Alien 3 doesn’t waste any time letting you know what it is. Sure, the teaser trailer was notoriously misleading, with an Earth-centric sell suggesting that the 20th Century Fox marketing department either misunderstood what the movie was about, or made their own mercenary best guess based on what they hoped the filmmakers would deliver. But as the movie itself begins, it’s pretty clear what director David Fincher did deliver, regardless of the rewrites, studio demands and crashed schedules that muddied its production. Dread and foreboding percolate from the jump, as the opening credits intercut with snippets of impending disaster on the ship holding the three cryo-slumbering survivors of Aliens. Tentacles unfurl. Glass cracks. Drips of acid burn. Fires flare, and the intensely satisfying resolution of the previous movie burns up. By the time the ship has crashed on a prison planet, only Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is still alive. Hicks, the android Bishop and, most heartbreakingly, Ripley’s surrogate daughter Newt are all gone.
Seeing this opening at eleven years old felt like I was receiving a transmission from a darker, more ominous place; the previous movie I saw in theaters before my dad toted me off to Alien 3 was FernGully: The Last Rainforest. For longer-time fans of the horror classic that slowly gestated into a franchise, undoing the victories of the previous film felt cruel—ticking characters off a list while ticking audiences off at the same time. Despite Fincher’s subsequent reputation as a purveyor of bleakness, this cruelty probably can’t be attributed to him; Alien 3 went through a variety of concepts, drafts and tinkerings during its protracted development, with a number of ideas supposedly pieced together into the fussed-over-yet-rushed final film. By most accounts, permanently offing Newt and Hicks (Bishop makes a brief, grim return later in the film) was not something Fincher introduced at the eleventh hour.
It’s also not ultimately the problem with Alien 3. It’s not fun knowing that Hicks and Newt are goners, but Fincher’s film returns the series to its horror roots, and introduces a fascinating dynamic that would be impossible with more returning characters in the picture. Ripley finds herself marooned on a prison planet, amidst a group of male convicts who have refashioned themselves as a monkish religious order, laboring toward redemption in relative isolation. The group is tested by Ripley’s unwanted passenger: Yet another respawn of the alien creature, this one gestated in a prisoner’s pet. (Fincher, ever the crowdpleaser, intercuts the autopsy of a young girl with the gorey demise of a dog.) The makeshift foxhole camaraderie of Aliens has been replaced with something more dour and hopeless.
That hopelessness is also what makes Alien 3 so memorable, both as a visual experience and as a final-yet-not-final chapter in Ripley’s sad story. Though it has a reputation as a failed try-out movie for Fincher (including from Fincher himself, who has disowned it), the pulpy despair, full of fog, grime and monochromatic shadows, isn’t so different from Se7en, a movie whose existential despair has more than a tinge of stylized slasher extremity. As downbeat as much of the movie is—Ripley can’t have so much as a momentary sex partner without him revealing a haunting past and then quickly getting his skull punctured by an alien—there’s also a kind of theatrical, borderline Terry Gilliamesque grotesquerie to its cast of condemned men who mostly speak with mellifluous British accents. Even better: Charles S. Dutton, commanding and electric as a particularly vocal spiritual leader of sorts who becomes one of Ripley’s strongest allies as she faces challenging decisions.
Where Alien 3 falls down a little from its near-perfect predecessors is in more quotidian areas: Its extended climax, where Ripley and the prisoners lead the alien on a long, winding and surprisingly convoluted chase down a series of corridors in hopes of trapping and killing it, is a bit sloppy. The movie has more atmosphere than spectacle and, despite a few neat tricks—winding POV shots, the low-angle shots Fincher uses throughout the film—the direction doesn’t match the drum-tight tension of Ridley Scott and James Cameron.
The movie could even be described as fizzling out if not for an ending as memorable as its unnerving beginning: Impregnated with an alien queen that the Weyland-Yutani corporation wants to remove and “study” (read: use as a biological weapon), Ripley opts to take a swan dive into molten metal, killing herself and the creature. This resolution is both impressive in its committed bleakness and important for the future of the series because, of course, it was not actually the end of Ripley or the xenomorph, despite Alien 3 taking a Ripley-worthy fall at the box office following its strong opening. Both returned five years later for Alien Resurrection, which did even worse with critics, fans and general audiences. The creatures had a longer afterlife, appearing in a few other movies post-Resurrection.
This makes Alien 3 an unlikely turning point. The Alien cycle reached its third entry well before tangentially related series like Terminator (with which it once shared a director) and Predator (with which it twice shared the screen) attempted to turn sci-fi-horror icons into long-running series seemingly against the will of audiences everywhere—a pioneer in the field of failing to recapture blockbuster glory years. It also established a revolving door of directors before Mission: Impossible, showing how sequels could somehow serve as unlikely modes of auteurist expression and tendrils of an unkillable forever franchise. Even when compromising Fincher’s vision, it was unmistakably the work of a different filmmaking team than Alien or Aliens—and one that audiences would not embrace the same way, just as they wouldn’t much care for Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection.
This obviously doesn’t seem like a major concern for Alien 3; it seems quite content to, if not definitively kill the series off, at least leave behind some major obstacles for its return. It’s the rare sequel with a palpable death drive. Yet, neither Ripley’s on-screen demise nor the reception to the film itself could actually kill this alien. Instead, the series entered a bizarre purgatory; nothing else seemed to entice general audiences back into its grasp. After the Jeunet debacle (glorious in its own way, to be clear), the franchise went low—with the comics-inspired Alien vs. Predator—then tried going high, recruiting Ridley Scott to revisit his masterpiece. The (very good) prequel Prometheus was a hit, but not exactly beloved, and its (very good) follow-up Alien: Covenant did business equivalent to Fincher and Jeunet’s fans-only curiosities.
Doubtless there will be more Alien movies. Don’t Breathe director Fede Álvarez is working on one right now. But it’s heartening to consider that when Neill Blomkamp proposed a follow-up that sounded nakedly fan-courting, involving making a direct sequel to Aliens that would ignore everything else, it somehow fell apart (despite sounding like basically every current legacy sequel pitch). There are probably any number of dull business reasons that this happened, but I like to imagine it’s because Alien 3, in true facehugger fashion, implanted itself in the series and messed with its DNA. Maybe this wasn’t Alien 3 tanking the series. Maybe it was Fincher and all of those patched-together screenplays muddling into the heart of the series: Steeling up to face our gnarliest, rawest fears won’t banish them from our lives.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.