Thursday, May 10, 2012

A response piece to Andrew Stimpson’s ‘Alien 3 Reassessed’ article at The Quietus.

(In case you haven’t seen all three Alien films (there’s a fourth??) - SPOILER ALERTS!)

The following is a response to this article.

Everyone loves a bit of revisionism, but the problem with revisionists is that they tend to lose the run of themselves and fail to see the wood for the trees, to borrow a cliche. As a divisive sequel to two massively influential and widely-regarded films, directed by a man who would later be responsible for stunning efforts like Seven and Fight Club, Alien 3 has been subject to extensive reassessment more than most. When the earliest teaser trailers for the film emerged, they heavily implied that the film would take place on Earth - surely the ultimate nightmare scenario involving H.R. Giger’s terrifying, pointedly sexualised ‘xenomorphs’. When the movie finally did arrive, it was instead a grim, downbeat affair taking place in a dingy prison colony in space. The surviving characters of Aliens that we had come to know and love were brutally slaughtered during the opening credits (via a ridiculous and nonsensical plot contrivance that Stimpson completely ignores), to be replaced by a cast of foul-mouthed rapists and murderers. Who the (at times laughably-fake looking) alien proceeds to slaughter predictably and tediously.

The thinking with the revisionists seems to be that Alien 3’s bad reputation is a result of it being misunderstood, a result of philistines who wanted more guns and explosions and less ponderous religious imagery. It’s reflected in Stimpson’s article and in particular his incredibly condescending conclusion (basic translation: “look at me, I like a grim, nihilistic film that you plebs don’t understand! I’m going to pat myself on the back now”). The fact is that, rather than Alien 3 being a victim of its predecessors’ success, we simply would not be debating this film twenty years on if it wasn’t connected to the Alien franchise. If this was a film in its own right with no surrounding context, it would have been dismissed as the dreadful, misanthropic bait-and-chase monster movie that it is.

The article is so consistently off-the-mark that there’s no option but to deal with its arguments individually. A large part of his case seems to stem from his evident dislike for James Cameron’s Aliens: “In James Cameron's Aliens the threat from HR Giger's beautifully realised and nightmarishly sensuous bio-mechanoid is reduced to that of a hive of insects, suggesting that if one well-armed grunt with a bit of American know-how had been aboard the Nostromo there never would have been a franchise in the first place.”
First off, Ridley Scott, the director of Alien, described Giger’s design of the alien protagonist as being ‘like a rather beautiful, humanoid, biomechanoid insect’, while writer Ronald Shusett outlined ‘our idea that it would be the life-cycle of an insect. The way a wasp will sting a spider, paralyze it, and lay its eggs in the spider; its eggs grow off the living spider, like a surrogate mother...We thought people might pick up on it and say, ‘Yeah, an alien life-cycle can be like an insect life-cycle.’' So the insect-like implications were there from the start.

Secondly, the idea that the aliens of the sequel were gormless equivalents of the lethal ‘perfect organism’ of Alien is a persistent criticism that is pretty ungrounded when you actually consider it. Cameron produced a great rebuttal to this himself in a thoughtful, considered 1992 essay for Starlog Magazine intended as a reply to readers’ letters: “One, crazed man with a knife can be the most terrifying thing you can imagine, if you happen to be unarmed and locked in a house alone with him. If you're with 10 armed police officers, it's a different story”. And yet despite the Marines’ firepower, their whole squadron - with the exception of an incapacitated, acid-scarred Hicks - are wiped out. Even after the initial ambush, their escape route (dropship) is destroyed by an alien; while when the survivors barricade themselves in the complex, the aliens respond by finding a circuitous route in through a crawlspace, cutting the power and attacking by stealth. They may utilise kamikaze tactics at times, but to say they have no intelligence is to grossly oversimplify. The one thing you could say is that the disturbing sexual undertones to the xenomorphs were indeed toned down or overlooked somewhat - but this isn’t something that Alien 3 corrects in any case.

He goes on: “Despite every effort on the part of the filmmakers to portray them as finely honed military machines, the heroes essentially come off as a gang of idiotic yahoos.”
Yes, there’s some poor decision-making on the part of the characters in Aliens, but the same is true of the first film (Harry Dean Stanton running off on his own to chase a cat?) and certainly of the third. Their dismissive attitude towards Ripley changes as soon as they realise what they’re up against, and resourcefulness is evident throughout - Hicks manages to escape the initial massacre armed only with a shotgun and carrying an injured Hudson; Hudson overcomes his cowardice to go down in a blaze of glory; while Vasquez almost single-handedly holds the enemy off, and actually wrestles with an alien in the vents after she runs out of ammo. Idiotic yahoos one and all.

There may be a degree of caricature to the Marines in Aliens - not least Bill Paxton’s portrayal of the hysterical Hudson - but when they go down the audience actually cares, unlike in Alien 3 where you can’t even tell who is dying most of the time, let alone feel sympathy for the sociopathic sex offenders. “The ultimate peril is not the terrifying otherness of the unknown, but the damaged cooling system of a nuclear reactor, caused not by the conflict between humanity and a life form utterly extrinsic to our own, but by stray bullets from the marines themselves”, claims Stimpson, conveniently ignoring the thematically-loaded climatic battle between human mother and alien mother, Ripley in direct combat with the monstrous Alien Queen.

Indeed, he ignores or glosses over a lot of stuff about the film: its familial themes, Sigourney Weaver’s superb portrayal of Ripley (for which she was Academy Award-nominated, an unprecedented occurrence for a sci-fi/action movie), its feminist subtext or how a character like Vasquez inverted traditional Hollywood gender roles. Instead, he labels it as lightweight popcorn fare, a ‘Starship Troopers pastiche’.

                                "Do you mind? I'm trying to beat the clock here."

Alien 3 does have redeeming factors, but redeeming factors do not a misunderstood movie make. David Fincher’s visual flair and his ability to create an unremittingly bleak tone and atmosphere is evident throughout. Some of the imagery and camerawork is stunning: the shot of the EEV being towed in towards the prison complex; the juxtaposition between the funeral and the birth of the ‘dog-alien’; the frequent wide shots of solitary open spaces. The soundtrack from Elliott Goldenthal is superb - a dissonant, avant-garde score that enhances the religious themes and dark feel of the film with ominous choral snatches. It was recorded during the Los Angeles riots of 1992, and later sampled by Burial on Untrue’s opening track.

The opening credits are where this score is at its most haunting and effective: after a 20th Century Fox fanfare that intentionally and terrifyingly ends on a wailing high note, we’re shown nightmare-like snatches of events on the EEV as a facehugger causes all kinds of carnage. The choral segment featured is ‘Agnus Dei’ - translated as ‘Lamb of God’ ( Goldenthal would later explain that the characters seemed to be ‘very much lambs to the slaughter’). As well as these opening credits work on a visual and aural level though, they completely fail on a logical level: namely, how did an egg get on the Sulaco in the first place? It’s something that the combined forces of nerd-dom have failed to adequately explain in the 20 years since. The best theory proposed seems to be a conspiratorial one involving Bishop, but it’s still a massively far-fetched one that flies in the face of what we know about Lance Henriksen’s much-loved character. Of course all films involve a suspension of disbelief, but this plot-hole is so ridiculous that it cheapens the whole film before it’s even begun.

It doesn’t help that it also spells the end for the characters that survived Aliens - Ripley’s heroic battle to keep her motherly promise to Newt and protect her from harm is completely nullified in brutal fashion, Hicks’ upper body and head is pounded into a bloody mush by a ‘safety beam’, while Bishop is literally tossed on a scrap-heap. Cameron called it a ‘slap in the face’; novelist for the films Alan Dean Foster called Newt’s killing an ‘obscenity’. They were both right. Stimpson makes much of Aliens’ supposed disregard for the first film (something that a lot of fans of both movies  - including me - would strongly disagree with), but this blatant disregard for the second film - or indeed for logic - doesn’t seem to bother him as much.

The most interesting character in the film is slaughtered at the end of the first act, while the interesting religious and existential undertones gradually give way to a mind-numbing “It’s behind you!” sequence involving tunnels rather than the traditional air ducts. Stimpson continues: “When the beastie does emerge it has reverted to its original look with a few Giger-inspired twists, no longer resembles a humanoid insect, and is suitably terrifying.” - The alien frequently looks ridiculous, the ‘rod puppet against a bluescreen’ effect painfully noticeable at times. It’s a gormless animal hybrid that chases and butchers its prey - although in fairness, it came from a dog so this difference is logical.

Stimpson: “Throughout Alien 3 the players convey palpable angst and tension that is entirely credible based upon their dark, brooding environment and fraught interactions with each other.” Most of the cast spend the film cursing at each other. By the time they’re getting slaughtered in the tunnels you don’t even care. They’re fodder in the most literal sense; anonymous, low-life bait for the alien.

As for the full-length cut: it might add something to the film, but to claim a great transformation due to some further character exposition and some extra mood-setting camera-work is to exaggerate. It remains a mess of a film, its only resounding feature being its sheer grimness. In fairness, plenty of people have heralded the additional footage as making a great difference to Alien 3, but you wonder how much of this is to do with how sought-after this extra footage was for a long time. People enjoy certain scenes, or certain camera-work, or certain nuances, but ultimately lose the overall perspective of the film as a whole.

Basically, Alien 3 is a poor film. You can admire certain things about it, or about the vision of its soon-to-be vindicated director, without denying that. You can find much better examples of moody, existentialist fare in countless other films, whether mainstream or otherwise. To claim that it’s a better film than the superbly crafted, visceral experience of Aliens - or to claim that it’s “one of the best realised and most convincing futuristic movies ever made” is the kind of thing that should have you locked up in the infirmary with Golic. Game over, man. Game over.

"but why didn't the Marines think of the roof??"