Thursday, June 14, 2012
Even The Intolerable
Whether we like it or not, some films exist. That’s just the way it is. I mention this simply because there are no doubt some people out there still pissed about the whole killing of Hicks and Newt thing at the start of ALIEN 3. What with them being fictional characters and all I’ve sort of gotten over it by now. And particularly in these days when it feels like every franchise is processed through a CGI filter to make it as crowd pleasing as humanly possible for all I’ve come to flat out admire the willingness of a summer tentpole to be as unrelentingly bleak as possible. You could make the argument that any film set within the ALIEN universe of Weyland-Yutani is supposed to be a horror film anyway so a certain amount of darkness should really be allowed but there is something to be said for how dangerous it can be to pretty much disregard the previous entry in a series during the opening moments of the next sequel as much as this film does. And if those who made the film didn’t know how people were going to react, if they didn’t know how strongly people really had responded to the characters in ALIENS, it’s a little surprising that no one ever bothered to speak up (an early teaser trailer that implied the film would be set on Earth probably didn’t help matters). The tortuous gestation that the film went through following the smash success of the previous film in 1986 involving multiple screenwriters and directors in different iterations has been reported elsewhere so I won’t go into all that now. The film was of course finally helmed by David Fincher making his feature directorial debut and considering how one alternative would have been to produce a more-of-the-same followup from a journey man director just following orders in a ‘Further Adventures of Ripley and her Friends’ vein at least the resulting film goes down a few paths that really no one would have expected during all those years in between but one thing I’ve long said is that it’s not enough for a film to be dark. It’s an admirable quality, yes, and when done just right the final result can be like a punch to the gut, sticking with you for a long time afterwards whether you want it to or not. But ALIEN 3, for all its sound and fury and doom and gloom and noise and clanging and death and more death, never manages to achieve such resonance maybe because through the clusterfuck of trying to simply get the film made the script was never hammered down into the right form in order to find a reason for its own existence beyond the fact that it’s a sequel. This first look at Fincher as director remains an undeniable glimpse at his potential, particularly now that he’s made a few films where the end result of all that bleakness did have its considerable rewards. And as bad as the initial response was even then there were a few dissenting voices to ponder the thematic implications that came across as Manohla Dargis did in a Village Voice article (which unfortunately can’t be found online) a few weeks after the release entitled “ALIEN 3 and its Metaphors” which delved into the connections to the AIDS crisis amid the politics of the time. But such discussions don’t automatically make something good. It just means there’s more to discuss. As some may know an extended cut (145 min. vs. 115 min.) was released on DVD a number of years ago but I’ve only ever seen pieces of it—I suppose my auteurist leanings make me less interested since Fincher who has nothing good to say about the film to this day (“No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me,” was the quote in a 2009 interview) declined involvement and has apparently never even seen that version. So in writing this I’m focusing on the theatrical cut of ALIEN 3 not only because it’s what I have close at hand but because it’s the movie I’ve known since opening night in Times Square way back on 5/22/92 (Happy 20th Anniversary!) and have seen more than a few times through the years as I’ve tried to reconcile this film with my own expectations as well as my own perceptions of what it’s trying to be. As far as I’m concerned, this is the ALIEN 3 the world has to contend with, the one with a trailer that trumpeted “The Bitch Is Back” maybe the best and worse tagline ever. I even had an ALIEN 3 t-shirt at the time which had that slogan on the back. Still can’t believe I actually wore it. If there’s a great film in there, one we’ll never see, it still feels miscalibrated—it's a film with an onscreen title which makes it look like it should really be called ALIEN CUBED but it doesn’t really mean anything, just a piece of design that has nothing to do with actual film and I suppose the entire film has the feel of an art project that doesn’t quite feel molded to completion which based on what’s been reported about the production appears to be exactly the case. As films that are hated go, at least it feels totally committed to the tone it strives for even though all these years later I still don’t think it ever becomes good enough to defend very much beyond its intentions. Soon after the events of ALIENS, an alien egg hatches on the Sulaco where Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the young girl Newt, Corporal Hicks and the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) are