Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 10, 2010)
When I first saw Aliens in 1986, I remembered its predecessor fondly, but I didn’t consider myself a big fan of Alien; I liked the 1979 classic, but it wasn’t one of my faves by 1986. When Alien3 hit screens in 1992, however, my affection for the series had grown enormously. By then I really liked Alien, and I’d come to adore Aliens; I still regard the latter as my all-time favorite movie.
That meant I went into Alien3 with very high expectations. I admit that I initially was somewhat displeased with Alien3, mostly because of the shocking character developments that occurred in it. In no way was I prepared to see a movie in which three prominent and likable characters from the last picture die during the opening credits and in which other serious developments occur later. At first, that was just a little too much to take.
Nonetheless, even through my shock I found Alien3 very intriguing. In many ways, it echoed the first film, but it still managed to make its own mark. While Alien wasn't exactly a laugh-fest, Alien3 remains the darkest and most somber of the four films. It's much more of a tragedy than are any of the others, and a palpable sense of doom permeates the entire picture.
I didn't really know this then, but I now recognize those aspects of the movie as being clearly the result of having director David Fincher at the helm. He made the new world of Alien3 a very distinctive, unusual place, and his flair for the visual greatly helps keep the viewer interested in the proceedings. Fincher definitely displayed a lot of promise in Alien3, potential that would emerge in spades with his next film, 1995's brilliant Se7en.
One of the knocks on Fincher that follows him also dogs other directors who come from a TV commercials/music videos background: they provide breathtaking visuals but they can't back these up with adequate storytelling. That's partly true of Alien3; it's not the best-told story that's ever been filmed. However, that's a fault inherent in the script itself, not a problem that resulted from Fincher's direction; he keeps the picture flowing along at a nice pace, and his knack for the visual realm helps spice up quite a lot of less than scintillating material.
Part of the reason Alien3 was almost doomed to receive less than a terrific response came from the fact that Aliens left them little creative wiggle-room. We'd already seen a movie with one alien chomping down some folks, and then we watched a whole bunch of creatures in what was essentially a war movie. Obviously, the third film either had to feature one alien or more than one; I guess they could have given us zero aliens, but that probably wouldn't have worked out too well.
Anyway, my feeling is that whichever way the filmmakers went, the movie would seem to copy one of the two pictures. With one creature, it would then become virtually inevitably a search and destroy horror show like the first movie. With more than one alien, this would leave us with something along the lines of Aliens or just reprise the hunt and kill theme on a larger basis. That doesn't necessarily mean that it would mimic either of the movies, but that impression would remain. As such, they chose to return to some of the qualities of Alien. I have no doubt that the negative "been there, done that" reaction would have been even worse if they'd gone the multiple creature route, since Aliens was the more recent film.
I feel that while Alien3 clearly has some plot similarities in common with Alien, the focus has changed in such a way that the two pictures offer very different experiences. InAlien, the film really didn't concentrate on any one character; although Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) ultimately became our protagonist, this wasn't evident until the movie was nearly done. Of all four pictures, it's the only one that was truly an ensemble piece.
In Alien3, however, the focus is squarely on Ripley. This movie probably should have been called "Ripley of Nazareth," since it really turns her into a martyr who has to die for the sins of others. While I love Fincher, some of the Jesus imagery was just a little excessive. The story really concentrates on her coming to grips with her fate. Throughout much of the movie, we suspect that she should know what's going on, but she seems strangely oblivious to the, uh, changes happening within her body. By the end, however, she understands that there's only one way to halt the sin, and that's for her to sacrifice herself. (Not until after she's been tempted by the possibility of a "normal life," something that echoes parts of The Last Temptation of Christ.)
While I find some of the imagery a bit heavy-handed, I can't deny that Alien3 packs more of an emotional punch than the other films. Fincher beautifully stages the ending, as he manages to convey the tragedy of the scene without resorting to bathos. It's probably the best scene in the movie, followed closely by a similarly evocative funeral scene earlier in the flick. That part works especially well in the way Fincher intercuts the prayer from Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) with the birth of a new alien; to this day, both the funeral/birth scene and the climax give me chills.
