A few weeks ago, the release of David Fincher's Gone Girl sparked a number of interesting discussions online. These ranged from the film (and source novel's) gender politics to the film's pitch-black ending, and all the way up (down?) to the surprising late-film appearance of Ben Affleck's package. For the most part, these were all conversations worth having, and right in line with the sort of spirited debates that tend to accompany every new Fincher release. But the one that really stuck with me - the one I kept turning over in my head again and again in the wake of Gone Girl's release - was the "ranking David Fincher" conversation.
Simply put, the question was: how does Gone Girl rank among David Fincher's other films? This is a question we only apply to our most beloved filmmakers (you'll notice that people don't spend hours arguing over Zookeeper's placement in the Frank Coraci canon, for instance). For guys like Fincher, Tarantino, Soderbergh, Scorsese, the Coen Brothers and Spielberg - just to name a few - it's all par for the course, a natural step in digesting new work from a vital filmmaker. With Gone Girl, the general consensus seemed to be that Fincher's latest ranked very high, indeed, with some putting it at or near the very top of an already-impressive list of titles.
And y'know, fair enough: Gone Girl's a great film, a jet-black, corkscrewing dose of trashy intrigue you'd have to be a total stick in the mud not to enjoy. You wanna slot it above Fight Club and The Social Network? I won't agree, but it also won't bother me much. What did bother me was this: again and again, I found myself talking to people who insisted that Alien 3 was at or near the very bottom of Fincher's list. Quite frankly, this seemed insane. But then again, it'd been years since I actually sat down and watched Alien 3: maybe it wasn't as underrated as I've always considered it. Maybe it really is more of a slog than Benjamin Button (spoiler: it isn't).
And so, with BAD's month-long focus on horror in full swing (and, OK, yes: because I'm pretty much always down to drop what I'm doing and watch one of the Alien movies), I figured now would be as good a time as any to revisit Fincher's first feature film. Sounded simple, turned out to be anything but.
Right off the bat, I realized it was going to be nearly impossible to set aside what I know about Alien 3's legendarily troubled production history from the film itself. All things considered, it's a miracle the film's as coherent as it is: after an absurd number of rewrites, a 29-year old David Fincher found himself at the helm of a production that was already $7m in the hole. Thanks to an already-announced release date, he was compelled to begin shooting without a completed script. Two weeks later, Fincher's chosen cinematographer started showing signs of Parkinson's disease, which led to his being unceremoniously canned and replaced. Then it turned out that getting the newly redesigned Xenomorph to look right on-camera was infinitely more time-consuming, expensive and difficult than anyone had anticipated. The problems increased exponentially as the shoot went on, with Fox micromanaging Fincher every step of the way. According to many, the experience came perilously close to driving Fincher from Hollywood forever. Knowing all of this, how does one not grade Alien 3 on a curve?
All of that said, the film's way better than its reputation would suggest. Yes, the story's pretty slight, and yeah, it's probably the most nihilistic entry in the Alien franchise. I'd agree with the critics who consider the film "dour" and "bleak," and of course I understand that killing off the franchise's lead character was pretty much guaranteed to bum out a huge chunk of the Alien fanbase on opening weekend.
But to me, the simplicity of Alien 3 - particularly when compared to the space marines + heavy firepower + dozens of Xenos extravaganza of Aliens or the cloning + space pirates + genetic mutations shenanigans of Alien: Resurrection - is one of its greatest strengths. In pitting a bunch of relatively defenseless people against a single Xeno in a confined, grungy space, Fincher returned the Alien franchise to its roots. The corridors, common areas, cluttered offices and air ducts of Fury 161 are deeply reminiscent of Alien's sprawling Nostromo. Maybe this just isn't what people wanted in the wake of James Cameron's massively entertaining sequel, but I don't see how anyone could deny that Alien 3 is more Alien than Aliens ever was.
As for the film's nihilism and willingness to kill off Hicks, Newt and, ultimately, Ellen Ripley - well, that feels a lot like fair play to me. Fincher's Alien 3 was released as a trilogy-capper (it didn't necessarily start out that way: earlier versions had Michael Biehn's Hicks taking the lead, with Ripley sidelined in a minor role/coma for the duration of the film), and having Ripley sacrifice herself to prevent the immoral bureaucrats of Weyland-Yutani from getting their hands on a Xeno queen (which, presumably, would have been immediately turned over to the company's nefarious "bio-weapons division") lets Ripley go out on top.
And besides: when I consider the original trilogy, I've always considered the films to be loosely structured around a birth/life/death cycle. In Alien, the Xeno is born (reminder: the original poster for Alien features a hatching egg) into our reality. In Aliens, Ripley confronts her own disrupted life cycle (after years in cryo-sleep), becomes a surrogate mother to Newt and then battles the Xeno life cycle from the top down when she goes up against a snarling Alien queen. If Alien is about birth and Aliens is about the struggle of life, then Alien 3 is surely about death, and so it feels thematically appropriate to bring Ripley's life to an end...while also snuffing out Weyland-Yutani's best chance at extending the Xeno life cycle in the process. And if you're gonna make a movie about death, things are probably going to end up feeling a little "dour" and "bleak." Again, fair play.
Another complaint leveled at the film revolves around Hicks and Newt being snuffed out - offscreen, no less! - before the opening credits have even rolled. On the one hand, I feel like this is a more valid charge to level against Fincher's film: of course audiences wanted to see these characters back in action; they were their own little nuclear family by the time Aliens wrapped (with a decimated Bishop as the surly-but-lovable uncle). But on the other hand, a) recasting Newt surely would've taken some of the punch out of seeing this trio onscreen together again, and b) I kind of love the ballsiness of this play. It's a heartless move, to be sure, but it confidently sets the tone for everything that follows: right out of the gate, Fincher's telling us that no one's safe. And in the Alien universe, that's how it should be.
And let's talk about the stuff Alien 3 does so, so right. You've got great character actors tearing it up alongside Weaver, with Charles Dance, Charles S. Dutton and Pete Postlethwaite all turning in memorable work onscreen (Dutton, in particular, gets enjoyably fire-and-brimstone in his role as the de facto leader of Fury 161's motley crew of prisoners). You've got some great practical effects (again, achieved against all odds) for a re-imagined version of the classic Xenomorph. You've got a memorable setting - a planet that's nothing but rock and prison! You've got Ripley being just as much of a badass as she's ever been (check out the boot-to-the-head she gives her would-be rapist after rescuing Bishop's corpse from the dump). You've got a director putting his visual stamp on the Alien franchise in a big way (Fincher's work - like Ridley Scott's and James Cameron's before him - is immediately identifiable). It's claustrophobic and tense. It feels dangerous, nasty, sometimes unhinged. It has a dark, sexual undercurrent roiling beneath its surface. But mostly (...mostly), it's like I said above: Alien 3 feels more of a piece with Alien than any other Alien film. It mirrors that film in a number of ways, from the setting to the tiniest details. The film deserves more credit than it gets, but it especially deserves credit for that.
Now, would I rearrange my Fincher rankings after revisiting Alien 3? If so, it admittedly wouldn't be by much. But then, I've never been as down on it as some of my peers. It's even better than I remember it being, though, and I'm willing to bet that many of the people who poo-poo'd it when ranking Fincher's films a few weeks ago would be surprised by how much it holds up. If this is your least-seen Alien film, I urge you to give it another whirl. Whether you're grading on a curve or not, I think you'll be surprised to discover how "Fincher" it feels, and how well he managed to mesh his vision with the universe Ridley Scott established in 1979.