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Alien 3 is far from the worst Alien movie. In fact, it’s pretty great.

Director David Fincher famously disowned his own entry in the Alien franchise — but it’s actually a showcase for his creative vision.

Sigourney Weaver meets the alien in Alien 3

The new Alien: Covenant marks the sixth film in the main Alien franchise since it started in 1979, making it one of Hollywood's longest-running series. And there's no sign of it going away: Director Ridley Scott said in March that there may be as many as six more in the works.

The franchise has had its ups and downs over the years — remember Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem? — but it has been sustained in large part based on the enduring popularity of the first two films in the series: Alien and Aliens.

The films were made seven years apart by two very different directors, and there isn’t much continuity between them, aside from the protagonist, Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, and the H.R. Giger-designed aliens themselves. The first was a claustrophobic monster movie in space made by a young director named Ridley Scott, the second a Vietnam-inspired action film by James Cameron.

But both films succeeded on the strength of their memorable imagery, rich world building, and strong performances. And both films helped launch the careers of young directors who would go on to be two of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers. They are classics of science fiction filmmaking — critically acclaimed and beloved by fans — and their reputation has helped the franchise endure for nearly 40 years.

Other Alien follow-ups haven’t fared quite as well. Alien 3, in particular, is widely thought of as a turning point in the series — not a franchise killer but a disappointment considering what came before. The third installment, which went through a troubled production, was generally panned on its 1992 release, and in the years since, it has been all but disowned by its director, David Fincher.

Alien 3 may not have quite the mass appeal or enduring legacy of its predecessors, but its low reputation simply isn’t deserved. It’s a worthy addition to the franchise — as strong a science fiction picture, in its own way, as the first two films in its series — and another showcase for the visionary talents of a young director who would go on to be one of the most powerful filmmakers in Hollywood.

Alien 3’s troubled production was a trial by fire for a young David Fincher

Like Aliens, Alien 3 took a long time to gestate. Although the previous film had been a huge success, director James Cameron had moved on to other projects, and the writer-producer duo David Giler and Walter Hill, who had been with the series from the beginning, were wary of making another installment. Still, the studio wanted a sequel, so work eventually began on developing a story and a setting. But the project was troubled from the outset — even before Fincher came on board.

According to Wreckage and Rage: The Making of Alien 3, a 2003 documentary that catalogs the film’s production issues in exhaustive detail, the producers struggled to find a director to oversee the production.

Renny Harlin, the Finnish director of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and Die Hard 2, was initially brought on with the intention of making a movie in which Ripley traveled to the alien home world. This was dismissed as too expensive, and Harlin eventually left the project.

The development process went much further until writer Vincent Ward proposed a movie about a monk-like society on a planet-size wooden ship floating in space. Ward wrote a series of scripts, hired illustrators to design his wooden world, and even began building some of the sets. But creative tensions mounted between the film’s producers and Ward, who could never quite offer an explanation for his space-bound wooden world. He exited the project, and Fincher came on board.

David Fincher on the set of Alien 3.
Photo by Rolf Konow/Sygma/Corbis via Getty Images

At the time, Fincher was in his late 20s, and although he was well known for his music video work, he had never directed a feature film. His on-set perfectionism grated on the producers, who felt he was wasting too much time and money getting small details right. The relationship between the young director and his studio minders was tense at best.

“I’ll never forget Dave’s complete devotion to the color of blood,” producer Ezra Swerdlow says in Wreckage and Rage. Set footage shows Fincher musing about shooting a thousand takes of an exploding head, and insisting to an obviously skeptical Swerdlow that he would only shoot under certain sky and weather conditions. Swerdlow describes Fincher as “openly contemptuous” of studio oversight, and says the studio responded by trying to “break him.”

The conflicts between Fincher and the studio were exacerbated by a rushed schedule. Ward’s wooden-monastery planet idea was scrapped in favor of a prison-planet concept, but the script wasn’t complete. Meanwhile, construction of the film’s huge sets had already begun. And the movie’s updated alien design hadn’t been finalized, which meant that the creature builders were trying to catch up too.

“We went through this production continually reworking the script,” producer John Landau says in the documentary. “The movie got greenlit based on a whole different version of the script. And David had to deal with that in a very short period of time. He had to design the alien, design the sets, and he had to write the script, all the way into the depths of production.”

Once shooting stopped, the fights only continued. Fincher’s initial cut came in at nearly three hours long, and the studio pressed relentlessly for a version a half-hour shorter than what he preferred. Fincher was a novice director with little power, and eventually the studio won out.

Reviews were generally unkind to the film that eventually made it to theaters, calling it stylish but shallow. Variety described Alien 3 as “a muddled effort that offers little more than visual splendor to recommend it,” while the New York Times complained that the film was too dark and too implausible. The third installment in the franchise “is nothing to scream about,” wrote a critic for the Washington Post.