Fincher displays a less deft hand when it comes to some of the action scenes. While these bits evoke a fairly strong visceral response, they nonetheless frequently seem a bit muddled. Take the extended "live bait" sequence toward the end of the film. Parts of it are quite thrilling and scary, but the entire plot becomes confused; there are too many similar-looking characters running around too many similar-looking corridors for us to ultimately keep track of what's happening.
That last point also leads me to one of the other faults of Alien3: it offers by far the weakest characters in the series. In a way, I'm not all that sure I consider it to be a fault, since it allows the focus to remain much more strongly on Ripley, but it's an aspect that has frequently been criticized. Actually, the main characters aren't as poorly drawn as people seem to believe; in addition to Ripley, we see a lot of Dillon, Doctor Clemens (Charles Dance), warden Andrews (Brian Glover) and his dim-witted assistant Aaron (Ralph Brown). While these characters may not seem as distinctive as many in the previous two films, I don't think they're written or portrayed any more weakly than their predecessors.
Most of the problem that surrounds perceptions of the characters stems from the fact that most of them look an awful lot alike. We have lots of basically bald white British guys running around, all of whom wear virtually identical clothes. It's frightfully hard to stand out in that crowd, especially when the story doesn't really allow them much time to make any kind of mark. Still, I don't have any real complaints with that aspect of the film, since I regard it to be Ripley's story.
Alien3 does run into some trouble with its portrayal of the creature itself. Since this alien popped out of a poor doggie, we expect it to look and behave differently than the first human-related monsters, and it does - to a degree. Essentially, the special effects crew's ambitions seemed to surpass their abilities in this case because the alien's appearance varies pretty wildly from scene to scene. They alternated use of the traditional "dude in a costume" technique with some new attempts with a puppet. On their own, either version works okay; though the costume still seems most real, at least the use of the puppet allowed them to offer some new, more kinetic shots of the creature. Unfortunately, it feels like the group that worked on the costume consulted with the crew who made the puppet, because the two look pretty dissimilar. I don't think this factor negatively affects the film, if just because views of the alien remain (as always) fairly fleeting, but it certainly doesn't help.
One other problem that faced Alien3 has nothing to do with the film itself; it stemmed from the picture's bizarre marketing campaign. I don't think the advertising geniuses who created the trailers and other ads actually saw the movie. Look at the two trailers, for example: one echoes the preview for the first film by saying that "in 1992, we will discover that on Earth, everyone can hear you scream" as the image shows a cracked egg - similar to that seen in the trailers for Alien - that floats above Earth. The other trailer offers a narrator who says, "In case you haven't noticed, the bitch is back." The combination of these two ads is that we think a) Alien3 will take place on (or at least involve) Earth, and b) we'll encounter a queen alien again. Unfortunately, neither of these is even remotely true, and I'm sure a lot of people were cheesed off that the picture itself in no way resembled what they thought it would be. Bad call, Fox, bad call! (I suppose it’s possible the “bitch” line refers to Weaver, but I certainly hope that’s not the case.)
Still, I think that Alien3 is a legitimate and strong continuation of the series. Like Star Trek V, it seems to be one of those movies that has received a negative appraisal through "conventional wisdom" and as a result, few are willing to truly give it a chance. Taken on its own terms, I find it to be a very entertaining and compelling feature.
The comments above address the original theatrical cut of Alien3. This release also includes a significantly extended “special edition” version of the film. It expands the original’s 114-minute running time all the way up to 144 minutes. The main changes come early in the film with an alternate opening, and the movie now also introduces oxen. One of these becomes the vehicle for the alien to reproduce, and the ox replaces the dog from the theatrical flick. The ending sequence has been slightly but significantly altered in a way I won’t describe.
The majority of the subsequent additions connect to the character of Golic. He plays a much more substantial role in the “special edition” cut and becomes a prime player. Other than the parts related to Golic, the additions seem fairly insubstantial. We get a lot more praying by the prisoners and some fleshed out character bits.
