Is It Just Me... Or Is Alien 3 Really A Misunderstood Masterpiece?

David Fincher's Alien sequel is a modern classic

Alien 3 is now 20 years old. Two decades.

If, like me, you’re of mid-’80s vintage, it probably doesn’t feel ‘old’ at all.

Scott and Cameron’s efforts are firmly in a pre-’90s, pre-memory past, but I do remember the seven-year-old me being far too terrified by Alien 3’s poster to even want to see it.

I definitely remember the awesome tie-in SNES game. And I even remember the fuss about how terrible the thing was, the thermonuclear intensity of which was powerful enough to distract me from watching Wacaday, or whatever else I was doing back then.

But what was all the fuss about?

Looked at today, there’s not much wrong with Alien 3, and there’s a huge amount that’s right about it.

In fact, it’s a very solid film indeed – a weird kind of modern classic – and it established the themes that would underpin David Fincher’s career so far.

First things first – it’s important to realise what we’re dealing with. Alien 3 is not an adrenaline-spiker like Alien or Aliens.

In fact, it falls down when it tries to compete on that level – the endless foundry chase is just confusing, rather than exhilarating.

For all their auteurist dressings, the first two films were still genre outings with top-notch skills applied.

Fincher may have overreached in trying to sidestep the alien-as-threat staple in favour of the alien-as-metaphor idea. But we need to realise that was exactly his intention.

True, 20th Century Fox isn’t known to toss tens of millions of dollars at intense twentysomethings for them to explore their own dark impulses. Hence the film’s legendarily friction-filled production, and the bad buzz that doomed it before it had even opened.

But was all this fair?

Well, expectations were raised for a monster movie, and expectations were delivered to the letter of the law, but not its spirit.

Because Alien 3 is just not a creature feature – it’s a film about death.

Not only that, it’s a film about confronting and accepting death, and what can be achieved when that happens.

To my mind, it reaches depths that most Palme d’Or-chasing pretenders never manage.

Think about it. Every plan Ripley and the prison-planet inmates put into action makes the situation worse. (In the 2003 workprint, even an early triumph is undercut by human frailty.)

Once Ripley clocks she is carrying a chestburster, she attempts suicide by alien (and how good is Sigourney in that scene?).

This fails, and it becomes clear that when the movie’s real baddie – The Company – arrives, they will kill anybody left standing by the alien.

The prisoners despair, but eventually decide it’s better to go out fighting on their feet. They die both ways, but at least there is dignity and freedom in their attempts to take down the alien before they kick the bucket.

For me, the result is nothing less than the kind of exercise in existentialism novelist Albert Camus might have made if he’d gone into horror flicks.

Alien 3 services its thematic weight with technical excellence and a handful of top- notch performances.

So, for all its defiant lack of fan-pleasing and occasional moments where executives’ scissors are visible, it’s genuinely a misunderstood masterpiece. Or is it just me?


    • Andy85

      Dec 2nd 2012, 9:34

      I have to disagree with the term 'masterpiece' as that is a slight exaggeration however, I will agree to the fact that it is not as bad is its tarnished reputation might have you believe. The problem Alien 3 always faced was that it had to live up to the thrill ride that was Aliens. Alien defined the sci fi horror genre in my opinion and Aliens took the same template and added marines to the mix to provide an action packed sequel, each film carrying their respective directors own film style. Fincher was an unknown when taking on the mantle of adding to the franchise and so the public were expecting a different approach to Ripleys next xenomorph adventure but as his career has progressed and we look back at this third addition we are now accustomed to his unique filming presence and I believe that the public now accept the film as a valid entry.

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    • Hadouken76

      Dec 2nd 2012, 9:48

      Oh, another overripe article on how Alien 3 is a mini-masterpiece. It has been to done to death, already. This is the sort of thing Film Students come up with in their first year. 'Hidden themes' check. 'Metaphors for...' Check. 'Random Philosopher' Check. C -

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    • kittybinks

      Dec 2nd 2012, 10:06

      I have always thought Alien 3 was an underestimated film. Being old enough to remember each films release at the cinema I also remember the excitement of the first Alien, the adrenaline rush that was Aliens and the sheer blackness of Alien 3. I also remember the diatribe almost reaching fever pitch on how Fincher had castrated the Alien franchise. However I left the cinema in a more thoughtful mood having taken tme to digest what I saw I then set about trying to convince(convert) others to the thought that A) Something different was offered - who wants to see the same movie over and over just offering endless cannon fodder. B) A different message was on screen - Why go out defenslessly squirming in a corner accepting you oncoming death, why not go out in a noble attempt to terminate the threat. However, the fullness of time(20 years!) has vindicated me, there are still detractors of course, there always will be. Alien 3 can hold it's extremely shiny black head up high and recieve the praise so deservedly(albeit late) due.

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    • jared3710

      Dec 2nd 2012, 10:43

      At last, someone out there who doesnt have the knivies out for Alien 3. I remember going to see at my local Odeon and thinking it was really very good. I never understood all the negative press it recieved. I can see how the die hard Aliens fans, those people who prefer Camerons sequel to Sir Ridley's original, may not have liked it because they were probably expecting more gung-ho action. But even the critics all seemed to have a vitriolic response. The film looks amazing with it's dour earth tone colours and bleached greys...a look we all now associate and even look forward to in David Fincher films and his use of widescreen is almost unsurpassed. The whole film has this eerie sense of sadness, loss and tragedy all culminating with Ripley's swan dive into the inferno at the end. When I watched the extensive making doc on the 2003 DVD release I felt so sorry for David Fincher as he'd ended up with something that both Cameron and Scott never had. Both the first two films we're never intended to be the Summer flagship for Fox. They were both a kind of optional extra in the Summer cannon. The first to cash in on the new interest in Si-Fi post Star Wars. But by 1992 sequels had become the norm and expected to out perform the previous. Let's not forget that it's major contender that week was Lethal Weapon 3. Those films had taken just six years to reach their third chapter whilst Alien had taken thirteen! Judgeing from the documentries I think alot of the blame for the films, perceived failure, lies with Jon Landau. He was Fox's new young executive in London and clearly trying to make a name for himself and as a result Fincher never got the creative control the Cameron and Scott did. I often wonder what the producers of Alien 3 think now, given David Fincher's track record and output of films post Alien 3. I hope they're kicking themselves! What we got was a solid good film what we could have ended up with was a modern masterpiece!!

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    • piffle

      Dec 2nd 2012, 11:46

      Watched it again recently, it's tripe. Terrible effects, poor pacing, dislikable characters, weird behaviour from Ripley even before she finds out she's been implanted... Personally, I think its a really poor film. I know lots of folk who disagree and think its pretty good but I'm sure none of them would hail it as a 'masterpiece'.

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    • Igrayne

      Dec 2nd 2012, 12:45

      Director's cut is four stars minimum, glad to see the appreciation it deserves at last.

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    • HughFran

      Dec 2nd 2012, 13:39

      I wouldn't go as far as to say it's a masterpice but it really is a very good movie. I was 12 when this movie came out and when I seen it, I was terrified - the horror and sense of dread was almost on the scale of the first movie. Killing off Hicks and Newt and even Bishop was a bit of a kick in the nads though, it kinda felt like everything Ripley fought for in the second movie was wiped out in the blink of an eye. The special effects haven't aged well but the movie still remains a firm favourite of mine, call me morbid but I enjoyed the bleakness and hopelessness of Alien 3!

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    • thedarkpower

      Dec 2nd 2012, 13:53

      I always thought Alien 3 was the perfect bleak ending to an already dark trilogy. It's not as good as the first two but it's not that bad either and the director's cut is much better than the theatrical version.

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    • BPCSlave

      Dec 2nd 2012, 14:29

      It's at least as strong as Prometheus, let's put it that way. Ok, so some of the composite special effects aren't the best (but it could be worse, we could have had a small dog running around in a foam rubber prosthesis...) and the prisoners don't really have a huge amount of identity, even compared to the more expendable marines from Aliens (you might not be able to pick out Wierzbowski from a lineup, but you at least know his name). But it still feels part of the Alien series in terms of mythos and style - the single colour motifs that were present in the first two films, the lifecycle being expanded but not contradicted or taken in ridiculous directions. People savaged it on release mostly because it wasn't Aliens, it wasn't a gung-ho action flick with heavy firepower, and because it ruthlessly severed the threads of Newt and Hicks after the hard fought victory of the previous movie before delving into themes of death, redemption and sacrifice. That's akin to going into a rave and putting on a Bauhaus record, it's really not going to win you fans. The Assembly Cut is the only way to watch this film, it fills in the plotholes torn by executive meddling to a degree, but it's a damned shame that even then you're never going to see the 'real' version. Given the history of the script alone, the writers involved and the endless rewrites it's not surprising that Fincher ended up with a mutant baby of many parents and it's a credit to him and the others involved in the making of that they managed to squeeze a tense sci-fi horror/thriller out of it. People have to remember that it's not Alien or Aliens, it's its own film and should be celebrated as a sibling, not a clone. Don't get me started on Resurrection, though...

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    • jonnycantrell

      Dec 2nd 2012, 14:47

      I think there is a reason David Fincher refused to be apart of the Alien Anthology when the rest of the directors took place. Lets just leave it at that.

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    • spid2411

      Dec 2nd 2012, 16:00

      Its just you - it was s**te

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    • SiMan

      Dec 2nd 2012, 18:16

      Compared to Alien and Aliens - no, it falls short. Compared to Resurrection - yes, it is a masterpiece. I never understood why 3 got so much flak but resurrection never really did. It is a poor entry in the series. I personally think that a franchise movie should be marked against the other entries. So regardless how good Alien 3 is in its own right, i think its fair that it is knocked down a 'star' in any review purely on the fact that what has come before was so good.

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    • dangoodfellow

      Dec 2nd 2012, 19:04

      for me,and many fans of Aliens when it came out, the main make or break for alien 3 was the decsion to kill off hicks and newt straight away, because one of the writers thought they were annoying, thus rendering the entire narrative of aliens, and especially ripleys efforts to save newt irrelevant. Of all the script changes that occured, and the british Aliens comicbook published an amazing diagram of how many there were and how jumbled the story became, it still amazes me that the elements of the franchise that were closest to the hearts of the fans were tossed away so casually. at the time it was a real heavy blow for fans of the series and it has never really recovered.

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    • darrylbaker

      Dec 2nd 2012, 19:43

      Hicks and Newt were 2D characters at best, so starting off by sacrificing them and setting a totally grim tone was an excellent choice. (Done because of Carrie Henn's age - not because a writer was bored... Although I can sympathise with that sentiment.) Alien was a horror film. Complaining that Alien 3 killed off likeable characters misses the point of horror surely? Bad s**t happens. Alien 3 said gunz'n'ammo wasn't the answer and this film is definitely a 90s antithesis to the 80s. Agree with the majority of the article, but wouldn't label it a masterpiece. Fincher would need to have finished it first.

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    • dangoodfellow

      Dec 2nd 2012, 21:01

      i forget the writers name, look it up if you can be bothered, but it was said in an interview on the aliens saga. aliens ,like terminator trancended the standard horror cliche of 'no one gets out alive' (which has got to be one of the laziest ways of writing a story) by forcing its protagonists to dig deeper and become strong enough to tackle the threat. Aliens wouldn't've concluded with Ripley fighting a giant Alien queen in a loader, without the emotional tug of newt in danger. i for one prefer that classic scene over the standard 'oh, it killed them all' ending of a thousand imitation movies, and i've got this weird feeling that a few million other people agree.