in hypersleep traveling back to earth from the events on LV-426. As emergency procedures are activated the ship releases their pod and it crash lands on Fiorina “Fury” 161, a former prison colony populated by a group made of of double Y chromosome murderers and rapists once inmates, now custodians who have taken vows in an environment so treacherous that everyone on the planet has to shave their heads due to prevalent lice. Ripley is the only survivor of the crash but even though she insists on the bodies of her friends be cremated she still suspects that an alien has followed along with them which she conceals from all including inmate leader Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), Warden Andrews (Brian Glover) and the facility doctor Clemons (Charles Dance) which she gradually begins to form a bond with. But as they wait for the rescue team that’s been sent for her, strange happenings appear to confirm that there is in fact an alien on the planet which for Ripley leads to the most horrifying discovery of all… Exactly when the alien queen was supposed to have laid an egg on the Sulaco during the climax of ALIENS is a question that goes unanswered but, really, the best answer to be found of course is that it was decided that an egg had been laid so that this film could be made. In terms of narrative ALIEN 3 (Story by Vincent Ward, Screenplay by David Giler & Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson) is a direct continuation of the previous film even more than ALIENS was to ALIEN but it seems not only uninterested in continuing the threads that people found so satisfying in the James Cameron film the way it plays right from the Twentieth Century Fox logo is as if in making his own film David Fincher wanted to reveal that quintessential product of the eighties to be a lie, a breaking apart of the Reagan-era family unit borne out of the ashes of Vietnam that all those marines represent, to lay bare the feel good rollercoaster and essentially punish the audience for getting even a little enjoyment out of this. Looking at ALIEN 3 as the ignominious death of the eighties—as well the eighties blockbusters I grew up seeing—and blowing what came before to smithereens isn’t all that unappealing and the apocalyptic tone is both undeniable and unrelenting but regardless of what the film’s subtext is the text is never strong enough to support it. A things wind up playing out that subtext doesn’t feel fully thought out on its own either. In a way the film begins in such a place of total darkness there’s nowhere else to go in terms of drama beyond simple nihilism and even watching the film now when the bodies are dug out in the first minutes it’s hard not to wonder what’s the point of going on with the actual movie, what’s the point of Ripley going on and when she makes a few wisecracks to prove to the prisoners how tough she is it’s almost like, who cares? Why does she even care anymore? With no sign of relief the film is nihilistic to the point that it feels as if it’s being made by somebody who just discovered the word in a dictionary and wants to make it all as punk as absolutely possible. The approach is so dark it’s hard not to admire what it’s going for through all its apocalyptic imagery and it isn’t every day a summer blockbuster contains a sequence depicting the (mostly off-camera) autopsy of a little girl leading to Charles Dance as Clemons announcing the cause of Newt’s death, hammering it home with the statement, “Lungs flooded with fluid. Ergo, she drowned,” the sorrow heard in Elliot Goldenthal’s score seems intent on shattering the dreams of anyone who had spent the six long years between entries wondering what could come next. It’s not even a cool science fiction movie death, it’s just sad. For simple drama it’s almost as if the film should end right there and even the ceremonial funeral of Newt and Hicks as their bodies are dropped into Fury 161’s furnace never surpasses this moment of hopelessness, maybe because the insistence of intercutting Charles Dutton’s speech of death in the shadow of new life with the newest alien at last being born is just a heavy handedness that plays as wrong, a first year philosophy student that thinks they’re being deep in trying to provide an APOCALYPSE NOW sort of frisson. And these reaches for meaning intermingle with a narrative that always feels in search of an actual story to frame amidst the elements. Ripley takes up a sort of companionship with Clemons but as good as Weaver and Dance are in their scenes together—the way they play off each other with both of them withholding certain secrets feels refreshingly adult unlike any other relationship she has in the series—but her presumed distrust in telling anyone about what’s going on feels like too much of a contrivance, an attempt to keep some drama going where there just isn’t enough of any, one of the most crippling elements of the entire film. The story never feels solidified to the point that when several minutes are taken up by a plan to catch the alien that ultimately goes nowhere maybe it’s meant to represent the futility of it all as these characters get stripped away of any possible chance of survival but instead it feels like the movie is just treading water for