All four movies in the “Alien Anthology” sport alternate cuts, and only the extended Aliens had been seen prior to 2003. Although it got a theatrical release, the changes to Alien seem the most minor. Alien Resurrection didn’t vary much either, though it presented a few notable alterations.
Only Alien3 received a massive overhaul, with all those extra minutes of footage. Actually, the changes add to more than 30 minutes, since the “special edition” replaces a moderate amount of material from the theatrical cut with alternate shots. Does any of this significantly improve the movie?
No. Those who already dislike Alien3 probably won’t come to embrace it via this cut. Those who care for the flick likely won’t think even more highly of it now. I find the changes to seem interesting but they don’t make it a better movie. It’s a moderately different one, but that’s it. I think it was fun to see the different scenes, but in the future, I’ll likely watch the theatrical cut. It seems tighter and better paced. Too many of the new scenes slow down the film and don’t take it anywhere particularly interesting.
The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B-/ Audio A-/ Bonus NA
Alien3 appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. The transfer offered a mix of good and meh visuals.
Sharpness generally looked positive, but more than a few exceptions occurred. While some elements offered excellent clarity, others appeared somewhat soft and mushy. Most of the flick demonstrated adequate to very good definition, but I found more softness than I’d like.
That was my only real complaint. No issues connected to jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and edge enhancement remained absent. As for source flaws, I saw a handful of small specks but nothing more.
No one will mistake Alien3 for an Austin Powers flick with its severely restricted palette. Brown was the color of the day, and the movie rarely displayed any tones that could remotely be considered vivid or bold. The Blu-ray replicated the hues well, and they occasionally looked borderline dynamic; a few shots offered surprisingly strong hues. Blacks seemed well defined and deep, and low-light shots appeared concise and distinctive. Since so much of the movie took place in dim conditions, that became especially important. Though I found a lot to like here, the softness made this a “B-“ presentation.
To my surprise, the added/alternate sequences in the “Special Edition” cut matched the original material quite cleanly. I expected these to seem fairly rough, but instead, I found them to appear virtually as strong as the bits from the theatrical release. Indeed, sharpness was often at its best in the SE shots.
How did the picture of the Blu-ray compare to the 2003 DVD release? Even with its softness, it still became the stronger presentation. The Blu-ray was consistently clearer and more dynamic than the DVD.
Created back at the beginning of the digital era in theaters, the DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of Alien3 worked quite well. The soundfield generally favored the forward speakers, but it blended nicely with all the channels to build an involving and lively experience. Elements seemed appropriately localized and they meshed together smoothly. Music displayed solid stereo delineation, and effects moved neatly across the speakers. The surrounds contributed a good sense of atmosphere that helped make the movie moodier. They also kicked to life well in the action sequences and added a punch to those scenes.
Audio quality appeared fine across the board. Speech was distinct and natural, and I noticed only a few concerns with edginess. Music came across as bright and dynamic. The score appeared well defined and vivid, with good definition and range. Effects also were accurate and bold. They showed clean highs and packed a nice, smooth sense of low-end. While not on a level with more modern soundtracks, the audio of Alien3 has held up well over the years.
Audio marked an improvement over the 2003 DVD – especially if you chose the SE cut. That one had some rough spots, particularly in terms of dialogue; some of those stems were so poor that the DVD provided optional subtitles just to decipher them!
Though I occasionally noticed some slight muddiness for the SE’s lines, the problems seemed much reduced since the 2003 DVD. I didn’t need subtitles and I thought the SE’s dialogue meshed with the rest just fine. Really, if I didn’t know which scenes were “new”, I wouldn’t have easily been able to tell from the audio.
Even if you watch the 1992 cut, the audio showed improvement – a little bit, at least. As usual, the lossless DTS track boasted a bit better oomph and definition when compared to its Dolby Digital 5.1 predecessor. This wasn’t a huge improvement, but it was there.
Virtually all of the 2003 package’s extras repeat here – or elsewhere in the 6-disc “Alien Anthology” set, where the last two discs include tons of pieces. Because there are so many components on the fifth and sixth platters, I didn’t think it was fair to assign a “bonus features” grade for this disc on its own; I’ll rate the whole shebang when I get to the final two discs.
