Alien 3 is a movie that gets a lot of hate. Even now, after twenty years, most people do not consider it good. Director David Fincher has gone onto stardom and numerous Academy Award nominations. He’s done movies like Fight Club, Seven, The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Zodiac and the recent hit Gone Girl and yet his first film has never found much of an audience. Movie buffs don’t care for it and Alien fans outright hate it. It’s the polar opposite of the beloved Aliens and unceremoniously kills fan-favorite characters Newt and Hicks off-screen. Whereas its predecessor was fast-paced and action-packed, this really isn’t and people were not prepared for that.
It’s also a movie known for its hellish production. To say Alien 3 had production problems is the understatement of the century. There were countless drafts of the script that were completely scrapped, from some of the biggest writers in Hollywood. In fact, there were even sets built for the movie that were never used because the production began filming without a locked-down script.
Alien 3 works because it does its own thing. It’s a much more quiet, contemplative film and that makes sense given its setting. The industrial feel to it, which has been known to put people off, is if anything its visual connection to the first two features. It’s a beautiful film. There’s some of the gothic atmosphere of the original at work, but the tone is largely new.
The characterization is one of the most underrated things about the movie. Granted, this is largely due to the fact that most of it was cut out the first time. Thankfully we now live in a time when the director’s cuts of each Alien movie—and most movies in general, for that matter—are widely available. We never really learn too much about the characters in the first two movies, especially the first. They are all unique unto themselves and we get who they are, but we don’t know many of the details. It works well, as the situation doesn’t really call for a whole lot of backstory. There’s a lot more revealed about the characters in Alien 3 but it calls for it in a way that the first two features did not. Each individual in this movie has a long, dark past. They’re all murderers, thieves or rapists. Whatever the particulars may be, they’ve all done unforgivable things. In fact, part of the irony is that among this motley crew of prisoners, Ripley is the only one who is hiding something.
Of course, it’s her character that stands out above all others. Sigourney Weaver brings more depth to the character here than she ever had before. This is an emotional, sincere performance. Everything going into this movie was done with the mindset of bringing her character to a fitting end. This is a beaten-down Ripley who has gotten everyone she cares for killed and has nothing left to lose. She hasn’t lost her edge, she’s still a fighter, but her transformation over the course of three movies enters a very fitting final phase. Ripley’s also given some of her best dialogue in this installment. The moment where she confronts the alien in the sub-basement and tells it “You’ve been in my life so long I can’t remember anything else” is one of the single best scenes of the entire franchise.
The impressive characterization ties into the overall tone which is, essentially, hopeless. After all, one of the major plot points revolves around the fact that Ripley has an alien growing inside of her chest. This is a dark movie and it does not end on an upbeat note, which shouldn’t surprise anyone given that the franchise has been rooted in gothic horror from the beginning. The bleakness of the film does not make it bad. In fact, it would have been the perfect ending to the series—had it remained that way—because the entire plot is revolved around bringing the story to a close.
The major villain of the Alien series is the Weyland-Yutani corporation, more frequently referred to by the characters as The Company. It’s obvious in the first two and Alien 3 really drives the point home. It’s clear from the very beginning, from the reveal in the first film, that the Company is unbeatable. It’s a worlds-spanning corporation, it cannot be brought down. Once they have a goal in mind they will do anything to see it fulfilled, no matter the consequence. They promise Ripley that they will cut the alien out of her chest if she will just give it to them. She knows that they have the capabilities to save her life and believes that they probably will, but she also knows what they are capable of if the alien is placed in their hands. It’s a fitting metaphor for life in some ways; no matter how good of a fight you put up, you never really win.
When the movie builds to Ripley’s moment of self-sacrifice, it feels like—in that moment—it could not have ended anywhere else. There’s a stronger focus on Ripley’s loss early on, mainly due to the deaths of Newt and Hicks, which makes the ending work even better. She has given so much to this fight that, in the end, she has to give herself. There’s no beating the Company, but in making sure that the creature inside her dies she can at least show them that they don’t own her.
Alien 3 is not about retribution or even so much about redemption. The men who side with Ripley in the final fight are beyond redemption and they don’t ask for it. Instead, it’s about finding something worth dying for. It’s about doing one good thing that, while it won’t make up for all the bad things, is still a good thing. As Charles S. Dutton’s Dillon basically says, it’s about choosing whether to die on your feet or on your knees.