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    • FBSChandler

      Dec 2nd 2012, 21:52's not that Hicks and Newt couldn't die at some point. It's that their deaths cheapened the victory of the previous film. The entire last 30 minutes of Aliens is meaningless. Ripley risked everything to save Newt just so she could die in her sleep. To start off the film we discover that Newt's survival skills and Ripley's determination didn't matter.

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    • Ali1748

      Dec 3rd 2012, 8:32

      Alien 3 is atrocious, everything from the casting to the setting just feel out of place and dire, and of course killing off Hicks right at the start was a disaster.

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    • Jareth64

      Dec 3rd 2012, 13:18

      TotalFilm awarded the dire Prometheus 4/5 so, to you "experts", Alien 3 probably does seem like a masterpiece. It isn't, though. It's awful.

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    • Agent69

      Dec 3rd 2012, 22:23

      It's not just you.

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    • stuhindley

      Dec 4th 2012, 11:41

      I loved this film when it first come out. Poor Fincher having all the issues getting this together. But a great refreshing take on the series. Better than Prometheus I thought

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    • Jeffbiscuits

      Dec 5th 2012, 9:21

      It's not a masterpiece but it's one of the better scifi horror films of the last 25 years and as a conclusion to what should have remained a trilogy it's not bad. Bleak and depressing and very different to the two films that came before. Alien is my favourite film though and it doesn't come close to that but it continues Ripley's story in an unexpected way. I think Weaver is great in it. She plays the role of discovering she's been impregnated with an alien like someone coming to terms with a terminal illness.

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    • Jeffbiscuits

      Dec 5th 2012, 9:26

      The Brit-heavy cast always give me the feeling that it's Scum with a xenomorph. I imagine Ray Winstone in it beating up the alien with a sock full of snooker balls.

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    • Broadsword

      Dec 6th 2012, 21:25

      Let's be honest here for a second. It was the glaringly obvious dropped in standards of Alien cubed that opened the door to the increasingly inferior sequels. Alien Resurrection isn't that much worse than Alien 3 but imagine if you didn't have that Alien 3 buffer and Resurrection had followed Aliens. End of a franchise right there. Or to put it simply; Alien 3 is responsible for AVP Requiem and for that reason alone every print of that aberration should be sealed in concrete and dropped in the deepest darkest place on this Earth!

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    • bernieasf

      Dec 7th 2012, 13:48

      For me this was always the second best in the series, after the first Alien. I love it's rawness and the absence of weaponry. That's why I think Aliens is the worst one...

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    • stevencohen

      Feb 7th 2013, 16:41

      I detest the film. Killing Newt was an abomination. To their credit, though, Sigourney Weaver and David Fincher did the best they could and got absolutely no help from Fox. This was a case in which Fox should have quit while it was ahead. Aliens gave Ripley closure, but Fox decided to plow ahead even though Ripley's story was over. Alien 3 was a huge mistake that cost the franchise half of its fans.

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    • BenTramer

      Apr 12th 2014, 11:56

      Alien 3 is a mess. The only good thing about it is that it started off David Fincher's movie directing career and he's gone on to become the closest thing to Hitchcock with his dark, twisting thrillers. As for Alien 3 itself, it immediately p**ses off its core audience by killing off all the great surviving characters we rooted for in Aliens except Ripley (making their heroic survival utterly pointless). They are replaced with what Kim Newman accurately described at the time as "anonymous British baldies." Then, after the terrific, fetishistic gunplay of Aliens we get no guns whatsoever (boring, Weaver insisted). From swarms of xenomorphs and an unforgettable massive Alien queen, we get one small, dog-like alien unconvincingly rendered with early CGI. It's pretty simple stuff: the audience wants more than last time not less or they'll be disappointed and you have to deliver. Alien 3 didn't. It's not a movie I ever put on. It just doesn't work and never will. So much for your cheerful but blind revisionism. So, yes, it's just you.

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