, the audio of Alien3 has held up well over the years.
Compared to the DVDs of Alien and Aliens, Alien 3 is light on extras, but it still bests those on its 1997 sequel. The discís main attraction is the 21 minute featurette, ďThe Making of Alien 3Ē. This is a decent little puff piece that exists primarily to promote the film, but it provides a fairly nice look behind the scenes. It even manages to offer some historical background on the first two films and it includes then-new interviews with some of the actors from Alien and Aliens.
For the record, this is the same program that was sold as part of an Alien/Aliens VHS pack back in 1992, right around the May release of Alien 3. It hasn't been altered one bit; the end credits even mention that Aliens is available as a special edition laserdisc! (When this program came out, the Alien boxed set did not yet exist, which is why it receives no mention.)
Alien3 includes the same four trailers (one per film) that come with the Aliens and Resurrection DVDs. Oddly, it also features a trailer for an Alien Resurrection Playstation/PC game; for reasons unknown, this ad does not show up on any of the other DVDs. (Wouldn't it have been more appropriate on Resurrection itself? They certainly didn't omit it from that DVD for space reasons, since that package is light on extras.)
The Alien3 DVD includes two trailers for the film. The "Earth scream" one is easily located in the trailers menu, but the "bitch is back" ad requires a little more searching. It's stuck on the end of the "Making of..." feature, just as it was on the old videotape. It's nice to have the trailer, but this was a pretty clumsy way to do it. The final extra found with the Alien3 DVD is in the booklet, in which we get some passable biographies of cast and crew.
In the end, clearly Alien 3 has more than its fair share of detractors, but I'm not a member of that club. I find it to have some flaws but to offer an interesting and entertaining experience as a whole. Fox brought it to DVD with a fine disc that displays the movie with excellent picture and sound quality; however, itís fairly light in the supplement department. My advice? Don't listen to the chorus of nay-sayers; pick up a copy of Alien 3 and decide for yourself. You may be pleasantly surprised..
Footnote: this review covered the original 1999 DVD release of Alien3. This edition went out of print and has been replaced by a 2003 version. The latter includes both the theatrical cut of the film and its 2003 directorís cut. It also presents a slew of new supplements, though many of those found here donít make the set. Die-hard fans will want to own both since the old one includes audio features that donít show up on the 2003 release. However, for those with less interest in the movie, the 2003 version is the stronger one.
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