‘Aliens/Predator’ Universe flashback: ‘Alien 3’ (1992) has delicious style even as it becomes indecipherable (Movie review)

After the almost universally beloved “Alien” and “Aliens,” we now move into the territory of “for fans only” with 1992’s “Alien 3,” which can be viewed as a theatrical cut riddled with plot holes that resulted from a studio-mandated tight edit, or as an expansive Special Edition that’s based on director David Fincher’s “assembly cut” of the film.

The Special Edition — 31 minutes longer than the theatrical release — was first released on DVD in 2003, and while it won’t change the opinion of people who dislike the movie, it is appreciated by folks who were already sympathetic to the film. I’m in the latter camp. If this wasn’t an “Alien” film, I’d probably dismiss it as a mediocre sci-fi curiosity, but because it is part of the saga (and an essential part, in terms of the Weyland-Yutani company plot and Ripley’s character), I keep getting drawn back to it.

Lacking the scares of “Alien” and the shoot-’em-ups of “Aliens,” “Alien 3” uses the same “group of colorful characters battling an alien” structure in a slower (detractors would say boring), more cerebral way. Structurally, there’s nothing surprising about the events of the film after the cruel dispatching of Hicks and Newt in the opening-credits EEV crash sequence (it’s even more irksome because we don’t even get a hint of Michael Biehn or Carrie Henn). Rather, inevitable doom hangs over the proceedings as the alien picks off Fury 161 prisoners one by one, Ripley discovers she has an alien queen inside of her and the Company men come to collect their specimen.

“Alien 3” isn’t as richly plotted as Fincher’s later films (like the masterful “Zodiac” and “The Social Network”), but it looks gorgeous and he gets tasty performances from his largely British cast. The mostly dormant leadworks facility on a backwater planet is colored in gray, silver and yellow, with a dose of brown and orange when the action moves into the tunnels. The Special Edition features more shots of the bleak, wind-ravaged landscape outside, and it’s almost a relief from the industrial nightmare of the structures. Visually, “Alien 3” can be an immediate turn off, or you can embrace it, as Charles S. Dutton’s Dillon does, saying that he’s not interested in being rescued because he has everything he needs right there. It’s a twisted version of “Home is where the heart is,” I guess.

In addition to Dillon, Charles Dance’s Clemens — who finds Ripley washed ashore, nurses her back to health and even has a relationship with her (before he’s yanked into the ceiling by the alien, the fate of most of this film’s victims) — is another solid character, as we learn he has assigned himself to this prison facility as penance for sloppy medical work that resulted in 11 deaths. The theme of redemption balances out the story’s emphasis on fate, not only through Clemens paying for his misdeeds, but also through Dillon’s and his charges’ religion, which is based on the Christian promise of Jesus’ return to his human followers.

Strangely, the prisoners — all “double-Y chromos” who are predisposed to violence and/or sexual assault (making “Alien 3” into an interesting college-level science lesson while bringing to the fore the sexual undertones of the saga) — somewhat overshadow Ripley. Nonetheless, Sigourney Weaver gives a fine performance as an objectified woman (by the prisoners and by the Company) who decides death is the only option for re-asserting her humanity while also saving the human race from the xenomorphs.

Even more overshadowed than Ripley is the alien (like the original film, there’s only one on the loose, although there had to be a second facehugger on the Sulaco in order that Ripley get infected, too). Whereas the chestburster scene in “Alien” is the centerpiece, the alien’s birth here is almost a side note. In fact, the two versions of the film don’t even agree on where the alien comes from: In the studio version, it’s from a dog; in Fincher’s version (and in the novelization by Alan Dean Foster), it’s from an ox.

Original alien designer H.R. Giger came up with this four-legged version of the xenomorph, and it looks fine in the practical effects shots, such as the iconic image of the creature sidling up to Ripley in the doctor’s office before leaving her alone due to the fact that she’s carrying a queen. The problem is the rather primitive CGI: The alien too often looks like a digital effect that’s not part of the real landscape of the film.

The biggest flaw of the theatrical release, though, was that too much of the plot didn’t make sense (despite the simplicity of the story), and character arcs were so chopped up that the whole film seemed arbitrary. Add in the fact that Ripley’s sacrifice closely mirror’s the Terminator’s from a year prior in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and “Alien 3” can almost feel like a crowd-baiting rip-off.

The assembly cut fixes the plot holes (except the running-through-the-tunnels stuff, which is supposed to be chaotic and nonsensical, I think), and by doing so restores the central thematic thrust of the saga: That Ripley is looking out for humanity and the Company doesn’t give a rip — it just wants its bio-weapon. “Alien 3” is still a style piece (with Fincher’s sensibilities shining through just as Ridley Scott’s and James Cameron’s did). But it also moves the saga further down a character and thematic path that would be picked up in “Alien Resurrection” — and expanded exponentially in “Prometheus.”

I’ll never rank it up there with the first two movies, even though I wish I could. Nonetheless, “Alien 3” still has a hold on me 20 years later.

Click here for John’s reviews of all the “Aliens” and “Predator” films.