This article originally appeared in the May 22, 1992 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
The first Alien (1979), directed by Ridley Scott, was aptly titled: it confronted us with a creature as alien and intimate as our worst nightmares. A polymorphously perverse monstrosity, it was a masterpiece of sexual horror, an inhuman that spawned from the human and relentlessly hunted humanity down.
In Aliens(1986), James Cameron pluralized the beast, transforming it into an infestation that did not spring from within but poured over its victims from without, drowning them in otherness; in the surreal final sequence, the distinction between the human and non-human, was lost even as the extraterrestrial nemesis was vanquished. In different ways, both films explored the horror of the alien, of becoming alien, with sadistic wit, taut narrative, and relentless suspense, making the horror visceral instead of intellectual, and so purging it.
As suggested by the title Alien3 has taken the premise of its predecessors and made a formula of it. Directed by David Fincher, whose previous credits have been music videos, the film was a troubled production involving several revisions and reshootings. "Now what do we do?" is a recurring line of dialogue in the movie, and it probably echoes the filmmakers' own refrain as they pondered new ways to get audiences to jump.
Which doesn't happen very often in Alien3. Despite his MTV roots, Fincher isn't particularly gifted in the cheap-thrills department -- everything is shot in extreme close-up, which makes more for confusion than for claustrophobia; and for real excitement he relies on upside-down anamorphic shots from the point of view of the creature scuttling after prey. His knack for narrative is strictly of the three-minutes-or-less variety. Alien 3 is a confined, drab meditation on horror, Waiting for Godot with unpleasant special effects. Rustily lit and directed, it isn't thrilling, but it is sometimes moving as it shapes its troubling metaphors into grandly pessimistic images.
One of the more impressive of these images turns up near the beginning of the film. Their ship damaged by a stowaway alien, the cryogenically slumbering Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her fellow survivors from Aliens are jettisoned and lan of Fury, a penal work colony for doubly-Y-chromosome sex criminals. Her two human companions are dead, and Ripley demands that her hosts cremate their bodies to avoid the possibility of "contagion." The two wrapped figures are dropped into a vast orange furnace, the fires engulfing them like a giant ovum swallowing sperm. Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) the hulking black spiritual leader of the colony (they practice celibacy according to a cultish "apocalyptic, millenary, fundamentalist Christian sect") intones a homily about every death being a new birth, his words ironically intercut with the messy birth of the "contagion" Ripley was trying to prevent.
Like Beckett, Fincher is faced with the prospect of filling the space between this birth and the inevitable deaths, and the story presents him with some promising possibilities. The only woman on a planet of murderous rapists, Ripley should be the center of primal sexual tensions. But with her head shaved (in a wry touch that goes nowhere, Fury is infested with lice, precursors of the bigger bugs to come), and clad in a prison uniform, she seems enclosed in an abstract Munchian angst irrelevant to gender. Neither do the prisoners evoke any menace -- even the brooding Dillon seems more a potential alien entree than a sexual presence. Only Charles Dance as the medical officer who beds the love-hungry Ripley resonates as a character, and he ends up as an extreme advertisement for just saying no.