several minutes, waiting for new script pages to come in so they’ll know which way the plot is going. Through this muddle you can feel the roots of how strong Fincher would be in just a few years’ time once the world got a look at SEVEN—there are specific shots in almost every scene so haunting it feels like even more a shame that it all never comes together and there’s a certain energy he brings to the rhythm of dialogue scenes between characters that plays very much as how he would shoot such things even now with a casual realism to certain offhand moments that at least helps with the verisimilitude. Photographed by Alex Thomson, who replaced Jordan Cronenweth after a few weeks of shooting, the craft is certainly strong--the camerawork couldn’t be better and the desolation of this look is undeniable, stripping this future world down to as little technology as possible with the confidence of Fincher’s visual style feeling completely present even at this early stage. As director he always seems interested in both the environment and the actors in it, clearly taken with the sets he gets to shoot on but for all the atmosphere continually present in any given scene but as dark as the aesthetic is it’s never particularly scary and I never get the feeling he has much interest in science fiction as a genre or in the alien itself beyond its metaphorical implications—born of a dog it may be slightly different than the creature in Ridley Scott’s original but the same level of mystery and intrigue paid attention to it is never there. It just feels like a monster, that’s it, period, and ultimately is the least interesting incarnation of the creature during the four films in the series Weaver starred in. The AIDS metaphor feels more blatant now than ever and with so much attention paid to all the snarling bald dudes in this grunge environment (part prison movie/part convent movie, if you will) it’s a reminder of when this was made in the early nineties, almost as if the film was striving to be the first big-budget piece of queer science fiction, maybe shown on a double bill alongside Derek Jarman’s EDWARD II with a woman (one of “the intolerable” as Dutton calls her to her face early on) who has invaded this holy sanctuary eventually accepted by this tribe of men who come to realize that in the eyes of those in charge she’s no different than they are. But the details of the community never feel all that clarified and don’t really matter anyway with the film paying more attention to the attempted rape of Ripley by some of the prisoners as heavy metal riffs play on the soundtrack (this one scene aside, the score by Elliot Goldenthal remains one of the best things about the film, providing just the right fateful tone and giving the film whatever soul it manages to have). And the fact that they all seem to be a bunch of bald Brits--Pete Postlewaithe is one--who we can never keep track has long since become the most clichéd thing to say about the movie but it’s also true. And if there’s a thematic reason why we can’t tell them apart—just wondering if there is must mean I’m really trying to give this film the benefit of the doubt—that doesn’t play either any more than the protracted climax where we never know where anyone is in relation to each other, just playing as a lot of running and yelling while the rescue team takes an eternity to finally reach them. Considering how one commonality the two stylistically dissimilar films by Ridley Scott and James Cameron share are characters that remain beloved to this day makes it all the more clear how much the film fails on this point and it’s interesting to consider how in recent years few directors have provided solid roles for familiar character actors as David Fincher, so lesson learned I suppose. Forget about not being able to care about these convicts—but it could be asked that compared with the working stiffs of ALIEN and the marines of ALIENS exactly why should we give a shit about a bunch of convicts?—there’s never a good reason to maintain even a slight interest in them so with much of the focus on how hopeless things are and Ripley shouting “They don’t give a fuck about you or any of your friends that died!” to drive the thematic point home even further he doesn’t seem to be putting much thought into actually making it scary. There are small touches of offhand humor or bits of business (because, in spite of its reputation, there is some humor in the film) very much in the vein of moments in later Fincher films alongside moments where you can feel him wrenching a genuine feel of loss from it all. The film’s best moment may be its simplest with Charles Dance’s Clemons finally sharing the dark secret of his past with Ripley who offers him salvation in the form of her trust immediately before the inevitable happens. This is shortly followed by the most iconic image of the film and as the tension rapidly builds with Ripley racing to the mess hall it culminates in what feels like it’s meant to be one of the big jumps of the film but the way things are staged it feels like Fincher didn’t have the time to get things right although letting a certain squeezey ball dropping to the floor certainly helps. The controversial ending (spoiler alert? Does it matter?) involving the newborn alien growing inside Ripley finally bursting through her chest right at the moment of her dive into the prison facility’s furnace is both ridiculous and memorable at the same time, not only an appropriate punchline to it all but also containing the sort of HEAVY METAL-like imagery that hasn’t really been seen in the series since the Ridley Scott film. The assembly cut omits this key moment, simply having her fall in to her death which, like any number of conceptual elements even in the theatrical cut of the film feels somewhat lacking. Maybe there’s no way for there to be a version of the film that could somehow be right for all sorts of reasons. I admire things about ALIEN 3. I admire the sense of doom. I admire the bravery in how much of a downer it wants to be and how it carries it through to a brave conclusion. But it’s not enough. If Fincher ever had a concept that could have won over the people who were going to be pissed off—or even if there was a strong enough concept regardless—it’s like he never got to follow it through to its conclusion. Or maybe it was just a bad concept to begin with, even if his talent as shown here is already very much in evidence. As frustrating as the material often is Sigourney Weaver delivers a powerful performance, maybe even better than her Oscar nominated work in ALIENS, and she finds the right pitch of grim desperation in her plight as she continually sizes up what she’s up against. Charles Dance does strong work as well particularly during his final moments and the low key nature of how the character has resigned himself to this place is an ideal balance with the much more dynamic Charles S. Dutton (“It’s Roc!” someone called out on opening night in Times Square) whose character gradually builds in prominence and while the role may be underwritten the film’s energy shoots up each time he’s around with glasses attached to his face that seem at times like a permanent fixture. Lance Henriksen is in for just a few scenes—half his performance is as Bishop from ALIENS though done with a (very impressive pre-CGI) puppet head and the other half as a Bishop lookalike who may or may not be human feels like the actor going for a certain ambiguous menace…but it’s still kind of a gimmicky cameo. As for all those Brits the several who get to interact directly with Weaver seem to up their game whenever she’s around, particularly Brian Glover as Warden Andrews (I like his “This is Rumor Control” patter), Ralph Brown (like Paul McGann who plays Golic, also in WITHNAIL & I) as Mr. Aaron and a pre-fame Postlethwaite but most of them are, well, bald Brits who blend together. One point of the film that does deserve unreserved praise is the score by Elliott Goldenthal, which completely earns every ounce of apocalyptic flavor it’s clearly going for and giving the film whatever soul it actually manages to achieve. The way the closing moment of ALIEN 3 contains the echo of a certain past log recording indicates how much regard David Fincher had for the Ridley Scott original and maybe also how the James Cameron sequel didn’t rank quite so highly for him. I was just a few years too young for ALIEN at the time but have come to regard it as a masterwork along with everyone else. When ALIENS came out I was just the right age and absolutely loved it but the film hasn’t stuck with me in quite the same way maybe partly because it seems so much a part of that decade—really, it’s set in a future where the 80s never ended—and partly because the Syd Field perfection of James Cameron’s structure in his storytelling reveals just how schematic some of it is. With David Fincher’s ALIEN 3 I was one of those who had spent years wondering what the followup could be and was maybe a little puzzled by what I got on opening night but maybe its messiness as well as its refusal to contain even an ounce of catering to the audience has kept it stuck in my brain all this time through further sequels and spinoffs that had nowhere near as much on their mind. Even if it is fatally, irrevocably flawed from frame one. I don’t like the film but as it is sometimes I feel compelled to confront it, not dismiss it, to see it again to study it, not to let my eyes glaze over. And its horrors do feel more internal, more lasting. It’s not about marshaling your forces to kick the alien’s ass as you scream, “Get away from her, you bitch!” It’s a statement that we’re all fucked, especially when ‘the company’ is in charge, a sentiment which has more resonance now in this age of ‘Corporations are people too’ and will probably continue to be more relevant as time goes on. And it’s about the question of if you are fucked, with none of the plasma rifles of ALIENS to defend you, are you going to go out on your feet or on your knees. Maybe there was no way to make a valid continuation to the story told in ALIEN and ALIENS that would satisfy anyone so the film had to die in order for it to be anything at all, but at least it goes out fighting. I still can’t call ALIEN 3 good but maybe sometimes what really matters is that a film which exists is able to express a desire to simply be alive before the credits roll in order to get into our heads, even if it’s for only a few short moments before we go back to dreaming of those happy endings we still hope to someday find.