Alien 3: Assembly Cut redeems a dark and unforgetable nightmare
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Larry Ferguson, David Giler & Walter Hill
It’s a classic chapter of Hollywood lore, one of those great cautionary tales of executive mismanagement and shattered dreams. With behind-the-scenes chaos in both the boardroom and editing suites following up on indecisive strategizing and constant creative overhauls, 20th Century Fox’s hotly anticipated third installment in the Alien franchise was always set up to fail. You could argue that the writing was on the wall when the marketing department jumped the gun by releasing an infamous teaser trailer with the quickly irrelevant tagline “On Earth, everybody can hear you scream”. Half of the industry’s writing population seemed to have a go on spec, from William Gibson (with what was ostensibly an Aliens screenplay) to David Twohy (featuring a Ripley-less premise), $7 million was wasted on rejected sets and the film spent a year in editing, by which point debut director David Fincher had walked out. It was a horror show to rival the productions of Myra Breckinridge and Casino Royale 1967.
The darkest irony of the saga, which concluded with a compromised final product being torn to shreds in cinemas by unimpressed critics and heartbroken fans, was to be found when Fox released its regrettably titled Quadrilogy set. Not only were the documentaries portraying the terrifyingly back-stabbing and childish antics essential and fascinating viewing, but the set also brought to light an alternate version which showed that, through all the craziness, a solid and respectable sequel had come to life only to be butchered in post. For all that he didn’t come out of the debacle unscathed, the survival of Fincher’s career after a traumatic first step into major motion pictures can be attributed to a genuine talent, one that means he is one of the industry’s leading directors, and one that can be found within the rough Assembly Cut.
It is no altered vision, it should be noted. Anyone hoping for a film set far away from the gloom and despair of Fiorina 161 will be disappointed once again, and those diehard fans swelled by stories of an incarnation featuring Hicks and Newt as main characters should not get their hopes up for a reprieve. Much like Kingdom of Heaven’s much lauded Director’s Cut, this version tells the same story as the theatrical release but does so with more material, more depth, and a more coherent second act climax. Crucially, that depth revolves around a completely botched subplot that justifies Paul McGann’s billing, adds a significant dimension to the plot, and manages to allay a major criticism of the original cut; it actually gives names and faces to those skinhead prisoners we are asked to give a damn about.
McGann, an actor on the rise after notable roles in the likes of Withnail and I, was one of the many victims of the debacle and later joked that his big Hollywood break never showed up on the big screen. His role of Golic, the insane murderer who experiences a religious experience at the hands of the titular xenomorph and becomes an obsessive, Gollum-esque acolyte of the “dragon,” plays out as it was supposed to; a weighty and creepy subplot that eventually plays a massive part in the main story. When those overseeing the compilation of the final cut decided that the alien being captured made it appear weak and not scary, they acted by completely restructuring a major action sequence, which meant the excision of Golic releasing the beast. This made his role superfluous and saw almost all of his scenes cut. Their restoration, aside from showcasing McGann’s crazed and frantic performance, also gives a platform to his fellow custodians. We get to know the prisoners, such as Danny Webb’s Morse and the late Pete Postlethwaite’s David, and also some extra insight into the always troubled nature of their pessimistic faith in God. In truth, only Ripley and Charles Dance’s doctor Clemens remain unaffected.
This newfound substance has a number of hugely positive effects and builds on the already present positive elements within the film, specifically the pitch-black mood of existential dread and fire and brimstone atmosphere which nails home the religious and spiritual subtext. After the gung-ho action of Aliens, Alien 3 is a firm return to horror and one that, under Fincher’s command, manages to burrow its way deep under one’s skin. Ripley’s sheer despair, so much trauma and torment heightened to ridiculous levels by the death of her surrogate daughter Newt and trusted fellow survivor Hicks, merely sets the tone. With the shaving of her head comes a new Ripley, a version of the character Sigourney Weaver thrives on. Darkly nihilistic and given to disconcerting honesty, she only comes back to life when her nemesis rears its head and threatens to tear through the forgotten penal colony that is now home. Elliott Goldenthal’s outstanding score, which eclipses the works of Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner in terms of sheer visceral thrill, edgy teasing and emotional power, hammers home the nightmarish mood. The original theatrical release hinted at something along these lines, but lacked the patience and care to fully bring it to fruition.
That dreamlike darkness, the hopelessness of a killing machine locked in with helpless, unarmed lifers in the archetypal backwater world, is easily the film’s greatest gift and it is one that should not be sniffed at. Having gained a greater understanding of him through the new material, there is a newfound inner zeal and swelling of the chest at hearing Dillon’s (Charles S. Dutton) inspirational speech to his unlikely clergy. “I’m not much for begging,” he tells them furiously. “Nobody ever gave me nothing.” This is not just his attempts to rouse the troops by reinforcing their shared religion, it is him demanding that they prove they are worthy of something. They are, indeed, the scum of the earth; murderers, rapists, and more. Dillon doesn’t care much for the past, nor pay much heed to the future. For him, making a standing and confronting the xenomorph he portrayed more as a demon than an animal is one small shred shot at redemption. It may not be profound, but it is effective, ringing true with the pall of depression that hangs over the whole. Such gambits and sound bites would ring hollow were the film not portrayed in a constant black of pre-dawn squalor, seemingly the pit of creativity from where Fincher has continued to mine.
This does not completely cover the cracks, however. Restored to a greater vision or not, it is still far from perfection or masterpiece. The presence of two eggs on the Sulaco presents a gaping plothole that undermines the film’s set up; the final showdown, set in the almost volcanic bowels of the facility runs unfortunate parallels with the previous year’s Terminator 2; the handling of Bishop proves unsatisfying; despite improved portrayal of final survivor Morse among others, there is still a faceless quality within the supporting cast of mostly British actors during the final stages that lends an unintentionally helpful confusion. These are issues at foundation level, however, and no amount of re-editing can address them. They do not take away from the mood, the feel and the vision. Simply put, a film cannot be a complete failure when it delivers an ending this powerful and iconic. The assembly cut might have been window dressing, but redeems much of the work from Fincher and his character-actor cast, showing that, despite the madness, there was genuine method at work.
Redemption is a key theme, though it is not something a film more famous for its production will ever get to enjoy, regardless of how much the rework salvages. Far more interest will always be had in exploring the background, not the result. Perhaps, in a strange way, it was this trouble that managed to give Alien 3 its distinctive trademark; through a nightmare comes a film that feels like a night terror, albeit one reinforced by some affecting ideas, emotions and points. Dark and cynical it may be, but unforgettable too, with a mood few films manage to match. If you get the chance, see it in its fullest projection. It’s no Alien, and it’s no Aliens, but it’s its own beast. Far fewer disastrous flicks can’t say the same.
— Scott Patterson