Space Noir: In Praise of Alien Cubed by Andrew Gunn
It was a dark and stormy night, and I wanted a scary movie. I don’t have many. I dusted off my Alien Quadrilogy Boxset (“Tetralogy”, surely?) which has two versions of each film, and before I knew what I was doing I was watching the longer Assembly Cut of Alien 3 and was astonished to discover that it is the best entry of the series.
Before you dislodge a tooth just to have something to spit out in shock, allow a man to state his case.
Alien—the best horror film ever made. The monster is scary in a primordial, sexually-repellent way and the tension is brilliantly sustained up until the ball-sweating final scene. Aliens—the best sequel ever made. Hugely enjoyable characters, epic scope and superbly choreographed action, plus a script so immediately iconic that it ruined science fiction for the next two decades. Alien 3—generally regarded as a long-gestating clusterfuck which fell short of an impossibly high bar. Alien: Resurrection—an interesting, if botched, clone.
The Alien 3 Assembly Cut, hereafter referred to as Alien Cubed—an unqualified masterpiece.
(There’s a rumour going around that some “Alien vs. Predator” films having been written, shot and released, but I can’t find any evidence to support their existence.)
I never had a problem with Alien 3. Typically for a David Fincher film, it looks great. Doesn’t follow the formulae set by its predecessors. There are no guns. It’s the only Alien movie that doesn’t end with the monster being sucked into space.
Alien Cubed is 138 minutes long and the pacing now eases the film from sci-fi/horror into operatic, gothic melodrama. Is it scary? It’s scarier than Aliens and falls just shy of Alien. What sets Cubed apart is a tonal darkness and apparent lack of hope, like a grim cold-coffee hangover from the visceral thrill-ride of Aliens. Sure, dispatching the survivors of the previous film is a bummer, but it’s also a statement of bloody intent.
Cubed features my favourite iteration of Ripley. In the first movie, Sigourney Weaver was the lucky final girl; in the second, she was granted Hollywood female empowerment which meant she could use guns and kill things and earn herself a surrogate family of sorts. In Alien Cubed, cruelly robbed of this family, she is at her most believable. She also has a better haircut.
I’m not sure if it’s just a great performance, the inconsistency of a script rewritten more times than the telephone directory, pure accident, or some unholy combination, but it works. Instead of James Cameron’s wet dream, we have a woman who can cockily tease a bunch of prisoners and then be shocked that they almost rape her; a woman who asks a reformed murderer to break his holy vows and kill her, then gets angry when he refuses; a woman who persuades the man she just fucked to divulge his deepest secret, then refuses to share her own even though it could save his life. In other words, she behaves like a human being. She’s not easy to like, and I like that.
The Rosemary’s Baby subplot creates a suffocating sense of finality: the heroine is pregnant with a villain more threatening than the one running around in the basement. In hindsight it’s such an obvious narrative move but, alongside the glib disposal of her fellow Aliens alumni, Ripley’s time-bomb pregnancy is Cubed’s masterstroke. It’s also an ironic extension of Cameron’s maternity theme and, in case you’re counting, the second time that Sigourney Weaver’s offspring threatens to bring about the end the world.
The supporting characters take their time to emerge. Charles Dance looks set to be the male lead until the alien fumbles an enthusiastic French kiss and decorates a shower curtain with his brains. The simpleton junior warden gets a default promotion, but turns out to be a coward and never really redeems himself. Charles S. Dutton is the earnest peacekeeper, but then when is he not? The only surviving prisoner is irritating for most of the running time, but blessed with perpetual good luck (someone makes a joke about him having made “a deal with God”).
Everyone is buckling under the weight of circumstances they most emphatically do not want, yet they’ve been clinging to a strain of apocalyptic Christianity that has prepared them for nothing else. I love the idea of reformed prisoners in a far-flung religious colony who are most aggressive not towards each other but to temptation—in other words, to their own frailties. From their perspective, Ripley is a mermaid washed up in a monastery.
What I never realised until this latest viewing was that the luddite prophecy actually comes true for its believers, and informs the entire narrative. The congregation refers to the alien as “The Beast” and the prison facility is shot like steampunk Hell, or maybe Dante’s Inferno, complete with a labyrinth of concentric circular tunnels and a pit full of molten steel. Seven’s John Doe would have loved this shit. It’s like Alien meets The Name of the Rose.
For an script that was variously drafted by Eric Red, William Gibson and Vincent Ward (whose wooden-planet vision for the film was amazing), before being rewritten by Alien stalwarts David Giler and Walter Hill and then re-written on the hoof by Fincher and Rex Pickett, this holds together remarkably well. Unlike the majority of modern blockbusters it has a consistent tone, internal logic, strong characters and no discernible flab.
It’s difficult to separate the movie, as it exists, from all the stories about its production. Everyone knows Fincher washed his hands of it, the thing was finished without his supervision, Sigourney Weaver called it “a mistake” and it was generally considered a blight upon what was, up until that point, a juggernaut of a franchise and a victim of its own success. Aliens captured the zeitgeist with its epic scale, cutting edge practical effects and steely aesthetic, and James Cameron repeated the trick with The Abyss and Terminator 2. Coming after that mega-popular triptych, Alien 3 could only go in a different direction and maybe this accounts for its critical drubbing.
More than two decades later, the Assembly Cut is the perfect excuse to revisit the film. There are a few major narrative differences to the theatrical release and some alternative scenes which contradict others. In this version, the alien is born from a steer, not a dog, and they trap it halfway through until a maniacal Paul McGann sets it free (the alien displays no gratitude). The restored stuff is visually and aurally muddled, lacking some sound channels and digital polish. The overall experience is still worth it.
I don’t know if David Fincher prefers this version or not. And I don’t care: fuck him, I know what I like. If I could watch just one Alien movie, it would be Cubed. It simply has the most going on under the surface, and it’s more of an adult film than Alien or Aliens. Those are awesome films, and their iconography is beautifully twisted into this unfamiliar third part. But like the Beast, Alien Cubed is its own creature.
Originally published 24 April 2013.