Let’s face it: The Alien franchise – at least on the big screen – isn’t what it used to be. When Alien: Resurrection released in 1997, it marked a serious turning point for the series, with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet delivering a colorful film unlike any of those that preceded it that ultimately proved pointless in its existence, effectively killing the franchise’s viability at the time not unlike Batman & Robin had done to its own franchise earlier in the year. It wasn’t until 2004 that audiences would see the Xenomorph grace the big screen again (sans Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley for the first time ever) in the crossover film, Alien vs. Predator.
Though a critical failure, that film managed to spin enough of a profit to warrant a sequel in 2007 that immediately dashed any hope AvP had at becoming a long-running cinematic franchise of its own. And so it was that the door was opened for Ridley Scott to return to the series he helped kick off back in 1979 with 2012’s Prometheus, an incredibly divisive prequel whose ambitions left people talking, for better or worse. Love it or hate it, Prometheus at least left off with the promise that it could lead the franchise into uncharted territory, but when the sequel, Alien: Covenant, arrived earlier this year, we instead got a film that critics didn’t take to, audiences didn’t seem to respond to and proved that “more of the same” isn’t what this series needs, with the future of the franchise once again left in the air.
All this preamble is to say that the Alien films aren’t really batting as many true wins as the franchise’s longevity would have one believe. At this point, it’s hard to deny that the original Alien and James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens, remain the gold standard in the eyes of critics and fans alike, the source of true nostalgia upon which the series continues to get by. But sandwiched between the series’ early highest points and its later low points is the series’ third film, David Fincher’s Alien 3, a sequel that immediately faced criticism upon release for not living up to its predecessors and one that Fincher has long since distanced himself from thanks to a troubled production.
In its theatrical form, Alien 3 deserves much of the flak it got, particularly for what it retroactively did to the ending of Aliens and for feeling narratively butchered, among other issues. That said, the film isn’t without merit, and in 2003, a version of the movie was released known as the Assembly Cut that added nearly 40 minutes of footage, helping smooth out some of the original narrative issues while actually improving Alien 3 as a whole. In the years since its release, the Assembly Cut has helped the film undergo a bit of a critical reevaluation, but I would argue that, whether due to the idea that not as many people may have seen the film in this form or the fact that it’s so often lumped in with the post-Aliens downturn the franchise took, it still doesn’t get enough respect.
Now, before I dive into defending the movie, let’s briefly catch you up on its plot in case it’s been a while since you’ve seen it. In the wake of the events of Aliens, a fire on board the Sulaco causes the ship to launch an escape pod carrying the cryopods containing Ripley, Hicks, Newt and Bishop, as well as a facehugger that had snuck aboard. The pod crashes on the planet Fiorina 161, aka Fury, the event killing Hicks and Newt and allowing the facehugger to escape. Taken in by members of the planet’s penal colony, an assortment of murderers, rapists and those trying to turn their lives around through God, Ripley’s recovery and grief over the loss of Hicks and Newt is interrupted by the birth of another Xenomorph, one that wastes no time in ripping through the colonists and starting Ripley’s nightmare all over again.
In many ways, Alien 3 is an oppressive film, one that’s much bleaker than the two efforts that came before, and it’s easy to see why that can be a turn off for anyone who preferred the haunted house nature of Alien and/or the gung ho action spin of Aliens. The unceremonious killing off of Newt and Hicks is, perhaps, the most egregious aspect of the film, the unforgivable sin that Alien 3 will be burdened with forever in the eyes of many, and sets the tone for the events that follow. After all she’s been through, from losing her original crew to discovering her daughter had grown up and died while she had been in cryosleep for decades to losing the surrogate daughter she fought so hard to save, Ripley deserves a happy ending, but Alien 3 makes sure that’s not in the cards.