A longer cut of the film validates the strength of Fincher’s creative vision

More than a decade later, it was clear that feelings remained raw: Fincher is the only major player who does not appear in Wreckage and Rage, and the studio initially demanded that the documentary makers cut 20 minutes from the film detailing conflicts with the director. When the studio wanted to assemble a director’s cut of Alien 3 for a home-video release, Fincher refused to participate. Instead, an extended cut of the film was created based on his editing room notes — a kind of director’s cut without the director.

The Assembly Cut, as it is known, restores much of what was lost in the studio’s shortened version of the movie, and solves some of the specific problems cited by critics.

Among other things, it expands the world of the prison planet Fiorina 161 by reinserting a series of exteriors intended to appear at the beginning of the film, showing the residents using oxen to pull wreckage through a bleak industrial landscape. These shots help establish what life is like on the planet, set the tone for the film to come, and address complaints that the world of the film doesn’t feel all that large.

The Assembly Cut of Alien 3 adds texture and character to the film’s prison planet and its inhabitants.
Rolf Konow/Sygma/Corbis via Getty Images

The Assembly Cut also dramatically expands the roles of several of the prisoner characters, particularly Golic, a stuttering murderer played by Paul McGann whose part was all but eliminated from the studio version of the film. On release, some critics complained that the cast, all of whom were shaved bald, was poorly defined. The extended cut’s extra character moments go a long way toward distinguishing the movie’s supporting players.

But mostly the Assembly Cut serves to validate the strength of Fincher’s vision — a vision that shines through even in the studio cut. Alien 3 is, more than anything else, a dark and dour mood piece about the ugly depths of the human condition. The Assembly Cut basks in that mood a little longer, and adds more detail around the margins, but there’s no missing it in the theatrical release version of the film either. In some sense, critics who praised the look but panned the movie missed the point: In a David Fincher film, the mood is the movie.

And Alien 3 is very much a David Fincher film, as distinctly the product of his dark and twisted imagination as Seven or Zodiac or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Just as the icy survivalism of Alien helped set the tone for Ridley Scott’s career, and the guns-blazing ferocity of Aliens helped pave the way for James Cameron’s later work, Alien 3 works as a setup for the rest of David Fincher’s films.

It’s nihilistic and misanthropic, bleak and despairing, slickly shot and bathed in ragged industrial gloom. It’s a big-budget movie about human frailty and the inevitability of death in which the characters are never particularly likable or heroic and the protagonist dies at the end. As in Seven, the ending is a shock downer. As in Fight Club, the character relationships are built from a series of existential dialogues. As in Panic Room, the story is driven by the need to use one’s surroundings to survive what is essentially a home invasion. The alien of Alien 3 is, in a way, Fincher’s first serial killer.

Fincher put his own particular stamp on the tropes that animate the Alien franchise

Fincher’s perfectionism on the set of Alien 3 would become the norm for the director: Reports indicated that while making Gone Girl, he averaged more than 50 takes per scene. His fascination with violence and gore that is both artful and shocking would appear later in Seven and Zodiac. In all of these films, Fincher’s obsession with the look of blood comes across clearly onscreen.

Visually, Alien 3 may be the most distinctive entry in the franchise. Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, whose work on Blade Runner defined a certain decaying urban sci-fi aesthetic, had to quit after a short time on the job. But the final work by British photographer Alex Thomson is stunning in its own way. Backgrounds are textured with steam columns, damp surfaces, and sharp beams of light that give the sets a textured physicality. For much of the film, the camera lingers close to the floor, pointed up, as if to emphasize the close confines of the prison space and the impossibility of escape.

Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3
The world of Alien 3 has a textured physicality that stands out within the franchise.
Rolf Konow/Sygma/Corbis via Getty Images

Beyond the visuals, Alien 3 also excels as an exercise in imaginative world building. Its lonely prison planet is as richly detailed and lived-in an environment as the industrial corridors of Alien or the abandoned mining colony of Aliens. Its sequestered society, in which a religious contingent effectively runs the prison while a small group of overseers struggles to maintain a facade of control, is as nuanced a cinematic sociology as the corporate power structures that drove the first film, or the military conventions that powered the second. Like its predecessors, Alien 3 is an exploration of human power dynamics in a confined setting and the limits of institutional control.

Fincher, in other words, put his own particular stamp on the tropes that animate the Alien franchise: He took the ideas that Scott and Cameron had developed and remade them in his own image. His ideas may be too bleak, too gloomy, too misanthropic for some, but they are clearly his, and in Alien 3 they are presented as forcefully as ever.

Fincher’s frustrating experience on the film, and his perfectionism, may not allow him to see it, but it’s a fine David Fincher film. Just as Alien and Aliens were unmistakably products of their directors’ ideas and aesthetics, Alien 3 is a product of Fincher’s unique vision. And that, in the end, is what makes it a great Alien film as well.

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