The Internet hates ‘Alien³’—and this is why its critics are so wrong

It seems that Alien 5 is finally happening. With last week’s announcement of another reboot for the long-running franchise, director Neill Blomkamp suggested that he plans ignore everything after the franchise’s first two films. However, the director since backtracked in an interview with AlloCine. “I’m not trying to undo Alien 3 or Alien Resurrection,” he clarified. “My favorites are the first two movies. I want to make a film that’s connected to Alien and Aliens. That’s my goal.” 

While Blomkamp won’t be retconning chapters three or four altogether, countless fans would be happy to pretend Alien³ was never made. I’m not one of them. Despite its developmental issues, the third installment is my favorite Alien film, and though it’s much-maligned on the Internet, I’m not alone: WhatCulture’s Percival Constantine once called it “a misunderstood masterpiece.” And if it’s any consolation to Alien³ defenders, critics once pilloried George Lazenby‘s only Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but fans have rehabilitated it. Alien³ has earned the right to the same fate, no matter what Twitter thinks.

Among the most common complaints is that Alien³ is too bleak—within its first minute, both the supporting characters who made it through the second film are dead, and by the time the credits roll, Ripley herself has chosen suicide. Studio meddling led director David Fincher to disown Alien³ before making Se7en, Fight Club, and the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—all similarly gloomy, violent films that possess an operatic style strikingly similar to Alien³. Set on a furnace-world called Fury and full of fire, blood, and crucifixion imagery, there’s a gothic tone to the film’s hopelessness: If Alien was a haunted house in space and Aliens was sci-fi’s take on the Vietnam War, Fincher’s follow-up feels like a descent into hell.

Had they survived the opening titles, how long could Newt and Corporal Hicks have lived before credibility got strained? For anyone but Ellen Ripley to make it through two Alien films would undermine the series’ sense of jeopardy. Certainly their deaths didn’t need to be so unceremonious, but Alien³ is an examination of people pushed to their hardest limits. Aboard the Nostromo in the first film, Ripley has a workable escape route; in the second, she finds comfort in accruing a surrogate family. With the appearance of the facehugger in its first scene, Alien³ elegantly deprives her of both, leaving its exhausted Ripley alone, unarmed, and with no way out. The only question, as Charles S. Dutton notes, is how she’ll go, and the film answers it by showing Ripley’s last hours as her finest.

If Alien was a haunted house in space and Aliens was sci-fi’s take on the Vietnam War, Fincher’s follow-up feels like a descent into hell.

Weaver’s stoic performance is her best in the series, radiating grief and determination in equal measure. In the infamous scene where Ripley insists on an autopsy for Newt, the mixture of fragility and determination that makes the character iconic is as palpable as in any of the franchise’s horror or action sequences, and beside Dutton, an extraordinary British-led cast—the best of any Alien film—offers crucial dramatic support. Charles Dance, Pete Postlethwaite, Paul McGann, and Danny Webb play the prison planet’s inhabitants, their shaved heads and robe-like costumes suggesting monasticism, and Dance and Dutton share some of the franchise’s best dialogue with Weaver. Dutton’s character, approached by Ripley at one point for a mercy killing, ruminates in an existentialist sermon: “Why are the innocent punished? Why the sacrifice? Why the pain? There aren’t any promises. Nothing’s certain, only that some get called, some get saved.”

Unlike in Aliens, where character deaths are heroic, tragic, or deserved, Alien³‘s fatalities have no reassuring logic, with Dance lifted suddenly out off the screen and mauled just as he earns our sympathy. It’s a film intensely preoccupied with life and death being absurd, unfair, and unpredictable, but how its characters confront this makes its ending hopeful rather than nihilistic. Led by Dutton, a gang of murderers and rapists choose to die heroically, while Ripley, out of weapons and options and with hours to live, rallies them behind her and finds no less than three ways to kill the alien. Like the opening montage and a sequence where the creature bursts out of an ox, the scene where the prisoners try to expel it from the vents is exquisitely helmed by Fincher. Ripley’s resourcefulness is stronger than ever in the face of imminent death; in a powerful development, both she and Dutton’s character care about saving each other first, instead of worrying about their own lives.

In her final moments, Ripley is offered a way out, corrupt scientists offering to extract the larva soon to erupt from her chest. It’s an offer to which most would succumb: Surgeons are at the scene, seconds away, and while she knows they care about acquiring a specimen more than saving her, there’s no reason to assume they’d go out of their way to kill her afterward. At any rate, her chances are above zero if she complies—yet Ripley falls deliberately into a hellish furnace to terminate both the creature and herself, arms splayed in a cross-pose. Fincher portrays the moment as graceful rather than torturous, and the fact that the Christian prisoners have called the other xenomorph “the beast” only adds to the metaphor: Bleak as the film’s moral universe is, it’s not without salvation, with characters who choose to live and die meaningfully.

Alien³ isn’t quite as good as it might have been: Had Fincher been allowed free rein, with the setpieces showcased better and minor characters fleshed out, it would stand on the same polished pedestal as its predecessors. Nonetheless, it remains the series’ most aesthetically and thematically rich film and its most mature and ambitious work, while boasting the best story and dialogue. It’s a perfect ending to what remains a true trilogy in my eyes, and whether or not Blomkamp’s new entry puts the franchise back on course, the film deserves the Internet’s respect at long last.

Screengrab via 20th Century Fox/YouTube