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Happy Anniversary: <i>Alien 3</i> and <i>Alien: Resurrection</i>

Before Prometheus arrives in theaters tomorrow, let's celebrate the anniversaries of the last two films in the original Alien cycle.

Alien 3 (1992)
Anniversary: China
Stories of behind-the-camera drama are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, but few productions were as troubled as the third Alien feature. After years of trying to come up with the right story to even send before the cameras -- a development process during which numerous big names came and went from the project, among them Renny Harlin, David Twohy and William Gibson -- the hit-hungry 20th Century Fox finally found a director and concept that they (mostly) liked and booked the movie summer of 1992 release date... even though no finished script was in place. The lack of a script became a real problem when their chosen helmer, Vincent Ward, fell out with the studio due to those pesky "creative differences" as the production start date loomed. Into the breach stepped an esteemed music video director by the name of David Fincher, who had the Herculean task of assembling a finished movie out the mountain of half-thought out ideas and plot points he had been handed, while also contending with a skittish studio that would have been happy just releasing two hours' worth of Xenomorph attacks if it meant that audiences would show up.

It was an impossible situation for any director to be in, particularly when he or she is making their feature film debut, so the fact that Fincher successfully delivered a complete movie -- and one that's actually pretty darn good -- is a real achievement. And, despite what you may have heard, Alien 3 really does qualify as a good movie. Not a great one like its predecessors Alien and Aliens, but a challenging (if at times, convoluted) movie that earns its place in the franchise. It's also very much an indicator of the kinds of movies Fincher would go on to make over the course of his career, albeit with far less studio interference. Looking at the film today, it's easy to spot reflections of such Fincher vehicles as Se7en, Fight Club and even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Certainly the darkness that envelopes those three movies is very much on display in Alien 3, starting with the opening credits sequence, which mercilessly kills off two beloved characters from Aliens -- tough-minded soldier Hicks (Michael Biehn) and pre-teen orphan Newt (Carrie Henn), who respectively became a potential lover and a surrogate daughter for returning champ Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) -- while they slumber in cryosleep. Ripley is once again the sole survivor on an otherwise dead ship and crashes down on an isolated prison planet populated by a group of violent men, some of whom have turned to their own particular version of Christianity. Of course, she didn't really arrive there alone; a facehugger was also onboard and it wastes little time making its presence felt in this new environment, planting an embryo in a dog that results in the birth of a canine-like Xenomorph that cuts a bloody swath through the inmates. Ripley herself, however, is curiously left alone in all this mayhem, due to the fact that (dun dun DUN!) she's the host for an all-new Alien Queen.

The first half of Alien 3 is where Fincher's influence and specific interests are most keenly felt, particularly in the way that this group of men monastically devote themselves to their particular belief system (shades of the Space Monkeys in Fight Club, a similarity driven home by their bald heads) and Ripley's weariness at continually fighting an enemy she can never truly defeat (much like Morgan Freeman's resigned detective in Se7en). Left to his own devices, he probably would have refined and developed these ideas further, sending the movie down a more dramatic route. But Fox wanted a summer action movie and that's what Alien 3 becomes halfway through, as Ripley and the surviving prisoners play an extended game of cat-and-mouse with the Alien in their midst. Both then and now, though, Fincher isn't really an action movie kind of guy -- at least not in the conventional blockbuster sense -- which is why the big set-pieces disappoint, particularly when compared to the galvanizing combat sequences James Cameron choreographed in Aliens. While individual action beats work, the majority of these scenes appear to consist of bald actors and/or their stunt doubles running through a series of under-lit corridors in pursuit of or fleeing from the titular creature.

On the other hand, Fincher does deserve credit for sticking to his guns and not compromising on the ending, in which Ripley finally goes out on her terms. Actually, he had some help in that regard from Weaver, who only agreed to make the movie on the condition that her heroine would take that final jump into oblivion. It's a remarkably moving moment for both the character and the actress; indeed, Alien 3 arguably contains Weaver's franchise-best performance. Stripped of everything -- her family, her future, even her hair -- she never stops fighting and, in the end, somehow finds a modicum of peace. Whatever its flaws as a standalone movie, Alien 3 brings the saga to an effective, emotional conclusion. It's that rare trilogy capper that ends the story with a period rather than an ellipses. Except, of course, the story didn't really end there...

