Thursday, June 14, 2012

Definitive Alien marathon: 'Alien 3', an appreciation

In the documentary about the making of Alien 3 in the blu-ray set (also available on the second disc of the Alien 3 special edition DVD for those interested), many cast and crew members who, while they cannot speak entirely for David Fincher, expressed the feeling that the up and coming director did his best to provide the picture with his own unique stamp, his own signature, much like his two predecessors had done with their respective efforts. This is, in all likelihood and with the benefit of hindsight provided by the man’s career since then, probably true. Fincher is not one to make movies quite like anybody else operating within the traditional Hollywood system. His films do not necessarily make bags upon bags money, even though most turn in modest profits, but the studios, big studios at that, continuously provide him the funds necessary to make the best movie he can. The man is a filmmaker in the artistic sense of the term, not merely in the commercial sense. For that reason, some of the decisions made with regards to the Alien 3 script may be better understood. That being said, it should also be noted that the script, or what can be described as a script, lived in a constant state of flux before and even during the film’s production. 

The diehard fans may already be aware of this, but for the other readers, imagine what it would be like to watch a teaser trailer for a hotly anticipated film, one that could, potentially, blow one’s mind wide open. Imagine that teaser trailer promising one tantalizing plot, something you would be dying to see on the big screen...only for the film to deliver a completely different storyline. By this it is not meant how a trailer can be misleading in how the tone may differ in the final product, or how some moments played in the trailer fail to make it into the final cut. No, the infamous teaser trailer for Alien 3 had as its tagline ‘On Earth, everyone can hear you scream!’ My goodness, the aliens come home! Of course, that never panned out quite the way many hope, with Ripley, rather than returning to Earth and facing off against her constant pursuers on home soil, was ditched on a grisly, prison camp planet. This is but one aspect of the movie’s bizarre and deeply troubled production history. The studio was already promising certain things without a finished script, without any genuine, well defined artistic vision! Enter David Fincher, who even though was hassled ad infinitum, did his best to give the seemingly damned movie a voice, however bleak and bitter said voice might be.

 This must have been difficult given that certain plot points were modified, re-arranged and dropped altogether on a daily basis. There are other comments on the making-of documentary about entire sets being 80%-90% ready for shooting, with the production designers then being told that the script had been altered yet again, hence their set was suddenly unwanted. The end result is a difficult film to watch for some obvious reasons, some of which were touched upon in the general review, most notably the killing off of Hicks of Newt in rather vulgar fashion.  Nevertheless, there are some very neat aspects about it. The most popular complaint about Alien 3 is how the cast of supporting characters is either too weak or not simply unworthy of emotional investment on the part of the audience. To a large degree, that complaint is not uncalled for. In a nutshell, Ripley is forced to cohabit with sadists, rapists and murders, some of which are a probably pleasant mixture of all three. From that undesirable conundrum can emerge compelling conflicts and unexpectedly rewarding connections. Consider the character Charles Dance plays. He is a doctor, expelled from his profession and expulsed from Earth for some terrible crimes committed while on duty. That is a frightening proposition, having to depend on a killer for medical assistance. Where the tables are turned is how Charles Dance the actor portrays the role. There is a sense of remorse in his eyes, and a hint that he cannot go back to the way things were, hence his tendency to be the best he can be under the dire circumstances. Found guilty? Yes. Still the same person? Absolutely not. This helps explain why he so readily comes to the aid of Ripley, not only in bringing her back to life, but in helping her piece the clues as to why she is on this planet what may have happened to her. Alien 3, with this character and others, offers a push and pull battle between rays of light and hope on one side, with death and despair on the other. Dance himself is good in the role, giving his character some sense of humanity in spite of what he has done in the past that led him to where he currently is. Should he be supported by the audience or has he still not fully paid for his previous actions? Of course, that is for the audience to decide for itself, but the fact that that struggle exists, both within the character and within the viewers, adds some additional layers of depth the film. Definitely not the sort of depth people would expect from a science-fiction film from this franchise, but one that can be appreciated. 

A similar assessment can be made Charles S. Dutton’s character, Dillon. He openly admits to Ripley, during a breakfast scene, that back home he raped and killed women.  Yet, much like with the doctor, he too has changed to an extent, from a despicable misogynist to the pseudo spiritual leader of the compound. That trajectory is an uneasy one, paved with a lot of gravel and pot holes to leave blood and bruises across the body, but he is, so far as the film reveals, accepting the challenge. Once more the audience is challenged just as is the character. Does he merit emotional support or should does he deserve to be wasted by the invading alien along with the rest of the convicted? A pertinent question, to be sure. The fact that there are no clear answers is partly what makes the film compelling in its own right. True enough, in a film of this nature, the answers would normally either be more clearly hinted at or provided outright by the script and director. The fact that they are posed to the audience without any answers might be what frustrated some people. The easy answer is ‘I shall not root for them. They are bad.’ But then the film has Charles Dance and S. Dutton give really good performances as individuals who, despite appearances, at least give the illusion that they have willingly embarked on the path to redemption, however long and unrewarding such a path may ultimately be. Ripley herself is confronted with the chance to help these sorry saps. Some will be quick to argue that it would be best if she did not, but it speaks to her humanity that she does.

Speaking of Dillan acting as the resident priest during sermons, another aspect to the film I personally find provocative is the tightrope walk the story performs between salvation and death among the characters. Whether they are on this forsaken place merely to rot away as they perform slave labour for the rest of humanity back on Earth or if there is hope for their redemption (for example, their labour serving as a form of rehabilitation) is yet another question to ponder on, but the fact of the matter is that Ripley can save them, and save them she does try, to, let’s just say, varying degrees of success. The alien has arrived and by now everybody following the series knows full well the nature of its sole purpose in the universe: to destroy anything in its path which isn’t another alien (a rule that Alien Resurrection curiously breaks. More on that in the next review). The monster serves as the electric chair, the gas room, the poisonous injection, in other words, the prisoners’ death sentence. However nefarious some of these inmates are, the alien is ten times worse. 

I think one thing that helps build this sense of struggle between light and dark is Elliot Goldenthal’s score. It’s very operatic (minus the chanting though), and its bombast is emotionally driven rather than specifically action-oriented. There is, in fact, a spiritual tinge to the score, hence echoing the psychological and emotional many of these inmates are in: acknowledgement of their past crimes while coming to terms that the unstoppable beast is on the prowl to finish them off. Who would dare argue that Goldenthal’s work overtakes that of Goldsmith or Horner as the best in the series? Between the Seats will not attempt it either, but I do genuinely think the score is among the best things about the film and even as standalone music, there are some cues that effortlessly resonate for their emotional punch.

No comments: