First Film: Alien 3

For the last two months of me doing these First Film segments, the actual first films I’ve looked at have been the kinds of movies you’d expect from a new director. I’m talking about low budget auteur indie flicks that highlight the talent of up-and-comers. Fincher in this context is the outlier. Instead of proving himself on his own terms, he was handed Alien 3. That spells out a guy with no theatrical experience being given one of the biggest sci-fi franchises in film history and told to save it from production hell. He may have proved his talent making music videos in the 80s, but it turns out that isn’t quite enough when it comes to the pressures of $50 million in other people’s money. Though Fincher disowns it whenever he gets the chance, your first time is always your first time and Alien 3 will always be his. So let’s take a look.

Despite its exasperating clean-slate approach, the opening of Alien 3 holds a lot of promise. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, badass as ever) once again crash lands on a destitute planet, this time, scattered with large machinery in disrepair along a harsh, rocky coast. This is Fury 161, a prison colony whose inmates have lost faith in society and found it in religion. After being saved from the wreck by medical officer Clemens (a standout performance by Charles Dance), Ripley begins to believe she wasn’t the ship’s only survivor. Wherever Ripley goes, the Xenomorphs go with her.

The beautiful production design highlighted in sweeping vista shots of Fury 161 are a good example of the things Fincher did right here. He was obviously a man with a vision; Dance even said that when he was on set with Fincher, the first-timer would know what he wanted with such specificity that it would have made any seasoned veterans flush with embarrassment. But as the movie ticks on you feel the growing presence of what someone else wants. You can almost see the fights on screen between the producers and Fincher on everything from the design of the Alien to the final runtime to the script, which was incomplete even as filming began.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t last long before we abandon the sweeping vistas for nondescript hallways. The investing new characters become a bunch of one note convicts swearing like sixth graders, but with more overacting, while Weaver struggles through painful exposition. With a ridiculous final act of over-ambitious CGI and empty twists, Alien 3 finally comes to an abrupt, albeit long-awaited end.

Oh yeah, I think there also might have been an alien in it.

But honestly, that’s the whole problem with Alien 3: there is too much going on. Between what Fincher wants and what the studio wants there isn’t enough room for anything to be particularly successful. Even the alien becomes sidelined by religious subplots, picked up then dropped romances, and late-in-the-game character development to make up for killing off everyone we liked in the first hour. I appreciate the movement to revive it as a cult classic, but everything exciting about Alien 3 is drowned by everything else.

When you listen to Fincher talk about the movies he’s made, especially before digital came around, it doesn’t ever sound like he had a good time. To be fair, you can’t leave an experience like directing Alien 3 without a charitable large dosage of cynicism. As you’ll see from the other articles rolling out this week, it certainly has brought him a long way. Maybe it’s better to go the franchise route earlier on, see the error in your ways, and then go on to have a wildly successful artistic career than it is to go the other way around.

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