So much of the success of “Aliens” comes down to how the film creatively iterated from “Alien” instead of just replicating it. From horror to action. From concerns of sex and rape to concerns of parenthood and motherhood. From working class to soldier class. Everything was a logical innovation, an evolution that felt creative but also cohesive.
To its credit, “Alien 3” does try some new ideas, it isn’t exactly a cheap rehash of “Alien” and “Aliens”, but none of its ideas feel a natural evolution from the first two films, they just feel bizarre and out-of-nowhere. Sex to parenthood makes sense, but why is the third film suddenly so (superficially) considered about religion? Why does it regress to the sex and rape ideas of the first film? I’ve seen readings of the film that take it as an AIDS allegory, which is all fine and well, but how from the first two films?
The actual production history of the film explains a lot – it was a long-gestating mish-mash of many different ideas, treatments, scripts, and as director David Fincher’s debut, he lacked the power to mount any sort of powerful vision over it all. Vincent Ward’s script, taking place on a wooden planet inhabited by monks, was the most creative and interesting idea for the film, but still lacked the sense of cohesively evolving from “Alien” and “Aliens”.
The cast is game. Sigourney Weaver does good work with what the script gives her, as does Charles Dance, and Paul McGann is delightful in his small role. The general production of the film is fine, though hardly a sign of Fincher’s greatness to come.
Jettisoning away returning elements from “Aliens” wasn’t a daring move proving that the film intended to work in its own terms as a creative sequel, as with “Aliens” to “Alien. Instead, it was a regressive move, obliterating the chances of meaningfully following up on “Aliens”, and instead reverting Ripley’s narrative in a stilted, empty direction. The plot is just a nonsensical rehash of “Alien” in an incomprehensible context.
The ending works well enough on its own terms, but its just so thematically incoherent with the first two films. I don’t think characters should have returned from “Aliens” because I liked them, I think they should have returned because it would have made coherently innovating on the story and thematics of the previous films so much more natural. “Alien 3” still could have been a great film and logical follow-up without them, but it would have been harder, and as it is, the film didn’t even try, Assembly Cut or not.
It’s not a terrible film, though not a particularly great one either. But it is a terrible sequel. I give it two prisoners and a missed opportunity.