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Before ‘The Last Jedi,’ There Was ‘Alien 3’

David Fincher’s entry in the ‘Alien’ franchise was particularly dark and divergent from the tone of its two predecessors. The director has disavowed it. But, in retrospect, the film may not have deserved all the flak it received.

Getty Images/20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social Network, The Ringer hereby dubs September 21-25 David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.

Here’s my lukewarm take about the Alien franchise: Every single film is good in its own unique way. (Like most Alien fans, I’m going to pretend that the two spinoffs in which Xenomorphs fight Predators do not actually exist—those are quite bad.) Instead of following a regimented franchise blueprint like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the series has given blank slates to its talented filmmakers. But what the franchise has lost in continuity, it’s gained in the creation of some of the most ambitious projects conceived at a blockbuster scale.

For the first Alien, and his second feature film, Ridley Scott crafted a tense, claustrophobic, existential horror movie—one frequently likened to a haunted house in space. Alien remains, to this day, scary as all hell; the chestburster scene is an all-timer. The follow-up, Aliens, directed by up-and-comer James Cameron after his success with The Terminator, is a loud, chaotic action film inspired by the Vietnam War. What Aliens lacks in scares, it makes up for in firepower and iconic one-liners. The fourth movie in the franchise, Alien: Resurrection, is a campy romp from the director of Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet) in which an eccentric space general holds a chunk of his own brain after a Xenomorph takes a chunk out of his skull, Winona Ryder is a robot, and Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley dunks a basketball. When the franchise returned to Scott for the prequels Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, Scott used the Alien mythos to ponder the origins of mankind and what happens when an android that looks like Michael Fassbender tries to play God—and wherein Michael Fassbender becomes scarier than the actual Xenomorphs.

Excluded from that breakdown is, of course, Alien 3: the directorial debut of David Fincher, whose reputation at that point was defined by his music videos. If the filmmaker could have it his way, the movie would be expunged from his record. Fincher has rather infamously disavowed Alien 3, citing the kind of studio interference he has actively tried to avoid the rest of his career; the film is largely regarded as not just his worst movie, but a low point for the Alien franchise. Alien 3’s standing is so bad that 20th Century Fox had previously considered making a direct sequel to Aliens that would de-canonize the events of the film as well as Resurrection—similar to what Cameron ended up doing with Terminator: Dark Fate as a follow-up to Judgement Day. (The potential project, helmed by Neill Blomkamp, appears to have fizzled out.)

But lost amid Fincher and the studio treating Alien 3 as the franchise’s black sheep is not just its underappreciated brilliance, but how important it was for the series’ evolution. Before Rian Johnson ruffled the feathers of certain Star Wars fans with The Last Jedi, Alien 3 embraced a similar ethos of letting the past die—while allowing Fincher to put his signature stamp on the project, studio meddling be damned.

Perhaps the most contentious decision in Alien 3 is how quickly it casts aside two beloved characters from Aliens: Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) and Ripley’s surrogate daughter Newt (Carrie Henn). Both characters die while in cryosleep, as the crew’s escape pod lands on the desolate prison planet Fury 161. Ripley is the only survivor of the crash—which the opening title sequence shows had to do with a facehugger running amok—and finds herself in a hostile environment. Almost all the inhabitants of Fury 161 are convicted murderers, rapists, and thieves.

It’s an unsparingly bleak film: If the thought of little Newt dying wasn’t bad enough, Ripley orders Fury 161’s medical officer to perform an autopsy that requires opening her chest cavity. (She fears an alien could be waiting to burst out.) The planet itself is full of industrial gloom, prisoners seeking absolution, and a heroine contending with survivor’s guilt, and it evokes overwhelming despair. And, as these things inevitably go, a new Xenomorph is on the prowl—ready to tear the planet’s miserable inhabitants to pieces one at a time. An early highlight of Fincher’s film is a crosscutting sequence between Hicks and Newt being cremated while the new Xenomorph is birthed from a prisoner’s dog: a grisly juxtaposition showing, to paraphrase another franchise with gnarly creatures, that life, uh, finds a way.

A dead child, an alien bursting out of a poor dog? Yeah, Alien 3 is depressing as shit. Even when Ripley forms a bond with the aforementioned medical officer, played with rugged charm by Charles Dance, he is almost immediately killed off in brutal fashion. The mood of Fincher’s film is best explained by the parting words of Aliens android Bishop (Lance Henriksen), who’s torn apart in the escape pod crash and makes a single-scene cameo asking Ripley to power him down for good: “I’d rather be nothing.” The final twist in the knife of Alien 3’s dour tone is when Ripley, upon discovering that there’s a Xenomorph Queen gestating inside of her, sacrifices herself to prevent the creature from falling into the hands of the same conglomerate that sent the original Alien crew to their doom in the first place.

It’s hard to imagine any modern blockbuster approaching Alien 3’s nihilistic tone—let alone putting such a big-budget project in the hands of a first-time filmmaker. (Though given how much Fincher despises the film, it clearly wasn’t without some problems, including the lack of a finished script at the start of production.) The Alien franchise would never be mistaken for cheery, but in Cameron’s hands, Aliens is comparatively upbeat: The movie ends with Ripley having taken in a surrogate daughter and an implied love interest in Hicks. Cameron has been vocal in his displeasure with Alien 3 killing its characters off, but in doing so—and culminating with Ripley’s heroic sacrifice—Fincher’s film challenged not just the audience, but the franchise’s future. Even when the possibility of a retconned Aliens sequel was floated, Sigourney Weaver said Ripley “deserves a rest.”

Alien 3’s reception has warmed with time: an assembly cut, released in 2003, incorporated Fincher’s editing-room notes and does a better job fleshing out the prisoners on Fury 161. (Curiously, in the assembly cut, the Xenomorph hatches from an oxen, rather than a prisoner’s dog.) It’s the closest thing to a proper director’s cut that Alien 3 will ever get, since Fincher still wants nothing to do with the franchise. If you’re willing to give the movie another chance, the assembly cut is worth seeking out.

Time has also been favorable to the prospect of a post-Ripley Alien future. Following the bizarre but ambitious choice to turn Ripley into a super-powered clone with Xenomorph DNA in Resurrection—you can thank Joss Whedon for that—Scott’s prequels have expanded the Alien mythos to incorporate giant humanoid-like beings called Engineers that, within the context of the franchise’s universe, created humanity (!). The galaxy brain implications of Scott’s bonkers vision could take as many as six films to wrap up—provided he can convince the studio to fund another sequel after Covenant’s tepid box-office haul. (Please, give Ridley Scott all the money.)

It might’ve been a bitter pill to swallow upon release, but without Fincher giving the Alien franchise a jolt of nihilistic, chaotic energy, who’s to say the franchise would be in a good place? As much of a romp as Resurrection is, the decision to set the film 200 years in the future with a Ripley clone is about as nonsensical as The Rise of Skywalker bringing back Emperor Palpatine. (Whedon pulled a Fincher and slammed the film, placing the blame on everything but his script, despite it setting up a fucking ridiculous concept to begin with.) Like The Last Jedi, Alien 3 might always have its detractors, but its subversive nature, willingness to buck convention, and open invitation for the franchise to move in a new direction are precisely what makes it great. Even if Fincher wants to forget his feature film debut, the movie is worthy of a legacy beyond being an acrimonious stain on the director’s otherwise superlative career.