Crash-landing on a planet housing a penal colony, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) finds that her companions from the previous film are no more. Shaving her head to prevent the spread of lice, she is now the unwanted guest among a group of hardened murderers, rapists and creeps who have all apparently found religion but have zero tolerance for a woman staying with them. They’re gonna have to put that aside though, because Ripley has unwittingly brought another guest with her…a guest of the slimy, teeth-gnashing, killing machine variety. The problem? There’s no weapons around. Whoopsy, that’s a bit of a pickle when you’re dealing with an alien that is basically a single-minded killing machine. Charles Dance plays a former doctor turned inmate, whilst other prisoners are played by the likes of Danny Webb, Pete Postlethwaite, and Paul McGann. Brian Glover and Ralph Brown play respectively, the warden and the brown-nosing Mr. Aaron, who is a bit short of brains.
I had a pretty memorable experience watching this 1992 feature directing debut by David Fincher (“Se7en”, “Panic Room”, “The Social Network”, “Gone Girl”) on the big screen. I was about 12 at the time and the only horror film I had seen at the cinema was “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare” at the drive-ins, and only a handful of other horror films on video around this period. I was pretty wimpy to be honest, and though I watch plenty of horror films now, I’m still a wimp. Seeing this for the first time was a little too intense for me. By that I mean I was ready to go home before the opening credits had finished. The sound being loud as fuck didn’t help, either. However, I remember coming out of the cinema having rather enjoyed what parts of the film I managed to not turn away from. Even seeing this again in 2017 I still feel this is a better film than Ridley Scott’s incredibly overrated “Alien”, though a long, long way from James Cameron’s all-time classic “Aliens”. This is a pretty good ‘Boo!’ scare picture (both this and “Alien” to me are slasher movies with an alien instead of a guy with a knife), and it’s not Fincher’s fault that such films are pretty predictable (Never bet on the guy with the dog to survive one of these things. You might want to write off the dog’s chances of survival, too). Honestly, for what it is there’s very little wrong with it, and for a film that had so many behind-the-scenes issues and huge chunks of it cut out (seriously, Google search for it. This film’s production history is insane and very messy) I don’t see much evidence of anything problematic.
As always, the chief asset here is Sigourney Weaver as the iconic Ellen Ripley. She is the film’s anchor, and without question Ellen Ripley is one of cinema’s most memorable and important characters of any gender. This film continues her journey to an interestingly biological degree that, despite this film’s ending, would go into the subsequent “Alien: Resurrection” (where Ripley is cloned but with a mixture of human and Xenomorph DNA). Weaver is backed up by a really terrific cast of mostly British character actors. In fact, the one thing that distances this film from your average slasher film is that it contains not only several fine performances but also at least five standout characters. It’s clearly no hack-job in that regard. Charles Dance doesn’t always have a knack for choosing the right film projects, but has one of his best film roles here as a disgraced doctor who is nonetheless the most civilised of the prisoners here. Charles S. Dutton, when given the right role can be a great character actor, and he’s excellent here stealing the entire film if you ask me. Nearly matching Dutton is an hilarious Ralph Brown as the brown-nosing, constantly derided Mr. Aaron, AKA ‘85’. Brown apparently didn’t much like the rewrites to his character to make him a bit of a thickhead, but he provides some necessary levity to an otherwise very dark, nihilistic film. The fifth stand out in the cast is the late Brian Glover as the blustery warden Andrews, who has no idea what he’s in for. His final scene is absolutely hilarious and he thoroughly deserves it. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that this film contains the best ‘jump’ scare since Billie Whitelaw came out of nowhere in “The Omen”. It’s the one such scene here that truly works, even though you can just see it coming at the last second if you’re watching carefully. The reason the scene works so well I think is that it involves a character who up until then has seemed pretty important/prominent and so you don’t expect them to bite it, at least not at that point in the film.
Fincher deserves credit for only slowly revealing the alien and keeping it in shadow until around 40 minutes in. In fact, dark as it is, the cinematography by Alex Thomson (“Excalibur”, “Legend”, “Labyrinth”) is excellent and shadow. Although one could argue that it looks like something originally intended director Vincent Ward (“Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey”) could’ve designed, it still looks like the kind of thing Fincher would come up with too. It’s a terrific-looking film from a visual design standpoint, and the Elliot Goldenthal (“Demolition Man”, “Heat”) music score is rock-solid too. Does Fincher overdo the low-angle shots a bit? Yeah, there’s some evidence of his MTV background here for sure, but some of those shots are terrific and very effective. Meanwhile, aside from a couple of shots that really don’t hold up in 2017, the alien FX are pretty good for 1993. Some of the other FX are seriously dodgy, though.
My only quibbles with the film are in regards to its beginning and ending. To the former, it’s a very nihilistic film that completely rubs out the other survivors of the previous film before the damn thing starts (save for a barely operating Bishop). On the one hand, I don’t see how Newt and Hicks would’ve been properly implemented into this particular story, but rightly or wrongly it sets up a very nihilistic tone that pervades the film. A little of it goes quite a long way for me, to be honest though some of it does work (Ripley seems especially weary and hardened this time out, which is interesting). It’s certainly a deliberately grim film. As to the ending, I understand why this ends the way it does (and I’m quite sure producer-star Weaver had a hand in it herself though I’ve read Hill as saying he and Giler wanted such an ending themselves) but it’s too similar to a very famous film from a year or two prior. If that film hadn’t done it already, I’d probably love the ending, but as is the small changes made here aren’t enough to not make it seem like a rip-off. So that’s a shame.
A great cast and excellent grimy production design headlines David Fincher’s inauspicious but underrated feature directing gig. It isn’t the best in the franchise, nor the worst (Nor is it the director’s worst, no matter how much he dislikes the final product himself). Weaver and the supporting cast are terrific, the film is marred only by a little too much nihilism perhaps. Still, it’s far better than its storied production woes and critical savaging would have you believe. With story credit going to Vincent Ward (who had a truly stupid idea for the plot himself about monks on a wooden planet or some shit), the screenplay is by the trio of Larry Ferguson (films as diverse as “Highlander” and “The Hunt for Red October”), and series producers David Giler (“Skin Game”, “Undisputed”) & Walter Hill (Director of films such as “The Warriors”, “48HRS”, “Streets of Fire”, and “Undisputed”).