For more than 20 years, Alien 3 has had a reputation as the film that soured the tale of Ellen Ripley and her fight against the Alien Queen. Many fans were saddened by what they viewed as a botched entry that was responsible for sending this great franchise on a downward spiral. Over the last few years, however, #Alien3 has been dredged from the murky waters of Fury 161, thanks in no small part to a fresh edit of the film, first released on DVD back in 2003. Watching this new edit, known as the "Assembly Cut," left many to wonder: Was this film really a misunderstood classic?
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The Troubled Production And Release
To understand what went wrong with Alien 3, one must examine the production. The movie was riddled with problems from inception, all the way to release. Numerous writers and directors were brought on board as 20th Century Fox scrambled to find a way to continue the story. Disagreements were numerous and many scripts were shelved. Director Renny Harlin famously left the project during its troubled pre-production, going on to direct the second Die Hard film instead.
The studio had trouble coming up with a script. Originally the writers were trying to explore the universe without the #Ripley character, with some screenplays focusing on Hicks, Bishop, even Newt. These plots ranged from dull to outright ridiculous. One script had a collection of human/alien hybrids who group themselves together to create a giant alien that rampages through a city. The studio, however, wanted Sigourney Weaver to return, so plans were redrawn to bring the series back to its roots.
First-time director David Fincher was brought on board and production began while the script was undergoing massive rewrites. The sets were built, the parts were cast and the camera rolled, but there was no finished screenplay, and nobody knew where the movie would end up. This was a recipe for trouble. Given the success of the first two films, the Fox head honchos were also concerned whether the film would deliver on franchise expectations, resulting in Fincher losing much of the creative freedom given to the earlier high-profile directors Ridley Scott and James Cameron. When the film was finally released, it was to mixed reviews and in a final testament to its supposed failure, Fincher has since distanced himself from his directorial debut.
What Did And Didn't Work
For all its faults, Alien 3 boasted a compelling premise, one that seems right at home with the first two films. Ripley, the sole survivor of the first two movies, crash-lands on a planet known as Fiorina 161 near a lead-smelting plant populated by religiously fervent convicts. Of course, a single Alien follows her to this barren wasteland and proceeds to pick off the prisoners, one by one. Forced to take on the role of leader, Ripley bands with the convicts to destroy the creature, once and for all.
The plot of Alien 3 returns to the original film's horror roots by way of a single monster, dispensing with the multi-monster action of the sequel. As with the first two films, this second sequel focused on an interesting demographic in this future universe. The original film had blue-collar workers in space, the second film had soldiers in space, and the third prisoners in space.
Though inhospitable, the backdrop of Fiorina 161 was also aesthetically pleasing. It combined the industrial look of the first two movies and cranked up the heat, populating the sets with hellish furnaces and pools of hot, boiling lead. Along with the return of Weaver, the film featured a remarkable cast including Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Pete Postlethwaite and Lance Henriksen. In spite of some shoddy green-screen work, the animatronics of the Alien were also on par with the first two films. The beast people loved sure shone under this spotlight.
But these virtues were marred by several missteps. Some felt the film was overly nihilistic, even in comparison to the relentlessly dark original. There was also the still-controversial issue of killing off Ripley's companions from the previous film, who many fans had grown attached to and were looking forward to seeing again. By far the film's biggest problem was that much of its characters were underdeveloped. While the first two films were populated with fully realized characters with distinct personalities, Alien 3 suffered from having a lot of blank faces. Most of the prisoners were but fodder for the beast, so when they died, it carried no weight.
Alien 3 was severely edited by the studio, leaving it feeling disjointed and incomplete. This was a film that suffered from poor planning, nobody agreeing on anything, and studio interference. It was the perfect example of too many cooks spoiling the broth, resulting in one very bland soup. It seemed there was little hope that it would ever find an audience beyond its initial theatrical release.
Then in 2003 came one of the most in-depth, detailed releases of the series to date — and it contained a version of Alien 3 that changed everything.
The Assembly Cut
In 2003, Alien Quadrilogy was released on DVD by 20th Century Fox. This impressive box set contained a whopping nine discs. Beyond the special features, Quadrilogy contained two cuts of each movie, including a new version of Alien 3 known as the "Assembly Cut." Based on #DavidFincher's original notes but crafted without his input, this version added around 30 minutes of newly restored, never-before-seen footage that sought to bring the film as close as possible to Fincher's vision.
It's remarkable how additional material and the excising of a few sequences can change the entire dynamic of a film, yet that's exactly what happened with Alien 3. The "Assembly Cut" cured a lot of the ills of the theatrical release and was overall a much wittier, smarter, scarier, and even more hopeful movie.
In the "Assembly Cut" there is an attempt to address the lack of character development of the original film, with several prisoners given a far greater screen presence. One such character is Golic, the disturbed prisoner who sees his friends killed by the Alien. In the theatrical cut his role is small, with the character vanishing halfway through the movie. In the "Assembly Cut," however, his role become far more significant. We see much more of him before his encounter with the Alien, and after witnessing her in action he believes the creature to be an angel of death sent by God. This results in much conflict with the other prisoners, turning him into a secondary antagonist of sorts.
Another surprising development is the character of Junior, the prisoner who led an attempted rape of Ripley. In the theatrical cut he's presumably killed by Dillon when Ripley was rescued. But in the "Assembly Cut" he survives his beating and is remorseful for his actions. He's even shown assisting Ripley to help a burns victim after a failed attempt to kill the Alien, coming to respect her efforts to save his fellow inmates. Junior seizes an opportunity for redemption when he uses himself as bait to lure the Alien into a trap, saving Ripley and the others in the process.
Another change that earned a lot of favor with fans was more material featuring the Alien. In the theatrical cut, she is birthed from a dog, something that did little to make the beast an entity of fear. In the "Assembly Cut," an entirely new sequence was restored, showing the Alien bursting from an ox, which was originally nicknamed the "Bambi Burster" sequence by the crew. This makes the Alien feel like a much more threatening beast, just one of several new sequences that gives the audience more of the monster they'd grown to love.
By far some of the most welcome additions to the Alien 3 do-over were in respect of Ripley, who in the theatrical cut is a broken, shellshocked woman following the deaths of her friends. The "Assembly Cut" doesn't discount Ripley's suffering, but we do see a character who in spite of losing everything is still determined to survive. What's so admirable about this new characterization is how hard she fights to save the prisoners of this planet. Regardless of the crimes they've committed, she still feels they're worth fighting for.
Finally, the religious beliefs of Dillon and his flock were far more developed in the film's updated version, with holy iconography and speeches from the prisoner-turned-priest becoming their defining characteristic. It shows that these convicts were not merely rapists and murderers, but men seeking to atone for their sins, and they see fighting the Alien as their opportunity for redemption. This does away with one of the biggest criticisms of the film on initial release: It's nihilistic tone.
Instead of a film about hopelessness, Alien 3 now becomes a film about the search for hope, meaning, even salvation. Ripley joins the men on their journey, traveling through her grief to try to find meaning in her own life once more, which makes the ending of the film far more potent. This optimistic tone leaves one feeling at least a little better by the time the credits roll.
The "Assembly Cut" of Alien 3 resulted in the film receiving something of a reevaluation and revival since the release of the Quadrilogy. While generally not considered a classic like the first two, the "Assembly Cut" received a much warner reception than the studio-butchered theatrical cut and has helped to soften the initially negative reaction to Alien 3. The film has enjoyed much greater success on home video and is now viewed by many as the last quality entry in the series before the similarly botched Alien: Resurrection and highly polarizing Prometheus. Many fans even call this entry their favorite. After years of ridicule, Alien 3 was rediscovered by the fan base.
Still considered somewhat of a tragic misstep in Hollywood, Fincher's true vision was never committed to film, so we never will see a definitive director's cut. Ever restrained, Fincher did manage to create a film possessed of a dark beauty uniquely its own. And in 2003, after 11 years, Alien 3 finally got a release that told a complete story. While it isn't perfect, it was worthy enough to earn this movie a second chance. Like the prisoners of Fury 161, Alien 3 found salvation.
Look out for the next film in the franchise, the prequel Alien: Covenant, which releases to cinemas on May 19. Check out the teaser below. Did you enjoy Alien 3? Let us know about your favorite Alien film in the comments.