First of all, we can watch either the 1992 theatrical version of Alien3 or the 2003 Special Edition Cut. I already discussed this in the body of the review, but I figured I should mention it as a supplement too. The disc uses seamless branching to cut between them. In a nice touch, if you watch the alternate version, you’ll find a deleted footage marker that notes all the originally excised material.
Next we find a 2003 audio commentary with cinematographer Alex Thomson, editor Terry Rawlings, alien effects designers Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr., visual effects producer Richard Edlund, and actors Lance Henriksen and Paul McGann. Thomson, Rawlings, McGann and Henriksen all appear solo, whereas it sounds like the three effects men sit together; however, it seems that some of those participants come and go and aren’t always in a group.
Though the Alien3 track includes some good material, it seems like a generally average commentary and definitely offers the weakest of the four in the series. Given the qualifications of the participants, technical matters strongly dominate the proceedings. We get lots of notes about the visual aspects of the movie and putting it together as well as all the different effects elements. We learn what it was like to work with both David Fincher and Sigourney Weaver plus some general information about the flick and its legacy.
The absence of Fincher remains a major problem, though. As many know, he had a really bad experience on Alien3, and apparently he remains upset enough about that to want nothing to do with the project anymore. That means you’ll not find new material with him anywhere in this set, and without his cooperation in the commentary, it becomes less focused and informative than I’d like. It sags with some frequency and includes more than a few extended empty spaces. As a fan of Alien3, I thought the track offered enough useful material to make the commentary worth a listen, but I doubt folks who don’t feel a definite affinity for the flick will get much from it.
Note that the content of the commentary varies somewhat dependent on the version of the film you watch. The special edition and theatrical cuts feature a few different elements. This makes sense but becomes slightly frustrating for those of us who want to learn everything we can about the movie, as it means we need to sit through many redundant elements to get new tidbits. If you select the theatrical edition of Alien3, you’ll get access to deleted scenes. Note that these simply show the alternate sequences from the special edition cut; nothing different than what we find in that version appears in this section. It’s too bad the commentary for those scenes isn’t available as you watch them this way; that’d solve the problem of the redundant elements.
Also alongside the theatrical version, an Isolated Score option appears. This provides the movie’s music presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. I actually rather like the film’s score, and I think this is a nice addition.
New to the Blu-ray, we find the MU-TH-UR Interactive Mode. This allows you to flip among the disc’s four audio features, save “data points” to reference when you watch Discs Five and Six, and view a trivia track. Called the “Weyland-Yutani Datastream”, this offers info about the flick’s origins, development and creation. We find much of this material elsewhere as well, but the “Datastream” provides a good overview.
I’m not wild about the format, though. Most “trivia tracks” are pretty unobtrusive, so you can follow them and watch the movie at the same time. This become more awkward here because of the amount of territory “MU-TH-UR” fills. Little branches pop up all over the screen, so we get visual distractions. This means you can’t easily check out the flick and the Datastream at the same time.
At least the content is good. The Datastream for Aliens was spotty, but this one works pretty well. It covers a lot of territory and even touches on controversies related to the film. We don’t get a down and dirty look at “The Fincher Issue”, but at least the track discusses his battles with the studio. Indeed, the Datastream seems more supportive of Fincher than of the suits who took the movie away from him. Though I’m still not happy about the intrusive format, the material makes the Datastream worth a look.
A film with many detractors, I think Alien3 actually works quite well. It remains muddled in a lot of ways, but it manages to create a unique vision of the Alien universe and provides a distinctive and frequently moving experience. The Blu-ray offers erratic but generally good picture, very nice audio and a few interesting supplements. I don’t know if anything here will change the minds of the flick’s foes, but for fans and those with open minds, I definitely recommend it, and this Blu-ray provides the best rendition of the film to date.
Note that as of November 2010, you can only purchase the Blu-ray of Alien3 as part of “The Alien Anthology”. This includes Alien, its three sequels and two discs of bonus materials. I’m sure the films will be available individually at some point, but that date is currently unknown.
To rate this film, visit the original review of ALIEN3