A dark shadow rests over Alien 3. The production was a mess. The film received mixed reviews upon its release. Director David Fincher went on to disown the film, saying “No one hates it more than me.” I feel like no one loves it more than me. However, over the years, I’ve bonded with several people who appreciate it more than most.
Alien 3 was one of the first movies that longtime friend and fellow Midwest Film Journal co-founder Evan Dossey and I took a deep dive into when our lives collided in cyberspace back in 2008. I fondly remember our Facebook chats about the bold bleakness of the film, particularly how it opens with the devastating discovery that Lieutenant Ellen Ripley’s surrogate husband and daughter — Corporal Hicks and Newt, respectively — are dead. Here, the hopeful light of humanity from Aliens fades into pitch-black horror.
Ripley’s living nightmare grows worse when she wakes up on an all-male prison planet. My dad told me about this setup one chilly fall night during a drive back from Blockbuster Video. He spun it like a campfire yarn. I could practically feel the alien’s acidic breath on the back of my neck, and my hair stood up as I thought about the creature running loose among monstrous men. It sounded like a vision of hell.
The film’s gorgeously gothic setting radiates a warm bronze hue. It mirrors Hieronymus Bosch’s medieval paintings of demonic netherworlds.
Speaking of medieval times: With her shaved head, Ripley resembles the heroine of the 1922 silent classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Like her, Ripley struggles to open hardened men’s minds to the existence of otherworldly life. No one heeds her warning of the alien’s possible presence until it’s too late.
Ripley’s reunion with the Xenomorph is one of the most iconic moments in the Alien franchise. The shot of it sniffing her face stands out in my childhood memories. Painfully intimate and ominously erotic, this scene shows Ripley at her most vulnerable. The alien drools over her, and she shuts her eyes as tightly as she can, desperate to wake up from this fever dream. This is the one moment in the whole series in which the weight of Ripley’s history with the alien is most palpable.
Later in the film, when she’s hunting for the creature, Ripley says, “You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else.” With this tragic line, she emerges as a survivor in the vein of Halloween’s Laurie Strode, A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Nancy Thompson or Scream’s Sidney Prescott.
As in the previous two films, and like any Final Girl, Ripley rises above the men and triumphs over the monster. She leads them in trying to trap the creature somewhere in the maze-like prison. The third act features thrilling chases through rust-covered corridors.
Also like Joan of Arc, Ripley faces a fiery demise, but her soul rises like a phoenix from the ashes and she becomes immortalized for her heroism.
I’m far from the first critic to draw comparisons between Alien 3 and Joan of Arc. You can find a slew of essays online that explore the common ground between the two, but it’s territory worth traversing.
In 1981, a Danish print of Joan of Arc was miraculously discovered in a closet of a Norwegian mental institution. This feels like a fitting way to find such an intimate study of psychological torment and emotional liberation.
The newfound appreciation for Alien 3 was born out of similarly dark beginnings. The troubling nature of the production is well-documented. The film was greenlit with a much different concept — director Vincent Ward’s vision of a wooden world run by monks. (The Joan of Arc comparison grows even more apt with this religious aspect.)
However, the studio kept pushing for the film to revolve around convicts. Ward walked, and Fincher came onboard without a complete shooting script. At one point, the production shut down for a few months. (Check out the making-of documentary for a funny anecdote about Sigourney Weaver’s request for more money if she had to shave her head again.)
The fact that the film ultimately turned out so well is as remarkable as the mysterious discovery of Joan of Arc. For hardcore fans, its rocky history is part of its appeal. It brings a layer of depth to the viewing experience. This is a film I find myself revisiting quite often, especially around this time of year. It’s not only my favorite Alien film; it’s one of my favorite horror films, period.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2019
Pop Skull – Richard Propes
The Ghost and the Darkness – John Tuttle
Graveyard Shift – Eric Harris
Captain Kronos – Bob Bloom
Alien – Nicole Brooks
The Night Stalker / The Night Strangler – Lou Harry
Pet Semetary (1989) – Heather Knight
Marianne – Alys Caviness-Gober
Orphan – Greg Lindberg
Gummo – Evan Dossey
Vamp – James Ledesma
NEKRomantik – Andrew Kimmel
The House on Sorority Row – Tim Brouk