Alien: Resurrection (1997)
Anniversary: Crystal
A mere five years after David Fincher deliberately piloted the Alien franchise into a dead end, Fox decided to bring it back with the help of Joss Whedon, whose screenwriting career was on the upswing after his work on such recent hits as Speed and Toy Story. Whedon's initial concept left Ripley dead and buried, but the studio insisted that Weaver was an essential ingredient in the franchise, which, to be honest, is entirely true. So he resurrected the character some 200 years after the events of the previous movie through the magic of cloning; using DNA blood samples taken during her time on the prison planet, a group of scientists working on an isolated space ship successfully breed a new and improved version of Ripley and, more importantly, the Alien Queen that was inside her. Meanwhile, a crew of mercenaries, including a mysterious young woman named Call (Winona Ryder, in one of her many comeback attempts), lands onboard just as the aliens the scientists have been keeping in captivity break free and go on one of their patented rampages. Once again, it's up to Ripley to figure out a way to survive the alien onslaught, only this time the changes to her own DNA mean that she might be working with them rather than against them.

In the past, Fox handed their Alien films off to relatively new directors who were still in the process of finding their voices; with Resurrection though, they went the other way, hiring a filmmaker who already had a very distinct visual style: French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who had previously helmed the international sensations Delicatessen and City of Lost Children and would later go on to make the much-loved romantic comedy Amélie. No doubt wary of recreating the same behind-the-scenes problems that plagued Alien 3, the studio gave Jeunet a wider berth to apply his own particular sensibility to the film and he seized that opportunity without any apparent trepidation. From its opening frames, Alien Resurrection is so visually and tonally different from the previous three movies that it's more of a reboot than a continuation. It's certainly a more playful movie than the somber Alien 3; as in his European films, Jeunet employs lots of off-kilter close-ups, swooping camera moves and moments of bizarre visual comedy (in one of the movie's more memorable shots, the camera hurtles headlong at a character's open mouth and then plunges down his throat until we get a top-down view of an Alien about to burst through his chest); an animator by trade, Jeunet lends the movie a graphic flair that makes it resemble a comic strip rather than a more conventional sci-fi blockbuster.

If only the story matched the movie's visual inventiveness. In the 15 years since Resurrection's release, Whedon has placed a lot of the blame for the movie's failings on Jeunet's mishandling of his screenplay and it does feel that the director isn't all that interested in sticking to the script. But, to be fair, the narrative is rather bland, mostly regurgitating the general run-and-hide outline of the original Alien with less memorable characters. (Although the mercenaries in many ways resemble a trial run for the space cowboys in Firefly; Ron Perlman's sneering bad-ass in particular is basically Jayne Cobb Version 1.0.) And the few innovations that Whedon adds to this particular entry -- most notably the implications of Ripley's altered state -- aren't explored as effectively as they could be. On the other hand, Weaver once again proves her value to the series, creating a Ripley that's quite distinct from the previous version of the character. No longer fully human, she's not as encumbered by her emotions and doubts and attacks every situation with a tough-minded pragmatism; she's become more like the androids she once served alongside, Ash and Bishop. Weaver inhabits this role so completely she remains believable even in the bizarre final act, when it's revealed that the Alien Queen now possesses its own womb, from which emerges a Xenomorph/human hybrid who considers Ripley its mother. It mostly plays as ridiculous as it sounds, but damned if Weaver doesn't generate some real feeling when she embraces (and later betrays) her freaky hybrid offspring.

Although it was intended to re-launch the franchise, Resurrection wound up burying it once more, at least in its Ripley-led form. The last we see of our heroine, she's finally back on Earth, standing on the outskirts of a ruined Paris and that's most likely where she'll remain forever. The next time Fox returned to the Alien well, it was for the ill-advised spin-off series Alien vs. Predator and now they're in the process of prequelizing the franchise with Prometheus. Given the uneven nature of Resurrection, it's probably for the best that the studio never followed through on its cliffhanger ending, but Weaver's performance anyway offers a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been had they chosen to follow an upgraded Ripley through this brave new world.

Savor the visuals of Prometheus with the gorgeously illustrated Prometheus: The Art of the Film from Titan Books.

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