“Why? Why are the innocent punished? Why the sacrifice? Why the pain? There aren't any promises. Nothing's certain. Only that some get called, some get saved.”
Dillon, Alien 3
Every film in the Alien franchise is unique, each bearing the unmistakable stamp of the auteur who directed it. There may not be another corporate franchise as shaped by the identities of the director - even the Mission: Impossible series, where each film feels of a whole with the filmmaker’s canon, has each film feeling like part of a contiguous whole. Each Alien film, however, is a reinvention, and each Alien film feels sort of like a different genre.
That’s most starkly noted in the difference between Alien and Aliens. Where Ridley Scott made the ultimate haunted house movie, one centered around sexual violence, James Cameron took the franchise in a very different direction, making a Vietnam War movie. Each of those films reflects their time; Scott’s late 70s movie has a consuming darkness wherein the obvious male hero - Captain Dallas - gets offed fairly early and where the heroine’s survival is possible only by jettisoning and destroying everything else in her life - except for her underwear and her cat. At the end of Alien Ripley is alone, drifting in the void, damaged but freed of the Xenomorph. It’s a happy enough ending, but not a happy ending.
Cameron’s film goes the other way. At the end of Aliens Ripley is made whole once again; the daughter she lost (who was only introduced to us in this film, mind you) has been replaced, and not only does Ripley get a daughter, she gets a father figure for that daughter. And if we’re really counting up survivors that daughter gets a wacky uncle in the form of Bishop. What’s more, Ripley wins the Vietnam War, destroying the Queen/Mother Russia who has been spawning Xenomorphs/Charlies.
It’s worth noting that this is the second time in two years that James Cameron rewaged the Vietnam War and changed its outcome; in 1985 he wrote Rambo: First Blood Part II, wherein the titular haunted Vietnam vet returned to Nam and righteously killed a lot of the guys he missed on his last tour of duty. Aliens and Rambo both represent the Reagan-era grappling with America’s first great loss, and while he’s a Canuck it seems as if Cameron really wanted to wrestle that L into a W.
Your mileage on this will vary. For many audiences Cameron’s triumphant vision of battling aliens as a way to fix your life and find your family is the right one, and many prefer it to Scott’s less rousing ending. For these people the opening of Alien 3 is not just a mistake, it’s a fundamental betrayal of the finale of their beloved film.
For others the opening of Alien 3 is a necessary course correction that also establishes the themes of a movie that is interested in examining another side of Reagan’s America - the AIDS epidemic. And even though Alien 3 was released at the very end of Bush I’s reign, it’s commenting on how America in the 80s dealt with ‘the gay plague.’
Killing off Newt and Hicks is important for the survival of the series. If Newt and Hicks hung around the Alien films are suddenly no longer about Ripley, they’re about her ragtag family. That’s fundamentally wrong, and it is a decision that absolutely and definitively moves the series out of the horror genre. Aliens tried very hard to disconnect Alien from horror, but David FIncher’s Alien 3 is a conscious attempt to bring it back.
Of course killing Newt and Hicks could be accomplished within the film in a way that gives their deaths meaning, that allows their fates to be dramatic and powerful. But Alien 3 isn’t interested in that kind of storytelling, which is essentially a form of coddling. It’s storytelling used as a way to make sense of the chaos of life, to assure us that our flailing actions in the world add up to something, and that when we finally meet oblivion there will have been a point. Right from the start Alien 3 spits in the face of this concept: there is no point, and to prove it, the film will rip away two beloved characters, offscreen, in a truly brutal and unpleasant fashion.
But don’t take my word for it - the film has Dillon say exactly what it is trying to convey as he commends Newt and Hicks to the afterlife, quoted at the top of this piece. That little bit of dialogue lets you understand what the meaning of Newt and Hicks’ deaths were - a statement that there is no meaning.
Thematically that is vital to the film’s larger AIDS allegory. Whether you like the film or not (and disclosure: I don’t really like the film) it’s impossible to deny what the film’s larger political motivations are. You could make an argument that the film is about cancer or any wasting illness that strikes the strong and the weak with equal ferocity, but the movie’s prison planet setting is all about bringing to mind the way AIDS patients - largely gay men at the time - were isolated from society. The way the Corporation views them is unlike the way the medical establishment views cancer patients - it's the detached, disinterested, profit-minded approach of the pharmaceutical industry to AIDS in the 80s.
Within that allegory the decision is made to have Ripley not a newcomer to the plague but a veteran; she is someone who has already had her life destroyed by it, who has had her loved ones taken from her. More than that, she is the one who brought the monster to the prison planet, and some of the men want to turn on her as the cause of their misfortune. Once they’re done blaming the victim the men must then decide how to deal with the monster - ignore it? Hope someone else saves them? Finally they realize they have to save themselves, a realization that, as other critics have noted, mirrors the founding of ACT UP, an advocacy and activist group dedicated to supporting victims of the AIDS crisis. In 1987 Larry Kramer spoke to a gathering of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Services Center where he asked two-thirds of the room to stand up. He told them that, as AIDS was progressing at that moment, all of the people standing would be dead in five years.
"If my speech tonight doesn't scare the shit out of you, we're in real trouble. If what you're hearing doesn't rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men will have no future here on earth. How long does it take before you get angry and fight back?"
That was the birth of ACT UP. The first target of ACT UP? The Food and Drug Administration, which was not doing enough to make medication available to HIV positive people.
This is the exact same battle the prisoners are fighting - the Corporation doesn’t care about them. They’re expendable. There’s money to be made here, and that takes precedence over saving lives. Big Pharma and the FDA are the true villains of Alien 3, not the Xenomorph.
Within that context the nasty offing of Newt and Hicks is the only option. By removing them the movie sets the stage for its powerful, resonant AIDS message, while also taking the wheel and bringing the series back to its horror origins. Alien 3 enshrines the idea that this is Ripley’s story, and it even ties that story up in a great, if imperfectly realized, finale.
I understand the people who cringe at the killing of Newt and Hicks. You liked those characters. You wanted them to get sent off in a better way. But if they did you wouldn’t feel the senselessness of the AIDS scourge, the fact that someone who was healthy and vital one day could, in the time before proper treatment and medication were available, be sick and then dead the next. There was a cruel vagary to the virus as it just cut unrelenting and seemingly random swaths through the gay community.
Did the deaths of Newt and Hicks hurt? Good, because the deaths of thousands of AIDS victims, each as pointless and ugly as these fictional deaths, hurt too. And Alien 3 wants you to feel that.