Like a Geek God #8 by Mark Pursell
The Destiny of Ellen Ripley
No franchise escapes the law of decay. With the exception, perhaps, of the Harry Potter novels, franchises—whether in books, movies, television, or video games—tend to flame out rather than finish strong. You can attribute this phenomenon to different factors—an exhaustion of ideas, conflicts between team members, executive interference, or just plain bad storytelling—but generally it’s enough to chalk it up to a kind of half life, an atomic law of attrition, as if the higher a franchise soars in both popularity and artistic achievement, the more likely it is to crash and burn in exponentially spectacular fashion. This is evident across all pop culture strata but geek culture properties are particularly prone to it. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, the basis for HBO’s smash hit Game of Thrones, has stalled out creatively; the two most recent books are panoply of longwinded and insubstantial ramblings that possess none of the earlier books’ verve. Lost and Battlestar Galactica, two hugely popular television franchises with rabid geek fan bases and massive crossover appeal, sank under the weight of their respective mythologies and devolved into metaphysical gobbledygook. And let us not forget that geek truism: the last entry in a trilogy is usually the worst one.
Which has to make you wonder why they even tried to make a third movie in the Alien franchise. The laws of creativity and pop culture were working against them before they even set down a treatment.
The Alien movies weren’t even supposed to be a franchise. The original film’s runaway success in 1979 didn’t, as is common today, get an immediate sequel-prep machine chugging the day after its strong opening weekend. Also unlike today, the idea to do a sequel didn’t even come from the studio as part of a way to maximize their profits; James Cameron himself proposed the idea in 1983 while gearing up to film The Terminator, four years after the original movie’s success. 20th Century Fox largely left Cameron to it, and by all accounts were stunned when Aliens replicated—even surpassed—its landmark predecessor. You can almost picture it: nearsighted executives waking up on a Monday morning, bleary-eyed, to the news that Aliens is a hit. Suddenly, this wasn’t just about an individual movie. This was that holiest of holy grails in the world of the entertainment executive: the franchise.
This eleventh-hour epiphany on the part of Fox is probably directly responsible for the unrelenting shitshow that was the production of Alien 3. Salivating over potential box office returns for a new Alien movie but anxious about expending huge amounts of capital on the project, the studio kept a tight rein on the project rather than releasing it to the auspices of a visionary. As a result, the studio’s behavior during the process can best be compared to that of an indecisive teenager, pulling multiple outfits from the closet and then throwing them on the floor in a fit of pique, crying, “I never have anything to wear!” Directors were hired and fired; screenplays were commissioned and then abandoned, or spliced together with elements from other and completely different drafts until on paper the movie resembled nothing so much as Frankenstein’s monster, with all the same elegance. (You can read more about Alien 3’s chaotic development and production history, and about director/writer Vincent Ward’s lost vision for the film, here.)
Alien 3’s theatrical release—which celebrated its twentieth anniversary last year—was postponed a full two years from 1990 to 1992 due to its production troubles, and was met with a lukewarm response. And rightfully so: the theatrical cut of Alien 3, which I saw for the first time years ago when I was first buzzsawing through the franchise, can only be politely described as a hot mess. The movie—which tells the tale of Ellen Ripley’s crash landing on a penal colony planet after the events of Aliens, and how she and the prisoners have to confront a final alien that stowed away on her ship—is difficult to follow and at times nonsensical. Characters do and say things for little or no reason (that we are shown); throughlines are disrupted or deserted; and the grim, dark atmosphere, already a trademark of then-novice director David Fincher, who created the final product and is the only credited director, evoked murkiness of plot rather than of mood. I’ve watched the theatrical cut a few times in the intervening years, and my opinion is always the same: an ambitious but incomprehensible mess that cheapens the material. Which pains me to say, as it should pain anyone to say about the concluding chapter of a favorite series or trilogy or franchise (we don’t talk about Alien: Resurrection). We want the things that we love to end well, to bow out with glory and panache. Lackluster conclusions feel like betrayals to the devoted, and geeks tend to react that kind of betrayal with a mixture of fury and depression. For a long time, I tried to forget Alien 3 even existed, coming up with my own scenarios for the final adventure of Ellen Ripley that would live up to the first two stories.
