Aliens ends with the family portrait of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Newt (Carrie Henn) and Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) sleeping side-by-side in hypersleep pods. It’s a nice way to crescendo the maternal themes of Aliens as a family forms around Ripley, the lady out of time whose own daughter passes away while she’s floating in space for 57 years after Alien.
No wonder Alien 3 received a thrashing when it was released in 1992. Film critic Roger Ebert called it, “the best looking bad movie I’ve seen in awhile,” and it retains a rotten status on critic aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Alien 3 shatters the family portrait of Aliens in its opening scene by killing Newt and Hicks and leaving Ripley as the only human survivor. It’s a brutal way to open the next chapter in the life of Ripley, but that’s the point of Alien 3; we weren’t ready in 92’.
Time has worked in favour of Alien 3. I admit, as a passionate fan of the franchise, blinded by adoration of the first two, I’d treated the third entry as a stepchild for years. Even the director, David Fincher, has disowned the film – it’s cool to agree with his holiness, Mr. Fincher – but his distaste is mostly unspoken trauma relating to the film’s troubled production. There’s nothing wrong with the timing of the release of Alien 3 but we needed more time to accept the outcome. To give its release context, it was beaten at the American box office by another third entry in a franchise: Lethal Weapon 3. It’s amusing to think American audiences were put off the gun-free aspect of Alien 3 (a demand from Weaver to return after hating experience of using guns in Aliens) so they flocked to a franchise known for chaotic gunplay.
Alien 3 has its fierce defenders, there’s one fan in every group when the franchise is discussed, but the more I revisit Alien 3, the more it makes thematic sense in the span of the core trilogy involving Ripley (leaving out Alien: Resurrection because she becomes clone Ripley). As much as we adore Ripley’s newfound family and want to her to find happiness – she deserves it after two traumatic encounters with the xenomorphs – Alien 3 makes the point that nothing lasts forever. And sticking with the idea that the chest-bursting alien, like death, is a relentless creature that will eventually get us all; Alien 3 has Ripley come to terms with her fate and how the alien species is forever intertwined with her existence.
Alien 3 makes another Alien film work beyond the necessity of a film franchise demanding another showdown. Thematically, it’s sound, although cruel, but when has life ever been a fair game? Also, the stakes would remain relatively low with the surviving trio going on to battle the aliens, again, because you’ve got three characters who are going to survive another film to please the widest possible audience while trying not to aggravate fans. From here the franchise would evolve into something akin the current state of the Marvel movies where death is a fantasy, like owning your own home.
It also shows where franchise movie thinking was at in the 90s. Now every film has to be part of a ‘cinematic universe’ but in 92’ Fox was set on killing the Alien franchise and laying Ripley to rest. To my memory, this feels like one of the last times where a franchise was wholly committed to the concept of death. I have nothing but respect for how gusty Alien 3 is with its commitment to finality. Looking beyond Alien 3, there’s the mangled Resurrection, two horrid Alien verses Predator movies and the confused prequel Prometheus (which is already amassing defenders). This year we get another prequel, Alien: Covenant, which is said to be part of a new trilogy in the franchise being led by Alien director, Ridley Scott. If anything, the wounded existence of the ongoing Alien franchise has strengthened the resolve of Alien 3.
There’s also a lot at play in Alien 3 that differentiates itself from the other films. Ripley is the only woman on a planet inhabited by male inmates with ‘double-Y chromosome syndrome’, a genetic mutation present in some males in the 22nd century, which gives the afflicted individual a predisposition for brutal antisocial behavior such as rape and murder. Ripley is told to look out for herself and takes umbrage at the idea that she’s the one who should take responsibility for the temptation her presence causes. Even on penal colonies in distant galaxies women are being told by men what to do with their bodies.
As Alien 3 progresses, the male population goes from ignoring Ripley’s claim there’s a xenomorph on the loose to believing her. Ripley’s struggle to be taken seriously has the underlying theme of how women are often not listened to when they make claims of assault in our society. Add in the twist that Ripley has an alien gestating inside her, put there against her will, and sexual assault is at play. The prison population doesn’t believe Ripley about the alien until officials are being pulled into the ceiling and turned into chum right in front of their eyes. Alien 3 has a subtext unlike any of its predecessors that has grown in stature since its release.
The final impression Alien 3 leaves on the franchise is the act of rebellion Ripley makes in defiance of her employer Wayland Yutani. The crew in Alien are working class space truckers who are considered to be dispensable by their employer; this extends to the military industrial complex in Aliens and prison privatisation in Alien 3; in the future everyone works for the galaxy-wide conglomerate, a capitalist nightmare. Wayland Yutani use their employees as vessels for securing the alien for the purpose of developing biological weapons. They push ‘human resources’ to extreme limits. Ripley in Alien 3 is as close as Wayland Yutani get to securing an alien specimen in the franchise, they even show up in force at the end to escort her back to their headquarters. Ripley sacrifices herself, on her own terms, to ensure a large corporation doesn’t exploit her body for financial gain. Many of the characters in the alien franchise are victims of the hell unleashed on them by Wayland Yutani’s quest for the alien. Besides the death of Vasquez and Gorman in Aliens, Ripley’s self-sacrifice is a moment of empowerment and rebellion that ends Ripley’s arc on her own terms. It’s a bleak outcome but it matches the overall tone of Alien 3 and the impending doom that awaits us all.
It took over 20 years but it’s time to include Alien 3 as the film that forms the Ellen Ripley trilogy within the franchise. You must no longer end your viewing on that family portrait. Alien 3 is just as important as the others. Embrace the darkness.
Alien 3 airs Saturday night at 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND.