One-Shot Rant: Why the signature shot of Alien 3 doesn’t work

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake, “The Tyger” (1794)

Ok, picture this: The lone survivor of two terrifying encounters with a hostile alien race finds herself stranded on a prison planet surrounded by ruthless inmates only to discover something even more dangerous is in the prison with her. And at this moment, it’s staring her right in the face. It’s not just any face, this face is a mask of true terror, the kind that is so terrifying since it disregards all expectations. It’s is an unsettling Rorschach test, the black creative space that allows our minds to fill it with all the terrible sights we can imagine. It is the pinnacle moment of the franchise, when Ripley at last faces her own mortality in a manner heretofore unseen. Literally face to face with the spectre of death, she is at last defeated. But although she is entirely broken, unable to combat the alien any longer, submitting in helpless terror with a final gasp, the alien spares her life. With that comes the key turn of the scene, and the alien takes on a whole new level of meaning. Even after it has broken her utterly, the alien extends her anguish by allowing her to live, only to face a new horror as she comes to terms with the alien embryo gestating inside her, and what was once so frightening and foreign becomes uncannily familiar.

The alien, unaware that its tone-deaf, just about to sing a cover of Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Face to face" to Ripley

The alien, unaware that it’s painfully tone-deaf, just about to serenade Ripley with a cover of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Face To Face”

Sadly, this key moment of the scene, of the film, nay, of the entire franchise, is diluted by the awkward structure of the scene since the climax has been front-loaded. The carnage, the necessary consequence of having a major character’s brains splattered all over the screen, has left the audience reeling just when it needed to be involved. We are anaesthetized by the gratuitous gore and viscera, driven into mute acquiescence by the carnage and the loss of a character we were just beginning to know. If this were our first introduction to the threat, such a jarring action might be required—but then no director other than Paul W.S. Anderson would be so clumsy and aesthetically inept as to introduce a monster in such a way. Since we already know what this creature is capable of the gore becomes simply fetishistic. While this fetishism of the alien is an important feature of the director’s cut (an idea carried over from the original film, with the android Ash getting in a few philosophical musings on the nature of the beast before his severed head is barbequed), now is not the time for that. The scene is busy enough. Have the carnage in another scene, and make that carnage the focus of the scene—make the prisoner Golic’s obsession with the creature, the dragon as he refers to it, as the goal. By jamming the two ideas together the script effectively fumbles over the pinnacle moment of the franchise, and we don’t even get a chance to reflect on the importance of the blood for Golic—which should have been an important thing. The red blood becomes like a shamanistic totem for him, and when he submits himself to the worship of this death god, the red dragon, the transcendent beast of our collective unconscious nightmares, suddenly the monster is allowed to take on a new meaning, reinvesting the image with libidinal energy for another cycle of films. Or would have if the studio hadn’t cut it after test-audience found it too weird.  Although I could call audiences in the 90s merely stupid (or at least the ones Fox hired), I’d rather lay the blame at this scene for introducing the concept so poorly. But as Bram Stoker put it, the blood is the life, and it could have renewed this franchise. At the very least it would have made for a simple thematic connection to the black ooze of Prometheus, god knows we need something tying these two franchises together other than elephant men.

The "chestburster" was shoved up thr...

“I’ll have what she’s having…” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So instead of drawing the horror into the realm of the sacred and profane, a dramatically charged concept virtually (and somewhat curiously given its potential) unexplored by science-fiction, we’re treated to a clunky and forced scare inserted only to prove the severity of the situation. Yet we already know what this creature is capable of because we’ve watched two prior films documenting its brutality. We’ve squirmed in horror as the alien uses our own bodies as a parasitic womb. We’ve dreamt horrid nightmares where it penetrates our flesh with its phallic set of inner teeth—a vagina dentata reconfigured as every person’s worst sexual nightmare, a penis with teeth. And here it is before our heroine, in all its erotic and terrifying glory, jaws agape for the unavoidable kill. But what was supposed to make the tension so palpable, bordering on unbearable, the ironic lack of violence, is instead completely destroyed by the gratuitous gore which begins the encounter. The epitasic delay so vital in building tension is unwound at the start of the scene; the film has blown its wad, so to speak. Rather than building patiently to a well-deserved climax the scene has distracted us with a gooey mess. Fincher would thankfully learn his lesson in necessary delay by the time he arrived at what arguably remains to this day his magnum opus, the unflinching and uncompromising Seven.

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6 thoughts on “One-Shot Rant: Why the signature shot of Alien 3 doesn’t work

    • More and more people are starting to sing the praises of this film and suggest that it’s merely a maligned film. That’s just Fincher-vision. I’ve read the early drafts (including one that didn’t even have Ripley), they all would’ve been terrible films. Fincher did the best with what he had, but not one version of the script understood the character of Ripley, much less the family dynamic Cameron had left the door wide open for. It was as if studio executives in the 90s were afraid that audiences wouldn’t remember what happened in the series, and so any character other than Ripley needed to go.

      • I think “Fincher-vision” is exactly the right term. Don’t get me wrong, there are things I like about Alien 3, and I think there is some potential there. And of course, Sigourney Weaver is great no matter the quality of the script or directing. But I agree completely that the script didn’t understand the character at all. And the fact that the film does nothing to build on the previous two, instead starting over as though they never happened, is just asinine.

      • I really had a lot of respect for Michael Biehn after I learned he initially refused to give permission for even his likeness to appear in that film, he called his character’s unceremonious death a slap in the face. I had even more respect for him when I learned he accepted a settlement for just his photo to appear in the opening of the movie that paid more than his entire role in Aliens. That’s one way to beat them.

      • I would agree if he had not agreed to reprise the role for the Aliens: Colonial Marines video game, which is supposed to be officially part of the story canon, and is just insane.

      • I purposefully avoided it so as not to give myself a brain aneurysm, but from the youtube walkthroughs I’ve watched on-line it seems like an unholy abomination. Time has not been kind to us Aliens fans.

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