Fast forward to 2012, the actual twentieth anniversary of the film’s release. I knew about the existence of the Alien Quadrilogy boxset, but hadn’t watched any of the special editions contained therein. I wasn’t even aware, until a friend pointed it out to me, that the set contained an alternate version of Alien 3. This “Assembly Cut” is not a true director’s cut—David Fincher has publicly disowned the movie and refused to participate in the Quadrilogy boxset’s production—but rather is described as Fincher’s “workprint”, a 145-minute rough cut that he turned in to the studio. The 115-minute theatrical cut of the film is derived from this workprint but 20th Century Fox created it without consulting Fincher, essentially editing the movie themselves (which is probably why it’s an inscrutable mess). I was curious about watching what would have essentially been Fincher’s unaltered “vision” of the movie; I wondered if a cut free of executive meddling would capitalize on the central concept’s strengths.
Lo and behold, the Assembly Cut of Alien 3 is masterful in its own right. Everything about the theatrical cut’s pacing and editing is altered; the Assembly Cut is a slow, thoughtful movie, approximating the creeping dread and eerie silences of the first film, allowing the gravity of Ripley’s situation and the personalities of the prisoner characters to slowly build and grow. It makes the most out of the controversial decision to kill off Hicks and Newt, Ripley’s fellow survivors from Aliens, in the sense that once again, Ripley is alone, isolated, a stranger among other dark, violent strangers and increasingly fearful that her nemesis has followed her, even to this place, at the end of the galaxy. The religious elements (the prisoners practice a fire-and-brimstone version of a nameless Judeo-Christian faith), which seem alternately cheesy and bizarre in the theatrical cut, take on frightening import in the longer and more deliberate Assembly Cut, folding in themes of punishment, suffering, and salvation that, unexpectedly, dovetail in thematic harmony with the implacable depredations of the xenomorph, metaphorically casting the creature as a horror unleashed by the gods to cleanse gangrenous humanity (an implication taken in another direction in the franchise’s latest entry, Prometheus). Also unexpectedly—especially for yours truly, a hard-line atheist—it is the prisoners’ faith-based saber rattling and their monk-like dynamic, cast in the different and more effective light of the Assembly Cut, which bring a gravitas to Ellen Ripley’s character and situation that feels worthy of being a conclusion to this story. There is a running thread in Alien 3 where, confronted by the prisoners’ faith, Ripley questions why it’s always her, why she seems to be the only one who can stand in the xenomorph’s way, the only barrier between their ravening destruction and the rest of life in the universe. The characters don’t have much to offer in the way of answer, but the movie itself carries fascinating implications—and they are just implications, no heavy-handed savior-complex here—that this, that all of it, is Ellen Ripley’s destiny. Whatever forces are at work in the universe beyond our understanding have chosen her, events have chosen her, to be the last line of defense against an apocalyptic nightmare race. This thematic strand, which builds slowly throughout the movie, makes the movie’s infamous ending (where Ripley, impregnated by a new alien queen, kills herself and the creature by jumping into a pit of molten metal) seem not only fitting but inevitable, whereas in the theatrical cut it just felt stupid, a contrived ploy to add a sense of grand tragedy to the proceedings.
There are many lessons to be taken from this rexamination of Alien 3—the perils of studio interference, most of all—but as a geek, the most important thing I walked away from watching the Assembly Cut with was a deep sense of satisfaction. We want our franchises and our series to end satisfyingly—not necessarily happily, but rightly. When this happens—Harry Potter, Avatar: The Last Airbender, even non-geek properties like Six Feet Under—it creates a feeling of completeness, of unity, whereas disappointing conclusions leave us with a sense of frustration and unfinished business, a phantom limb we can’t ignore. For years I have had that frustrated feeling about the Alien franchise, but the Assembly Cut of Alien 3 did what I didn’t think it was possible to do: take the basic DNA of the movie and present it in such a way that it not only made for a better movie, but also made Ellen Ripley’s fatal last outing a deeply heroic and moving story of one woman sacrificing everything, including herself, to defeat the forces of evil. If that’s not an ending worthy of the franchise’s high highs, I don’t know what it is.
Mark Pursell is a lifelong geek and lover of words. His publishing credits include Nimrod International Journal, The New Orleans Review, and The Florida Review, where he also served as poetry editor. His work can most recently be seen in the first volume of the 15 Views of Orlando anthology from Burrow Press. He currently teaches storytelling and narrative design for video games at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.