The first two "Alien" movies were not great art but they offered one undeniable ecstasy: the pleasure of placing your head in a vice while highly paid experts cranked the jaws shut as they added your six bucks to their hundred-million dollar pile. You cried, they laughed (on the way to the bank), and everybody went home happy. Such, such were the joys!
Now along comes "Alien 3," but the vice is nowhere to be found. It's more like sticking your head in a bowl of cold spaghetti.
I want pain! I want discomfort! I want oxygen debt, hyperventilation, white knuckles, aching molars, a migraine like the Fourth of July and the sensation of a sucking chest wound. This movie gives me Elizabeth Kubler Ross's five stages of death, a bald Sigourney Weaver and a monster that men can outrun. If men are faster, how dangerous can it be? Not as dangerous as a lion or a bear even.
The movie begins on a gigantic downer from which it essentially never recovers. When last we left them, at the end of the first sequel, James Cameron's "Aliens," the survivors of the bughunt on a newly colonized planet numbered three, or rather three and a half: Ripley, the stud princess so powerfully acted by Weaver, Hicks (Michael Biehn), a heroic Marine corporal, Newt (Carrie Henn), a heroic child, and Bishop (Lance Henriksen), a heroic half-android -- the other half having been lopped off.
The credits for "Aliens 3" play over the massacre of those characters as they lie in hypersleep and are devoured like escargot in their shell-like sleeping pods by yet another of the scaly, spidery reptilian smilers with the misshapen heads and the jaws like wet stainless-steel threshing machines. It happens to be the scariest sequence in the film. But really! They're dead, they're gone. And all the survivors' bliss that you felt at the end of the last film is snatched and --ed. We even get to watch a bloody autopsy of Newt, just to rub our noses in the nihilism.
For, as it turns out, the subject proper of "Alien 3" is death its own self. It's a $50-million threnody, an elegy in a country churchyard set on the planet of the condemned, a dirge, not a charge. Paint it black. The creature, which has had many meanings through the preceding films, here takes on only one: the creature is death, remorseless and implacable and the narrative thrust of the movie echoes Kubler Ross's five stages as Weaver herself comes to terms with her fate -- denial, anger, negotiation, grief and acceptance.
All this takes place on a planet called Fiorina 161, where Ripley's crippled craft crashes. It's an abandoned industrial planet now staffed by a skeleton crew of bald Brit prisoners with a few American blacks thrown in for good measure. But with all those bald white guys running around with broken noses and colorfully splayed, rotting teeth spouting cockney and Liverpuddlian and eating gruel in a dismal canteen, it's more like a road-show company of "Oliver" performed in the Gulag archipelago.
Giving the movie a "British" rather than an "American" tone -- particularly following on the dense American-ness of the Cameron predecessor -- is a major mistake. It confuses matters but it advances or contributes nothing. Then, giving the prisoners a religious cult, led by Baltimore native Charles ("Roc") Dutton, doesn't add much either, since the cult never figures in the action.
But the true disaster of the movie is that David Fincher, the young director chosen to follow up on the extraordinary jobs done by Ridley Scott and Cameron, turns out not to have the ability to knit together the kind of escalating action sequences that really jack up the tension. The film, besides being intellectually oppressive, is actually rather languid.
Not much happens that hasn't happened before, better. The wrinkle here is that instead of high-tech assault rifles, these human hors d'oeuvres have nothing to fight with but their intellect and so they devise a foolish plan by which they lure it to chase them to some vast industrial machine by which it theoretically can be put to death. But the setting is so claustrophobic that Fincher is forced to repeat the same shot over and over again; he never varies the action sequences and the finale is particularly botched.
What few jolts he gets are of the cheap kind: sudden spurts of blood, people being snatched away as they stand there chatting. But nothing builds; you don't feel the jaws being tightened around you until you can not stand it. There's no single image that dominates the film, like the guppie monster eating its way out of John Hurt's thoracic cavity; there's no killer line that sings in the mind like "Don't touch her, you bitch!" It's strictly from the planet of the bad movies.
Starring Sigourney Weaver.
Directed by David Fincher.
Released by Twentieth Century Fox.