ALIEN3: In script committees no one can hear you scream
Sometimes a movie can redefine a genre, the way Star Wars jumpstarted science fiction and the Godfather films helped to change the world of dramatic movies.
Horror has had several revitalizing films, from Psycho to The Exorcist, but for many horror fans, the 1979 release of ALIEN was a watershed in filmatic fright.
Then the unexpected happened: seven years later, James Cameron's ALIENS became the extremely rare case where a sequel managed to outclass the original*.
Lightning has not exactly struck thrice with ALIEN3.
The latest battle between Lt. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and one of the best-looking monsters ever** demonstrates one simple fact: well-executed atmosphere, impressive special effects and beautiful set design and cinematography cannot make up for a script that doesn't respect the story.
ALIEN3, which is set on a desolate prison planet, has the feel of a movie written by committee***. Over half a dozen writers have been involved with the project, and the result is a mishmash that mostly ignores the events of the first two films.
Of the four survivors left in the last scene of ALIENS, only Ripley survives past ALIEN3's opening credits. The Alien in this film looks different, for reasons never dealt with. (A subplot involving genetic engineering of the Alien was reportedly part of the original story; this too got lost in the process.) The film never explains how alien eggs managed to get onto the Marine Corps ship that Ripley escaped on in ALIENS.
James Cameron wrote the ALIENS screenplay with a desire to flesh out a true human drama. ALIEN3 director David Fincher, a 28-year-old directing his first feature-length movie after a career in music videos (notably Madonna's "Express Yourself" and "Vogue"), has an eye for making a shot or a set look cinematic, yet he is unable to rein in the conflicting elements of the patchwork script.
With a few notable exceptions -- Ripley, the remains of the android Bishop, good doctor Clemmons (Charles Dance), and formidable and tough prisoner (Charles Dutton of TV's Roc) who winds up on Ripley's side -- the characters are not people the audience can have much feeling for.
The ending of ALIEN3 is perhaps the only part of the film that comes close to having true integrity. This moment, when Ripley does what she has to do, is affecting, sad and almost religious.
As the end credits roll, the audience that has just seen ALIEN3 might be struck by how beautiful the film looks and sounds, but disheartened by the fact that the filmmakers were unable to give ALIEN3 the integrity of the first two chapters in the story of ALIEN.
* Hyperbole; it happens. That thought didn't pan out, but it doesn't discount how much I truly love ALIENS. I honestly prefer it to the original.
** I wanted to compare it favorably to the Jabberwock, as John Tenniel drew it for Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass. I cut the reference due to space.
*** I'd read Cinefantastique's especially in-depth cover story about the frustrating process of writing and shooting ALIEN3. I knew it wasn't literally by a committee, but I figured the image was apt.